Are you or your kids feeling overwhelmed by a long book list? Today I’m sharing how reading fewer books (yup!) can help our kids love books more.

Yep. We’re going to talk about reading fewer books.

What could it mean for your kids’ reading lives (and yours too!), to focus on reading fewer books and making the time spent reading them more enjoyable and richer?

Maybe even to have a reading life that is rich, relaxed, and leisurely?

If you or your kids are overwhelmed by a long book list, this sounds pretty great, right?

Tune in or read on to hear:
  • The difference between reading a book and completing a book
  • Why my own kids don’t track the number of books read
  • How to make time for (quite possibly) the best kind of reading
Click the play button below or scroll down to keep reading.

How Many Books Should My Child Read?

I get a variation of this question a lot:

  • How many books should my child be expected to read in a school year?

It’s often posed because someone is overwhelmed by a long book list. Today, I wanted to suggest that we ask a different question altogether.

Quantity Isn’t the Goal

Asking how many books our kids should read in a year means that reading a certain number of books is the goal of our kids reading lives.

But I don’t think that’s actually the case for most of us.

Reading more books doesn’t make us (or our kids) a more well-read person.

You’re not more well-read than someone who read three books carefully and well if you speed-read ten in the same amount of time.

You’re not getting more out of your books simply because you’ve read a taller stack of them.

The number of books that our kids read and that we read matters a lot less than the quality of our reading.

And I don’t just mean quality of books, like the best classics or the most important books with the biggest ideas.

I mean the quality of the reading experience itself:

  • How much did you enjoy it?
  • How much did you get from it?
  • How much richer is your life now that you encountered the ideas in that book?

All Books Are Not Equal…

Not every book that we read is equally formative or equally deserving of our time and attention. Some books are great for deep-diving, but others are primed for skimming, or speed-reading, or staying up till 2 in the morning because you’re dying to know what happens next.

Sir Francis Bacon said:

“Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested.”

Some few to be chewed and digested.

Some few.

Developing Readers Need Quantity

I want to emphasize that when our kids are learning to read and they’re developing speed and fluency and comprehension, the single most important thing they can do to become better readers (outside of being read-aloud to, of course!) is to read a large quantity of words.

A child new to reading might be five years old, or they might be nine years old—it depends entirely on when your child learns to read— and both ages are just fine. Just after they’ve gotten a handle on decoding words, we want to encourage them to increase their speed and fluency …

The goal, in that stage is in fact a large quantity of words.

(One of my own developing readers with our doodle, Tomie dePawla 🥰)

A Short Window

I’ve actually done a whole podcast episode on using series books to help your developing reader fall in love with reading.

I’m a big, big fan of having kids read a ton of books that are easy for them. This is how they develop speed and skill, and we like to do things we are good at and can do easily.

It’s a key stage of our kids’ reading development.

During that short window of development, we do actually want them choosing tons of books themselves, reading below their grade level and focusing on reading a lot, because the more quantity of words they read, the better and faster they get at reading.

And the better and faster they get at reading, the more they enjoy it.

Quantity, in this case, matters.

But outside of that short window, quantity ceases to matter nearly as much. Let’s talk about it.

Overwhelmed by a long book list?

Let’s say you’re using a homeschool program or curriculum, and your child’s assignments include a long list of assigned books.

If the list seems overhwelming to you, that might be a red flag.

If it’s a long list of hard books, there might be a whole family of red flags popping up for you.

(This seems to happen a lot as kids get older and into the middle school and high school years.)

It’s worth thinking through our goals here, and assess whether those long reading lists are helping our kids become better, stronger readers who love reading, or maybe are contributing to the “why don’t my kids like reading for fun?” problem.

If you’re overwhelmed by a long book list, then I’ve got good news for you.

Reading vs. Completing

When we assign a long list of books to a student, the list instantly becomes a to-do list.

The goal, then, automatically shifts from reading the book to completing the book.

This is an important distinction: Reading a book versus completing a book.

Reading a book means we’re actively reading it. We’re in the thick of it. We’re spending time it, reading, thinking and considering.

Completing a book means we finished reading it and we’re ready to move on to something else.

The reason I think this distinction matters is because a whole lot of us accidentally operate out of an idea that the goal of reading is to finish books.

You read Canterbury Tales. Excellent. Check it off your list of assigned books. Now onto the next one. You read Pride and Prejudice, or Charlotte’s Web, or Winnie-the-Pooh, or Don Quixote. Great. You’ve done it.

Check it off the list. You’re finished with it, and the book is finished with you.

Is this what we’re really going for?

This focus on finishing a certain number of books makes our book list into a to-do list. And with any to-do list, the goal is to be done with it.

All of the benefits that we get from reading:

  • increased comprehension and fluency
  • improved brain connectivity
  • better vocabulary
  • increased empathy
  • better sleep
  • stress reduction

They happen from the time we spend reading, not the finishing.

Your life will be richer in all of these areas if you spend more time reading, yes, but not if you spend your time reading more books.

This is true for your kids, as well.

Chew on One Book Instead

Let’s make this practical. Consider one season (or quarter, depending on how you break up your school year).

You could read one classic with your middle schooler. Johnny Tremain, perhaps. Or The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

You could read the book aloud, maybe listen to it together on audio. You could read it more than once, even! Have leisurely and relaxed conversations about it using Open-Ended Questions. Discuss it at the dinner table. Watch a movie adaptation. Discuss that too.

You could spend time with it, is what I’m saying. Time enough to form a relationship with it. To let it form you and your student. To let the book leave its mark.

Or you could assign several books. Johnny Tremain, along with The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, maybe Watership Down, and The Narrative Life of Frederick Douglass while you’re at it.

I’ve seen homeschool programs give out lists far longer than this. I’ve been in co-ops where teachers assign much more than this.

Which situation is going to give your child a lasting and enjoyable relationship with the book?

Which situation is going to help your child become an avid reader? To love reading? To see Johnny Tremain on a bookstore shelf and squeal, “Oh! I loved that book!” ten years from now?

Here’s the thing: your students retain more when you’re all fully engaged.

So your goal shouldn’t be to finish a certain number of books, or even to read a certain number of books. Your goal can be spending time reading. .

It looks like “We’re going to spend 30 minutes (or 60 minutes, or however-many-minutes) with our book today,” not “Please finish this book by next Wednesday.”

Breathe Easier; Enjoy More

Let’s sit with this for a second. If our primary purpose and goal in parenting is to be done spending time with our kids, it would probably make it difficult to enjoy spending time with our kids.

When our goal shifts to spending time reading, rather than reading a certain number of titles or a certain list of titles. . .

. . . then we can breathe easier. We can enjoy it more.

We won’t worry if we picked up a super long book or a hard book that needs to be read and reread, because we can enjoy it and marinate with it and really, truly engage with it.

And instead of worrying about how we’re not going to have time to read all the books that are on our list this year, we can read one book. We can get lost in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.

We can read it aloud, listen to it on audio, watch the movie, really sink our teeth into it so that the book becomes one of our kids’ best childhood companions, and a truly memorable reading experience.

Reading The Screwtape Letters

I had this experience this year with my 16-year-old. We read The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis.

We listened to it on audio . . . twice! In a row!

And yes, it took longer than if I had just assigned him to read a certain number of chapters every week, but I wanted to enjoy it. Together.

And I wanted to make sure we took time with it because there are big, worthwhile ideas to ponder and discuss. Because it’s a book worth being formed by.

So when we got to the end, we started it over and listened to it again.

A Lost Opportunity

Now, if I was concerned about making sure my son was reading a large stack of books for his 11th grade literature class, I would not feel like I had the time or freedom to experience The Screwtape Letters in this way.

If I was worried about him reading “all the right books” or even reading “an impressive list of books,” we would have glided through The Screwtape Letters and then moved right along.

And we would have missed so, so much.

Re-reading is, after all, some of the best reading.

In fact, we know that kids retain knowledge and vocabulary better when they re-read a book than when they read a new one.

That means that having your child read a single book twice is actually better for them than having them read two separate books.

This is true for our older kids and high schoolers. It’s true for you too.

You could assign your older child to read every single book by Mark Twain, or every single novel by Jane Austen, or every single play by Shakespeare . . .

. . . but those books will not impact them the same way as they would if your child go to read one or two of them and really take the time to form a relationship with the book.

This takes time:

  • watch a movie adaptation
  • listen to the audio book
  • listen to a radio drama
  • talk about the book
  • enjoy the book

You don’t have to do it all. But giving your kids time with books – not with the goal of being done with it and adding it to a “finished reading” list… but with the goal of being transformed by the book.

What We Really Want

We value reading, not the “being done” with reading.

We want our kids to be readers, not to be done reading.

We want books to transform our kids, so we’ve got to give them time.

The reason I titled this podcast episode, Schedule Time, Not Titles, is because I think we need to take the emphasis off of the list.

Take the emphasis off of the quantity and put the emphasis on time. Put the emphasis on leisurely, enjoyable, soul-nourishing and life-transforming reading.

That takes time. Not a long list.

How do we do that?

I’ve got a couple ideas to how you can implment this in your own kids’ education.

Quiet Reading Time

All of my kids have a quiet reading time every single day – a different amount of time depending on their age and stage.

During their quiet reading time, they’re allowed to read whatever they want to read. But their quiet reading time is a set amount of time every day, that’s catered to just reading. They’re not allowed to do anything else except read.

The question is not, “Are you going to read?” The question is, “What do you want to read today?”

Bedtime Reading

Here’s another natural time of day to prioritize reading.

Having a quiet reading time during the day, plus reading time before bed, all adds up to quite a bit of reading time.

Again, now we’re prioritizing the time spent reading, not the number of books.

Tracking Reading

If you like to have your kids track what they’ve read, encourage your kids to track either the time they spent reading or the number of days in a row that they’ve spent reading instead of tracking the number of books completed.

Another option is have you kids track the number of pages they’ve read (and of course, re-reads count!)

If you’re tracking the number of pages, your kids won’t avoid long books just because they’re long.

My kids aren’t required to do any tracking, but some of them like to track their list of books read, or the number of pages read.

Just be sure to put the emphasis on the time spent reading, not the number of completed books.

You’re the Boss

If you are using a curriculum or a program that assigns a hefty list of books to read, see what it feels like to be the boss of the list instead of letting the list be the boss of you.

Just pick one book to start with.

Then, enjoy that book until you’ve enjoyed the heck out of it.

Before you pick up the next book, ask yourself if you are really ready move on.

  • Did you enjoy it?
  • Is there a movie adaptation you can watch?
  • Is there an audio book narration you can listen to so you can revisit?

No matter what group or curriculum you’re using, your curriculum is not in charge. You are.

Your curriculum is supposed to help you as the primary educator of your child, to help your child be enlivened by the ideas they encounter in their reading.

It’s your assistant. It’s not your boss. You’re the boss.

Our goal in teaching our kids is to enliven the hearts and minds of our kids with stories and ideas and knowledge. We can do that with one book. We can do it with ten. But doing it in a way that honors a child’s love of reading and helps them form a relationship with a book is where the good stuff really happens.

What’s the best way to enliven the heart and mind of your student?

I bet it’s not reading through a huge quantity of books.

I bet it’s about spending good, quality time and an abundance of time reading, talking about reading, and enjoying stories.

That’s what I mean when I say let’s make our kids’ reading list smaller.

Let’s focus on time, not titles.

Let’s focus on being readers and not being done with the book.

Books mentioned in the show

Charlotte’s Web
The Trumpet of the Swan
The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction
The Screwtape Letters
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (The Chronicles of Narnia, Book 2)
The Screwtape Letters

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