Why I Read 500 Books in 1st Grade (And Your Child Can Too)

Published 5 years ago

As you’ve heard before, my family is BIG into reading. For as long as I can remember my mom has always encouraged reading, and had book suggestions for me that would be engaging, but also pull me up to the next level. She was a proponent of reading, inside of school and out. All growing up and through the end of high school, she used to read whatever book I was being required to read in school (even if she’d read it before) so she could talk to me about it, and help me tease out deeper themes. She did the same for my siblings, and at points it was amazing she got any of her own reading in! She wanted us to have no excuses not to love reading, to understand it and to succeed as we pressed forward. Any reading was good reading.

And my reading started early. First because I loved to listen to the stories, but then because I was incentivized to get really good at it. In the first grade, my mom and I set a goal for me to read 500 books during the school year. Let me tell you, that’s a LOT of books for a first grader. We kept a big long list of every book I read (from picture books to Magic Tree house and beyond) and I worked ferociously to meet my goal. Now you may say, well, that’s easy, read 500 board books and you’re done!

But first of all, board books were cheating. And second of all, my grandpa came to the rescue with an incentive to encourage me to read 500 long-ish books. He offered to pay me 1 cent for every page I read that year. Now my incentives were aligned to read 500 reasonable length books, for the pride in accomplishing my goal and for the money. As a result, I became a very proficient reader in first grade–I mean, I was good. As a positive side effect, I also spent a lot of quality time reading to my younger siblings (age 3 and infant) since I did still love to read the occasional picture book! They saw me reading, and how cool I thought it was, which reinforced the opinion already subconsciously developing in their minds of how fim reading was because of my mom’s reading habits. When their first grade years rolled around they were offered the same deal, with the added challenge of completing it because I already had.

But did I meet my goal? Why yes, I did. And when I did, that afternoon my mom took me to our local grocery store to pick out a treat. Being my usual chatty and precocious self, I told the twenty-something-year-old male clerk ringing me up that this was my treat for reading 500 books in 1st grade. He looked slightly surprised and bemused, and told me (looking very impressed I might add) that he didn’t think he’d read 500 books in his life, and definitely hadn’t read anything since he finished school.

It’s a sad fact. Some children don’t learn to love to read. It becomes a chore, perhaps because they only have time to read the books assigned for school (which can be less than thrilling) and never have the chance to read what interests them, perhaps because it’s presented to them as a task as odious as eating vegetables that must be completed before dessert or TV, or perhaps because they never gained the confidence that they were good readers.

Looking back, I think I’ve read so many books since I finished school partially BECAUSE I read 500 books in first grade. That’s a lot of practice reading. That’s a lot of new words. And that’s a lot of confidence in my abilities as a reader. While I might have thought I was a good reader when I set my goal, I KNEW I was a good reader when I completed it. I had 500 books in less than a year under my belt, as well as what I perceived to be a GARGANTON check in my bank account to save for college (yes, I couldn’t even spend it and it was still cool.)

I’m not saying you should pay your kids to read. But I am saying, take a minute and think about what incentivizes your children and help them set goals. Big goals. Goals that they will feel proud to have accomplished. Goals that, once completed, will improve their abilities and their confidence in themselves. For me, I was incentivized by the satisfaction of meeting my mom’s challenge (with the added bonus of some college cash). For your children it might be stickers, earning a trip to a favorite beach, or even weekly ice cream. It doesn’t have to be big, but correct incentives and goals can yield massive and lasting results.

How do you help YOUR kids get good at reading?

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