If you’re looking for a fresh way to promote reading in your middle school ELA classroom, read on to see how I changed the 40-book challenge to meet the needs of my students better!

You know that feeling when you scan the room during your independent reading block, and you see students doing everything but reading? Quietly tearing a paper, resting their head on their desk and staring out the window, picking at their shoe (or their nose), whispering to a neighbor… ahh, the list goes on. Nothing is more devastating to an English teacher than seeing students avoid reading, am I right? Well, I’ve got good news. I finally found a challenge to promote reading in my middle school classroom that my students LOVE, and – spoiler alert – it’s not the 40 book challenge.

Why the 40 Book Challenge Didn’t Work For My Students

Let me be clear that I love Donalyn Miller’s book The Book Whisperer, and developing the relationship between a reader and a book is genuinely at the heart of what I do. I also believe it is the intention of Donalyn Miller. However, the 40-book challenge was tough for my 6th graders because of a few reasons.

All books are not created equal.

In one class period, I had a student fall in love with the Harry Potter series over the summer. He read his free read Harry Potter book every chance he got, but he struggled with feeling like he was failing the challenge when he had only finished one book by Christmas break and his peers had completed anywhere from 2-15.

In 6th grade, there is such a wide range of readers. Some students still love the I Survived series and Diary of a Wimpy Kid. Meanwhile, other readers are tackling books like Harry Potter, The Hobbit, and Percy Jackson. I loved seeing my students choose the right book for themselves, but I knew the students reading shorter books would complete the challenge much more quickly than the more advanced readers. This, unfortunately, didn’t feel right to me. 

many students already have a strong grasp of who they are as a reader

As part of the 40-book challenge, students are encouraged to read a variety of books from various genres. In theory, I love this, But in practice… not so much. Many students already have a sense of their reading identity by 6th grade and want to continue to devour books by a particular author or in a specific series or genre. In many instances, I felt as though the genre portion of the challenge felt like more of a barrier to readers than an opportunity. I couldn’t discourage a student from reading another WWII book because he hadn’t completed anything in his realistic fiction or poetry category. It felt counterintuitive, and I abandoned it midway through the year.

By the end of the school year, I had an idea of how I would change the challenge and better promote reading for my middle schoolers!

The Challenge I Chose To Do Instead

As I evaluated the disadvantages of the 40 book challenge, I came up with a solution to better level the playing field for my readers while still promoting reading in a fun way. If I challenged students to read one million words, it didn’t matter if they read short books or long ones! It didn’t matter if they stuck with one series or author or hopped from one genre to another. 

So it became as simple as that.

At the beginning of each school year, I challenge all of my students to read 1,000,000 words before the school year ends.

promote reading with the million word challenge

Details, Details

Here’s how the Million Word Challenge works.

Each student receives a log at the beginning of the year to put in the front of their binder. As soon as they finish a book, they write down the title and author, and then they look up the word count. There are a couple of different websites we use to look up word counts.

  1. Accelerated Reader Book Find
  2. Word Counters

Most of the time, students can find everything they need on AR Book Find’s website. Once they find their book, they click on the title for more information. That’s where they will find the word count!

Students record the word count for their book and then calculate their running total. We post our running totals on laminated “polaroids” on a bulletin board using an Expo marker. Students are not required to post their totals, but it is fun for most students!

When students hit a milestone, they receive a celebration. These are the milestones we celebrate:

  • 250,000 words
  • 500,000 words
  • 750,000 words
  • 1,000,000 words

The celebrations that work well for me are a signed certificate plus a homework pass and a sweet treat, like a donut, ice cream sandwich, or $2.00 School Store Credit.

promote reading with milestone celebrations

Of course, I had to set some boundaries around the challenge:

  • The challenge starts when the school year starts. Books read over summer break don’t count unless it’s a book they are still reading.
  • The challenge wraps up the last week of school.
  • Students may count any kind of book as long as they read OR listen to it cover to cover. (As in the dictionary only counts if they actually read it cover to cover ?)
    • Graphic novels, picture books, religious texts, and audiobooks, etc., are all fair game.
  • They must finish the book for it to count. No counting books that are abandoned halfway through! There are two reasons for this:
    • Reason #1: Word counts are only supplied for the book as a whole, not broken down by the chapter.
    • Reason #2: I don’t want to promote or encourage students to book hop. I want to reward them for completing a book.

How You Can Promote Reading with a Million Word Challenge

If this sounds like a fun way for you to promote reading in your middle school classroom, you can grab my Million Word Challenge resources FOR FREE by signing up for my email list below. I promise I won’t ever spam you!

promote reading with a free million word reading challenge

How do you promote reading and encourage your students to find their identity as readers in your classroom? I’d love to hear your thoughts! Leave a comment below or find me on FB or IG and let’s continue the conversation!

All the best, Natayle