Despite a preponderance of research that shows that external motivators do not increase student engagement and motivation over the long-term, it still seems that you can’t find an elementary school where reading is not at some point tied to coupons to free food, stickers, certificates, or miscellaneous prizes.
These gimmicks and contests do reiterate that reading is fun — but only if you get something for doing it. Recently my own school had one of these contests and the experience not only proved ineffective at cultivating a passion for reading in my students, but actually reduced the excitement that some of my them had for reading.
This time around the incentive that was supposed to spur children to become lifelong readers was bikes. For each book read, that child would receive one ticket to be entered into a drawing for a bike.
Each classroom would have two winners: one girl and one boy.
Initially, what upset me most was the division between males and females. My students and I have done a lot of work around gender and stereotypes and this contest seemed sure to reinforce binaries that my students had been learning to question. Additionally, my class has a tremendous gender imbalance, so the odds of winning the bike were almost three times higher if you were a boy — a fact one of my bright young mathematicians pointed out during one of our conversations about the contest.
Though I inquired about the possibility of having a single classroom box and two of the “boy” bikes as the prizes for my classroom, I was told that the “bikes had already been ordered.” As a new teacher, I felt I had to settle for taking the boy box and the girl box, even though it went against my better judgment. While we had some great student-prompted conversations about why there were two boxes, it was difficult to settle for “that’s what the adults who set up the contest said that we had to do.”
As the date for the bike drawing approached, only about half of my students had participated in the contest and I had observed no changes in my students’ reading behaviors. I did, however, witness a number of contest participants quickly flipping through books so they could add the title to their “books read” lists. As with most contests of this type, accountability is difficult to ensure and enforce and the enjoyment of reading a book becomes reduced to a simple means to an end.
On the day of the drawing, my students were moderately excited. Two highly gender-stereotyped bikes had been sitting in the atrium of our school for over a week to drum up excitement. (The boys bike was red and black while the girls was white, purple, and pink — with streamers, of course.) When it was time for the winners in our classroom to be drawn, I halfheartedly pulled out the two names — one from the boy box and one from the girl box.
I was so relieved that the contest was finally over, but my students were certainly not done thinking about it. A few minutes later, a girl who hadn’t participated in the contest came over to me and told me “it hurt her feelings that she had to sit there and watch other kids get stuff.” Another three students in my classroom left the assembly in or close to tears. The melancholy that had swept over my students was palpable and painful to witness. The assembly certainly hadn’t felt like the “celebration of reading” that the organization sponsoring the program had promised.
After the assembly, we talked as a class and discussed ways that the contest might be improved. Their ideas included having a prize that the whole class could win for reading, having everyone win bikes, and having books as prizes. At the end of the talk, one girl said — to nodded approval from her peers — “I just wish that this contest had never happened.”
Another student, who had read the most books in our class but didn’t win, kept repeating: “I read 82 books and I got nothing.” Despite my reassurances that she had gotten to enjoy the experiences of all of those wonderful books and had definitely become smarter as she learned things from the books, she remained dejected.
Whether it is with pizza, stickers, or free movie passes, attempts to incentivize reading fail to cultivate the habits of lifelong readers and send the message that reading is something you should do only to get something in return. Yet these contests continue to proliferate and are constantly dressed up with flashier prizes and greater promises to improve reading habits.
What explains the ubiquity of these contests? I think it is in part, because they seem so harmless. An outside organization or sponsor generously offers to support reading — most likely with the best of intentions. The seemingly innocuous nature of these contests is what makes them particularly sinister. After all, who would argue that giving away bikes to kids who might not have one is a bad thing? The school and local community would most likely vilify a teacher daring to stand up in opposition to such a program. (I’ll let you know how that goes when I argue against repeating this contest next year.)
I am convinced that we must rescue our students from contests of these sorts. If we don’t, we may end up with students who refuse to read a book without the promise of getting something. Surely there must be better ways to engage community partners in joining us on our journey to create lifelong readers who are intrinsically motivated to explore the wonderful world of books without resorting to contests that leave students reflecting that they read but “got nothing.”