Reading is for life, not just for rewards

As a parent I’ve always been aware of various schemes knocking around with the admirable intention of encouraging children to read. The Summer Reading Challenge is one example. I’ve never paid any attention to these schemes nor had my child participate in any of them. He likes reading anyway, loves going to the library to choose new books, so I’ve never felt the need to consider them.

a-kid-readingThis term my child’s school announced the new Bug Club scheme. This scheme, it seems, encourages children to read books online where they can then answer questions about them and gain rewards to go on to play games online. On the surface this might seem OK – today’s children are used to doing things online right? And anything that encourages them to read has to be good?

Well, possibly. But having this time been forced to give the matter some thought I find I am very uncomfortable with the whole thing. In fact, the more I think about it, the more I don’t like it.

Firstly, is it really a good thing to encourage children to see reading as something they do online? Don’t they spend enough time online already? And let’s not move to replace books with computers. There’ll always be something special about books, especially books that become a child’s favourite, with worn edges from being read again and again. Children can take books to bed, take them on long journeys, to sleepovers, and can snuggle down with mum or dad to read them together. Or are we now supposed to be snuggling down together with a tablet?

Secondly, the questions the children have to answer about the book they’ve just read seem to turn reading into a task and take away the joy. Presumably they’re in line with the national curriculum expectations as to what a child should be able to glean from reading a book, recognising alliteration, that sort of thing. But it seems to me to suck all the pleasure out of reading. It becomes another test, almost a box ticking exercise.

But my biggest bugbear by far is the rewards the children get when they’ve finished a book and answered all the questions. This is where I believe these schemes are the most flawed. Quite simply, rewarding children for something sends them the message that that something is a chore, and they deserve a reward for having trudged through it. It sends a message about what is or is not desirable or fun. In this case, we’re telling our children that it’s the computer games, and not the books, that are fun. Kids, well done for having completed this chore. As a reward you can now play computer games, because God forbid that you would actually want to spend your time reading another book.

Surely the reward should come from the pleasure of reading, the enjoyment of the story? That’s intrinsic motivation, and that’s what we want to foster in our children’s attitude to reading. Reading needs to be something children want to do for its own sake, not to answer a set of mundane government approved questions in order to gain some screen time, something I struggle enough to limit in our household already, thank you very much. We want our children to continue to read long after they’ve left school and the rewards have stopped coming.

Rewards provide extrinsic motivation which studies, for years, have repeatedly shown actually decreases intrinsic motivation. Alfie Kohn has written a great deal on the subject:

Scores of studies have found that offering people a reward for doing something (such as reading or helping) tends to reduce their interest in whatever they had to do to get the reward. One reason for this effect, though not the only one, is that anything presented as a prerequisite for something else — a means to another end — comes to be seen as less desirable. The recipient of the reward figures, “If they have to bribe me to do this, it must be something I wouldn’t want to do.”” – from the article Do This and You’ll Get That. A Bad Way to Defend Good Programs.

“You may succeed in getting students to read a book by dangling a reward in front of them for doing so, but their interest in reading, per se, is likely to evaporate – or, in the case of kids who have little interest to begin with, is unlikely to take root — because you’ve sent the message that reading is something one wouldn’t want to do.” – from the article How to Create Nonreaders. Reflections on Motivation, Leaning and Sharing Power

I could go on.

My child’s school recently invited parents to an information evening about this new reading scheme. Looking at the presentation slides on their website, I notice a quote used on the last slide;

“Researchers have shown that, once social and economic factors are removed parental engagement is a more significant impact on attainment than almost everything else”.

I’m sure this is true, but this doesn’t mean I’m going to blindly engage with any crap the school throw at us, so I’m very sorry, but they won’t have my parental engagement with this scheme. I would like my child to continue reading what he likes, when he likes, and just because he likes. That’s what I believe will lead him to enjoy reading for life, not just for the sake of rewards.

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