This week I happened upon a terrific article in The New York Times about summer reading. It is about rewarding kids for reading. The article’s headline (shown here) caught my attention because my experience is also that rewards for reading rarely have positive outcomes. The 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.
Yet 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.
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.