The 40 Book Challenge in My Classroom

Last summer, I picked up a book I've been wanting to read for quite some time, The Book Whisperer by Donalyn Miller. It's been on my to-read list for a couple of years and since I moved to a new school, I figured it was the perfect time to get some new inspiration.

Well, this book blew me away. You see, I love reading, and it is always my goal to help my students to love reading as well. I achieve this with engaging read-alouds, but I admit that I hadn't put much thought into independent reading other than to make sure that students are reading on their level, yadda, yadda, yadda. I realized that though I've stacked my classroom library with over 1,000 books, I've never taken the time to match students with a book that is perfect for them. I don't mean right in that it's on their level, I'm talking about it being right by being something that they are actually interested in reading. As I read Donalyn's book, I realized that I've missed out on great opportunities for meaningful recommendations. I was providing students with the opportunity to enjoy books that I read, but I was not putting enough thought into the books that they were reading on their own. Now that I've read The Book Whisperer, I am vowing to never let this happen again! Reading this book not only inspired me to create my own 40 book challenge, it also inspired me to rethink the way that I approach independent reading and I'm so glad it did. Below, I'd like to share how I'm using what I learned from her book in my classroom. I will preface this by saying that I've made changes that work for me, pulling the components that were most meaningful for me and the students in my classroom.
I decided that I would keep the goal of 40 books, and I did say that they must be books that are on their reading level or above to count towards the challenge. At first, I tried to be flexible on the level because I don't want students to avoid great books that might be easy, but I found that they started to take advantage of this, so I tightened the reins on it. I did not assign certain genres as suggested in their book. The reason that I did this was A) I knew I was going to expose them to different genres through our reading curriculum. B) There are genres that I dislike reading as an adult. Put a science fiction book in front of me and my eyes immediately glaze over. I don't want to force my students to read books they aren't interested in because I believe that defeats the purpose of creating a love of reading. I want my 40 book challenge to be focused on books that my students will truly enjoy.

When I introduced the challenge, I was really concerned about stressing my students out.  I knew some students would hear me say 40, and then hear nothing else if I didn't put their mind's at ease right away. Teachers must keep in mind that there are some students in their class who don't enjoy reading yet. I knew I needed a buy-in from those students so I thought about what they would need to hear.

The first thing that I told my students was that this was not a competition against one another, but instead the same as setting a goal and working hard to achieve it. I explained to them that as long as they were completing their weekly assignments related to the challenge, I would be proud of them, regardless of whether they met their goal of 40 or not. To chart their progress,  I hung pennants each week with their updated number and they loved this and they also recorded their progress in their binders (more on that in a minute). I made sure that it was very clear to my students that this challenge wasn't about who can read the most, but rather who is working towards their goal. This conversation took a lot of stress off of their shoulders and helped them to understand that the goal is to enjoy reading.

Our pennants at the beginning of the year. Each one says _______(name)  is ready to begin the challenge.

The first week of school, I gave an interest survey. I had to do mine differently from the one used in the book because I'm elementary and hers seemed to geared towards middle school students My main goal with this survey was to find out what makes each student "tick" so that the books I recommend for them will be closely aligned to their interests. I also asked some questions to find out their strengths and weaknesses with reading to give me a heads up on their needs. As I read each survey, I went into my classroom library and started pulling recommendations for my students and leaving them on their desks. This was great for me because it allowed me to become reacquainted with my own classroom library. It excited my students to see my recommendations. As we went through the year, I would order books from Scholastic and when they would arrive, I'd immediately introduce them to the class and then recommend them to students who I knew would enjoy them! They loved it and I enjoyed using their interest surveys to get to know them as readers and seeing their wish lists grow!

Click on the image above for a reproducible copy of my interest survey for elementary students.

Click on the image above to get a printable copy of this cover for student binders. I have it in 20, 30, and 40.

I created each student a book challenge binder of their own. In that binder I placed a reading log where students tracked each book they completed, a wish list for books they wanted to read in the future, and sample book reviews, to be explained in an upcoming blog post. Of course, you are probably wondering how I knew for sure that they were reading each book, and for this, I did a combination of Donalyn's ideas, my own ideas, and what the students have already been doing. 
I decided to have students complete a weekly journal in which they write about a book that they are reading. I respond to their entry and it becomes a weekly chat between student and teacher. Their journal entry makes it clear if they are reading or just skimming. For a more in-depth post on the pros and cons of this, as well as a more-detailed explanation of how I used journals in the classroom, head over the the following link: Using Book Journals for Accountable Independent Reading

I'll be the first to admit that I'm not an AR person. I wish it would go away entirely. However, my students have spent the past 5 years participating in AR and some really love it, so I didn't want to take this option away from them completely. I allowed students to take a test on their level or above and as long as they passed it (I set the goal at 80%),  I allowed them to count the book towards their 40 book challenge. I did have one incident where students were all taking the same test and sharing the answers (one of the many things about AR that I do not like), but it was an isolated incident. I monitored daily to make sure that did not happen again.
For students who don't often pass AR tests, or do not enjoy taking them, I allowed students to complete a book review with two options, a written review on Kid Blog or a video review on Kid Blog. I purchased the yearly subscription to Kid Blog and loved that we could use this format to share the fantastic books that we are reading and recommend them to others. I did my own examples of each and posted them to Kid Blog in advance to share them with my students. I also created a rubric to share with the students and walked them through their first book review on Kid Blog. I found that they were much less nervous about book reviews once they completed one together. It's all part of the I do, we do, you do model when it comes to these. I required everyone to complete at least one book review per month, but the remainder of the books that they complete can be AR tests if they choose. Overall, this went well, but I think they got a little bored of it, so I am planning to add a book project each trimester that will take the place of 1 book review each trimester so that they have a bit more choice in their accountability. Here is a link to my post on book reviews: Book Reviews: An Alternative to Book Reports
 I am very pleased with the results of the 40 book challenge. As I assured my students on the very first day, it was always about finding books they love and reading because they wanted to, not because I was forcing them to. In the end, only three students met the challenge of 40 books (with one reaching 73), but every single child surprised themselves because they read more this year than they ever had in years before. Even more importantly, they loved each book they read. Parents were a bit nervous about this challenge at the beginning of the year, but they were thrilled with it in the end because they saw that regardless of how many books they had read, all students were seeing themselves as readers and were proud of what they accomplished because of this challenge. What more could a teacher ask for?

I will absolutely do the challenge again. I will tweak a few things here and there. As mentioned, I do think that the book reviews became a bit monotonous so I need to reevaluate those. I think a project a trimester will help and I'm going to think about other choices that I can offer that students will be excited about. Also, I'm going to do a better job of modeling their journal entries in the beginning so that I get more meaningful journals from students.

Want my pennant template? Click the image above to download it for free! You will need to add text boxes to add student names and numbers. 

If you have any questions about how I did the 40 book challenge in my classroom, please feel free to comment below! I strongly encourage you to grab a copy of The Book Whisperer before starting your journey! 



  1. Hello! I love your suggestions for implementing the 40 Book challenge! Did you print a new pennant everytime a student finished a book?

    1. Great question! I did this year, but my plan for next year is to only print three for each student. The "ready for the challenge" and the "____ has read 1 book" will be the first two. Then I will print one with their name at the top and the number of books blank and laminate it so I can use a dry erase to change the number each time. Printing them over and over was not great for the color printer or saving time!


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