A 1st grade teacher at Grand Valley Elementary in Orwell, Ohio, returned from a conference excited about an idea she heard about. What if teachers challenged students to work together on a reading goal? What if students all tracked their reading and read a combined million minutes by year’s end?

The teacher mentioned the Million Minute Reading Challenge to PTO president Kimberly Pirnat. She liked the idea, and the pair went to the principal. Ellen Winer listened, thought it over, did some math—and said no.

The plan wasn’t ambitious enough. With 540 students each expected to read 20 minutes per night, 1 million minutes was a goal the school could easily reach. Winer wanted to challenge students to read for 2 million minutes.

The PTO’s role at the preK-5 school would be to help with motivating the students through prizes, events, and book giveaways, and to assist with the record-keeping, a mammoth task. The challenge started in September and concluded in May when students reached the 2 million minutes goal.

“The kids just ran with it,” Pirnat says. “Even kids who are reluctant readers participated without any argument. It really got everyone motivated.” For its efforts in the challenge, the Grand Valley

PTO earned the award for Outstanding Focus on Academics & Enrichment in this year’s Parent Group of the Year search.

The PTO kicked off the challenge with two assemblies. They introduced students to Inchy, a bookworm that would grow longer and longer as the students read. Volunteers gave every child a new book. They explained that students were to spend 20 minutes per night reading a book that wasn’t part of a class assignment. The idea was to read for enjoyment.

Volunteers worked with classroom teachers, sending home a reading calendar every month and offering monthly incentives for classes that read the most or showed the most improvement.

To keep track of all the minutes students read, volunteers used a spreadsheet. They gathered every Monday to log in minutes based on reports from teachers. As students racked up minutes, parents added circles to Inchy. “It soon became clear that students loved Inchy,” Pirnat says.

High school art students made posters for classrooms that logged the most minutes. Students loved being recognized for their reading. They also earned books, bookmarks, and classroom parties. In the spring, some readers won tickets to a baseball game.

“The results were amazing,” Pirnat says. “By the middle of May, the students had reached the goal. We couldn’t wait to tell them.” Everyone gathered for an assembly to celebrate reading 2 million minutes. The top reader in each grade received a trophy, and the top reader for each class got a medal. The top classroom in each grade got a basket of treats. “We gave all the students another book to keep them reading over the summer,” Pirnat says.

Standardized test scores showed a schoolwide increase in reading proficiency. Winer attributes the gains in part to the reading challenge. “Research shows that practicing reading is what strengthens skills,” she says. “The amount of time spent reading correlates with reading achievement.”

The PTO ran the program in a way that kept students engaged, changing up the incentives and rewarding classes at times for most minutes read and at other times for other measures, such as improvement.

“Had it not been for the PTO, we could not have done it,” Winer says. “We don’t have extra folks on hand to do all that tracking, and we could not have kept motivation so high for an extended period of time without our parent volunteers.”

Interested in running your own reading event? Our free Family Reading Night kit has everything you need to hold a great event, including planning tips, theme and snack ideas, and creative activities.