The Problem with Reading Incentive Programs

I have a hard time with reading incentive programs. I remember when I was a kid, and my mom made me read novels for the Read-a-thon, when other kids were reading picture books, and I got creamed, even though I was reading a lot more. I learned that kids will game the system if they’re allowed to.
I was reminded of this when my kids were learning to read. There were the Pizza Hut incentives, but they didn’t work well because we didn’t make it to Pizza Hut very often (like once, maybe). And then there was the Accelerated Reader program. And that took my general disenchantment with external motivation incentive programs to new heights of fury.
I think it’s true that if you set up an external reward system, a significant number of kids will find a way to get the prize without doing the work, and when it comes to reading, the stakes are too high for that.
We want kids to love reading.  If they do, so much is easier for them, and they have a lifelong source of solace and inspiration.  There is a lovely time, right around third grade, where kids are supposed to move from the “learning to read” stage to the “reading to learn” stage, and if they love to read, this period can feel like a rocket launching.
If they don’t, it’s miserable for everyone.
But the solution is not external motivation.  The AR program is a system of points accumulated by taking quizzes over books the child has read.  Let’s start there. That presumes the book has been rated (so it’s worth a certain number of points), and that there is a quiz available to take. The quizzes are content-based, checking recall, and they’re multiple choice.  The system-gamers just got pretty good odds; they can take quizzes without having read or read carefully, and hope to do ok. And the kids who read books that aren’t approved, rated, and quizzed up, can’t get points for reading what they like to read.
In fact, on some questions, kids who haven’t read may do better than the kids who have, because the questions are sometimes so detailed, they don’t have anything to do with the big aspects of plot or character. I remember a question that asked if Clifford the Big Red Dog used a phone pole or a tree to sharpen his claws.  It doesn’t matter, really—you have to know he was a big dog, so he didn’t use a toothpick, but if you couldn’t remember exactly, you could still get plenty from the story.
And look at what else kids are learning: that details matter more than plot.  That what happened is more important than how it made you feel.  That reading superficially–for recall—is good. If they get anything about critical thinking from the new Common Core, they will be spending the rest of their years unlearning these lessons AR taught them.
I teach literature. I do use these kinds of quizzes at the beginning of my classes, so that students have a concrete reason to keep up with the reading. It’s part of their grade, so it keeps them honest when the realities of life threaten their best intentions. I use these quizzes to take attendance; that’s it.  Then I spend an hour or more talking about what the text is really about.
AR keeps these quizzes as an endpoint. When you’re done with the book, the culminating experience is a multiple-choice quiz. I want my kids to get so much more out of books than that. I want them to want to read because they love it—because they get to go places they’ve never heard of, meet people different from themselves and surprisingly similar, learn lessons about human nature and Mother Nature, and hear the beauty of well-wrought words. I want them to understand that when the book ends, their imaginative experience of it does not, and that what is wonderful about a book—what they felt as they read it, what they learned when they talked about it with their friends, and how they will carry its lessons with them–is not ever going to be contained in a quiz.

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