Reading Challenges That Help, Not Harm

In a previous post, I talked about reading (or book) challenges, and why we might need to rethink the way we’re doing them.  They can be very limiting to some students, and they can be debilitating for others.  Some students truly do like them, but whenever we think about who is benefitting from anything we do, we must also consider who is not benefitting.  This is what I talked about in that previous post–that if we want to use reading challenges, they should help students, not harm them.  

Reading challenges, at their core, are a wonderful idea.  As detailed in her incredible book, The Book Whisperer, author Donalyn Miller shares why she created the now highly popular 40 Book Challenge:

  • To help students build a habit of reading
  • To hold students to high expectations, and teach them that procrastination is not an option
  • To instill a love of reading
  • To build confidence
  • To expose students to a wide variety of genres (and lengths, from less than 100 pages to regular chapter book length)

There are some more things about the challenge that Miller talks about, but that seem to be missed in just about every iteration of book challenge found online.  Very important things that illustrate how she implemented reading challenges to help students.  Never to harm.  

For example, while she listed a variety of genres for students to choose from and how many books are required for each, she also allowed students “to choose nine from any genre to complete the forty book total.”  And to address those kids who love to read long books (who were 6th graders, btw), Miller allowed any book that was over 350 pages to count as two.   She also says that the required number of books changed every year, so it’s definitely not set in stone.

And grades…grades were not tied to the challenge.  Nor prizes.  It was purely for the experience.  

There’s more.  Miller is also very clear that it’s completely ok if kids stick with their favorite genres and never meet the genre requirements at all.  It’s also ok if they fall short of the number of books required.  She just wanted kids to read, and to read a lot.  That’s it.  The last thing she wanted was for any student to plod through books, uninterested.  So those kids who devour Wimpy Kid books one after the other and nothing else?  So what?  They’re still reading.  And they’re readers who know what they like and are reading with high levels of interest.

The name of the chapter that all of this information is found in is called Reading Freedom.  

Reading Freedom. 

Freedom to choose

Freedom from grades 

Freedom to go at your own pace 

Freedom to make your own decisions 

A quick TPT search will show you countless book trackers that are nothing more than reading logs.  Many show teachers how to attach “student accountability” to it, complete with prizes–all extrinsic rewards like badges, stickers, and treasure box items.  Every one of them includes some sort of way for kids to write down each book they read, whether on paper or digitally.  Sellers use words and phrases like “motivating,” “inspiring,” and “authentic and engaging.”  

It’s possible these words will apply to some students…but again, who will not benefit? 

And more to the point, how does simply writing titles and earning stickers or prizes help students reflect?  How do these things help them grow as readers?   

Going back to my first post about reading challenges, and how they can so often become more of a problem than a help.  What do we do?  Give them up entirely?


Or maybe we could think about other ways to incorporate them without causing kids harm.  Ways that can actually help.  For instance…

  • Make it a 40 Book Discovery, and write down your read alouds (for fun or for instruction) across the year.
  • Make the challenge to get to 40 book recommendations where students recommend books to each other. Extra kudos if the recipient reads it!  
  • As we introduce new books, could we hype them up a bit?  Do a book talk?  Recommend them to specific kids?  Maybe even track the 40 (or more!) books that you introduce or recommend? 
  • Pernille Ripp, author of Passionate Readers, says that students should always have a TBR (To Be Read) list.  This list could be out every time you read aloud or do a book talk, and when a title, genre, or style of book sparks interest in a student, they add it to their list.  Maybe students can set their own goal for number of books read by the end of the year, and write it at the top of the list. That list should be in their hands when they select new books AND when they visit the library.  Invariably, they’ll add more to the list each time they choose books too, because they’ll see their friends pick different books, and there’s a high probability they’ll have conversations about books at the same time…further sparking interest.  After they read a book from the list, they can cross it off…and track how many books they’ve read toward their own goal number.
  • What about making an ongoing anchor chart, where the title, genre, and author are listed, and an added column that tells what kind of reader would be interested in it?  List 20, 30, or even 40 books! Then use that anchor chart to help students find books that interest them?  Maybe even ask the school librarian to display it in the library…where perhaps she can add another column that lists similar books like those titles so ALL kids can benefit?
  • What about having kids do book review videos, naming what characteristics of the book appealed to them?  Maybe make each video into a QR code, and the challenge is to get to 40 QR codes?  This list of books could also be shared with families and saved for next year’s kids…a ready-made advertisement of what’s in your classroom library! Even easier….kids’ reviews could just written on a simple post it and stuck to the cover of that book for others to discover as they browse the books.
  • Or how about adding the idea of expanding genre horizons as a possible goal for students to set…and then help them make it happen?  (And be their biggest cheerleader when they do?)

And one more–an important one. What about periodically asking kids to write a reflection (or do a short video reflection) about how their book choices are expanding?  How they know their confidence as a reader is growing?  How they’re growing as readers?  


Miller, D. (2011). The Book Whisperer: Awakening the Inner Reader in Every Child. Scholastic, Incorporated. 

Do you or your colleagues to a version of The 40 Book Challenge? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this post!  Send me an email, DM me on Instagram, or better yet, join my  private FB group to connect!

Related Posts:  Reading Logs that Actually Work, Is Independent Reading Time a Waste of Time?, Engaging the Disengaged [Where to Begin], Tips for Engaged, Independent Readers:  Holding Kids Accountable, Tips for Engaged, Independent Readers:  Classroom Library

Related Resources:  Tips for Reading Engagement [Free webinar], Classroom Library Self-Audit Checklist


  1. Temple

    I love these ideas, especially the 40 book discovery and recommendations challenge.

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