If you’re looking for a fresh way to promote reading this year, read on to see how I used the Million Word Reading Challenge to encourage my middle school students to read!

million word reading challenge for middle school

You know that feeling when you scan the room during your independent reading block and 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 reading challenge that encourages all kinds of reading in my middle school classroom, and the best part is that my students LOVE it! But, spoiler alert – it’s not the 40 book challenge…

Why the 40 Book Reading 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 think all good ELA teachers do. However, the 40-book reading challenge was tough for my 6th graders for a few reasons.

Reason #1) All Books Are Not Created Equal

Case in point: A student fell in love with the Harry Potter series over the summer. He pulled out his Harry Potter book every chance he got. He was passionate about the series and always looked forward to free-read time. However, he felt like he was failing the challenge when he had only finished ONE book by Christmas break, and his best friend had devoured four “I Survived” books and three “Who Was” books.

In the middle grades (5th-7th), there is such a wide range of readers. Some students still love the Dork Diaries & Diary of a Wimpy Kid. Meanwhile, other readers are tackling series like Harry Potter, Percy Jackson, and Fablehaven. I love seeing my students choose the right book for their interests, but I knew the students reading shorter books would complete the challenge much more quickly than my more advanced readers. Unfortunately, this aspect of the 40-book reading challenge didn’t feel right to me. 

Reason #2) The Side-Effect of Pushing Genres

As part of the 40-book reading challenge, students are encouraged to read various books from various genres. In theory, I love this. But in practice… not so much. Many students have a strong sense of their reading identity by 6th grade and want to continue to devour books by a particular author or from a specific series or genre. If students had free choice in what they were reading, they read more. But when I encouraged them to step outside of their comfort zone? Many of these students read less and turned away from reading.

many students already have a strong grasp of who they are as a reader - image talking about the 40 book reading challenge

In many instances, I felt as though the genre challenge became more of a barrier to readers than an opportunity.

I ended up abandoning the 40-book reading challenge midway through the year. But by the end of the school year, I had an idea of how I wanted to change the challenge to better meet the needs of my middle schoolers!

The Million Word Reading Challenge

As I evaluated the advantages and 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 books! It didn’t matter if they stuck with one series, author, or genre or hopped from one to another. 

So it became as simple as that.

At the beginning of each school year since then, I’ve challenged my students to read 1,000,000 words before the school year ends.

the million word reading challenge

How the 1,000,000 Word Reading Challenge Works

During the first week of school, each student receives a reading log to put in the front of their binder. As soon as they finish a book, they write down the title and author and then 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.

When students hit a milestone, they receive a celebration. I prefer to 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.

celebrating achievements with the million word reading challenge

Of course, I had to set some boundaries around the reading challenge. Here are a few rules that worked for my classroom, though they certainly don’t have to apply to yours!

  • 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.

Implementing the Million Word Reading Challenge in Your Classroom

If the million-word reading challenge sounds like a fun way for you to encourage reading in your middle school classroom, you can grab my bulletin board kit, reading log, and certificates FOR FREE by signing up for my newsletter.

free million word reading challenge kit

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