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Innovation: "Million Word Challenge"


Sarra Said, an English-language learner who arrived in Tucson, Ariz., two years ago from Tripoli, Libya, has risen to the "Million Word Challenge" designed by her school's English-language-development department. The 15-year-old student at Amphitheater High School, whose first language is Arabic, has read more than 1,500,000 words in English books, according to a story in the Arizona Daily Star. She's now in the middle of reading Gone with the Wind. (Hat tip to TESOL in the News.)

Said, who now reads "for fun," wasn't that interested in reading before the challenge, the article says.

The million-word challenge sparked me to remember the gist of the book I finished reading last night, Life List, by Olivia Gentile. The book tells the story of how the late Phoebe Snetsinger met her goal of seeing 8,000 bird species. The quest of meeting a numerical goal had more meaning for this woman than anything else in her life. I'm a birder (a new one) myself, but at this point I'm more motivated to learn a lot about a limited number of birds, those in my part of the country, rather than develop a long list of bird species that I've seen.

The connection between the million-word challenge and the challenge of seeing almost all the world's birds is that for some personalities, a numerical goal is extremely motivating.

Those of you who work at the classroom level, do you think this kind of numerical goal can be a motivator for most of the students in your classes or would it likely be motivating only for a few?


I can see that this would be highly motivating for my elementary students, but the logistics of counting words would be too challenging. Counting pages may be a better idea.

My son is in fourth grade, and he has to read 100 minutes per week as part of his homework. He enjoys reading and often exceeds the minimum requirement, so this type of a time challenge is a good motivator for him.

How about a Million Minute Challenge? It sounds good, but I just did the math, and it figures out to be over 460 hours per week, based on a 36-week academic year. Maybe a challenge could be based on another time frame, though... Three Thousand Minutes by 2010?

People who read well have no idea how many words they know or read. Words have no meaning out of context and very few have meaning separate from other words, sentences, paragraphs,etc. Isn't any wonder why teachers lack respect when they come up with stuff like this?

I am one of Sarra's English Language Development teachers, and I would like to share some details about our culture of reading at Amphitheater High School in Tucson, AZ.

A software program keeps an ongoing count of the words read by each student. After a student reads a book for homework (their choice--we have purchased more than 1,000 books at all literacy levels), an online quiz is taken. If the quiz is passed, the child receives the word count for that book. The software is Accelerated Reader from Renaissance Learning.

In addition to this homework program, our ELD reading and language arts classes focus on the reading process and understanding literary text through directed reading activities. After school, we have a Millionaire's Book Club which is sponsored and funded by our dedicated teachers. As you can see, we make reading "cool" while helping our ELLs acquire a new language--yes, sometimes one word at a time.

Our challenge, at first, is trying to get our children to want to read in English--their second language. A numerical reading goal could not flourish as it does in our school without the entire package in place.

Our students continue to gain academic ground at an unbelievable rate and are reaching parity with their mainstream peers as evidenced by our latest state tests' results. When I see this amazing reading growth with our English language learners, I am convinced that we are on to something!

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