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Love of Books Is Born in the Excellence in Reading Program

Comprehensive lists of relevant, inclusive titles challenge young readers to achieve

Love of Books Is Born in the Excellence in Reading Program

Bending space and time — and, occasionally, reality itself — books are a discount ticket to faraway lands, heart-pumping adventure, and personal accounts featuring perspectives that differ from our own. And, for kids who read often, an educational leg up, the advantages of which accumulate year after year.

According to the U.S. National Center for Education Statistics, approximately 34 percent of students are below basic reading level by the time they enter the fourth grade — another 31 percent are below the proficient reading level. Recognizing that fostering a passion for reading early often leads educational success, the Mensa Foundation created the Excellence in Reading program to take young readers on guided journeys to new worlds with a well-rounded, challenging lists of titles.

Over the years, we’ve awarded more than 1,850 certificates and T-shirts since the program’s creation in 2011. Open internationally, with no other qualifying requirement than the ability to find the books, the program has sent awards to five of the seven continents! North America, Australia, Canada, Ireland, France, Germany, India, the U.S. Virgin Islands, the Republic of Korea, Singapore, Scotland, Hong Kong, and South Africa all have at least one award winner.

The reading lists — books that we suggest a well-rounded reader consume in their lifetime — originated from work with the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Library of Congress. The list initially consisted of books published before 1960 that had been around for at least one generation. We then sectioned the list into grade-level reading segments: K-3, 4-6, 7-8, and the most comprehensive segment, 9-12, a robust and full set of books to read in preparation for college.

Once readers complete a section of the list, such as the K-3 segment, they mail in the completed list and T-shirt Award Form. We verify the lists and send them a certificate and T-shirt as a reward for completing their first section of the list. Readers who complete additional segments receive certificates.

We strive to keep the lists relevant and culturally inclusive because all readers need to see themselves in literature. If a child doesn’t see books about kids like them, it is harder for them to love to read.

Our readers sometimes add challenges to the lists. Luke M. made his list completion a little more interesting by creating a bracket challenge to see which book would come out the winner of his 4-6 list. Luke had completed the K-3 list and received his T-shirt and certificate, and he enjoyed it so much he kept reading. Luke’s brackets prove one of the things I love most about reading: You can’t judge a book by its cover; a book he thought was 9th on his list initially turned out to be his favorite!

“Thank you for continuing to offer the Excellence in Reading program! It is a wonderful opportunity for students to be exposed to high-quality books. When Luke completed the K-3 list, he chose his favorite book in a March Madness college basketball-style tournament. Luke has started the 7-8 list, and his sister Anna is working through the K-3 list. Thank you for all of the time and effort you have given to this program.” — Jason Makovits

Some schools participate in the program both on an individual student basis and as whole classes. Libraries offer this reading challenge to their young readers, and the Foundation continues to explore avenues for growth.

Your donation to the Mensa Foundation helps Excellence in Reading books get into schools that can’t afford to purchase them. During the Covid-19 pandemic, more parents and teachers than ever before have participated in the Excellence in Reading program. Parents report this program provides them a great escape from lockdown stressors. Enjoying quality time as a family reading through the lists, they appreciate how the program offers children the opportunity to explore classics that many might skip over.

The Excellence in Reading Program is one of my favorite things about working with the Mensa Foundation. Studies have shown what a huge impact reading has on a person’s quality of life. One of the Foundation’s top goals is to promote intelligence, and I can think of no better way to do this globally than to help kids find their way to a love of reading.

Jamie Uphold headshot
Jamie Uphold

Jamie, American Mensa’s Gifted Youth Programs Manager, has been a state-licensed teacher for more than 15 years. She received her Gifted Education certification in 2016. She was recognized as the 2008 Teacher of the Year at Bowie Middle School in Amarillo, Texas, and was a finalist for the 2011 Texas Speech Communication Association’s Teacher of the Year.

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