At Alma Intermediate School, reading is not just part of the curriculum - it’s a mission.
Teachers and administrators work hard to increase literacy and love of reading at the school, and no where is that more evident than in the school’s Million Word Readers program.
Alma Intermediate has been recognizing students who reach one million words read in a single school year since about 2007, said Jami Balkman, Alma School District literacy specialist.
"To reach such a lofty goal, students must read approximately 20 200-page novels," Balkman said. "Reading that much in a single school year takes hard work and dedication."
Students are able to log their word counts a variety of ways. One is an online program, Reading Counts, where they can take quizzes over the books they’ve read. For books without quizzes, students can give a book talk, fill out a review packet or merely discuss the book with their teacher.
Reaching the million word goal comes with special privileges. Students’ pictures are posted on a Million Word Wall, and their accomplishment is noted during the morning announcements, said Suzy Ferguson, Alma Intermediate School vice principal.
They also receive certificates of achievement at the school awards ceremony.
"What we do is we make a big deal out of it," Ferguson said.
Million Word readers receive a lanyard with a badge that acts as a pass to the Millionaire’s Lounge in the school library, where kids can go to read or socialize rather than the usual morning gathering places of the gymnasium or cafeteria. They get a lanyard star for each additional million words that they read during the school year.
"These are the kids you see at lunch or walking down the hall with a book in their hand," Ferguson said. "Every free moment they have, they’re reading."
Five AIS students stand out among the Million Word Readers - Madeline Williams, 11; Jillian Mills, 11; Daniel Dyer, 11; Derek Hatcher, 10; and Brant Peppas, 9.
These five gradeschoolers have read between three and six million words each, during the 2014-2015 school year alone.
Jillian and Brant have both read more than five million words this year, and in three years of the program, Jillian has read a total 13 million words. Jillian currently is working on a copy of "Grave Images" by Jenny Goebel, while Brant is reading "The Count of Monte Cristo" by French author Alexandre Dumas.
Popping out of their seats with excitement, the kids spoke about their love of books and reading.
"I sit and read in my free time, and half the people in my class ask me why I’m reading," Jillian said. "I say, because I can."
Reading on the bus, in the car, during lunch and even at the hospital is common for these five, they said.
"My mom said I read better than the doctors at her work," Madeline said.
Madeline is in the middle of several books, while Daniel is reading a book titled "Blackout." Derek is reading the Wolves of the Beyond series by Kathryn Lasky.
"Sometimes I think it’s a curse to read so fast, because then I read everything and run out of books," Daniel said.
"We’re talking about college level reading," Ferguson said. "What we’ve found since we’ve started is that participation in the program helps kids identify their lexile level.
A lexile is a measurement for reading levels. Lexile levels are determined by the complexity of a text, according to the Lexile Framework for Reading.
For example, a children’s book such as "Frog and Toad Together" by Arnold Lobel has a lexile level of 330, while a book such as "Walden" by Henry David Thoreau has a lexile level of 1340.
Many of the students in the Million Word Reader program read at levels in the 1000s, Ferguson said.
Teachers were looking to accomplish several things with the reading program, Balkman said, the first being increased success in school.
According to School Library Media Research journal, the amount of free reading done outside of school has consistently been found to relate to achievement in vocabulary, reading comprehension, verbal fluency and general information.
Students’ reading achievement correlates with success in school and the amount of independent reading they do, according to the research journal. Students who read extensively also have been shown to perform better on standardized tests.
Teachers also were looking to motivate proficient readers to keep reading in their free time, Balkman said, and they wanted to establish a habit of reading for pleasure.
"We’ve got these kids turned on to reading," Ferguson said. "They come to us not even reading chapter skills, some of them, and then they begin to grow in their love for books."
Surprisingly, four of the five multi-million word students said they preferred reading an actual book than a tablet. Only Brant spoke in favor of tablets, their mobility and the fact that they can be read in the dark.
"I like books better because I like to hear the rustle of the pages, the feel of the pages," Jillian said. "And the smell, yes! I love the smell of new books and old books."
There is a mystery, an excitement to picking up and reading a new book, they said.
"Getting hooked to it is the best thing about [reading a new book]," Daniel said. "It’s just amazing."
AIS has several other reading engagement programs, including a summer bookmobile that travels to scheduled stops and provides books, along with sack lunches, to kids in more isolated areas of the school district.
Book fairs also are held throughout the school year, including a recent Bargain Book Fair put on by Once Upon a Time Book Warehouse in Tonitown. Used fiction and nonfiction kids books are sold at the fair, all for $1, and every child in the school is given a coupon for one book of their choice for free.
"We think kids who enjoy reading will enjoy life, and carry that with them," Ferguson said. "For these students here, the world is wide open. Reading opens doors."