Do (reading) incentives work?

Last week I had the pleasure of attending the International Conference on School Librarianship of Asian Countries.  As the sole tweeter I created the hashtag #icslac  but I’m a rather poor multi-tasker and therefore incapable of listening and writing and tweeting, so I’ll write a couple of post about the proceedings and my musings on them.  For a copy of the proceedings papers, you can go to this site (don’t get put off by the Chinese, most of the proceedings were in English – much to my relief).

As the parent of a voracious and a reluctant reader, and as a teacher librarian seeing students passing through the library on either side of the spectrum or somewhere inbetween – the magic involved in creating self-motivated readers is one that is very close to my heart.

Two of the speakers touched on this theme.  Firstly Dr. Krashen with his talk on “The Great Fiction / Nonfiction Debate” and then Dr. Samuel Chu with “Interest and Ability through Gamification“.  It was greatly unfortunate that there just was not enough time for the issues to be discussed and debated at length given the very tight schedule, so I’d like to take this further in this blog.  I’d also like to plant the seed of thought that perhaps some of this has to do with culture – reading culture, testing culture, exam culture, learning culture, curriculum culture, homework culture, competitive culture.  Some has to do with availability and accessibility – of role models, of suitable books in the home, the school, the classroom, the (public / school) library and of course the availability of time.

Dr. Krashen successfully demolished the four fallacies of not allowing students unlimited self-selected pleasure reading of fiction

  • not academic
  • doesn’t provide knowledge
  • doesn’t challenge the mind
  • students stick with easy books
and provided research to argue against each point. Of course it is necessary to understand where Dr. Krashen is coming from to put this all into context – the environment of the USA gone crazy on Common Core Standards and an obsession with FOMO particularly as Asian nations top every possible educational league table. And so the pendulum is swinging to spending every waking moment on what is thought to be “constructive” and “educational” activity.  He recently did a very interesting podcast on TPRS that is worth a listen, and towards the end (at minute 47.30) you can get a feeling for this issue.
A little later Dr. Chu gave a very entertaining talk (let’s just say that while all the speakers are excellent in their field, the idea of TED type talks has not yet filtered down to the academic scene here) on his “Reading Battle” project.
Here is a video of the award ceremony – if you don’t have the patience for the full 11 minutes, I would say go to 5″50 and watch the mother of a child who was a reluctant reader – I challenge any parent of a reluctant reader to have dry eyes at the end of that segment! 
If you want to read more on how the project was rolled out at the Lam Tin Primary school, this is a great presentation – you can see how they have the buy-in of all the stakeholders.

Now for the meat … the audience was fairly evenly divided between those who support and those who oppose incentivising reading, with myself somewhere in the middle.  There comes a point I think in every parent and every educator’s life when the go for “whatever works” for whichever student.  Having spent 12 years in Asia, 3 of them with my kids being educated in a Chinese system, and the most of the rest of my parental life in other countries, I’m no longer amazed, confused, appalled or otherwise phased by how any one culture or community attempts to turn their offspring from mewling babies into functional adults.  Even within my household, sample size 2, what works for the one, definitely doesn’t work for the other.  Let’s say I now find everything “interesting” with the possibility for implementation wholesale or diluted in my professional and personal practice. Apart from scolding and beating or otherwise abusing kids physically or verbally.

Those opposed pointed to Alfie Kohn’s “Punished by Rewards”  and

The Book Whisperer: Awakening the Inner Reader in Every Child, written by Donalyn Miller

And Penny Kittle of book love… a question – where are the Asian authors writing about this? Are they just not part of the educational rock stars? Or is it languishing in a language that we English dominant people don’t read or access?
I posed the question to our School Librarian Facebook group and here is a selection of the replies I received:

xxxx I offered a substantial amount of money to 2 young men to attempt a book once – they both didn’t bite or even grab the chance. … I dislike AR for this reason. Children need to want to read, and the reading needs to be challenging and interesting enough to engage them for readings sake. I am on Dr Krashen’s side. wink emoticon

xxxx The evidence is overwhelmingly against incentivized reading, not only from Stephen Krashen. Give the book Readicide a look. 
On the whole, reading skills and interest in reading decrease over time when programs such as AR are put to use. FVR (Free Voluntary Reading) is the way to go.
xxxx Do what works for who it works for. We don’t have to be so black and white about everything. It’s how nasty arguments start.

xxxx  Not black and white – just stating our opinion based on the peer reviewed research and personal experiences. Feel free to disagree without getting personal. That is when nasty arguments ensue. Plenty of schools use AR – I would like to hear their experiences too.

xxxx Nothing personal at all. Sorry you perceived it that way

xxxxx And something new that is being promoted related to this.…

Learn2Earn’s Whooo’s Reading is a free CCSS aligned reading log for teachers to encourage daily reading…

xxxx I was recently at a presentation of Book Battle by Dr Sam Chu. Dr Sam Chu has developed a program based on predominantly reading offline, then answering questions (predominantly comprehension based) and earning badges online. This style of reading program for reward may not suit everyone, but it has an appeal to the culture of education in Hong Kong. The program was set up for Hong Kong local schooling, where incentive (and competitive) based education is the norm. In May this year I was part of a group of international librarians who read and voted on papers submitted for the IASL conference paper award. The group unanimously voted on a paper which highlighted the bias when western academic research and findings are used across the globe. I am western educated and hold the values of an education system and library from both my upbringing and working experiences. I enjoy reading Dr Stephen Krashen’s research. I don’t however believe that it should be a global solution. Let us celebrate cultural differences if the aim is to get kids reading. Dr Sam Chu’s program does start with the reading of a book, and in the case of local Hong Kong schools, this means a trip to the local library to find it. It should be celebrated as a positive step for the audience it targets. P.S. I don’t have the name of the author and paper at hand, but would like to share when I do.

xxxx Dr Chu presentation on his gamification Reading Battle…/Chus-presentation-v2015-6…

xxxx One schools experience of Reading battle…/Lam-Tin-Methodist-Primary…

xxxx I wouldn’t chose to use it as curriculum, but this school does. Renaissance College and Lam Tin are great examples of schools just down the round from each other, but a world apart. This looks like a promotional report to support Book Battle. I am impressed that it profiles the importance of the library, teacher librarian and their collaboration with IT. Book Battle features on the school website as well. I would liked to know if there was curriculum for reading so well profiled by the school before Book Battle, did Book Battle replace something better due to it’s convenience?

Some of the responses above pointed to the AR (accelerated reader) program – that has its fans and opponents including the fact that it’s commercially driven and doesn’t have a lasting effect over time (Pavonetti – I would like to point out here, that even Miller bemoans the fact that once her students move onto another teacher without the same structure and passion for FVR the reading of her ex-students drops off.

I also have to wonder about the type of language being read.  Just about every (highly) literate native Chinese speaker has lamented to me that once their children become fluent English readers they will eschew reading in Chinese for reading in English.  We make an argument in FVR that it doesn’t matter what children read as long as they are reading … (although if you read what all the “gurus” have to say, it’s not quite as free and easy as all that, and the students under their care are heavily guided towards good children’s literature – which doesn’t by the way equate with “classics”, just in case you wondered).  Does this argument hold for it not mattering in which language you read?  I would argue very strongly that it matters very much in which language you are reading.

I don’t have any answers here, but would like to see what people have to say…

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