Thursday, March 10, 2016

The Incentives Conundrum

We all want our students to develop a love of reading, but how? Incentives are often the first strategy we turn to. It makes sense; after all, we work for a paycheck, so why would we expect students to work for free? Reading Logs, points, contests, and prizes seem like excellent motivators to increase circulation and students’ love of reading. While they’re not effective for every single student, they’re at least innocuous, right? Unfortunately, that’s not the case. Incentivizing reading can actually be harmful in the long run.

When we incentivize participation in an activity, we send the message that the activity isn’t worth doing for its own sake. For example, I used to offer a pizza party to students who completed a certain number of reading logs throughout the school year. I thought I was encouraging kids to read, but I was actually communicating that books are okay, but pizza is great! I did have a few students who really “caught the reading bug” in 2nd grade and filled out hundreds of reading logs and were reading for fun by 4th grade, but only a few. 2 or 3 out of 350 makes reading logs look pretty ineffective to me! Although ineffective, reading logs are the least harmful of the common reading incentives. With reading logs, you’ll have students who cheat the system or just don’t participate, and you’ll have a handful that participate fully and comply with the rules and have a grand time at the pizza party. Those students may or may not read on their own without having the pizza party carrot dangling in front of them. 

When we get into incentives that turn out to be punishers, that’s when we really get into trouble. We’re all familiar with reading programs that have quizzes and levels associated with books. When we use programs to restrict students’ choices to their instructional reading level, we really do them a disservice. Imagine if you were only allowed to read at your “level.” First, it would probably be pretty boring, and second it would be exhausting! I, like many of my colleagues, hold multiple degrees – my “level” probably includes academic journals and textbooks. It certainly would exclude Harry Potter and my current YA favorites. Honestly, if I weren’t allowed to read some YA brain candy every other day or so, I would probably dislike reading very much. I can’t imagine picking up a university level textbook to read “just because.” That’s not to say that there isn’t a time and place to read text on my “level.” Of course there is! And sometimes it’s exciting or intriguing or fascinating or boring or awful! The point is that we have to allow students time to decompress and relax with books in the same way that we can. Students are asked to read instructional text all day long. When a student has a chance to choose a library book, my first priority is that they get a book they think they will enjoy, not something that will make their reading teacher happy. (Now don’t get me wrong, I want their reading teacher to be happy, and I love working with reading teachers, but what the reading teacher or their mom or their principal likes shouldn’t be the students’ first priority.)

If a student is assigned reading for homework, by all means, let’s focus on that instructional or independent level. But if we’re talking about reading for pleasure, the levels and ranges and colored dots on the spine labels need to go out the window.

Here’s the tricky thing about reading incentives – especially programs with levels and dots – they work pretty well for the first few years of elementary school, but by middle school, they become punishers. (A punisher is something that decreases a behavior. A reinforcer is something that increases a behavior.) When students are only allowed to read on their “level,” reading for pleasure decreases, so the program that’s supposed to provide reinforcement is actually punishing the desired behavior. What this says to me is that reading incentives do have a place in school and even in the library as a scaffold, but not as a structure. A scaffold supports the structure that you want to build, and it’s removed once the structure is stable enough to stand on its own. If you live in Nashville, you’ve seen plenty of scaffolds with the many construction projects around town. Imagine if those scaffolds were never removed. The purpose of the structures that they surround would be harder to see. It would be more difficult for the structures to actually function. So, if we can treat reading incentives – be they reading logs, programs, quizzes, prizes, contests, etc. – as scaffolds, we are better able to help students find intrinsic motivation to read for fun.

The thing is, though, there’s no one-size-fits-all scaffold. Each individual student has needs that are specific to their own experiences.

So what’s a librarian to do? How can we encourage students to read for fun without incentives? My favorite way is to promote Free Voluntary Reading (FVR). FVR means reading what you want, when you want, because you want to. There are no strings attached to FVR – no book reports, book talks, or anything compulsory. You might be wondering, “What’s the big deal with FVR? Why is it so great?” FVR is the single best thing a person can do in order to become a better reader. But you don’t have to take my word for it. Do a Google search for “free voluntary reading” and you are sure to see Stephen Krashen’s name. (His website and other resources are linked at the bottom of this post.) Also, a lot of people who make a lot of decisions for educators care a lot about test scores, and FVR will make your test scores better. Full disclosure here: I’m not interested in test scores – I’m interested in education. I’m not really interested in raising a five year old to be a ten year old who can bark out answers or bubble the correct bubble. I’m interested in raising adults who are readers, thinkers, problem solvers, and inventors. I’m interested in how humans learn and what they do with new knowledge that they create, and I bet you are too.

If you’re interested in learning more about incentives and FVR, follow the links below.

FVR resources:

Alfie Kohn on the failure of incentives:

MNPS Librarian

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