Summertime Reading: To Compete or Not Compete

May 23rd, 2012

This week we have a great post from teacher educator Maureen Barbieri. She has written for the Stenhouse Blog before, reviewing Waiting for Superman and sharing the story of an inspirational writing group After working as a teacher, principal, and literacy coach for many years, Maureen currently teaches literacy courses at the University of New Hampshire, volunteers at a local elementary school, and takes care of two young grandchildren every week.

We would love to hear your thoughts on summertime reading. How do you encourage your students to keep reading during the summer months? What has worked for you and what hasn’t?

It happens every year around this time. School children seem more restless wishing that recess, in schools that still have recess, could last a little bit longer.  No doubt about it: summer is coming, and the kids are counting down the days.  Teachers too.  The ones I work with tell me they’re looking forward, more than anything else, to some long stretches of reading time.

Teachers also wonder about their students’ “summer slide,” a common term for the loss of academic progress children have made since September. One of the biggest concerns, of course, is reading proficiency.  Teachers hope against hope that students will maintain the gains they’ve made and start the new school year with sustained passion for reading.  Towards this end, some schools initiate summer challenges.  How many books can each child read over the summer?  How will we recognize the effort?   Who will read the most?

Of course, we wish our children would all be like Scout Finch in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird who says, “Until I feared I would lose it, I did not love to read.  One does not love breathing.” We want our kids to see reading the way Scout does.

In some towns, libraries organize reading initiatives, offering prizes to children who read books.  Where I live, children are asked to keep track of the minutes they spend reading.  Then, if they’ve read a fair amount of time, they’re given a coupon for ice cream cones, pizza, or cups of chowder.  In the fall, at the high school’s first football game, there is a halftime ceremony to applaud their achievement. Students who have participated in the library’s reading program are invited onto the field at halftime for recognition, to the delight of their parents. Other libraries have wall charts, where students’ names are posted and stars given for each book completed.

I have been intrigued by Daniel Pink’s book, Drive: The Surprising Truth about What Motivates Us, which details several longitudinal studies that indicate human beings’ tendency to be unaffected or even turned off by extrinsic rewards.  What really inspires people, Pink explains, what actually fosters more productivity, is autonomy, the chance to create something at one’s own speed, in one’s own way.  Pay raises or other external carrots often have a negligible effect on workers’ motivation.  I’ve been wondering how his research relates to children’s desire to read.  Shouldn’t children want to read because it’s just about the most satisfying thing in the world to do with one’s mind?   Pink says,  “In environments where extrinsic rewards are most salient, many people work only to the point that triggers the reward –and no further.  So if students get a prize for reading three books, many won’t pick up a fourth.” (page 58)

Teachers I know agree.  “The trouble with giving kids stickers for every book they read,” says one, “is that pretty soon they want two stickers or three, insisting that’s the only way they’ll read.” Exactly what we don’t want to happen.  We can almost hear their reasoning, “If reading is so great, why do I need a bribe?” Teachers want to help students become confident, joyful readers, to see the myriad ways reading can change and enhance our lives, to be able to stretch and roam and celebrate the whole arc of human experience, one book at a time.  A sticker for reading a book?  A star?  A coupon?  Are we crazy?

But sometimes these reading competitions get the kids into the library,” one reading specialist insists.  True, and this is obviously a great thing.  But, as Francie Nolan in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn knows, the trip to the library with its implicit invitation to take books home, should be its own reward.  Our library has story hours every week, one for toddlers, and one for older children.  It’s this kind of experience that can entice a child, from earliest days, to know in her bones that there’s nothing in this world as magical as a good story.

One of my University of New Hampshire students argues that rewards like stickers or coupons might be a good way to get a reluctant reader to read.  “If the person who doesn’t like to read just hasn’t found the right book yet,” he says, “then maybe the reward is a way to put the book in his hands and get him to try it.”

Another student who tutors elementary students in reading insists that for struggling readers, lollipops are great inducements.  “At least in the beginning, I have to have that carrot to offer. This doesn’t last long though; once they see how great reading can be, they’re off and running.  Reading a chapter book is something they clamor to do.” Much as I want to stand with Daniel Pink, Scout Finch, and Francie Nolan, my students stop me in my tracks and remind me that all children are different.

A librarian friend describes what goes on in her library.  During the summer, the place is jumping.  Families come often and stay for various events, including magic shows and concerts. There is a sense of community here.  Older students keep track of how many hours they’ve read, and the person who reads the most wins a Kindle.  Younger students win smaller prizes, based also on the number of minutes they’ve read.  One year they all read detective stories, so every reader won mustaches, badges, or dark glasses.  Other years the library has given children coupons for pizzas.

While I’m not a fan of these prizes, I do like the focus on minutes read.  The problem with reading competitions that reward kids for the number of books completed is that they tend to privilege fast readers.  The more books read, the better, right?  For children who already love to read and who read fairly quickly, the competition becomes a game, something fun, another feather in the cap.  But for those who struggle or just prefer to meander through their stories more carefully, savoring every moment, why then the competition will be nothing more than a frustrating distraction or, worse, reinforcement of the notion that they are simply “not good readers.”  We never want a child to feel judged by how fast he or she reads or to have reading be something intimidating.  Slow reading, on the other hand, is more deliberate, more purposeful, more thoughtful, as Tom Newkirk argues in his new book, The Art of Slow Reading: “. . . it has to do with the relationship we have with what we read, with the quality of attention that we bring to our reading, with the investment we are willing to make.” (page 2) Why is it better to read ten books over the summer than to read three or four, reflect on what they mean to us, and hold them in our memories?  Perhaps, as Newkirk suggests, we should all slow down a bit.

When my librarian friend describes the giant white board where kids who check out books write their names, and how proud they are to do that, I am reminded of Frank Smith’s notion of “joining the literacy club.”  Librarians here know their patrons and chat with them about what they’ve read lately, making suggestions about what they might like to try next.  Clearly, in her library, reading is a social enterprise.  This kind of encouragement feels natural and right.  As summer vacation approaches, I’ve heard other good ideas.

At a Maine high school, students going into a sophomore  AP writing class will get together to choose four books to read over the summer, but they won’t write traditional book reports –  what a friend calls “book autopsies” – on these.  Instead, they’ll meet with their new teacher four times in small groups during the summer to discuss the books.

A colleague in Brooklyn describes a similar plan.  Charts are posted in the corridors with book titles in boxes.  Students and teachers sign up to read and agree to meet at appointed times to share their reactions. The key here is, students choose which group to join, based on the book title, and the time and place of the group meeting.

Finally, at one local elementary school, teachers help children choose books to borrow over the summer.  Knowing the kids as well as they do, they’re able to suggest specific books for each student.  They pack these into little canvas bags.  “We lose some books,” the reading specialist tells me, “but it’s worth it.”  Letters are sent home with the books, suggesting other titles the child might like, urging families to make reading a daily ritual during the summer months.

Nothing quite tops the involvement of families.  Recently (April 24, 2012) author Mo Willems was interviewed on NPR, sharing his process of writing books for young children, acknowledging that he always keeps the adult audience in mind.

“I want the parents to be engaged,” he insists.  “I want them to laugh because then it’s cool.  I think that sometimes parents forget that they are the coolest people in the world to kids . .  so if they’re enjoying reading a book, suddenly the kid is going to say, “Wow, reading books is awesome!”

There you have it.  Reading books is awesome.  We know it, and we want our students to know it too.  Better than a sticker, a coupon, or a contest might be some quiet lap time, a chance to meet up with friends for some book talk, or a dinnertime question, “Hey, what did you read today and how did you like it?”

Entry Filed under: Reading

4 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Shawna Coppola  |  May 24th, 2012 at 7:57 pm

    Maureen, thank you for this. As much as I, too, wish every child felt like Scout does, it is always good to be reminded that all children are different. I am in the process of compiling a ” best books of the year” list for students in my K-6 school to take home for the summer (along with my own “If you liked that, try this!” suggestions), and I can tell you that– especially in the older grades–just the process of my stopping by classes to ask students to tell me about their favorite books of the year has inspired some of them to read. I left one class after just ten minutes of chitchat about books, and the teacher stopped me in the hallway a half hour later to tell me that several of her students had asked to go to the library to check out Hatchet as soon as I’d left her room. How powerful just the act of casually talking about books is! Perhaps all of our summer reading programs should build upon that power–a power that can have a much more lasting impression than a coupon for a free ice cream cone. 🙂

  • 2. BETTY MOORE  |  May 25th, 2012 at 7:54 am

    Interesting. I agree that all children are different. Some may become intrinsically motivated by using extrinsic rewards whereas others are just looking for the carrot. I agree that nothing beats parent involvement.

  • 3. Leslie  |  May 25th, 2012 at 8:38 am

    Loved this article. Thanks for the suggestions. I am a parent and a teacher. My own kids are finishing grades 5 and 6. The younger one loves to read and the older one, not so much.
    One thing that has worked for us is family reading club. We try for every night but busy schedules get in the way and its usually only a few times a week. During reading club the four of us choose which room we want to read in and we all climb on the bed/couch and read. It has turned into a really nice family time that we all enjoy (even the 12 year old). We had to make a rule that you are not allowed to talk about your book until reading club is over because we had so much conversation!

  • 4. Phyllis Karpen  |  May 29th, 2012 at 6:30 am

    I am a Reading Specialist in a middle school and am so worried about my kids not reading this summer. I work with so many “picky” readers and I don’t want any of them to fall back on old habits this summer. My reading partner and I always put together book ideas for our kids before the end of the school year. We also have students who “borrow” books, some are returned and some are not. I love the idea of putting up posters in the hallway with a specific book to sign up for. I’m thinking we might try this with our students. Thanks so much for the words of encouragement. We’re all in this together!

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