Article #27
Motivational Reading Programs:
The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly

Cheryl M. Sigmon

Lately, so many 4-Blocks teachers and administrators have asked about the appropriateness of various motivational programs in conjunction with the model. Letís take a close look at the trends in motivational programs, the reasons theyíre popular, the place for them in our literacy program, and some options if we should choose to go in another direction.

Over the past decade, motivational reading programs seem to have gained in popularity. In the beginning, they were fairly innocuous---libraries created summer reading programs where kids belonged to clubs or where classrooms delighted in adding sections to a caterpillar growing slowly around the classroom. Before long, big business got involved and the stakes became higher---read a number of books and earn a certificate for a pizza or an ice cream cone.

(And, why were the kids reading the books?)

Then, perhaps because of the perceived success of such rewards programs, schools began to dangle the same carrots---trinkets of various and sundry types, most of little monetary value, but appealing to kids just the same. Something along the lines of a Crackerjack toy have coaxed kids into reading books. Some rewards have been of the less tangible sort. Never before in the history of education have administrators been willing to subject themselves to such ridicule. Read 10,000 books and the principal will do almost any outlandish deed: sleep on top of the school one night, wear pajamas and bathrobe at school all day, sit bound and gagged in the lunchroom (almost borderline perverse, donít you think?), etc., etc. Principals have even been known to kiss an array of farm animals---cows and pigs among the chosen few---full square on the lips, no less! Heaven only knows what the animal kingdom must think of these strange practices! But itís all for a good cause, no doubt! (**See note at the end of this article!)

(And, what was that cause again?)

The current trend has moved one step further beyond the levity of kissing pigs and wandering the halls in our PJís. Now weíve really gotten serious about wanting kids to read. Schools are spending MEGABUCKS---literally---on "motivational" programs. Most of these rather expensive programs require a child to read a book, the length of which is proportionate to the number of points earned. Just solely reading the book, however, doesnít earn kids the points. Now, just saying theyíve read the book or swearing to it with one hand on the Bible doesnít get them those points. Because this is such serious business, the honor system is no longer viable. Now, kids must subject themselves to a ten-item test on the details. Even if they read the book but canít recall the certain percentage of details contained in the test, no points are earned.

Many of the questions asked on these "motivational" tests are about rather "picky" details of the story. This week an elementary school principal and I had a book chat about a book we had both just completed, Devine Secrets of the YaYa Sisterhood. We both agreed that the book had captured our hearts with its wonderful tales. The principal made an interesting remark in regards to our shared love of this book relative to motivational reading programs. She said, "I'm so glad I didnít have to take a comprehension test on the story. I donít even remember the names of all the main characters, but I could certainly retell my favorite parts of the book." How true, I thought, as I too realized that I couldnít name the characters! But, we both truly loved and appreciated the book.

Some of the "megabucks" programs are also tied in to gimmicks and rewards other than seeing the points add up beside your name on the chart in the classroom. Certain levels of points might earn trinkets, some earn food, some earn a ticket to Fun Friday (Oh, gosh! I feel another sermon coming on!), and still others might help us all get to see the principal smooch that mud-wallowing critter with the curly tail. Hurray! Hurray!

(Remind me again--Why are they reading the books?)

Now, letís think through this situation and see what the good, the bad, and the ugly might be concerning these types of so-called "motivational" programs.

The Good

  1. Some kids would do anything to see the principal all alone on top of the school building for the night. They would even read a book or two or three. And we would exclaim, "See! Theyíre reading at last!"
  2. If kids have been in school for several years and havenít been previously interested in reading, maybe this does get them started.

(I want you to know that I tried really hard to come up with 3 "goods," but Iím stumped!)

The Bad and The Ugly

  1. And what was that cause again? Somewhere in the process of our need to entertain children with food, trinkets, and outlandish antics we need to pause and rethink what the purpose is supposed to be. Seems that at some point we may have lost sight of just what that purpose was. And, if we have forgotten, should we expect that the kids have also?
  2. Kids who come in to the system at an early age thinking that they will always be given an extrinsic reward for reading a book soon become conditioned to this response. (Imagine this scenario: Read and get a pizza---read and get a sticker---read and get an ice cream cone---read and get a whistle---read and get nothing----WHOA!!! No way!!! Iím not reading that book unless I get something in return!) It takes a long time, if ever at all, to wean kids from this conditioned response.
  3. Kids should occasionally be allowed to read books for the plain and simple purpose of enjoyment! They should not associate reading with test-taking.
  4. Schools are actually paying large sums of money for these tests! Hadnít we rather be spending that money on books?
  5. Computerized tests that quiz kids on "picky" details of books are perhaps not the best use of school funds.
  6. Some schools have promoted their "motivational" reading programs to the point that kids and parents have become competitive----unhealthily competitive. (This week I was told by teachers from several different schools that they were having to BAN parents from the computer labs where their children were taking the tests. It seems that the parents were "helping" their kids pass the book tests!!! Unbelievable!)
  7. Taking ten-item tests on stories is, perhaps, not the best use of technology.

The Solution

Many schools have attempted to integrate their "motivation" programs into the SSR Block. They stock the book baskets with the leveled books for the "motivational" program. Kids read the books and take their tests, sometimes during the SSR time and sometimes during other times throughout the day.

Is this a good solution?

First, letís remember the purpose for the SSR Block and its components: 1) The teacher reads aloud daily to motivate/invite kids to read. He/she reads with enthusiasm and fervor. 2) Children are given free choice in their reading so that they will be able to read genres that they enjoy, topics that they love, and at their own levels if they so choose. 3) Children are given time to share their books with their classmates so that they motivate others to enjoy more books.

Thus, we discover that the entire SSR Block is constructed to inspire a love of reading among children by only the purest of catalysts---exposure to good books and interaction with teacher and peers about books. Why must we interject tests? Why must we insist that kids read for minute details of little, if any, consequence? Why must we prescribe certain levels of books that correspond with a number of points? Why must we condition kids to the extrinsic rewards, only to have the problem of weaning them from this response?

Maybe our responses to those questions will guide us back to our original intent. Letís think about putting our school funds into books, rather than computerized tests. Letís have our kids learn that reading isnít always connected to a ten-item test. Letís use those computers for publishing studentsí stories rather than taking those tests. Letís not leave kids with the impression that reading is a competitive sport. There are enough competitions in their lives. They need to know that books are rewards unto themselves. They can and will enrich their lives in so many countless ways.

Maybe the real question is as basic as: Do we want kids to read-----or do we really want kids to learn to love to read?

Note to principals: Please know that I do deeply admire all of you principals who have been willing to sleep on the roof of the school, wear your PJs all day at school, kiss a pig, and all of those other laugh-inspiring tasks. I know you had your kidsí best interests at heart and that you would do almost anything to inspire and motivate your kids. I salute you for caring so much about your students!

4 Blocks Goodies