being me, Literacy, Reading, Reading Identity

On Book Quantity and the Damage It Can (Sometimes) Do

Note: This post is a personal reflection with more questions than answers. In no way is this post meant to be used as a way to to argue for lowering expectations for kids when it comes to increasing reading quantity. The research shows us again and again that access to great books and the time to read them in both supported and unsupported ways is what creates reading success. Both of these are also privileges and not something that all kids, still, despite the numerous years of research have access to as Donalyn Miller reminded me of. What this post is meant to highlight and discuss is when we teach kids who have access to books and set incredibly high goals that then destroy their reading experience. That change their reading experience into one that chases only books as a point, a notch, or a number, rather than helps support their development as readers who experience books.

Today our students did a midyear reading goal reflection, a quick check to see whether or not their reading goal for the year should change. A quick check for them to take the pulse of their own reading life. It is always interesting to listen in as kids discover that they are either reading a lot more than they thought or need to step it up a bit to make their challenge goal of reading at least 25 books in 7th grade. For some 25 books is not a big deal, for others it is a mountain that they are steadily climbing, slowly putting one foot in front of the other as they find yet another book to hook them to a readerly life. They know there is no punishment for not meeting their goal. They know it is meant as a motivator for them to increase their reading. It has taken several years and different iterations for us to reach a reading challenge that seems to be successful for nearly all. And today, was a day to check in on that challenge.

As I meander by the students, a girl asks me how I am doing with my reading goal; 105 books? They like to check in now and then to see if I am staying on track, even if it is just to marvel at the goal itself. 105 books?! Who in the world can read that many books? She is trying to keep up with me but she is only at 30. I quickly tell her that one of the things I am also working on is slowing down when I read and yet the look she offers me tells me of her disbelief. After all, if my goal is to slow down then how come I am trying to read so many books?

Today, that look really hit me. I usually shrug it off, it is not the first time a student stares at me in disbelief, but today amidst the slowness of the day it gave me pause. Why is my goal so high? Why am I trying to read so many books? I don’t need to impress anyone. I am not in competition with anyone. Sure I love to recommend books but I am not the only one capable of doing so. What started as 80 books a year five years ago only keeps growing and to what end? Why the need for the high number, when 70 or even 50 would suffice?

And so I sit tonight realizing the danger of my own reading goal. Of setting it as a quantity one rather than one that calls for me to challenge myself. With this goal of 105 chapter books for the school year, I am falling into the same old habits as our students do when we focus on speed versus quality; picking shorter books, skimming texts, forcing myself to read even though my heart is not in it. With the increase in quantity comes a seemingly decrease in enjoyment. Reading is now a task in order to reach my goal, rather than something I do to relax. My to-be-read bookshelf is now work waiting for me to complete rather than adventures beckoning me to join them.

I see this happen with students too who for some reason believe that high quantities of books mean that they are automatically stronger readers. For some of my kids who set goals of hundreds of books in a year who seem to be missing most of what they are reading. Now, don’t get me wrong, research, of course, shows the positive correlation between reading large quantities of texts and being a better reader, but at what point for some kids and even for some adults does it become detrimental rather than good? At what point does the hurried race after too high of a goal in order to impress encourage students to skim read, to skip pages, to develop poor reading habits rather than lose themselves in the experience? Instead of setting a goal that challenges them in a new way? How do we balance the need for students to read more, which many need, but also to read well?

There is a balance, of course, that sometimes gets lost in the school shuffle where kids’ reading lives are made into contests through public book challenge displays, leaderboards, and reading scores. Where it often matters more how much you read versus what you read and what you get out of it. Where students are celebrated for reading quickly, even if they didn’t fully get the chance to actually appreciate what they read. Yes, quantity, and increasing quantity and access to great reading material matters for all of us, but so does slowing down, savoring text, and actually enjoying the experience. This is how we help students become or remain the types of people who cannot wait to read for fun. Where is the balance?

So today as the students did their midyear goals, I changed my own. I don’t want to read 105 books this year. I want to read 80. 80 amazing books that I cannot wait to finish. 80 books that I cannot wait to share. 80 books that allow me to fall back in love with reading and see it for the great gift it is, not for the job it has become. And who knows, perhaps I will read more, but I am allowing myself to slow down. To sit with the books. And I cannot wait.

PS: It is not too late to join the winter book club study for Passionate Readers – it starts this Sunday. Come join the conversation with hundreds of other educators as we try to create reading experiences for all of the kids we have. Also, I am currently planning my summer speaking schedule, see this page for more information if you would like me to help reach your vision for creating a school experience where students are empowered and engaged.

6 thoughts on “On Book Quantity and the Damage It Can (Sometimes) Do”

  1. I love this post! Pernille, you are always so honest in your writing and I find it refreshing. In a world where teachers are inundated with messages to be more, do more, provide more, or live with the guilt that you are not living up to the “good teacher standards,” it is nice to have someone reflect honestly on what is and isn’t working in their classroom. Your choice to lower your book goal is fantastic, and I’m glad that you shared that choice with your students. I agree with everything in this post – savoring is important! I, too, started to view my to-be-read pile as a to-do list, and it made my enjoyment of my favorite thing in the world lessen. Reading this post is almost like “permission” to slow down and enjoy reading again. Thank you!

  2. I’m so with you on this one. Since I started making a goal, it has always been 73. (The year I was born, and Sheldon’s – from “The Big Bang Theory” – perfect number.) This year I was able to read 100. Hubby said, “Why don’t you raise it?” My reply – because 73 is the perfect number… 😉 I raised it only to 75. I figure that’s enough. 😉 May you ENJOY your reading journey, Pernille – just like we want our kids to.

  3. Really good points here. I have wrangled with the same thinking, even though my numbers often hit about 50 in a year. I want some of those 50 to be dense and challenging and take me a while, and I want some of them to to be super quick, breezy reads. I want the white space on the pages I read to be varied. I want pictures in some of my books and tight text in others. I want to be able to quick books halfway through and not feel like I’m launching a torpedo at my goal. I want similar balance for my students. Thanks as always for sharing your thinking here!

  4. Consider this quote from “A Velocity of Being” “I believe you are you’re also the average of the five books you hold closest to your heart. You can replace the books in the inner sanctum of five whenever you want, and by doing so, change your life. What will you read next?” ~Tim Ferriss

  5. Any teacher who wants to help get books into readers’ hands has grappled with this idea. I’ve also had that moment when a student was looking at my triple-digit goal and comparing him/herself to me, and it made me think about the disservice I might be doing.

    This year, I have the lowest goal I have set in the last 8 years (85 books), but it wasn’t lowered due to the reason you stated in your post. At the beginning of the year, I talked about this with my class–I have an 8-month-old at home and I just don’t have the same amount of time to read that I once did (should I be tallying up board books?). This then leads to the discussion of the things in their lives that they value that might make it difficult to read as much as they want. We look at these things and find places where reading time can be carved out.

    Where I focus most, however, is not on the number of books I am going to read, but what those books will consist of. I have a Google Doc and Sheet on which I track the books and the total pages I read within given genres and, at the end of each month, I display this to my students and say, “Where did I do well? Where should I stretch myself next month?” They point out, for example, that I haven’t been reading much poetry or that I’m only reading mysteries by the same author (Stuart Gibbs, I’m running out of your books!), and then I use that information to pick out a couple of goal areas for the next month. Then they reflect on this for their own reading and I chat with them about the goals they are setting monthly. What will push them out of their comfort zones? What will be something that they are really looking forward to reading that month?

    I think the goal number can be high for the teacher as long as discussions can be had regarding reading experience, growth, and enjoyment. The teacher is much more experienced as a reader, so s/he can certainly be reading many more middle-grade books than most actual middle-grade students. I also show the students where I have stopped to place a sticky note on some language I loved or show them someplace that I slowed down to consider some of Beers’ and Probst’s signpost thinking. We discuss text “weights,” and I get honest with them when something from a book was a challenge for my brain to “lift” or when a graphic novel was a quick, hilarious read. As long as there are things in place to show that your intention isn’t to “win the reading race,” having a high goal isn’t something that should keep you up at night. I only wish more of my colleagues could proudly show that they were reading dozens of books a year.

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