Making Reading the Reward

by Danny Brassell, Ph.D., 2019 CCIRA Conference Featured Speaker

At the village church in Kalonovka, Russia, attendance at Sunday school picked up after the priest started handing out candy to the peasant children. One of the most faithful was a pug-nosed, pugnacious lad who recited his Scriptures with proper piety, pocketed his reward, then fled into the fields to munch on it.

The priest took a liking to the boy and persuaded him to attend church school. This was preferable to doing household chores from which his devout parents excused him. By offering other inducements, the priest managed to teach the boy the four Gospels. In fact, he won a special prize for learning all four by heart and reciting them nonstop in church. Even 60 years later, the “peasant boy” still liked to recite Scriptures, but in a context that would horrify the old priest. For the prize pupil, who memorized so much of the Bible, was Nikita Khrushchev, who would become Premier of the Soviet Union.

The same Nikita Khrushchev who nimbly mouthed “God’s Word” when a child, later declared God to be nonexistent – because his cosmonauts had not seen Him in outer space. Khrushchev memorized the Scriptures for the candy, the rewards, the bribes, rather than for the meaning it had for his life. Artificial motivation will produce artificial results.

screen shot 2019-01-28 at 10.10.27 pm
by Rawpixel on Unsplash

Anyone can develop the reading skills of a child who already likes to read. The real trick is working with students who do not like to read for one reason or another. The question, then, becomes, “How do entice children to read if they do not like to read?”

Inspiring students to love reading can require a great amount of determination, focus and effort, especially for struggling readers who are under-motivated or resistant. Taking the right approach and knowing which techniques to use or avoid is important in helping our students succeed. Students need to be engaged in ongoing reminders about why reading is important (the rewards) and how it will help them in their lives, both now and in the future.

The best reward for students to read is to make reading rewarding to the student.

Rewarding students for reading takes a delicate balance of love and persistence. As parents and teachers, there are some things that we simply must require of our students. We must be persistent that they attend school regularly, behave themselves appropriately, change their underwear, eat properly, etc. Improving our reading skills and nurturing our attitudes toward reading should be added to this list of required activities. When adults consistently follow up in a loving manner to help readers improve and battle through the roadblocks, we send the message that reading is important and we care enough to make sure improvement happens.

Sometimes giving a gentle nudge is all it takes, while other times your engagement requires a more direct or serious approach. No matter what approach you choose to use, it is important that struggling readers hear reasons why you are being persistent. “I’m following up and getting on your case because I care about you and want you to enjoy reading” is a great way to communicate your intentions.

Students also need to feel an appropriate level of challenge. Reading cannot be overly challenging in terms of the difficulty level of materials or the duration.  Students want challenges that they can accomplish, but they need people closely involved to set them up for success by mentoring them, monitoring them, keeping them accountable and teaching them to get back up when they fall.

Strategic complements are one of the best rewards we can give struggling readers, especially compliments that are thoughtful, come from the heart and well-timed. Compliments are easy, effective and help build confidence in readers. Shallow compliments like “I like your book” or “good job, reading” can sometimes work, but the best compliments are ones that are crafted in a way that builds the character of the receiving person. Give compliments that are based on significant reading efforts, improvements, determination, risk-taking and occasions that connect their personality and talents with reading materials.

Still stuck? Here are some quick tips for reading rewards:

  • If you need ideas to remind students of the rewards that reading offers, check out the huge list of children’s book categories on Amazon. You’ll find over 20 different topics that are then broken down into hundreds of specific sub-topics. There’s something there for everyone!
  • Discuss the results of reading tests in a non-judgmental way. Justify a poor performance with concrete, specific reasons that don’t insult students’ character. Give them hope for improvement, make a plan to help them succeed, then follow up to make sure they do.
  • Foster positive reading relationships – the more often struggling readers interact with people who love reading, the more likely their positive attitudes will rub off on them. This applies to peers, parents, teachers, administrators, etc.
  • Book prizes (meaning, rewarding students with actual books) are the best extrinsic motivators.
  • Don’t use rewards to bribe students into reading. It may work in the short term, but not in the long run.
  • Validate what students like to read. It shows that you respect them.
  • Avoid rewarding students if they don’t need the reward. This is called the “Overjustification Effect.” When students are rewarded for things that they already enjoy doing, their desire to participate in those activities decreases.
  • Avoid giving ongoing rewards that students anticipate. The reward will be much more meaningful if it is unexpected.

Danny Brassell is affectionately known as “Jim Carrey with a Ph.D.,” ( and is an internationally-acclaimed speaker and best-selling author of 15 books, including Read, Lead & Succeed and The Reading Makeover, based on his popular TEDx talk. He is the co-founder of the world’s top reading engagement system for struggling and reluctant readers,

Author: CCIRAblog

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