Paula J. Schwanenflugel, Ph.D., and Nancy Flanagan Knapp, Ph.D.

Reading Minds

To Bribe or Not to Bribe

Should we incentivize reading in schools?

Posted Aug 24, 2016

As school is starting up all over the country, so are the reading incentive programs.  These programs, where students get points or prizes, and sometimes even grades, for reading “fun” books—that is, books that are not textbooks or specifically required—are a ubiquitous feature of most elementary schools, and a surprising number of middle and even high schools as well.  You probably remember a program like this from your own school days, or maybe your children’s or grandchildren’s.  One program that’s been running since 1984 gives kids a coupon for a free small pizza when they meet their “reading goal” of so many minutes each month.  Another program only requires children to complete six hours of “recreational reading” to earn a free ticket to a local theme park.

What is probably the best known of these reading incentive programs is a bit more demanding: kids not only have to read books, they have to read books at their “instructional level,” and then they have to pass quizzes on them to earn a varying number of points, depending on the book’s length and difficulty level.  In return, though, the prizes can be a lot better!   Kids who earn only a few points may get standard school prize fare like pencils, stickers, book covers, candy and fancy erasers, but those who earn more points are often rewarded with T-shirts, Friday videos, pizza parties, and even gift cards for local restaurants and stores.  

In many schools, though, the stakes, and the competition, can get a lot higher. I was in a school recently where the 30 kids with the most points at the end of the year got to go on a “field trip” to a local bowling alley, and another where the top scoring student received a mountain bike, while the two runners-up got iPods. I just read about a primary school where students who achieved or broke a school record for most points in a grade level were honored by permanent wall plaques, displayed in the entry way by the office!

The idea behind all this hoopla is fairly simple: that if we can just get the kids to start reading with these external incentives, they will discover how enjoyable reading is for itself and will continue reading on their own. Unfortunately, there are a few serious problems with this theory.

Problems with reading incentive programs

First of all, the kids who need the most encouragement are the ones least likely to get the rewards.  The honor roll kids, the kids who been reading since they were three years old, are going to be the ones with the most points.  They’ll be the ones at the top of the “leaderboard” display and the winners of the iPods and mountain bikes. The kids who struggle to read, for whom finishing even one book is a major accomplish, are the ones at the bottom of the bulletin board lists or the ones who consistently don’t get their free pizza every month.  In this way, typical reading incentive programs just tend to reinforce the Matthew Effect that Keith Stanovitch wrote about, in which the rich just get richer, in terms of reading achievement, while the poor and struggling readers fall further and further behind…

A second problem is the message these incentive programs send about reading. From early childhood we learn that you get rewards for doing work or something unpleasant: You get your dessert if you eat all your vegetables; you get to go out and play when you finish cleaning up your room; you get a lollipop after you get a shot at the doctor’s office. Well, if you get your pizza or your T-shirt or your iPod for reading, what does that say about the relative enjoyment value of reading and iPods? As one savvy little boy I talked to recently asked me, “If reading is so much fun, why do they bribe us to do it?

Worst of all, there is both theoretical and empirical evidence that rewarding kids for reading might actually reduce their intrinsic motivation to read.  Deci, Ryan, and colleagues have demonstrated in a number of very well-known psychological experiments that when you reward people for doing something they had chosen to do just for fun, they are actually less likely to choose to do it again without the reward.  Researchers studying reading incentive programs have some evidence that this theory is born out in practice. Kids who read only to get the rewards usually stop reading once the rewards stop. Even worse, some kids who were already avid readers will start limiting their reading to only the books for which they can earn points, and some even start reading shorter, easier books to accumulate points faster, rather than reading the longer books in which they are really interested. In this way, some reading incentive programs may actually be working against the goals we have for them.

But what’s a teacher to do? Or, for that matter, a parent who is desperate to get their child to start reading? As we have talked about before in this blog, there is a lot of good research showing that if kids are helped to find books that match their interests, are given uninterrupted time in school or at home to read them, and allowed and encouraged to talk with adults and other kids about their books, most kids will eventually develop an innate love of reading, especially if kids who struggle to read are supported through audiobooks, partner reading, and other strategies until they can catch on.  But these sort of inherent strategies take time to work, and like anything else, they don’t work with all kids every time.  Sometimes we just feel like we need to jump start the process, so what can we do?

 Reward them with reading!

The one kind of incentive program the doesn’t seem to do any harm is to use reading itself as the reward.  Make the reward for reading the opportunity to read more—maybe kids who read a certain number of books get to check out three books instead of two every week, or maybe they get some extra time for free reading during the class day. If you must use a points-based incentives system, make the prizes all about reading: so many points gets you a free book at the Book Fair; so many more points means you get to be on your very own READ poster holding your favorite book.  Maybe even more points means you get to read part of your favorite book on the morning announcements, or take a field trip to the public library!  I worked for six years with a very smart school librarian who made the top prize in her elementary school’s reading incentive program a library sleepover. Twice a year kids who had hit a certain point total (adjusted for age) got to bring their PJs and their sleeping bags and stay all night in the library.  They ate pizza and cookies and drank Kool-Aid and watched a couple book-related movies (the Harry Potter movies were favorites!), but most of all, they read!  They read in sleeping bags and behind bookshelves, they read books with each other and to each other, they talked about books––It was a book lovers festival!

As a parent, you can use the same strategy. Kickstart your kids’ love of reading by taking them to a bookstore and letting them choose a book for their very own. When they finish that book take them to buy another one. If your budget is tight, take them with you to garage sales and let them root through the book boxes and pick books they would like to bring home.  When they beg you to stay up late, reluctantly agree to them stay up and read an extra 20 or 30 minutes, and don’t interfere right away if they sneak and finish a chapter with a flashlight after the official “lights out.” 

As a novel idea, instead of rewarding kids for reading, let’s try making reading the reward for doing other things. In school, maybe a kid who finishes their homework gets to go to the reading corner and read whatever he or she wants to read, no points no tests, just reading for fun. Maybe kids who reach academic goals could be allowed to help choose books for the class library, and teachers could promise their students that if they work well all day, they can have free reading time just before they go home. One of us (Paula) used to bribe her active boys to behave in the grocery store by letting them each choose one of the cheap available books that was sold in the store. (Yes, it worked to improve their grocery-store behavior as well as their reading!)  Kids will never believe us that reading is fun unless we treat it that way.

So next time your child's school wants to set up a reading incentive program, suggest making the rewards all about reading.  Because reading is a reward, something you can enjoy in stolen moments of quiet or hours of relaxation, a pleasure that will last through sickness and health from youth to age, in poverty or wealth––no matter what your life‘s circumstances, reading offers an escape, a free education, people to meet in the pages of a book and travel to worlds beyond imagining.  Let us help children discover the real rewards of reading for themselves.

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