The golden days of summer are upon us, even if they seem a bit different this year. Traditionally the beginning of summer signals a happy time of shorts, sandals, long sunny days, swimming pools, and freedom from the confines of the classroom. But just as golf is a nice walk, spoiled; summer reading programs (SRPs) can be summertime’s bummer.
Many public libraries have even introduced SRPs for adults, complete with reading logs, and drawings for prizes. As well-intentioned as reward systems are, research has repeatedly demonstrated that activities lose their appeal when they are rewarded. So why are we rewarding children (and adults) for reading?
Events, programs, and exhibits that celebrate language, literature, and imagination are delightful no matter where they take place. It is only natural that public libraries, being a central player in the accessibility of information, should honor the arts and the written word. There is nothing objectionable about storytelling, poetry slams, concerts, and crafting classes, whether offered in person or online. What is objectionable is corrupting the celebration by incorporating a contest and reward component.
Author Alfie Kohn said it well in his book, Punished by Rewards: “Extrinsic motivators are most dangerous when offered for something we want children to want to do.”1 “If we want children to read more, to read carefully, and to care about reading, then offering them bribes – edible or otherwise – is precisely the wrong way to go about it.”2 Like older people, children are sensitive to situations where others are trying to control them. Rewards rob people of autonomy and the opportunity to freely choose what they do simply for the pleasure of doing it.
There is nothing wrong with gifting people, but when that gift is contingent upon a behavior or performance of some kind, it ceases to be a gift at all. It becomes a reward and the more desired a reward is, the more a person may come to dislike whatever he or she had to do to get it.3 Many will say “But children love the summer reading programs.” Well, not all of them. If we have to bribe children to read, they are likely assuming that reading must not be very much fun.
Another common comment, “But our library’s SRP lets the children choose their own rewards, so they are actually rewarding themselves.” Unfortunately, this approach is counterproductive as well. In experiments, children who were allowed to award themselves gold stars for solving puzzles lost interest in the activity the same as children who received the rewards directly from adults.4 Using the word “earn,” rather than “win,” isn’t fooling anyone either.
“Kids always tell me how much they look forward to our SRP.” Yeah, well, when I was a child, I told adults what they needed to hear, too. Most kids do. Arguing with an adult who knows what is best for you is never worth it. Besides that, rewards and competitions are so much a part of parenting and our educational system that most children don’t know any different.
Children most in need of academic enrichment over the summer are probably not getting it. But rewarding kids who read well is not helpful either. American culture tends to make everything a contest where you can win (or fail to win) a prize. We are so invested in the belief that rewards will give us the results we want; we refuse to give up on them. Instead, we strive to reward more, better, or differently.5
Is that what we want for children? To make what should be an intrinsically pleasurable activity, just another opportunity to win approval or get something? If it is, then, by all means, let’s keep creating reward systems. Let’s reward children for reading by giving them new paperbacks, baseball game tickets, rubber duckies, refrigerator magnets, or other assorted merchandise from Oriental Trading.
If we sincerely want to encourage reading, then we should look at the evidence. Data supporting the use of SRP incentives to increase reading performance is sorely lacking.6 However, there is ample evidence to demonstrate the detrimental effects of rewards on just about every endeavor. When rewards are involved, people tend to do the bare minimum to obtain the prize, do it poorly, and enjoy it less.7
Studies indicate that children from low socioeconomic households are the ones who experience the most significant decline in reading skills over the summer. Children from higher socioeconomic homes do not suffer as much loss, and some improve their reading skills. Poor children do not have as much access to books as do wealthier children. Whether that access is books in the home, or books from the library, poor children need more and are not getting it.8
It saddens me to see all the new books that are left over after summer reading ends – books that were not “earned” by whatever criteria were set by the library. If we librarians want children to read during the summer, we should give children books at the beginning of the summer.
“What? You mean give them books they haven’t earned by reading for x minutes every day for x many days or read x many pages, or x many books?”
If we want children to read books during the summer, we should give them free books to read when school lets out, no strings attached. This practice has rendered excellent results.9 And, no, they will not be required to write book reports about them in the fall.10
Supporters of summer reading prizes can maintain the rightness of their methods, but what they are trusting is a feeling – a belief. Ample proof to the contrary can be found in databases and books, accessible online or with a library card.
There is undoubtedly much to lament in this strange pandemic time through which we are living. But we can take advantage of the space and quiet to reflect. Ask ourselves why we are doing what we are doing.
If the purpose of Summer Reading Programs is to inspire children to love reading, then we should trust them to recognize value when they experience it. We must not cheapen the intangible by requiring readers to keep score to earn or win a reward. By continuing this practice, we are harming our honorable objective.
- Kohn, Alfie, Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise, and Other Bribes (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Pub. 1993, 25th Anniversary ed. 2018): 87
- Ibid., page 66
- Ibid., page 83.
- Ibid., page 85.
- Association for Library Service to Children. (Vol. 15, No.1 2017) A Hook and a Book: Rewards as Motivator in Public Library Summer Reading Programs. ALSC Journal. #6 under Recommendations for Best Practice, accessed May 30, 2020, https://journals.ala.org/index.php/cal/article/view/6236/8124
- Collaborative Summer Library Program™ CSLP Summer Reading White Paper – NPC Research, (Dec.29, 2014, Updated July 16, 2015), accessed May 30, 2020, https://www.cslpreads.org/ : 1-2
- Kohn, Alfie, Punished by Rewards, 85
- Collaborative Summer Library Program™ CSLP Summer Reading White Paper: 1-2
- American Academy of Pediatrics. (2015, April 25), “Giving Books to Kids Before Summer Break Can Stem Reading Losses.” ScienceDaily, accessed May 27, 2020, www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/04/150425215624.htm
- Kohn, Alfie, “How to Create Nonreaders: Reflections on Motivation, Learning, and Sharing Power” English Journal, (Fall 2010 – vol. 100, no. 1), accessed May 30, 2020, https://www.alfiekohn.org/article/create-nonreaders/
Paul, Pamela New York Times. “No, Your Kid Shouldn’t Get a Gold Star for Reading.” (2019, Aug. 30), accessed May 30, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/08/30/sunday-review/children-reading.html
About the Author
Jane Holt is Manager of High Meadows Library, a branch of Harris County Public Library in Houston, Texas
Contact Jane at Jane.Holt@hcpl.net
Jane is currently reading Learning from the Germans by Susan Nieman