Camp Read-a-lot: Rethinking Reading Incentives

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This is the entrance to “Camp Read-a-lot” the place I am blessed to learn, grow, and serve others as an elementary school principal.  This year, we have focused not only on how we can help our students become better readers, but also to love reading.

We all realize the importance of reading.  Particularly at the elementary school we feel the pressure to help students to read and read well knowing that those reading below grade level by the end of 3rd grade are much more likely to struggle indefinitely.

We know that there is no greater predictor of a student’s success in reading than simply time spent reading.  However, getting students to put aside all the noise that surrounds them daily and simply read is easier said than done.  Knowing the incredible importance of reading every day and the uphill struggle it can be with many students, schools have offered a host of solutions to get their students to read every day.  We have offered students pizzas and cheeseburgers in exchange for books read.  We have provided students with tickets to theme parks for meeting reading goals.  We have invested large amounts of money in computer programs that will track books students have read and ask them questions to prove they have read.   We have given countless trinkets from countless treasure boxes for students who dutifully get their parents to sign their reading logs each night.  We have given trophies to students who have read regularly and recognized them at assemblies.  We have even entered readers into raffles for expensive electronics or cash prizes for continuing to read.     And we have helped to raise a generation of students who view reading as something roughly equivalent to a steaming plate of broccoli.

Think about the subtle message behind a reading program with a foundation of lots of rewards for reading…  It says something like, “I know reading is boring and tedious, but if you can stomach reading x number of books, I’ll give you a free pizza!”  It really isn’t much different from “eat your broccoli and then we’ll have dessert” message.  I don’t mean to demean the support we get as a school from many great businesses that support us with incentives for our students (We just had free pizzas my kids “earned” through reading the other night and they were delicious!).  However, we need to step back and examine whether we present reading for what it truly is: entertaining, exciting, comforting, absorbing, mind expanding, awesomeness.  I was raised by two readers and I always looked forward to the many times when I would go with my mom to check out books from the library.  Although I happily took the free pizzas my school offered during my time as a student, I didn’t need a reward to read because reading was a reward in and of itself.  Even as an adult, there would be few larger treats for me than an uninterrupted hour to read a favorite book.  If our goal is truly to create life long readers, than continuing to look for new and better ways to incentivize reading cannot continue to be our focus. We must focus all our energy on how we can model our love of reading and celebrate reading in all that we do.

Along these lines, I am so proud of the work our reading committee has done to put reading in a positive light and worthy of celebration this year!  First, we have moved away from students getting a certain number of points on a computer system and instead focus on recording all the books being read both at home and at school.  Each student has an individual goal based on their reading ability and all students are involved in meeting our building goal from our emergent to our most fluent readers. As we have met each goal, we have planned reading “celebrations.” My favorite by far was when we gathered large groups of students in the gym, provided a snack, and gave them time to curl up with a pillow and a favorite book.  Imagine the concept of celebrating reading with time to relax and read!  It sent the message loud and clear to our students that reading is awesome!

All of our celebrations have been based around the theme, “Camp Read a Lot” with pieces added to our camping mural as students get closer and closer to their goal.  Based on data from previous years, we set our building goal at 13,000 books read and we have currently passed our year end goal and are on pace for 20,000 books read!  This works out to about an average of about 100 books read per student for our K-4 students!  I am looking forward to the culmination in which I have promised to be turned into a “human smore” in keeping with our camping theme.  I’m not sure how that will be accomplished, but I guess it beats the traditional kissing a pig. 🙂

How are you celebrating the love of reading at your school?  We would love to hear from you!

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