We know reading is good for us: teachers have been drilling this message in from a young age. Books bring intellectual power to children, introducing them to subjects and perspectives they would not encounter in a school curriculum. The benefits are backed by research: the students who read the most consistently outperform their peers not just on assessments of reading comprehension and writing, but in math and the sciences too. Reading widely improves comprehension, empathy, background knowledge, and clarity in expression.
In spite of our teachers’ efforts, we aren’t reading enough. The proportion of children who read for pleasure drops hugely as they grow into adults. Rates amongst all children – and especially teenagers – have plummeted in recent years. The goal is, of course, for students to grow up loving reading. To create a lifelong habit. Clearly, the current approach in isn’t working. Why aren’t children reading, and what can be done about it?
Students don’t inherently hate reading – this hatred is a product of formative experiences at home and in the classroom. Quantifying reading reduces their intellectual exploration to numbers, encouraging children to flip pages with no desire to understand what’s on them. Making children write reports and sign logs and otherwise forcing them to ‘prove’ that they are in fact reading, colours it as an academic chore rather than an activity they would willingly engage in outside of school. Analyzing the same page of a novel for an entire period can suck all the fun out of an otherwise exciting book. Restricting their choices of book works against students rather than with.
What else doesn’t work in instilling a love of reading in children? Reward systems, like the old reading week. Reading converted to numbers, children’s efforts quantified. The number of pages, of books, of genres, with certificates and prizes to those who read the most. Does this inspire a love of reading? No. I was the winner of this competition for two consecutive years. I read as quickly as I could, choosing books for page area and font size, rather than what I thought I could get out of them. The promised vouchers turned out to be for a bookstore. I don’t think I ever used them: I felt betrayed and my love of reading had been extinguished! I didn’t want to look at another book ever again.
Systems like this are put in place to increase motivation, with little regard to the kind of motivation they create. They’re founded on manipulation. Extrinsic rewards – motivators coming from outside of the task – are corrosive to intrinsic motivation. Like grades discourage learning, rewards discourage an enjoyment of reading. The more children are rewarded for doing something, the less they become interested in the task itself.
There are things that can be done to support young readers. Teachers must encourage students to read, and to read lots. The more they read, the easier it becomes to read for a sustained period of time. Teachers must carve out time for students to read. We understand the difficulty of this when preparing students for exams, but by adopting a policy where students book-end the class with a few minutes of reading time, they can reinforce a habit and stand to gain hours over the year.
Providing students with choice in reading material may be the single most motivating and empowering thing a teacher can do. In effect, they shift the question from whether they should read, to what they should read. They should allow students to choose for themselves, confident that, once they have found their footing, they will branch out of their own accord. The chance for students to read what they want in the classroom can become a reward in itself. No vouchers or certificates necessary.
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Greene, D., and M. R. Lepper. (1974). “Effects of Extrinsic Rewards on Children’s Subsequent Intrinsic Interest.” Child Development 45: 1141-1145.
Kohn, Alfie. (2010, Fall). “How to create nonreaders”. English Journal. 100(1)
Miller, Donalyn. (2012, October). “Creating a classroom where readers flourish”. The Reading Teacher. 66(2). 88-92.