Reading Rewards That Work

by Denise Schipani

Photo credit: Shutterstock

My fifth-grader’s reading log is killing me.

In the years my sons have been in school, they haven’t always had to fill out weekly reading logs, but when they’ve had to? Sometimes they work like magic, keeping the boys motivated to find and finish books. And sometimes they dampen that same motivation, turning at least one kid who’d happily read on his own into someone worried about the exact number of pages finished or minutes spent reading. Ah, but there’s a prize. In this case, this year, the fifth-grader is holding out for the promise of a bag of chips after he turns in several weeks of stellar signed logs. Grrr!

Then there’s our library’s summer program. I have fond memories of telling the librarian all about the books I read in exchange for nothing more than pasting stickers on a card. My kids get stickers … and trinkets, and coupons for fast food.

What’s up with all the reading rewards?

It seems to me that, while accountability is a good thing, gifts that go beyond what reading should offer them — that is, the pure joy of finishing an absorbing story and moving on to the next — don’t work for every kid, all the time. That said, incentives can work, if used judiciously.

Here’s how to know what’s a smart reward and what might morph into an exercise in frustration:

They work if they’re small and immediate: An itty-bitty reward (stickers on a chart, a pencil, a certificate) can be just the thing to prompt a reluctant reader to crack a book, says Susan Teeter, a school librarian in South Huntington, New York. Strong readers, she adds, will read with or without the promise of prizes, though some avid readers will up their game even for something like pencils.

Best practice: Key the reward to reading itself, by offering incentives such as a new book, a magazine, or — in school — free time, a homework pass, or extra reading time.

They work when they’re collaborative: For the past several years, middle school English teacher Jessica Godios, in Fredonia, New York, has run a team-based contest to get her students reading. “We track points on charts hung on the wall. At the end of the quarter, the team with the most points wins a prize,” she says. “I also reward individuals who read above and beyond, even if the rest of their group was not as motivated.”

Best practice: At home, you could try a pile-up-the-pages team-reading approach with your kids (and yourself!). A certain number of pages/books read, and the whole family gets a treat, like a movie or dinner at a favorite spot.

They work if they’re not too easy to get: Take those library summer reading programs. They’re fun, sure, but if the expectations are low (in terms of the number of books or pages kids need to complete), and they offer too many prizes, “The kids look forward to the reward more than the reading, and I question how many kids are really reading the books,” says Teeter.

Best practice: Know your own kid. If she’s struggling, applaud her progress through the program. But if it seems too easy for your super-fast reader, add some challenges yourself, such as asking him to write a review.

They work if they’re tied to the books themselves: In Jessica Godios’s classes, kids watch book trailers for age-appropriate favorites to get them interested. “At the end of the year, students create their own trailers for their favorite book,” says Godios.

Best practice: Offering kids more of the type of books they seem most interested in might just be the best incentive of all.