Summer Reading Contest

Our family has a summer reading contest every year. My kids are older and a competition is a great way to encourage them to read a little extra. We change our routine and create a family tradition simply by tracking the books we read and determining a winner.

Raising Readers

My goal is to raise readers. I want my children to think of themselves as Readers, not just people who occasionally pick up a book. I want them to be people who think of reading as both a means of learning and a source of entertainment. The school year certainly teaches my kids that reading is a means of gaining information and knowledge. Their summer reading is pure fun, unless they choose to pick up a school book on their own. I even plan my book choices so that I have lighter reading over the summer.

Some people argue that if you allow your kids to participate in a library (or bookstore) reading program, in which the prizes are things like pizzas, ice cream, and movies, the incentives function as bribes. Then in the future your kids won’t choose to read unless there’s a reward attached. I think there is some validity to this argument.  So, when my kids were little we skipped all the summer reading programs that handed out those kinds of prizes. If the library was giving away books, then we might join. The reward for reading? Why, more reading. Of course!

Then one summer I looked over the rules of the library reading program and realized it was too easy for my kids. There was no challenge involved. And rising to a challenge is an important part of growth. That was the summer our family reading contest was born.

Competition is a key component of the summer reading contest

Some children love nothing better than a competition. Competition spurs them on to action. It compels them to sink hours they would have frittered away into reading a book instead.

I have one of those kids. We all know that, on one level, the contest exists for the sake of this child. That’s okay. This summer one of my other children has his eye on the prize – he has a new book he’s been wanting – and he plans to give the usual winner a run for his money.

The rest of us would read anyway. But there is something satisfying about seeing your summer’s worth of books strung on a cheerful bunting. That something pushes me to read just a few more books simply for the pleasure of hanging the flags. So, even if you don’t like family competitions you may still enjoy having a visual way of tracking summer reading.

Here are three ways we have considered tracking our reading for the reading contest:

Number of books completed

This is the easiest way to keep track of what everybody reads, and this is how we do it. Sometimes we discuss other methods, but in the end they sound complicated and this is so simple. When we finish a book we hang a flag. When the competition is over we count up each person’s flags and determine a winner.

Of course, there are some obvious drawbacks to this method. One year somebody was reading Magic Tree House books and they kept him busy for a few hours and were about equivalent to the time the teens were spending on their books. But then, the next summer, the same kid was reading Magic Tree House books, now in under an hour and arguing that they were still the equivalent of any other book. A book is a book, right? And this one even had chapters!

The Magic Tree House Marathon Summer was also the summer I included books of the Bible as valid entries in the summer reading contest. I did an internet search for the average number of words in a Magic Tree House book. Then I searched for a list that ordered the books of the Bible by word count and any book of the Bible that had enough words counted as a separate book in our totals. You can do the same by selecting the easiest book a reader will be reading, comparing word counts, and printing out a list of books of the Bible that meet the minimum standard. This is a nice way to encourage a little extra Bible reading.

So, what’s our rule? Every summer there’s a lot of discussion on this point. I refuse to make a definitive judgement. How can I factor in number of pages, font size, and reading level? Could I then evaluate every book that all six members of the family read? The idea is ridiculous. I lay down a principle: read at your reading level. In spite of the complaints of the Detractors, it seems to work out fine.

Track Time Spent Reading

Another way to determine a winner in the summer reading contest is to track the time each person spends reading. For example, every half hour spent reading earns one flag. Then you won’t get into arguments about how fast some people read their books. And the family members who insist on reading 800 page books over the summer will feel the system is fair to them.

The drawback of this method arises in the actual checking of time, because as the mom I have to monitor my own time as well as some of the kids. One kid would set a timer for thirty minutes and it would work well for a day or two. Then after a couple days he would finish a chapter at twenty-six minutes and call it close enough. A few days later he wouldn’t set a timer at all, but would adamantly insist that he had read for AT LEAST forty minutes even though all objective evidence points to fifteen. (By the way, this is also the fan of Magic Tree House books for the reading-contest-win. It’s always the same kid! I spend quite a bit of time just trying to stay sane.)

Even Dad might be guilty of fitting a quick nap into his half hour of reading. And inevitably someone would wander into the living room and see him sleeping during the measured half hour of reading. Next thing you know you’ve got a protest on your hands.

I can see this going wrong in many ways. But if this system would make sense in your house, give it a try.

Tally the number of pages read

A third way to track how much reading your family completes would be to keep track of the number of pages read. This method would work well if your kids want to read long books over the summer. Or if you want to encourage them to read long books.

Keeping track of the total number of pages read might be easier than keeping track of time spent reading. Maybe not too difficult overall. I’ve never tried it this way, but you could.

Define the rules of the Summer Reading Contest

Once you have decided how to track the family’s summer reading, come up with a simple list of rules. If you’ve been a mom for any time at all you know questions will come up.

  • What about a book I am in the middle of when the contest starts? What if I have three hundred pages left in that book? That’s not fair…
  • He’s reading “chapter” books he can finish in thirty minutes! That’s not fair…
  • An enterprising youngster searched the internet for high word count picture books and plans to read a hundred of them. That’s not fair…

You know, that kind of thing. Come up with a basic expectation of how long or difficult a book must be to be counted in the summer reading contest. Or how to track time, do you need to set a timer?

Set clear beginning and end dates for the summer reading contest. For example, June 1 to August 15. Only books read in their entirety by bedtime on the 15th count. Etc.

Keep track of progress throughout the summer

I hang baker’s twine back and forth across a picture in our dining room. It’s so cheery! Then we hang paper flags, one color or pattern for each family member, using mini-clothes pins. You could make your own flags using scissors (the long way), a paper punch (shorter), or buy pre-cut pennants and re-use them every summer (the easy way). Each family member reads a book then hangs a flag.

But there are many other ways you can keep track of each person’s progress. Your system can be as simple as tally marks, or stickers on a piece of paper. You could have jars with a little physical object you drop in – like a penny – and watch the jar fill. Dream up any system you want. I’m always a fan of things that are functional, cheap. and cute.

I think the key is to have an easily visible measure of success because it will spur everyone on to try a little harder, to read one more book before the deadline.

Celebrate and reward

At the end of the summer we count each person’s flags and determine a winner. Although there is one winner, we all celebrate our success because in reality there is no loser. A challenge is fun even when you don’t win.

When we began our reading contest the reward was nothing more than having the family cheer for you and the satisfaction of being the best. And that was enough to motivate my kids! But the last couple years I have offered a book as a prize to the winner of the family reading contest. I love books and I’m glad to have an opportunity to let one of my kids have any book they choose to put on their shelf. Our family budget is just tight enough that, while we do buy school books, we don’t buy many books just for fun.

That’s the key lesson I want to teach: reading is a delight.

What if my family isn’t competitive?

If your family isn’t competitive, and the idea of a reading contest rubs you the wrong way, just change it up. You could track the total number of books your family reads over the summer as a fun way to encourages reading even more. You could set a family goal for the number of books or pages read, then reward everybody if you can all meet that goal together. Create a cooperative system for the summer that encourages reading.

Alternatively, try starting a family book club. We tried this one summer using Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. Each person read one chapter at some point during the week. Then on an evening we were all home, I provided something yummy – like ice cream sandwiches – and we all discussed the action and adventure of the story. It was a lot of fun! But if you have older kids you know it is challenging to get everyone in the same place at the same time. Getting my kids to read was never a problem, but scheduling was tricky – even though I bribed them with sweets!

Break out the books

Summer is perfect for beach reading, even if (like me) you won’t be anywhere near a beach. Break out your beach books on the couch, the back porch, or at the park. Lazy, unscheduled days call for a little fun. A family reading contest is a great way to encourage your kids to use some of their free time to open a book. Raise them to be readers by making reading fun. Create a family tradition they’ll remember their whole lives.

Live a lifestyle of learning that never stops, it just changes with the seasons. And right now is the perfect time for a summer reading contest!


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