Libraries and book stores roll out their summer reading programs as a way to encourage students to keep reading over the summer. Many of us grew up with these programs, though the prizes and perks for participating weren’t nearly as nice when I was a child.

Last summer alone my kids scored two new books a piece, $15 in gift cards each, and free food and passes from establishments across our city.

This may sound like a great idea – having kids keep track of summer reading by giving them prizes – but research says it has a downside. In fact, it may actually be taking the joy out of reading for kids and giving them the wrong motivation.

 

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A study of elementary-age kids who were given reading logs offered interesting results. Those who were required to keep a reading log and read for 20 minutes a night exhibited a worse attitude about reading at the end of the study and weren’t as interested in reading for pleasure. The group who didn’t have to keep the log reported the opposite feelings about reading, with an increased interest and positive feelings about books.

Parents also want to encourage intrinsic motivations for behavior. We want a child to read because they like reading, not because there is a prize at the end. Summer reading programs largely revolve around the prize for many kids.

This doesn’t mean summer reading programs are a bad idea. It just means that parents need to proceed with caution so kids develop a love for reading and not just a love for the perks that come along with it combined with a dread of reading logs.

1 | Fill out logs quietly

The first rule of reading logs is we don’t talk about reading logs. Yes, parents will likely have to log in and fill out how many minutes their children spent reading, but don’t advertise when this is being done. Filling out logs without kids knowing is a great way to keep them reading for the right reasons. They won’t constantly be checking to see if they’ve met their next goal. In fact, they may forget about the tracking and simply enjoy reading, the whole point of a summer reading program.

2 | Let them read what they want

Summer is supposed to be a break. With more standardized testing and higher expectations of what can be covered in a semester, students often aren’t offered time to read what they want during school hours. They read what they are told to so they can pass tests over books.

That’s why during summer kids should be free to pick what they want, from graphic novels to poorly written books about flatulence. The goal is to encourage children to read, period.

It’s fine to try to introduce a classic, but if a child isn’t interested don’t make it a battle. Try again at another time.

3 | Reward books with books

Programs that reward kids with material items are a double-edged sword. Some reluctant readers may respond to the idea of a prize, but the motive is purely extrinsic. When there is not a prize, will the child still want to read?

When rewards are offered, it’s always nice if the prize can be a book. Barnes and Noble’s summer reading program allows participants to fill out reading logs and then turn them into the store for a book. Kids have to choose from the books being offered, but the choices are generally high quality with something that interests everyone.

Parents can also offer their kids information for their time. A study found that students who were offered information that was considered “casually rich” for completing a mundane task were more likely to stick with the task longer than kids offered stickers. This test was on preschoolers, so stickers are a pretty big incentive with that age group. Still, information won out.

Casually rich information has a meaning and purpose, and with kids it might mean buying them a book on a topic they are currently interested in. Sure, it’s still a material reward, but if it keeps them reading and they read to receive the information in the book, it’s still a win.

4 | Choose programs that track minutes over books completed

Half Price Books reading program allows participants to earn gift cards every month if they read a certain amount of minutes a day. The best part is it doesn’t matter what a child reads. They don’t have to list the name and author of a book, just that they read something every day.

This approach is preferable because it is less pressure for kids. We’re not going to love every book we pick up, and neither do kids. Unfortunately, it’s sometimes impossible to know that a book isn’t a great fit until we’ve read part of it. Tracking by minutes instead of by books gives children permission to put down books they don’t like and still receive credit for the time they spent reading.

The approach that requires kids to track books leaves many children pushing through a book they hate so they can count it for summer reading. That is not a solid way to build a love of reading.

Plus, even kids who love reading have been known to pick books they are not that interested in because they are short. They choose to finish their book list faster instead of investing in books that challenge them.

5 | Guesstimate the timing

Do not set a timer when a kid is reading. Don’t announce that official summer program reading time is starting at noon. Simply sit down and read with kids. Sit and read next to them and let time pass without the awareness of the minutes ticking by.

When it’s time to fill out the summer reading log, guesstimate. As long as the reading is being done and a child is not losing the progress they made throughout the school year, the exact minutes aren’t the point.