School & District Management

Building Lifelong Readers: Do Reward Systems Help?

By Liana Loewus — June 17, 2015 2 min read
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Can reward systems help make students into readers?

While going through a stack of journals on my desk yesterday, I happened on an article by developmental psychologist Daniel Willingham in the spring issue of American Educator addressing just that question.

Willingham is not a fan of “if you read, then you get ice cream” types of reward systems. Some research has found they may lead to potential short-term increases in reading, but they don’t improve students’ attitudes towards reading overall. He writes:

That includes classroom displays of reading achievement—for example, posting on a bulletin board the number of books each student has read, or adding a segment of a class bookworm for each book. To my thinking, it puts too much emphasis on having read rather than reading. Some students (I was one) will pick easy books to boost their ‘score.’ And as a way of recognizing student achievement, it doesn’t account for student differences; for some, getting through a book in a month is a real accomplishment, yet they will feel inadequate compared with their peers.

It’s an interesting point because these kinds of reading reward programs are pervasive in schools. So what’s a better tactic for encouraging a love of reading?

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According to Willingham, it’s important to help students understand there’s a difference between “academic reading” and reading for pleasure. Studying for a quiz, doing research, and analyzing a text are all types of academic reading, he explains. Pleasure reading is about the joy of getting lost in a narrative or discovering something new through nonfiction.

Willingham also recommends teachers devote some class time (about 20 minutes a day) to individual pleasure reading. Teachers should direct this time by helping students choose books and answering questions they may have.

What’s most notable about this approach is that, as Willingham notes, there’s very little research to back it. “I’d say the latest data indicate that it probably improves attitudes, vocabulary, and comprehension. Some studies show a positive effect, but some don’t.”

In 2000, the National Reading Panel determined that there was insufficient evidence to show that silent, independent reading had a positive effect on reading ability. In many places, the practice has been shelved (pun intended).

But Willingham contends that leaving time for pleasure reading in class is the “best way to engage a student who has no interest in reading. It offers the gentlest pressure that is still likely to work.”

Donalyn Miller, author of The Book Whisperer and a former Education Week Teacher blog of the same title, has been arguing for more in-class, free-choice reading, which she made a priority in her own middle school classroom, for quite some time.

“Does every child in my classroom love reading when they leave?” she wrote on the blog in 2011. “No. I am not naïve enough to believe this. Has every child who sits in my class experienced an environment that makes this love a possibility? Yes.”

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.