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The 1 Million Word Challenge

1millionTeaching is about getting students to do big, memorable things they think they can’t.

My sophomores write a 40-page book and learn 500 SAT words. My ninth graders participate in a debate at UC Berkeley and conduct a mock trial at San Francisco Superior Court in front of a real judge, real court reporter, and real bailiff.

Big, simple, memorable.

So when I found out in April that I am teaching English 9 this year, I began thinking about what could be the course’s cornerstone.

After some reading, thinking, talking with colleagues, and looking at standards, I’ve come up with The 1 Million Word Challenge. In addition to the readings I assign, my ninth graders will read a minimum of 1 million words on their own.

My students — especially the ones who have never finished a book in their lives — may think I’m crazy. So will some of my colleagues. But one million words isn’t actually too bad. If a page averages 250 words, it’s just 4,000 pages, or around 15-20 books, depending on length. (I won’t tell them.)

Even if it’s difficult for my students, it’s absolutely crucial. Ninth graders enter our school an average of 2 1/2 years behind in reading. And the only way to get better, according to gobs of research, is to read a lot. (Nancie Atwell says reading must be voluminous.) The problem with the normal way of doing things — assigning books — is that students resist and end up fake reading them. It’s a game I no longer want to play.

Instead, I’d rather let my students choose the bulk of their reading and spend my time connecting them with good, valuable books. My message will change from “you must read this” to “I think you’ll enjoy this.”

Not all my students will miraculously, all of a sudden, become voracious readers, but I’m confident that inviting them to deepen their interests and to find new ones through reading will engage them in a new kind of academic experience.


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  3. Caitlin

    Hi Mark,

    Did you do the million word challenge? I’m teaching seventh grade and I’m considering doing something like this. How did you keep track? Any advice would be welcome…this is only my second year of teaching.

  4. Mark Isero

    Hi Caitlin,

    Yeah, the 1MWC was fun. Students kept track with a simple log. We read twice a week in class, and students were expected to read nightly at home. Not as many students met the challenge as I wished, but most students read more than they had ever before. Reading scores went up a lot, too. Have you read Donalyn Miller’s *The Book Whisperer* or Nancie Atwell’s *The Reading Zone*? Those books really helped me. Good luck, and let me know if you have questions.

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