5 Reading Incentive Programs and How They Can Work for Your Family

There’s an ongoing debate as to whether or not reading incentive programs are a good thing. (Just so you don’t get your hopes up, this blog post isn’t going to settle the matter). 

Some parents and educators say reading incentives have absolutely helped motivate their reluctant readers. The kids just needed a little outside motivation to get them started and now their love of reading has taken off.

Others point to the dangers of external motivation and warn that incentive programs backfire. They say the programs are essentially bribes and when the incentives stop, so does the reading.

In my experience, there’s truth on both sides. 

When I was a kid, I loved incentive programs. I was a sucker for gold stars and achievement certificates. Whether you call them bribes or incentives, I do know they helped encourage me to read. And as I read, my reading fluency improved which reduced frustration which led to more reading. 

Score one for incentive programs!

(Here’s a picture of one of my old reading awards circa 1988. Why do I still have this?!)

Pizza Hut "Book It!" program award button

But I’ve also seen a reading incentive program fail spectacularly. 

When my oldest son started a certain reading reward program years ago, it included an app that helped students track their reading minutes. In just a few weeks, my son (who started the program loving reading) was now watching the clock rather than his book. He did only the bare minimum minutes required and then stopped, saying his reading time was up for the day. He went from loving reading to complaining about it as if it were a chore. 

Total backfire!

(Thankfully he reverted to his book-loving self after we stopped using the app… Phew!)

So, if the outcome of using these programs is so uncertain, why do I still use them?

It’s because I now know to use these incentives as a tool and not let them become dictators. When that reading app program failed it was because I let it control us instead of the other way around…

“You HAVE to read one more book with the timer on so the app records the minutes!”… “I can’t read that one – it isn’t long enough to fill the full time for today.”… “Can I do double minutes today so I don’t have to read tomorrow?”

…What?! This incentive program was dictating how, when, why and how much we were reading! This was not good!

Since that lesson learned, we’ve had great success using reading programs when we use them for our own specific purposes. For example, in our homeschool, we use them not so much as a motivator but as an “excitement generator.” I’m grateful that my kids already love reading – they read ALL THE TIME. They don’t need motivation to read. 

But what we do need is the excitement that comes from doing “special” things – activities outside the norm of our daily schoolwork. In a public school these kinds of things are built in by teachers and principals. Things like Show & Tell Fridays or class pizza parties for reaching goals are extra little “special traditions” that generate enthusiasm and a sense of belonging.

So we use reading incentive programs as one method of intentionally creating a sense of anticipation and tradition.

One of our favorite traditions is huddling in the minivan eating personal pan pizzas in the parking lot of our local carry-out-only Pizza Hut before we head over to Open Gym to burn off the calories. We do this monthly when my kids earn their Book-It reading certificates. I try to think of the grease stains on the seats as reminders that we’re building memories. 😬

So, if your kids already love reading, don’t dismiss a reading incentive program just because your family doesn’t need motivation to read. It might fulfill another need. 

Maybe it’s an “excitement generator” like it is for us. Or it might be a way to provide some third-party recognition. Maybe a program that includes writing book reviews (like our library program does) becomes a way to give your reluctant writer some extra writing practice. Programs that provide free tickets to amusement parks, zoos or sporting events could make it possible to celebrate the end of the school year with pizzazz despite a tight budget.

If you do have a reluctant reader, try to get at the root cause behind their unwillingness to read before starting an incentive program. If a child hates reading there might be physical, psychological or emotional reasons why. Those types of reasons won’t be eliminated just by showering a kid with pizza coupons and baseball tickets. 

So before you jump into any incentive program, think about your purpose for doing it and remember to use it in ways that truly benefit YOUR kids. 

There are a ton of programs out there so you’re sure to find one that fits your needs. Here are a few of our favorites to get you started:

  • Pizza Hut Book It! – Pizza Hut offers K-6th grade students certificates for a free personal pan pizza each month from October thru March when reading goals are met. We just received our Book It! certificates for the school year ahead!

blank student Book It! certificates for 2018-19 school year

  • Local Libraries – Many libraries have summer reading programs with prizes, t-shirts, books and other incentives. Check with your library to see if they sponsor any reading programs during the summer or school year.
  • Half Price Books – This national chain offers Bookworm Bucks ($5 off coupons) during June and July for kids who read at least 300 minutes during each month.
  • Sports Teams – A lot of sports teams sponsor reading programs and offer tickets, prizes and special experiences like running the bases or meeting the mascot. Research your local teams to find programs near you. Note to my Chicagoland neighbors: Check out the ones hosted by the Kane County Cougars and the Chicago Wolves.
  • Six Flags Read to Succeed – Six Flags offers K-6th grade students a free ticket to any Six Flags theme park to encourage reading for fun during the school year.

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