Create a List

List Name

Rename this List
Save to
Back to the Top Teaching Blog
March 11, 2010 Creating Readers: A Case Against Extrinsic Rewards By Angela Bunyi
Grades 1–2, 3–5, 6–8


    During an interesting conversation with some teachers that were visiting our room yesterday, we discussed the topic of basals, book selections, and reading incentives.  With this topic fresh on my mind, I would like to share some of my views on how I believe we can create lifelong readers, writers, and learners.


    Mixed Messages: Do Extrinsic Rewards Get in the Way?

    As a parent, I understand how important it is that my child loves reading with every fiber of his being. Maybe we "got lucky," but my son devours books like they are going out of style. His saved up funds go towards purchases of books before toys (and he loves filling out the Scholastic book order form), and announcing a trip to Barnes and Noble is like saying we are going to get ice cream. What's the magic element? I suspect it is that my husband and I are both readers. That's probably the biggest key to his success, in my opinion. However, I understand that not every student comes to us with a home environment like this. So, the question becomes, what to do? I urge you to heavily consider against utilizing extrinsic rewards.

    First, even if a student hasn't had the exposure to understand how wonderful and powerful reading can be, does it really help to use trinkets, food, or recognition certificates? To me it's like taking the concept of bribing my son with dessert so he'll eat his broccoli; except with reading, it is like saying, "If you eat your ice cream, I'll give you some candy." I think this is a confusing message for many students, especially those who already understand and enjoy reading.


    "What matters most for struggling readers is access to good literature and reading volume." —Richard Allington (2006)


    The number one indicator of reading success is time spent reading along with access to quality literature. Allington's work supports this through state test scores as well. Students who read the most score the best on state and national tests. So, one benefit of an extrinsic reward program is that it requires designated time slots for reading. When time for reading is paired with authentic talk, quality books, and an environment that truly values reading (and not only with the competitive component), you are supporting struggling readers and readers without a supportive environment in ways that are more powerful than any pizza party.


    "Readers aren't motivated to read by a computerized bookkeeping system." —Pavonetti (2003)

    I am sadly one of those ABD students who almost finished their doctorate degree. My favorite class was an elective course on educational research. My semester long topic was on reading incentives and their effectiveness in helping children read long-term. I quickly found a slew of research to look at, even from a Scholastic writer, Elaine Garan. She writes in her book Smart Answers to Tough Questions, "There is no scientific, much less federally approved, research to support the use of the Accelerated Reader program (AR)" (p. 61).

    Stephen Krashen (2005) has written the most influential, in-depth studies on Accelerated Reader, an extrinsic reading reward program. He writes, "Despite the popularity of AR, we must conclude that there is no real evidence supporting it, no evidence that the additional tests and rewards add anything to the power of simply supplying access to high-quality and interesting reading material and providing time for children to read them" (p. 24). The National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (2000) writes, "The studies that do exist [in support] are of questionable quality and they do not show that AR is more effective than other methods. The NRP (National Reading Panel) does not recommend the use of AR" (p. 3–26).

    Perhaps what I found most telling were qualitative studies that involved large-scale interviews of students and parents. Students reported knowing who were the "good" readers and the "poor" readers in the room. They also reported skimming books, just to get the 70% needed to pass, exchanging questions on certain books, and reading many short, easy books just to accumulate points. I only found one AR study (that was not funded by AR) that showed some reading gains, but that was even with the disclaimer that the gains were short-term (the study showed a loss when the program was removed). Again, I want lifelong learners, not a short-term fix or crutch.



    Some Findings on AR/Extrinsic-Based Reading Programs

    Variety of Books and Types of Questions: It is well documented that the questions on AR tests are of the lowest level of comprehension (literal and recall). In fact, 92% of AR questions come from the bottom two levels of Bloom's Taxonomy, leaving out the critical aspect of listening to a child read and having them respond in writing.

    Types of Books Under the AR Collection: There are not many nonfiction or informational texts under the AR system. This worries me, as all the research shows that we should be creating classroom libraries in which 66% of our collection is nonfiction (and 33% of that informational).

    Yes, AR Does Have Research Showing Increases in Standardized Test Scores. . . But most of it is company sponsored research (hmm, wonder what the findings will be?) and includes the highest indicator of reading success — time allocated to reading. Is it the program or is it the time spent reading? More importantly, research does not support that AR increases reading attitudes or creates students who read more after AR is not in place. In fact, prior to 2003, Renaissance Learning, the company that sells AR, claimed on their Web site that Accelerated Reader built lifelong readers and learners. After studies by Mallette and others refuted this claim with research, the statement was removed (Pavonetti, 2002).

    But Why Can't We Just Reward the Kids for a Job Well Done? First, giving rewards for activities that are already pleasurable can send the message that they are not pleasurable (Kohn, 1999). Also, if we feel the need to reward our readers for reading, why not make the reward reading related? Instead of points, stickers, and pizza, why not a trip to the library, a new book, or a book on CD? Or you might want to think about letting time spent reading earn money towards the Heifer International Organization (Read to Feed).

    AR vs. No AR Findings: Pavonetti's work, which is often referred to, consisted of a large study of middle school students with and without AR. Of the feeder elementary schools, some had AR experience and some did not. This study was able to research those with no AR in elementary but AR in middle school; AR in elementary, but no AR in middle school; no AR in elementary or middle school; and AR in elementary and middle school. The results are complicated to present here, but provide a comprehensive picture of the effects of AR exposure. Those that had exposure to AR in both elementary and middle school were found to have a positive difference in the amount of reading done. However, students that had no exposure to AR in both elementary and middle school had a similarly positive difference. The strongest negative difference was found with students who had exposure to AR in elementary, but not in middle school. In addition, those students who did not have AR in elementary, but did so in middle school, also had a negative difference in the amount of reading done. Pavonetti suggested that AR may negatively impact students' attitudes and recreational reading in the long term. In summary, reading incentives are a short-term fix . . . a crutch.

    Students', Parents', and Teachers' Perceptions of AR: In a five year mixed methodology study, both quantitative and qualitative research painted a clear picture of the perceptions of 170 parents and teachers and 1,500 students in Phoenix.

    When students, parents, and teachers were asked about any negative forces related to AR in the school, 29.4% of parents stated accountability. Students and teachers had a similar response, with 33.2% and 25.7% respectively. When asked what was AR's one most positive aspect, both parents and teachers rated "time spent reading and performance" the highest, with 27 and 32 percent of the votes. On the other hand, students gave the highest rating to the "act of reading," with 22 percent of the votes. When asked how helpful AR was in developing reading skills, 62% of parents rated it very helpful; 30% of teachers and 35% of students rated it the same. Students, however, gave the highest rating of "not helpful" as compared to parents and teachers, with students reporting 13.6%, and only 2.1% from parents and 3.3% from teachers. Yet, 65% of parents stated that issues relating to competition were doing more harm than good. Fifty-two percent of teachers and students responded the same.

    These findings must be considered when utilizing this program. The qualitative portion of this research included interviews with students. I was blown away with the negative impressions held by most students. What do the very kids going through the program think of what we are asking them to do in regards to reading? If we are taking the "it's for their own good" route, I am a little worried! I worry because I know many of us live a literate, rich life and understand the value of a reading life. No one has to force me to pick up a Richard Allington book, a People magazine, or a brochure for my next vacation destination. We learn to love reading by having access to rich, beautiful literature, time to talk about what we are reading, and time to read books of our choice.

    Uh-Oh . . . A Problem With Leveling: Twenty-four percent of teachers report that they never let their students read outside their reading zone (Groce, 2005). This presents an odd contrast to real-life reading in which adults are free to choose books, not based on levels, but through myriad possibilities (interest, genre, series, TV, suggestion, etc.). Worse yet, there are many different leveling systems out there with varying formulas for calculating text difficulty. AR uses the most rudimentary, basic formula next to Microsoft Word. Richard Allington reports on this in detail in his book What Really Matters for Struggling Readers. There are also sites available that will level a book under several methods (Lexile, Fountas and Pinnell, Kincaid, Hersch, AR, etc.). Personal experience shows AR to be the most skewed and unreliable. I've also noted that outside of the school setting, books are not coded by level. Lamme recommends we aid readers in developing a method for selecting books independently (2005). I have personally seen teachers do this successfully as early as first grade. In addition, Lamme stated, "If leveling a book was an exact science, or if children really could not read a book at a higher or lower level, then leveling might make sense. But children can sometimes read beyond if the content is highly interesting to them, if they've had previous exposure to the topic, or if they've read other works by the author" (p 38).

    This summary BARELY touches the surface of all the information I have gathered and analyzed. There is much more now in comparison to what I found when I researched this in 2006 and 2007. I cannot tell you how many parents have told me that AR did not motivate their child to read. I haven't yet had one tell me it helps in my 10 years of teaching.


    The Real Way AND School Way


    And in that ten years of teaching, I can't remember a single student who didn't seem to love and embrace reading. Honestly. Here are some of my suggestions, all of which are free of extrinsic rewards.

    ~ Quality literature matters — It's better to have fewer quality books than many low quality books. I recommend 1,500–2,500 books in your room.

    ~ Talk matters — As in real life, think about what you want to do when you are reading and enjoying a book. Do you want to take a test? Do you want to get a trinket? Probably not, but you DO want to talk about it, right? Now, turn the tables. Imagine you are reading a book and struggling with one part of the story. You are unsure of a character's motives. What do you want to do? Take a test? Write a book report? Your best bet is to find someone else who has read it before you to get a clue. Talk is critical, and talk matters.

    ~ Find books that you love and use those for reading lessons — Students can sense your authentic love for the books you share, modeling the process of becoming a lifelong reader. Reading and sharing a basal story (which is often abridged or an excerpt) doesn't allow this to happen. For instance, I had one student say to me (in a school that required me to use the basal), "If it doesn't smell like a book, look like a book, or sound like a book, it's not a book."

    ~ Build one-on-one reading conferences into your schedule — If you meet with your students on a weekly basis, you can prevent a student from reading an entire book before failing an AR test. What a horrible feeling! As a teacher, you can have a direct and powerful impact on your student's growth by providing book suggestions, vocabulary strategies, comprehension strategies, and decoding strategies on a frequent basis.

    ~ Reward reading with more books — I am right across from the library, so when I find a book that I think fits a child, I say something like this, "Landon, you have been reading this series, and I notice you are about to finish it up this week. I found this book in the library, and it made me think of you. Check it out and let me know if you might be interested in reading it." What you will have done is what some call "blessing the book." It now has special powers that a pizza or bookmark can't touch.

    ~ Utilize the Reader's Bill of Rights — I formally had this displayed on my front page of our class site. I need to repost this again. If you haven't read it before, I am sure you would agree to this as a reader yourself. Yet, sometimes we forget to afford our students the same rights (exceptions apply in certain situations!). It is listed below.

    ~ Don't focus on the level — Although many of my books have the level printed on the book (in size 4 font), I want my students to learn how to self-select an appropriate book on their own. None of my books are sorted by level in our room or the school library. Having a first grader who can read on a fifth grade level doesn't mean he should be limited to fifth grade books, right? My son has a huge variety of books ranging from the Magic Tree House Series (almost all of which have been read) to informational books on machines. Limiting him to a level doesn't help him, and it doesn't help many of our readers. I suggest working with students individually with book suggestions. I also suggest you organize your library by genre and themes because that's how we find books in the real world.

    ~ Create a book club — My class meets together on Wednesdays during lunch. Two students came up with the idea and organized the requirements. The class agreed that at least three students should be reading a book before it becomes a book club. Series within a book count. Talk about a nice, engaging, and natural way to bring reading to life.

    ~ Find a school that fits you! — I have often received emails that ask how to deal with using AR (or the basal) in a school that requires it. I say that once you know better, you can't turn back. My former school required it schoolwide.  Teaching in an environment that doesn't match your style can be miserable. I am now in a new school and so much happier (and at home). I knew I was in the right place when I saw the art teacher's art wall at the beginning of the year (below). There are no basals; we have a librarian who is a loving former third-grade teacher (who actually teaches reading standards-based lessons during library time); and students are not restricted to a one-size-fits-all approach. It makes all the difference in the world! Find a place where you can thrive and help your students thrive in the process.


    Photo: How many of us hear "Don't touch the wall, stay in a straight line"? I love my school.


    Daniel Pennac's

    The Reader's Bill of Rights

    1. The right not to read.

    2. The right to skip pages.

    3. The right to not finish.

    4. The right to reread.

    5. The right to read anything.

    6. The right to escapism.

    7. The right to read anywhere.

    8. The right to browse.

    9. The right to read out loud.

    10. The right to not defend your tastes.


    If you would like to learn more, here are some of the resources I have collected (research conducted in 2006 and 2007):

    Allington, R. and Cunningham, P. (2006). Schools That Work: Where all children can read and write. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

    Atwell, N. (1998). In the Middle: New understanding about writing, reading, and learning. Boynton/Cook Publishers.

    Baker, L. (2003). "The role of parents in motivating struggling readers." Reading and Writing Quarterly.

    Groce, R. (2005). "Deconstructing the accelerated reader program." Reading Horizon 46 (1).

    Haycock, K. (2005). "Collaborative literature-based reading programs with motivation components." Teacher Librarian 33 (2).

    Ishizuka, K. (2002). "Not so fast, accelerated reader." School Library Journal 48 (2).

    Kohn, A. (1999). Punished by Rewards: The trouble with gold stars, incentive plans, A's, praise, and other bribes. New York: mariner Books.

    Krashen, S. (2005). "Accelerated reader: Evidence still lacking." Knowledge Quest 33 (3).

    Lamme, L. (2003). "A literature perspective on accelerated reader." Journal of Children's Literature 29 (2).

    Leung, C.B. (2001). "A cognitive anthropological perspective on first-graders' classifications of picture storybooks." Reading Psychology, 22 (1).

    Mallette, M. (2004). "The influence of 'accelerated reader' on the affective literacy orientations of intermediate grade students." Journal of Literacy Research 36 (1).

    Melton, C., Smothers, B., Anderson, E., Fulton, R., and Thomas, L. (2004). "A study of the effects of the accelerated reader program of fifth grade students' reading achievement growth." Reading Improvement 41 (1).

    Pavonetti, M. (2003). "Accelerated reader: What are the lasting effects on the reading habits of middle school students exposed to accelerated reader in elementary grades?" Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy 46 (4).

    Renaissance Learning (2006). About us.

    Sadusky, L, and Brem, S. (2002). "The integration of renaissance programs into an urban title I elementary school, and its effects on school-wide improvement." Dissertation at Arizona State University.


Share your ideas about this article

My Scholastic

Susan Cheyney