Reading is Rewarding When There’s No Reward for Reading

When I was a kid, I used to get jealous of classmates who were rewarded for reading. They would get video games or money or whatever and it seemed odd to me. I didn’t understand why someone would get rewarded for doing something fun. It was like paying a kid to play basketball or draw a picture or play a video game.

In our house, reading was the reward. When we did chores, my mom would take us to the bookstore and we would spend our allowance money on books. There was never a “good job” or an “I’m proud of you” or even a “you are such a great reader.” It was just so . . . normal.  It’s what we did at our house. Not unlike breathing or eating or talking. Don’t get me wrong. We had to learn how to read just like anyone else. But once that was over, reading was like a never-ending song playing in the background.

Some families kept the TV on all the time. Okay, we did, too. We really did have the TV on often – which means I will never be able to un-watch all the episodes of Who’s the Boss my sisters made me watch. But we also had magazines lying around and books scattered about and we would talk about the stories in our novels and argue about the ideas in the articles we read. We geeked out over reading but in a way where reading never felt like a big deal.

It wasn’t until around middle school that I realized how odd our house was. Suddenly, I heard stories of kids getting paid to read. I heard of parents begging their kids to read enough to fill out a reading log. I didn’t realize it at the time, but it seemed to confirm an idea that it is now a conviction: reading is rewarding when there’s no reward for reading.

What About Schools?

I’m not sure how you recover the love of reading in schools. I realize that I grew up in a print-rich household and, as a dad, I see that my kids are experiencing the same. I would be ignoring my privilege if I suggested that we could simply import all the ideas into a school. But I can’t help but wonder if maybe a part of the solution is to read for fun. Here are a few of the ideas that worked for me in the classroom (and are the types of strategies I recommend for the pre-service teachers I work with):

  • Have books and magazines lying around the classroom. Display books in the same way that bookstores display them. 
  • Switch from reading groups to book clubs, if possible. Small group read alouds my allow you to do specific, targeted intervention. However, when students can read silently and then have a book club with specific questions, answers, and analysis, it feels more like the way people actually read outside of a classroom setting. 
  • Allow for choice and inquiry in informational reading. Take reading off-road and let them run wild. I highly recommend both The Book Whisperer and Readicide for strategies on reading for the sheer enjoyment of reading.
  • Integrate reading into projects during the empathy, research, and launch phases of the design thinking cycle. But also read for the sake of reading. Let kids geek out about ideas without assigning anything in particular to the task. 
  • Create longer periods of time when kids can read uninterrupted. Let them hit a place of flow as they read.   
  • Don’t reward reading. Treat it like a playground with tons of sandbox time. Let them see that a library is like a candy shop. Get them comfortable with geeking out over informational texts.  

These strategies aren’t perfect and they aren’t guaranteed to make reading work in your classroom. But they are the strategies that worked for me. And I’m convinced that whatever the solution is, it has starts when schools do whatever it takes to make reading feel less like a chore and more like play.

Note: I’m co-writing a book with Pernille Ripp about the future of literacy. Go read her blog for great ideas on helping kids fall in love with reading. Then go and pick up Passionate Learners, her book on engaging and empowering readers. 

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John Spencer

My goal is simple. I want to make something each day. Sometimes I make things. Sometimes I make a difference. On a good day, I get to do both.

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5 responses

  1. My 3/4th grade teacher rewarded us for reading. After reading a certain number of books, we got to pick a book from a special box to KEEP. For us, reading was rewarded with MORE BOOKS. I built an entire library of my very own out of those FREE books! I credit Mrs. Julaine Boehm 100% with developing my lifelong love for reading.

    1. I love that idea!

  2. Remember Book It pins, anyone? When you filled it, you got to get a personal pan pizza at Pizza Hut? Regardless, making print material and the act of reading such a part of life they become like breathing is what we need to reach for – no matter what happens in a learner's world, access to books and books in hand will make it all possible. Looking forward to the co-authored book!

  3. This is great and exciting. I just love reading and it is one of my biggest desires to pass a love of reading on to my students. They are first graders just learning to read in English (their second language) but I try to provide a rotation of books for them for at least a few minutes every day. Sometimes when a student is finished working they ask me if they can get a book to read and I just love it! I really like your ideas about a book club versus reading groups. That approach would remove pressure and stress from reading time that I know I have felt in the past when leading reading groups.

  4. I absolutely agree that reading should be its own reward. Instilling a love for reading in my two children was one of my parental priorities as well as a source of enormous pleasure. Our household clutter – piles of newspapers, books, and magazines – was evidence of our reading passion, and both boys learned early on that when “mom was lost in a book” only physical contact (a kiss or a tackle) would suffice to get my attention. We read to them, they read to us, and we talked about what we read all the time. Books were always on their birthday/Christmas lists. We read whole series of novels together, arguing who would get to read the book first. I would ‘steal’ the book, reading it after they went to bed, and then we would compare notes in the morning. We went to the library and to the bookstore, especially when an author was there to promote a new book. We waited in line for the release of each new book in the Harry Potter series, and it was a family policy always to read any book before we ever saw the movie version. So when I read the note from my son’s teacher informing me that he was reading novels in class when he was supposed to be working on something else, I must confess that I felt considerably more parental pride than angst. Rewards like getting stars for reading books, prizes for summer reading, or points for Accelerated Reading may motivate some students to read, but will those students continue to read once the rewards are removed? My sons were pleased to get those various reading rewards in elementary school, but they would have read without them.

    By high school, rewards are much less ‘motivating’. Students have already formed attitudes about reading. As a teacher, I have had successes fostering an interest in reading with my high school English learners, but I need to do more. Many are reading their first novels in English with me, and just finishing one is both a source of pride and considerable struggle. Most are literate in their native language, but few identify themselves as ‘readers’. I read out loud to them because they need to hear English in expressive cadences to internalize the sounds and rhythms the same way they did when they were young.

    Recently, however, I have been more focused on Common Core deep reading and textual analysis than making sure there was still pleasure to be found in the act of reading. Your blog reminded me of the sheer joy of reading. My high school abandoned the 20 minutes of silent sustained reading that had been built into the bell schedule, and I think I need to bring that back as a practice in my classroom. I like the idea of forming “book clubs” and giving students more choice in what they read. The best ‘rewards’ I can give my students are a sense of fun/anticipation as they approach a new text, increased choice, a growing repertoire of reading strategies in English, and an awareness of their progress as their skills/levels increase.

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