Do Rewards for Reading Really Work?
By Kristina Sauerwein, LA Times
Some literacy experts say discount
coupons, stickers and other prizes are ineffective. But educators
counter that anything to motivate children is good.
Scrap the Snoopy stickers, the grape-scented
purple erasers and the pepperoni pizzas.
Long used by teachers, librarians, principals and
parents hoping to entice children to read, these and other rewards are
ineffective and may actually hinder the desire to open a book, more and
more researchers say.
“Rewards don’t work,” said Jeff McQuillan,
an assistant professor of education at Arizona State University and author
of several literacy studies, including a review of incentive programs.
That is not exactly comforting news
to school districts and public libraries in California and nationwide that
for decades have showered trinkets, gifts and candy on children who show
the slightest inclination toward picking up a book. And although
there are no hard data available, literacy experts say the propensity to
parcel out prizes is on the rise as educators engage in the desperate struggle
to motivate students to read.
Even teachers and librarians who approve
of incentives said that, if used frequently, pencils, T-shirts, skating
rink passes and other prizes can breed suspicion among students and turn
them off to reading.
“Any self-respecting kid would wonder,
‘Why am I getting a reward if I’m supposed to love it?’” said Marilyn Robertson,
president-elect of the California School Library Assn.
And one self-respecting student--Carmelita
Arreguin, 11, a sixth-grader at Northridge Middle School--heartily agrees.
“Why do they give us stuff if it’s supposed to be fun?” she said.
“I like getting the stuff, but it doesn’t matter. I’ll still read.”
Indeed, that is exactly what research
by McQuillan and others shows.
In a 1997 article published in the
journal Reading Research and Instruction, McQuillan reviewed 10 academic
studies on incentive programs and found that they had no effect on the
habits, achievements or motivation of students.
What works, he and others say, is
a “chicken or the egg” dynamic. The best way to reward children for
reading is to give them more books and time to read them.
In a forthcoming study of low-achieving
students at Anaheim High School, McQuillan found that teenagers embrace
reading when they see adults reading for pleasure, and when they have access
to books and at least 10 minutes a day of silent reading, with no tests.
The effect was so powerful that Anaheim
High students lined up before class last winter after English teacher Sue
Snyder bought 120 new books for her classroom. Her class was included
in the study and, for three weeks before her shopping spree, she asked
students what authors and subjects they would like.
Preferences ranged from Judy Blume
to Barbara Kingsolver, from the Goosebumps series to Sweet Valley High.
They were so excited about being able to read the books they wanted to
read, Snyder said, that half a dozen students were waiting at her door
to borrow books.
Snyder also gives students at least
20 minutes of daily reading time. Snyder also reads with them, sometimes
at her desk or joining students on the floor or on one of the two couches
in the classroom. Sometimes she piques their interest by laughing
out loud or expressing anger at a character’s actions.
“Students will want to know more and,
before you know it, we’ll be talking about books,” Snyder said. “You
don’t need incentives if you have good books.”
Yet studies show that California’s
school libraries have some of the worst books-to-pupil ratios in the nation,
while the public libraries also lag behind other states in books per resident
and hours of operation.
All the more reason to stop spending
money on reading rewards, said McQuillan, a former Cal State Fullerton
professor who wrote the 1998 book The Literacy Crisis: False Claims,
“The tragedy of incentive programs
is that they take money away from the purchase of books,” he said.
“So while our libraries languish, schools are spending money on fast-food
coupons and trinkets. It’s crazy.”
But school officials and librarians
argue that many of the incentives are donated or paid for through personal
funds. For example, Pizza Hut donates for its popular “Book It!”
program, in which students who meet monthly reading goals receive free
coupons and pizza.
And many educators are firmly wedded
to the concept of “read a book, get a pizza.” Anything that helps to put
a child’s nose in a book is good, they say.
At Nobel Middle School in Northridge,
officials are taking the middle ground. Students who finish 15 books
from a library-approved list can receive a free lunch from the nearby Sizzlers--and
a paperback from Barnes & Noble.
The rewards are funded by the $1 fee
reading club members pay at the beginning of the school year. Nobel
librarian Shirley McCauley estimated that 300 to 400 enroll in the club,
while only 12 to 18 students--about 4%--earn the meal and book.
“I have mixed emotions about rewards,”
McCauley said. “They’re tangible and instantaneous but can be overdone.
Really, reading is the reward.”
Comment from the Reading Genie: I like the idea
of giving books as rewards. It recognizes the reader's progress and
says, "Books are so valuable that I'm giving you a book as a reward."
If you give a pizza as a reward, it says, "Books are not so valuable, so
if you read one, I'll give you something really good, pizza." No
one persuaded us to like pizza by giving us something else (candy? ice
cream?) if we would just buckle down and eat our pizza. They provided
pizza and modeled how delicious it is. We need to do the same with
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