The 40 Book Challenge in my Classroom
Updated: Jul 17
The Book Whisperer and Reading in the Wild
Donalyn Miller wrote two MUST-READ books for English Language Arts teachers called The Book Whisperer and Reading in the Wild. This post is not going to be tooting her horn or explaining the nuances of the books. That's for you to discover on your own. I actually got both books from the public library, took aggressive notes, and went on my way. A lot of the concepts I did already, which was relieving for me, but it did enlighten me to ways to get kids to read more. For new teachers, especially, these books are lifesavers.
The basic premise is the use of student-choice books and independent reading to promote success in reading. It's excellent for teachers using Reading Workshop, which I personally feel EVERY teacher should be using (see my post about not using whole class novels).
The 40 Book Challenge
There are many machinations to this challenge. Google it and you will find tons of blog posts, products, etc.
Essentially, you challenge your students to read 40 books in one school year. That's it. Miller provides lots of tips for this and guidelines on what genres, etc. She doesn't tout it as a challenge with tangible rewards; it's simply a challenge with the achievement being what was read! (She poo-poo's teachers who make it a competition and I agree).
What The 40 Book Challenge Looks Like in a REAL Classroom
I teach three sections of ELA, typically up to 22 students. I am lucky to have nice class sizes. Also, I have them for 81 minutes a day. In the beginning of the school year, I do lots of getting ready to read activities (blog post on that soon). A lot of the ideas come from Miller's book and just things I've done for years. I also teach Reading Workshop, so no textbooks, no whole class novels. All of my teaching comes from mentor texts and student-choice books. I use Lucy Calkins' Units of Study as my guide.
So, in the first week of school I present the challenge. (Note, this past school year was the first time I did this). I tell my students that it's MY goal to help them read 40 books in one school year. But, here's the important part, if they don't...IT'S OKAY. I follow up with explaining that I want them to read more than they did last year. Honestly, I had many students come in saying they only read 1-3 books. I tell them, "well, how about at least 10 this year?". (None of my students read less than 12 this year).
There is no grade. There is no fancy chart on the wall to track what they are reading compared to other students. It is an intrinsic goal for them to achieve.
The other thing I do is have 15 minutes of non-negotiable reading a day. I can't believe I didn't do this in the past. My kids absolutely love this time. They come into my room, get comfy, and read whatever they want. Oh...I READ, TOO. This is super important. You can't sit there and do lesson plans. YOU MUST READ WHILE YOUR STUDENTS READ. Why would they want to read if you aren't? I looked forward to this and I'VE read so much more, myself!
I do tell them they need to be reading at home, too, and I email parents often to check in about this. I've found that no matter what kinds of bells and whistles I try, kids who won't read at home won't read. But if it's a book they LIKE, they will read it (again, which is why student-choice is so important).
How I Encourage it Throughout the School Year
Well, the 15 minutes daily help a ton! But I also have them keep a digital reading record. This is not a weekly reading log. I hate those. Those are when kids write their books down every. day. and then how many minutes they read every. day. then mom or dad signs it every. day. No...I don't have time for that; kids lie, parents get sick of it...it's useless. That may be good for lower grades, but not middle school.
The reading record I give them simply gathers the books they read. They record the book titles, authors, pages, and genres. They keep a chart of the information. The only thing they do weekly (Friday, due Monday) is update it and write a brief reflection on what they read (I'm talking one sentence).
On *most* Mondays (it worked out with my schedule), I conference with the students about their reading record. I check in with them. Do they enjoy the book? How are they feeling about achieving the goal of 40 books? Are they reading at home, honestly? I take a look at their log (not weekly log, a log of books read). I let them abandon books (to a point). I relate ("I remember this one book I read in middle school, I really wanted to like it, but I couldn't either. I tried another book...why don't you try [insert title]?"). That's also important, giving them recommendations.
Since I do reading workshop, the students are always reading something for the unit I do. So, another way I encourage the reading is through their daily work. They must use their books to apply skills taught in mini-lessons.
What's the Reward?
That they read more than last year. I take a picture of my students with a stack of books they read and a sign that says how many books they read and how many pages. I print up the pictures and send them home. I put the pictures on Padlet website and share with the staff and parents. Staff and parents comment on the pictures to make them feel extra special. I preface it with saying that it was not a competition and that while some kids read more than others, ALL of them read more than last year. And, honestly, how many adults read more than 10 books a year? Not many! The picture they will keep as a memory, hopefully. Click here for the sign to use!
This year, 2020, my students were home due to COV-ID, and I couldn't quite take these pictures above, so I improvised! I had the students fill in the information on a digital version of the sign and I displayed it on my laptop screen. Then, I piled a bunch of books on my desk to match the amount of books the student read. During Zoom, I had all the students in an individual breakout room working on an end-of-year survey while I met with each student individually to take their picture.
As a reading teacher, what are you trying to accomplish? Do you want them to just know all the skills to get to the next grade or conquer the next test? Or are you trying to make them lifelong readers?
Consider looking into reading workshop. If you can't, add independent reading DAILY to your repertoire. The 40 Book Challenge helps encourage that.
Oh, and read The Book Whisperer! There are lots more great ideas in her book!