Wednesday, 9 July 2014

We're a Community of Readers!

I’ve been a reader all my life. As a child, there was nothing I loved more than hopping up on my Grandfather’s knee and sharing together the joy of the Five Chinese brothers or the Poky Little Puppy. I read The Outsiders 13 times in the third form!

When I became a teacher, the thing I loved most was sharing my love of reading with my Year 1 and 2s. We would spend a good chunk of the day engrossed in personal reading- Listening to stories, reading newspaper articles, reading around the room.......

My students were readers.

Then came a shift for me to teaching in Upper Primary. I mistakenly became obsessed with comprehension strategies, often through boring worksheets. Suddenly, I was spending far too much time focussing on whether my students could infer, visualise, identify the main idea? I would read them a fantastic story.......and then follow it up with boring, low level tasks- death by comprehension question.

I was turning my students off books and taking all the magic out of reading. To use a phrase from Kelly Gallagher, I was committing READACIDE.

One day I was browsing in the library and I stumbled across an amazing book- The Book Whisperer by Donalyn Miller!

I devoured this book. It confirmed everything about what I felt my reading practice had become. There were many reading crimes I was committing but I realised that the biggest crime was that I had taken away all choice from my students.
So last year, I decided to try Donalyn Miller’s 40 Book Challenge. It was such a huge success and I honestly can't see myself ever teaching a class again without some iteration of this challenge. With girls choosing all their own reading, it is the most pure form of differentiation in reading that I have had the pleasure to observe. I have modified some of Donalyn's ideas slightly but here’s an outline of how the challenge is working in 8C.

On Day 1 of the year, we have a party for our class. We have balloons, cake, appletise and as many books as we can find. We begin the party with an announcement that this year every single one of them will read 40 books. For most students, this announcement results in a collective sucking in of breath!

We have a google presentation at the ready which tells them all they need to know about the challenge. Both years, this was initially greeted with “You want us to do what?!” but gradually the enthusiasm began to bubble.

They learned that they would across a variety of genres. They were encouraged to read 5 pieces of Realistic Fiction, 3 pieces of New Zealand Literature and so on. You might think this is taking away that element of choice I was trying so desperately to reintroduce but in fact it has had quite the opposite effect.

The beauty of this challenge is that it is so easy to differentiate and could be used with any age group. In the first week of the year, I held very short goal setting conferences with the girls. Some readers set the goal of reading 80 books or even 100. Of course, historical fiction chosen by a strong reader will differ from that chosen by a student who is building reading stamina. How do you know the students have actually read the books? Conference, conference, conference! I meet frequently with the girls to discuss their reading. This is incredibly valuable and I always hear of new titles to buy for my own collection. This is also how I encourage the girls to reflect on the challenge level of their reading material.

The success of this challenge is dependent on our class becoming a real COMMUNITY of READERS. I needed to learn about the reading interests of my students so I conducted a reading interests survey. I did this via a google form and it gave me a wealth of information.

Then we set up 40 Book Challenge Books fondly nicknamed "Book Books." In these, we document
• Books we've completed with a star rating
• Books we want to read on a "To Be Read List"
• Daily Reading in pages
• Genres read on a Genre Graph
• Term goals/ reading plans and end of term reflections
• Reading Rates, as calculated by the girls according to a method suggested by Penny Kittle in her must-read book, "Book Love"

To create that truly connectivist reading community, I have introduced a number of tools. Booksells are big. Last year, girls were rostered to share but this year they are so keen I have scrapped the roster. This year, girls sign up to share a book they have loved and want to recommend to their class. This always results in a flurry of, “Ooh can I read that next?” and as a result we have large booking lists for popular suggestions.

There are many digital tools that have helped create a true reading community. Animoto and imovie are used frequently for booktrailers. These can be embedded easily in eportfolios and blogs. We have even put some of our animoto book trailers into QR codes and put them up in the library for other classes to explore. Thinglink is another amazing tool for sharing reading favourites. Our girls have made great Thinglink Author Studies and I also recommend Google Draw for these types of learning tasks. Other great tools are Biblionasium, Padlet and a variety of KidsLit blogs such as BobsBooks- a huge hit with our students.

In case you are wondering, we do still look at reading strategies. These are fundamental to reading success but we now spend only one period a week discussing strategies. The majority of our reading time is spent discussing books and believe it or not.....reading! Imagine that! Independent Reading time is sacred in 8C and the groans are loud and long when it is time to close their books.

So how do I know that the 40 Book Challenge is a success in 8C? Last Wednesday, we added up the number of books read by 21 students and 2 teachers over the first six months of the year. Guess how many books we've read......


Yep, that's an average of 32 books each in six months! Remember the target was 40 books read in the entire year!!!

So I decided we needed a celebration. On the last day of term we had a 40 Book Breakfast complete with croissants and hot chocolate. Girls shared their favourite titles of the year and reflected on their favourite and least favourite genres. I was incredibly proud of them and as I discovered at their Student Led Conferences; so are their parents. Many parents tried to thank me but I can't accept any of the credit for this. The success here is entirely due to Donalyn Miller as well as the tight-knit reading community the girls have formed; they support each other with book discussions, recommendations and the loaning of books from their own collections. It is truly a beautiful thing!

If you teach reading, I strongly recommend getting your hands on a copy of The Book Whisperer. I can safely say, that the 40 Book Challenge is a huge success in 8C. We are, as Miller puts it, awakening the inner reader in every child!


  1. "I can't accept any of the credit for this." - Sorry lady but the credit is very much yours to accept! You had the foresight, the passion, the drive and, most importantly, the courage of your convictions to implement this and then follow it through to make it something that is now looked forward to by the girls entering Year 8 at our school. As a parent, a teacher and your colleague, I salute you. You are a real inspiration and we are lucky to have you!


    1. Thanks, Greg! Your comment is so kind you've rendered me speechless.....and you know how infrequently that happens! Thank you.

  2. Bridget, your love for reading and enthusiasm for sharing this reading challenge oozes out of this post. I think the key is taking a great idea and redefining it to suit your class. Love the Book Party idea. Two fantastic books for teachers to use to get started as well. Thanks for sharing this.

    1. Thanks so much Pauline! Great to catch up the other day. See you again soon.

  3. Oh Bridget, As Greg and Pauline have already said, what an inspiration you are! What an incredible opportunity for these learners to be giving the gift you are giving them, lifelong love of reading! I am in awe of your ability with your learners and the incredible way you have shared this with us all. I am about to share it with my literacy online mailing list! Thanks again for sharing.
    Anne K

    1. Wow!!! Thanks, Anne! I hope someone finds it useful.

  4. Well expressed post, Bridget. Off to get a copy of Donalyn Miller's book. Thanks for including the pictures.. it all seemed a bit 'fairytale' until I got to the last pic of the hot chocolates. Fifteen marshmellows in each cup screams the reality of working with year 8 girls, haha!

    1. Ha ha! Yep, the marshmallow overdose......

      Hey, I clicked on your profile and saw you from Winton- my Mum is from Isla Bank! Small world huh!

      I really recommend both of Donalyn Miller's books as well as Penny Kittle's Book Love. They are all fantastic. Thanks for your comment.

  5. Totally inspired me to change the way I'm teaching my Y9 class with theie reading. What kind of tasks did you get them to do with their books? Absolutely blown away. Thanks for sharing :)

  6. Thanks Alex! You'd love it! I made a commitment to do it alongside them. Actually, I have scrapped any sort of compulsory task on each book- I'd rather they were actually reading and not being put off by the threat of a book review or something! But we do frequent reading community building tasks which are really a way to share great books with their friends- book trailers using imovie, qr code book reviews. At the moment have the option to do a task in minecraft- they have created the setting for a book and are now including five places where they were required to infer- they write the text and then creatively share what they inferred from this eg inference is behind a door or sign or out a window or something. Minecraft is awesome for sharing about books. Some have chosen to use google sketch up, others are making posters......
    I totally recommend book speed dating with another class. So powerful. I also did mini-ignite talks- just four slides so one minute on a book they want to share. And just lots of frequent book selling. The only way to make the 40 book challenge work is to have the students sharing their favourites with each other because as you know, they won't read what the teacher tells them to unless they are given a choice! I have a couple of girls who are what Donalyn Miller calls "epicentre" readers. When I buy a new book, I ask them to read it and if they like it and share it, the book becomes hugely popular.
    Also, really important to ensure they get frequent personal reading time at school. I don't actually own The Book Whisperer book but Chch libraries had it. I do own Reading in the Wild and Book Love (Book Love is a must read for secondary I think) so can send them to you if you want to borrow?

  7. I have done this with my fifth grade class - hugely successful and I wouldn't teach reading any other way. I am forwarding this post on too as I was just talking recently about this book and how awesome it is and how much I would love for it to be incorporated at our school - thanks for the detailed post. I can feel a mindset change coming on...!