Image shows frustrated little girl reading with stack of books around her.

Are Reading Challenges Harming Students?

We all want our students to grow as readers.  It’s why we work so hard to teach them how.  But it takes two to tango, so there needs to be a great deal of onus on students themselves.  In other words, if kids are going to grow as readers, they have to read a lot, and they need to read widely.  But first, they have to want to read.  They must have motivation.  Capitalizing on the idea that many kids love a competition, whether against others or themselves, reading challenges are a common practice in an effort to help them become more motivated. Challenges also have the added benefit of exposing students to a wide variety of genres.  But are these reading challenges helping or harming our students?

Types of Reading Challenges

Reading (or book) challenges are everywhere, and come in many formats. The education software company Renaissance developed Accelerated Reader (AR) 25 years ago.  With AR, texts are assigned to students, and they take a quiz after every book to earn points.  Some teachers use these points as further competition, where entire classes or grade levels work to earn the most points. 

On the other end of the challenge spectrum, many teachers implement a variation of what Donalyn Miller wrote about in her 2009 book, The Book Whisperer, where she explains her yearly 40 Book Challenge. In her challenge, students make their own choices, and no points are awarded.  

And we can’t forget other incentivized reading challenges we’ve seen. 100 years ago, in the late 80’s when I was in elementary school, there was the Pizza Hut rewards program.  (I ate a LOT of personal pan pizzas in those years!)

Today, there are a million iterations of reading challenges, as any quick search will show you.  But knowing how much there is to consider when it comes to growing readers and their motivation and engagement, we really must ask the question:

Are reading challenges helping or harming our students?

To think through the answer, I want to introduce you to two students.  Both students are assigned a version of Donalyn Miller’s 40 Book Challenge in school.  Each is a real child, and I’ve known them both, very well.  One is in fact a member of my own family.  Names have been changed, of course.  

Two Students, Same Reading Challenge


Meet 5th grader and straight-A student, Paige.    Paige grew up in a very literate household, and both of her parents were avid readers.  Her mother, in fact, is an excellent, highly trained reading specialist.  There was no shortage of books or experiences with books in Paige’s home.  Reading was always highly valued, and an everyday activity. 

Paige loved to read.  She was never without a book in hand, and with every spare moment she had, she could be found deeply engaged in reading.  She loved talking about books and very well knew her favorite authors and types of books.   

Then her teacher introduced the 40 Book Challenge, along with the time limit students had to complete it.  There was only one real opportunity during the whole challenge for Paige to read her book of choice, fantasy.  I wish you could see her in your mind like I can.  If you could, you’d see her shoulders slump.  You’d hear her audible sigh of disappointment.  She was now going to have to read a whole lot of books she just wasn’t interested in.  


Then, a couple of weeks in, she tearfully shared her frustrations with her mom.  Because Paige is an advanced reader, she reads looooong books.  And those take a while.  But with the time limit of the challenge, she wasn’t able to read those long books on the side.  She would need to devote her time to the kinds of books that were required. 

There was no grade attached to the challenge, just expectation from the teacher, as it was a competition among classmates to complete.  Paige is a consummate rule-follower, and felt pressure to do her part.  So to complete the challenge, she chose the very shortest books she could find in each category so she could check off the boxes, and then get back to reading what she wanted.  She resented how little time was left for her own choice books.  

Clearly, for Paige, the reading challenge imposed on her caused harm.  

She chose books based on page number only, not interest.  She didn’t care about one book she read.  And I would suspect that because she was forced to read a sampling of many different genres–rather than wanting to choose them–that this left Paige with a sour taste in her mouth for most of them, making it even more unlikely she’ll ever give them a chance in the future.


Now, I’d like you to meet Marvin.  Marvin, a 3rd grader, grew up in a home very opposite of Paige.  His single mother worked her tail off at two jobs, just trying to keep the lights on and food on the table for Marvin and his siblings.  There was zero money for books, and there was no time to go to the library.  Even if there had been, the nearest public library was at least 30 minutes away.  And even if Marvin’s mom could carve out that kind of time to go to the library, there was no time to read to her children anyway, due to her long work hours. 

She also didn’t like reading aloud and avoided it because she herself had always very much struggled with it. Marvin was also a very transient child.  Because of his mom’s struggle to make ends meet, eviction was a regular occurrance.  This of course created large gaps in Marvin’s education, and reading instruction for him was sporadic at best, and never enough.  Poor Marvin was also dyslexic.  

@Nadezhda 1906

Marvin’s teacher also introduced the class reading challenge.  Hers was a grid of 12 different genres, and it was quarterly.  It was also a decent portion of their grade.  Marvin couldn’t even read some of the words on the directions for the challenge, and his stomach sank with the thought of having to try to slog through all of these books while trying to care for his siblings at home as well as manage his other school work (which was ALL a major struggle). 

He knew he wouldn’t have time to read the books in school, because while the other kids were given time to read independently, he was always either pulled to the back table to work with his teacher or pulled by the reading teacher to work on other things in a different room.  He was doomed.

As much as he had hoped 3rd grade would be better than previous years, he knew failing this reading challenge meant his grade didn’t stand a chance.  He saw from the beginning there’d be no point in even trying.  

Reading challenges greatly harm students like Marvin. 

His self-esteem is now completely shot, as is any motivation he once had. 

But wait–aren’t there some kids who truly are motivated by reading challenges, students who find them to be helpful? 

Of course!  But do they motivate all students?

I think we need to  rephrase the way we frame our words.  Because semantics is everything.  

Instead of saying “reading challenges motivate some students,” we need to say “reading challenges harm some students.”  Both sentences mean the exact same thing.  It’s like saying the glass is half empty or half full–-they mean the same exact thing.  But one is said with rose-colored glasses, making it totally ok, while the other comes out as a truth bomb.  

We need to come back to Donalyn Miller’s entire intent with the challenge she wrote about in her book.  In her 2014 blog post she reminds us, “the 40 Book Challenge is meant to expand students’ reading lives, not limit or define it.”  (Emphasis is mine).

I encourage you to read her post about her intentions behind that challenge, as almost every interpretation you’ll find on Pinterest and TPT has greatly misconstrued it).  Her intent was pure and wonderful, even admirable.  It’s just that the way it’s so often executed in classrooms, it goes awry. 

So back to the question at hand.  Are reading challenges harming our students?  

In Paige and Marvin’s case, yes.  By Donalyn Miller’s definition, the challenge very much limited Paige’s reading life.  And Marvin’s reading life was defined by it.  

When we impose whole-class challenges, we must be mindful of the students in front of us.  We all have Paiges, we all have Marvins.  And we all have every variety of child in between.  

Do we have to give up the idea of challenges?  I don’t think so.  I think there are definitely ways to bring in that element of excitement and motivation to read widely–ways that keep the integrity of the original intent of the challenge idea.  

But can we provide such a challenge without causing harm to students?  Yes.  In fact, I think it can even help them grow!  

But this post is long enough.   In Part 2, I’ll share ideas for implementing the idea of reading challenges without harming students!  

Does this post resonate?  DM me on Instagram, or better yet, join my  private FB group to connect!

Related Posts:  Reading Logs that Actually Work, The Secret to Setting Up Your Library for Maximum Student Impact, Is Independent Reading Time a Waste of Time?, Engaging the Disengaged [Where to Begin], Tips for Engaged, Independent Readers:  Holding Kids Accountable

Related Resource:  Tips for Reading Engagement [Free webinar]

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