Reward children for reading: Give them a book

April 13, 2009

For many years, educators and researchers have warned against giving children prizes or money for performance in school.

Penn State Harrisburg faculty member and reading specialist Barbara Marinak echoes that warning but includes what she has found to be the best incentive to encourage children to read – a book.

Beginning with her award-winning doctoral dissertation in 2005 which focused on third graders and followed by additional research studies in partnership with Clemson University Distinguished Professor of Education Linda Gambrell, assistant professor of Education Marinak concludes that children who receive books as a reward for reading accomplishments rather than tokens, money or prizes were much more likely to pick up a book in their free time.

“The reason for the research,” Marinak says, “is because there are so many incentive programs out there to encourage kids to read. They are all trying to be helpful, but what should be the reward? Simply put, it should be a book.”

“If we are going to reward children for reading, then give them books,” she says emphatically. Her research, published last year in the journal Literacy Research and Instruction found that rewarding third graders with so-called tokens diminished the time they spent reading. “And a number of the kids who received tokens didn’t return to reading at all.”

Proximal rewards appeared to enhance children’s desire to read on their own, she adds. “In our study, we observed children to see if they read in their spare time. Some of the children who received tokens never picked up a book, but those who received books read more words and engaged in reading for longer periods of time. The books as rewards encouraged subsequent reading. Our experience shows that proximal rewards did not undermine motivation.”

And, she does not endorse using even the book rewards for long periods. “Rewards of any kind must be phased out quickly and replaced with encouragements such as choices of reading topics, goals, and socialization in which kids talk about their book with others,” she notes. With that in mind, Marinak also advises teachers to give students a choice in read-aloud and free time reading. “Sometimes, teachers need to figure out individually what motivates a child to read. We must sometimes rescue children one at a time.”

Marinak does, however, understand why some challenged schools are paying students to come to school. “They can’t learn if they are not in school. But you have to quickly change the motivator; find out what makes them tick and work hard to motivate them to come back to school minus the financial incentive.”

The program coordinator of Penn State Harrisburg’s master’s degree in Literacy Education, Marinak previously spent 20 years as a public school educator. She has published in numerous journals including The Reading Teacher, Literacy Research and Instruction, and the Yearbook of the College Reading Association. In 2005, her dissertation received the College Reading Association’s national Dissertation Award.

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Last Updated July 28, 2017