A+ Advice for Parents

Bribes Are Not a Good Way to Get Son to Read

Q: My third-grade son would rather play video games than read. He's motivated by his allowance, so we're thinking of giving him a dollar for each book he gets through. Is there any research that shows this works?

A: Save your money. The research shows that extrinsic rewards aren't effective in developing a love of reading. In his book, "Punished by Rewards: The Trouble With Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A's, Praise and Other Bribes," educator Alfie Kohn shows how "a reward buys us a behavior -- in this case, the act of checking out a book and reading it. But at what price?"

He says that quality learning declines significantly when kids are extrinsically motivated.

We want children to be motivated to read because they love to, not because they might get a reward, says Pat Johnson, co-author with Katie Keier of "Catching Readers Before They Fall" (Stenhouse 2010). Keier says that when we reward students for the number of books they read, they often choose books well below the difficulty level of what they could be reading.

Students' motivation to read is influenced by four interrelated factors, says reading expert Linda Gambrell, distinguished professor of education at Clemson University. They are:

-- Their experience with books: If kids have struggled or view books as something they only use in school, they're more likely to "hate reading."

-- Their access to books.

-- Their social interactions about books: Do they see that books can bring pleasure or more knowledge about topics they're interested in?

-- Their ability to choose the books they read.

"Letting your son choose his reading is very important," says Carl Harvey, library media specialist at North Elementary School in Noblesville, Indiana. "Start with what interests him. Check out an armful of books; don't worry if some selections look like junk to you. Work with your children's librarian to find a book with characters like those in a favorite video game or a series with a hero your son identifies with."

Children's author Bill Doyle thinks boys often choose games over books because the titles on recommended lists often lack "the action boys look for in games -- bad guys and battles, and descriptions of technological derring-do."

Doyle's humorous "Scream Team" series features werewolves, vampires and zombies.

"At bedtime," he says, "let boys read stuff that doesn't exactly lull them off to sleep. We want them to keep turning those pages."

Another Doyle series, "Behind Enemy Lines," a collection of true adventures from military hotspots like those in the Middle East, "gets a lot of fan mail from young boys, including those whose parents are deployed in these wars," he says.

"Think beyond books," Harvey reminds parents. Point out the many ways we use reading each day, he advises, "whether pulling up directions on your phone, finding a blog about a new video game your son might like, or sharing a 'Star Wars' comic."

Show your son that reading isn't just about school -- that it informs us, entertains us and connects us to people and ideas that make our lives richer. In time, he'll see that those are priceless rewards.

(Do you have a question about your child's education? Email it to Leanna@aplusadvice.com. Leanna Landsmann is an education writer who began her career as a classroom teacher. She has served on education commissions, visited classrooms in 49 states to observe best practices, and founded Principal for a Day in New York City.)

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