The Problem With Reading Rewards

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This week I happened upon a terrific article in The New York Times about summer reading. It is about rewarding kids for reading.Times Article Headline The article’s headline (shown here) caught my attention because my experience is also that rewards for reading rarely have positive outcomesThe article made me reflect upon the important difference between children who can read and child avid readers. 

As most healthy library systems do, in my town, Louisville, Kentucky’s fabulous library has a summer reading program. It serves as a lure to get kids and books together when children have time on their hands. That’s the perfect mix and the library goes to great lengths to lure children into a lasting, loving relationship with books and reading.  

Still, this combination of encounters sets up internal turmoil for me. I have always argued that rewarding children for doing something—anything—that is good for them can turn that something into a negative in their minds. Savvy kids are wary of being fooled into commitments they may later regret.  

Monster ReaderYet the engagement of children with books and free time is hard to argue against. Summer reading programs like Louisville’s creates an opportunity for nurturing active, self-selected readership in children. It does this by offering prizes for kids who read a certain number of  self-selected books.  This simple read for prizes model is supplemented by events and activities scattered throughout the summer in its various branches throughout town. It’s popular with adults and no doubt has a positive impact on the dreaded summer slide for participants. 

For parents worried about potential lost or overdue book fines, the library also has their “Read it Down” program, which translates book reads into forgiveness of those potential monetary deterrents of library use. That’s another reward for reading—this time for the parents, urging them to start to bang the drum at home for more reading.  

There is no denying that more reading of self-selected books is a builder of reading advancement. But there also is a potential backfire for pushing reading and making it sound like something nobody would ever do on their own volition. For kids who love to read, parental cheer-leading and the library’s “inducements” are just more frosting on the cake. They’ll continue to read book after book with or without these sweeteners.  

So, without enticements, how does love for books and reading get started?  Sugar 1What’s a librarian or parent to do to get disengaged kids reading?  

Consider this: If we surround reluctant readers everywhere (home, school, bus, library, restaurants, etc.) with adult and youthful readers devouring their treasured books, these reading holdouts will know that at least one perfect book for them must be out there. They will want to get in on the fun, investing free time to finding and reading it.


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2 Responses to “The Problem With Reading Rewards”

  1. Lu Benke September 12, 2019 at 3:09 pm #

    Thanks for encouraging attention to this critical issue, Mark! I recommend an article on how children’s librarians are currently struggling with this issue. It does a good job of showing how it is not a simple matter of eliminating extrinsic incentives in public library summer reading programs: (Small, R. V., Arnone, M. P., & Bennett, E. (2017). A hook and a book: Rewards as motivators in public library summer reading programs. Children and Libraries, 15(1), 7. doi:10.5860/cal.15n1.07)
    Did you know some public libraries are deciding to totally drop the extrinsic incentives while others are only using free books as incentives since the research says related extrinsic rewards are not as harmful? In addition, recent research is pointing out that the results of extrinsic rewards are qualified by the “when” (i.e., is the child already resistant to reading) and “how” (i.e., do they know they are going to get a reward) of using extrinsic rewards and whether the extrinsic rewards are combined with intrinsic rewards. Personally, after my experiences as a children’s librarian, I’d say the extrinsic rewards offered at public libraries’ summer reading programs are actually more for capturing the parents’ interest in most instances! And, it is the parents who take the children to the library so maybe that’s not so surprising. Several libraries dropped extrinsic rewards only to have the parents complain so much they had to reinstate them! Besides, once the children are in the library, I’d say children’s librarians emphasize the excitement of the wide array of books and related activities to motivate the children to read.
    Really enjoy your blog and how frequently I am at my computer reading it and saying, “YESSSSSSSSS!!!!!”

    • Mark Condon November 4, 2019 at 11:12 am #

      Great stuff, Lu! Thanks for sharing. Thanks for the references and the thoughts. I’ll jump on those now!