Donalyn Miller

The 40 Book Challenge Revisited

Years ago, at a professional development workshop, Ellin Keene poked fun at the creator of the overwrought and overused “Text-to-Self, Text-to-Text, Text-to-World” reading strategy. If you’re laughing right now, you know that Ellin is one of the original architects of this strategy, which appears in her groundbreaking book (co-authored with Susan Zimmerman), Mosaic of Thought.

A few years back, a woman proudly announced to me at a workshop that she was, “doing her own version of the Daily 5, but she could only get in three of them.” I imagine Gail and Joan want to know which three. I should have asked, ladies, but I was at a loss for words.

It happens; the original thinking behind an instructional idea becomes lost when it’s passed along like a game of Telephone. You heard about it from a 60-minute conference session. Your teammate attended a book study and she gave you the highlight reel. The teacher down the hall is doing something innovative. You should try it. We’ve all seen the quick adoption of shiny, new ideas without a full picture of how these concepts fit into best practices (or don’t).

I’ve shared many ideas through my teaching and writing, and I stand by what I’ve put out into the world—but the one idea most demanding a revisit is my 40 Book Challenge, which appears in The Book Whisperer. In a nutshell, the 40 Book Challenge invites students to read 40 books across different genres during the school year.

I wonder sometimes if I failed to communicate the true intentions behind the 40 Book Challenge. Teachers email me or contact me on Facebook and Twitter about it every day. I have also seen a lot of what my dear friend, Teresa Bunner calls, “Book Whisperer Gone Bad” activities that actually undermine children’s development as independent readers instead of fostering it.

On Teachers-Pay-Teachers, I found worksheets, award certificates, rubrics, and posters using “The 40 Book Challenge.” While citing me as the source (shudder), the teacher who designed these materials offers incentives and creates competition between readers—the antithesis of my teaching philosophy and research about incentives tied to reading.

An unfamiliar parent emailed me to complain. She tracked me down on the Internet after asking her son’s teacher about the “outrageous requirement” that students read 40 books and complete 40 book reports this school year. Her son’s teacher said the assignment was based on my work, and this upset mom wanted me to know that I was hurting her son. I responded that while I expect my students to read 40 books, I don’t tie any assignments or grades to this expectation.

A close friend shared on Facebook that a teacher publicly humiliated his daughter because she “only” read 35 books this school year. The complexity or length of the books his daughter read weren’t considered. What she gained from these reading experiences didn’t matter, either.

Visiting a school last spring, a 4th grade teacher told me that she didn’t “allow” her students to “count” any books that were under 100 pages long. Walking the school library together, I asked the teacher to look at the biographies, traditional literature, and nonfiction texts available (and appropriate) for her 4th graders to read. After 20 minutes of searching, we found 12 biographies that met her stringent guidelines. It never occurred to her that she was limiting her students’ choices or access to books.

The 40 Book Challenge isn’t an assignment you can simply add to outdated, ineffective teaching practices. The Book Challenge rests on the foundation of a classroom reading community built on research-based practices for engaging children with reading. Assigning a 40 Book Challenge as a way to generate grades or push children into reading in order to compete with their classmates corrupts everything I have written and said about reading. The 40 Book Challenge is meant to expand students’ reading lives, not limit or define it.

The 40 Book Challenge is a personal challenge for each student, not a contest or competition between students or classes. In every competition or contest there are winners and losers. Why would we communicate to our students that they are reading losers? For some students, reading 40 books is an impossible leap from where they start as readers, and for others, it’s not a challenge at all.

If Alex read two books in 4th grade and reads 22 in 5th grade, I am celebrating with him. What an accomplishment! Look how much Alex grew. He didn’t grow because he read more books. He grew because he had 22 successful reading experiences.

Conversely, when Hailey read 55 books in 4th grade, reading 40 books in 5th grade isn’t challenging her. Encouraging Hailey to read biographies and historical fiction, which she claims to detest, does more to stretch her than simply reading more books.

Honestly, I don’t care if all of my students read 40 books or not. What matters is that students stretch themselves as readers and increase their competence, confidence, and reading motivation through their daily participation in our reading community. The 40 Book Challenge works for my students and me and for the many teachers successfully implementing it because of these core beliefs:

Everybody reads here. Let’s get started. Our direct influence on students’ reading lives lasts 40 weeks—36 weeks of school and 4 weeks of school vacation. Setting high expectations (roughly a book a week) communicates that reading is ongoing and continues from the first day of school to the last—hopefully longer. Students should spend more time reading than they spend completing reading-related activities like worksheets, reading responses, and projects. Students who read the most will always outperform the students who don’t read much (Krashen, 2004).

*Strong readers have lots of reading experiences. You need to be a good all-around reader. Encouraging students to read widely—sampling books from every genre—improves their reading ability by expanding their reading experiences. If you spend every day working on your jump shot, you’ll improve your jump shot. To be a strong all-around player, you must practice passing, guarding, and dribbling, too. To be a strong reader, you must practice reading poetry, fiction, nonfiction, wordless books, graphic novels, blog posts—a little bit of everything.

*There’s the right book for you out there somewhere. Let’s find it. For many students, trying a lot of books helps them find the one type of text that excites them and invites them into reading. True preferences come from years of wide reading—trying books, having some false starts, discovering authors, genres, and writing styles that we enjoy. Students who haven’t read much may not have found the books that speak to them. Reading buffet-style—tasting all types of books—students can discover what the world of reading has to offer.

*Whether you read or not isn’t a choice, but what you read is YOUR choice. I don’t waste a lot of time at the beginning of the school year talking about why students might not like to read. Everybody reads here. Everybody is a reader. Whether you read or not is off the table, but what you read is your choice. Whatever you want. You pick. Providing students with choice in what they read increases their reading motivation and engagement (Gambrell, Coding, & Palmer, 1996; Worthy & McKool, 1996; Guthrie & Wigfield, 2000).

*Your reading life matters. Students’ personal reading goals have as much value as our academic goals. Classrooms exert tremendous influence on the development of students’ reading identities—whether it’s positive or negative. While students learn the skills of reading, they must develop a positive reading identity to remain readers (Serafini, 2013).

Without these core beliefs in place, the 40 Book Challenge becomes another tedious reading assignment that drives kids away from reading. If students leave our classrooms hating to read or skate through without any positive reading experiences, we have failed. It doesn’t matter what they scored on the reading test. It doesn’t matter how many books they read if they stop reading when they leave our classrooms.

I recently received a Facebook message and photos from Aliza Werner, a third grade teacher at Parkway Elementary School in Glendale, Wisconsin. Aliza and her students held a 40 Book Challenge last school year, and she wanted to share her students’ successes with me, “Through the challenge, we created an enormous sense of community that embraced comfort, security, growth, sharing, excitement, and organic learning and curiosity that I had never felt before in any class.”

 Aliza’s 20 students read 1741 books last year and they all met or surpassed their academic reading goals. More important, these 9-year olds developed a bond with each other and with reading that will last long after 3rd grade. Recounting anecdote after anecdote about her students’ individual reading successes, Aliza told me, “I could go on and on, as I am so proud of each of them in their own way.” Looking through the photos of Aliza’s beaming students, this note from Kristen made me smile.

 

It’s clear that Aliza and her students embraced the full intent of the 40 Book Challenge. Aliza says that her students are still chatting over the summer–sharing their reading. In a classroom culture where reading threads through every class day and every conversation—everyone grows as a reader and finds reading more interesting and personally meaningful. Every reader has value. Every reading experience has value. It doesn’t matter who ultimately crosses an arbitrary finish line.

How can we empower our students and help them grow? How can we make reading an exciting adventure? What do we want our students to remember about reading and our classroom community when they leave? The 40 Book Challenge kicks off a year of reading. That’s Day One. What about the rest of the year? Developing students’ positive reading identities and development as lifelong readers—these must remain our priorities every day, all year long.