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Do Reading Rewards Work?

Still400I should start off by saying that I have mixed feelings about rewarding kids for reading. There have been a bunch of articles making the rounds recently about whether it works, starting with one in the New York Times. In my perfect world kids read because they love to read. When I think of rewards, I think of either a bribe or an incentive to do something not so desirable, like helping with the dishes after dinner (or going to work on a Monday morning). But my perfect world, while lovely, is not reality. I do think some kids simply need extra incentive to read, and rewards can be a good way to get them going.

What opened my eyes to the use of reading rewards, even as I was fighting it, was a trip to my local library. In the height of summer reading season the library really promotes incentive programs. The amount of prizes they have for kids is somewhat astounding, from a Frisbee to a gift certificate to a local ice cream store to the grand prizes for the winners in each age group, which appeared to be very large gift baskets. I sighed. What happened to reading because you love it? Are we putting reading in the same category as chores? Or making reading a competition?

But there those kids were, lined up on a summer morning, eager to have their reward cards stamped. The librarian took the time to talk to each one of them about the book they just finished (in what may have been a brilliantly sly check to see if they indeed did read it) and sometimes recommended another one (“Oh, well if you loved that book then maybe you want to try a Rick Riordan title next!”). The kids were excited, eager, and engaged. The library was bustling. People were reading. So what if it took a little stamp and the promise of a Frisbee to get them there?

I get nervous about rewards as a parent because it can be a slippery slope. Reward for chores or behavior? Reward for potty training or sleeping through the night, but not for making a bed every day? Do we set the bar that we expect certain behaviors, disqualifying them from rewards? I expect my children to be respectful, gracious, and kind. That behavior isn’t rewarded in our house, it’s mandated. But I also expect them not to maim each other. So in an exasperated, at-the-end-of-my rope state I have resorted to “You will earn a treat if you keep your hands off your brother’s head for a full week.” (We didn’t make it.)

While it is our hope that kids do things that enrich their lives simply because they love them—play an instrument, take ballet, learn how to code—most of those things require discipline and practice. Neither of those traits, I’m afraid, is entirely common in children. Even a diehard sports fan who loves the game is probably going to complain about the long practices and drills required before taking the field in glory. A struggling or disinterested reader being told they have to sit down and read a book can seem like punishment, and that’s sooooo not what you want in encouraging reading.

Enter the carrot on the stick.

I believe it’s the hope of most parents that once kids start reading routinely and once they find what they love to read, the incentives go away and kids will read because they enjoy it. That should, at least, be the goal. And rewards really vary, from stars on a chart (God bless the children satisfied with that), stickers, a promise of a specially prepared dinner, earning a later bedtime or, if you want to go there, buying something like a much-longed for toy or game. You can also get creative. As a reward for reading each chapter of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory my best friend made her daughter a special chocolate treat, which I love since it ties into the theme of the book. I think she’s ambitiously crazy, but you should see her Pinterest-worthy birthday parties.

Some parents reward for each book finished; some reward by the chapter. It really depends on how much incentive your child needs to keep chugging through. It also depends how many books your child can manage. You don’t want to have them chomp through books for the sake of checking them off a list, or racing through them in order to get a new Lego set. You want them reading at a comfortable pace, and you want to make sure the reading comprehension is there. So, if your child is a struggling reader saying “If you finish five books we can make a trip to the ice cream store” might seem like you just asked them to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro. Saying “I will be so proud of you when you finish that book so let’s plan something really fun for when you do” is more realistic. Then take it from there on the next one.

In my perfect world I get up and run because I know it keeps me healthy, is good for my brain, wards off disease, and aids my goal of living a long life. But believe it or not “living longer” is not always motivation for me at 5:30 in the morning. While over the years it’s become routine, I will probably never wake up and yell, “Hooray, time for a run!” Do I love it? No. Have I learned to like it? Yes. Do I do it? Yup. But every now and then I need a little a carrot on a stick to get one foot in front of the other. I call them Running Rewards. Maybe for each mile I’ll buy myself a new book.

Series are great for getting kids reading with characters they meet and love. Here are a few series that might work for the newly independent reader: