Education Opinion

Racing, Striving, Accelerating, Winning, Yada, Yada. And Reading.

By Nancy Flanagan — November 20, 2012 4 min read
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When my kids--now young adults--were in elementary grades, their school participated in Pizza Hut’s Book It program. The idea was to promote reading by giving kids coupons for free individual pizzas if they read a specific number of books, or were the “top” readers in their classes. Whole classes got pizza parties for reading the greatest number of books. Teachers and principal were solidly behind the program, promising public recognition for kids who read the most, silly adult stunts and assemblies if all classes achieved certain goals.

My daughter was immediately down with the Book It concept, strategically selecting and plowing through books to stay a volume or two ahead her classroom competitors. Soon, I was signing off on a dozen or more books per day--easy, short books--to keep her in the running for “best” reader. The free pizza coupons were piling up on the counter. It never was about the pizza, however. It was about the chart on the wall, where students tallied up their reading “scores.”

My son, on the other hand, was not a competitor. Both my kids--thank goodness--were early, fluent readers. He was reading, a lot, at home, including car magazines and nonfiction books written for adults. But the Book It chart on the wall, the kids lining up every morning, excited to fill in the squares? Nope. He didn’t want to play.

He pointed out that his sister had taken to raiding the boxes of outgrown picture books in the basement, essentially juking the stats. Some of his buddies had only a couple of books listed on the chart (and they weren’t dumb). It was only suck-ups who were geeked about the long line of filled-in squares after their names. Another stupid contest.

After thinking about it for a few days, we agreed. I sent identical notes to both teachers, saying that as a family we’d decided not to participate in competitive reading. Since I was also a teacher in the district, and not looking to make cranky-waves at my children’s school, I added some gently worded “I understand why you’re doing this--but no thanks” language.

And that was that. Until I picked my son up one day and saw The Chart, with his name blacked out, and “Mom doesn’t believe in competition” carefully spaced out over all the empty boxes after the black mark. I asked the teacher why she wrote that--and she said she was trying to emphasize to the other 3rd graders that Alex wasn’t a poor reader or insubordinate. It was his mother who was responsible for Alex not being part of their rah-rah Book It team.

Whereas, of course, the kids with lots of empty boxes were incapable or defiant-- not team players. You could tell, simply by looking at The Chart.

In the great scheme of reading instruction, Book It (which has changed its program in the meantime) is relatively benign compared to other reading-for-points programs. It’s just a cheesy (sorry) pizza-for-reading reward scam that gets “free” coupons with the Pizza Hut brand into homes and schools. It pushes kids to read for points and prizes, rather than pleasure and information. It emphasizes quantity over quality reading experiences, data over delight. It attaches a tangible (high-fat) reward to an act that should be inherently exciting and deeply rewarding. And it slaps a big chart on the classroom wall so kids can readily identify winners and losers. It uses social pressure and food to force children to read competitively.

But other than that, no problem.

At least Book It doesn’t pretend to be a full-blown reading program. Nor is it offering cash for reading books, in an experiment to see if paying kids for reading raises test scores. Nor does it endorse literally marking students as reading failures.

In the Fort Worth Star-Telegram this week, Jan Lacina structured a long list of reasons why Accelerated Reader, one of the nation’s most popular and widely used reading support programs promotes “superficial involvement in the reading process and a focus on reading for the purpose of testing.” In response, Stephen Krashen provides even more chilling research findings:

Substantial research shows that rewarding an intrinsically pleasant activity sends the message that the activity is not pleasant, and that nobody would do it without a bribe. AR might be convincing children that reading is not pleasant.

If you think Accelerated Reader has limited impact on competitive reading in this country, check out this Pinterest page. Evidently, it’s not OK to simply read and enjoy a book anymore. You need a balloon to pop, a paper car to race, public recognition for your Jedi reader status--and assurance that yes, Accelerated Reader does align with the Common Core.

My friend Claudia Swisher, English teacher extraordinaire from Norman, Oklahoma teaches a high school course called Reading for Pleasure. It’s the antithesis of reading for points, pizza and pecuniary rewards. Claudia rejoices when reluctant readers find enjoyment in reading, and acts as book whisperer in helping them select material that’s engaging. She talks with them about the books they read. She models reading herself, in every class. There are no tests. But students grow, in measurable and immeasurable ways, from this experience.

Why aren’t all students reading for pleasure, every day?

The opinions expressed in Teacher in a Strange Land are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.