Sunday, March 17, 2024

Evidence-Based Summer Reading Program Design

The Inconvenient Truth of Incentivized Reading Programs, Part 2

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In Part 1 of this series I discussed how summer reading evolved to become the heavily incentivized programs that are so commonplace today, despite the fact that research does not support the effectiveness of using rewards to promote long-term reading habits or gains, and suggests that extrinsic rewards are not only ineffective, but can actually reduce the desired behavior. I also posed some of the beliefs, attitudes, and conflicting priorities that have led to this research being largely ignored as an inconvenient and uncomfortable truth. So, where do we go from here?

The first thing we have to do is start talking about it! Yes, it is very uncomfortable to challenge long-held beliefs and traditions, to question the status quo, and it takes a lot of time to dig into the research to educate ourselves and others (which is why I've shared an annotated bibliography). But if our mission is truly to encourage life-long reading, then we can no longer bury our heads in the sand and fall into the trap of "that's how it's always been done". We need to educate ourselves and have the difficult conversations, look at reading programs through a critical, evidence-based lens. And yes, convincing the powers-that-be will likely be a challenge, but the sooner we start having those conversations and presenting evidence, the sooner we can effect positive change. 

So, lets start with the assumption that our goal really is to promote reading and life-long reading habits. If the typical incentivized reading program doesn't really support that, what do we do? Fortunately, we can also turn to the literature for guidance as to what factors do positively affect reading habits and ability, which generally fall into three categories: (1) self-direction & autonomy, (2) ease of access to, and ease of finding, materials they want to read; and (3) social interaction and collaboration:

  • Choice - The importance of empowering kids with the freedom to make their own reading choices is mentioned repeatedly in the literature. Let them choose what they want to read, validate and show interest in their choices, let them set their own reading goals, let them decide when and how they like to read. Some may like to read a little every day, others may only read 2-3 days a week, but sit and read an entire book, or several books, at one time; reading is not a "one size fits all" practice!
  • Non-Competitive - Reading programs should not be competitive, or have a competitive feel. This may attract your competitive, high-achieving skilled readers (who are going to read regardless), but will alienate those who are not competitive, those who read more slowly, struggling readers, and reluctant readers.
  • Book-Rich Environment - This is mentioned in the literature more in regards to the classroom and home as obviously the library is a book-rich environment. But we need to be sure we are making everyone feel welcome and offering well-curated collections that will attract readers and make it easier to find books they want to read. Also, are there ways we can support book-rich environments at school and at home? Outreach, bookmobiles, etc.
  • Variety - Offer a variety of reading levels, formats, and materials in a variety of genres and topics. Fiction, non-fiction, graphic novels, magazines, audiobooks, digital materials, print materials, etc. This also will make it more likely kids can find something they enjoy reading, are willing to try, and will continue reading. Any and all reading "counts"! Don't limit your reading program to only include certain types of reading material, and don't limit it to only library books! I know we want the circs, but odds are most of the books they read will be library books anyway, so why set a limitation that may make it difficult for some to participate? My first manager used to tell kids they could read the back of cereal boxes if they wanted. Reading is reading! Tracking time rather than books, titles, or page numbers allows for this.
  • Make it Social - Book clubs, group reading times, book-themed programs, lunch bunch, author talks....give kids the chance to see other kids reading and to talk with other kids about their reading.
  • Set an Example - Seeing adults reading and hearing adults talking about their reading and sharing their love of reading.
  • Remove Barriers to Access - Re-examine library policies and procedures to make it easier for kids to have access. Fine forgiveness programs or going fine-free all together, temporarily overriding blocked juvenile/teen accounts for the summer, a "community shelf" of donated books kids without cards can take, making it easier for kids to get library cards, partnering with the schools to issue all kids library cards, bookmobiles and other outreach programs to bring the library to those who can't get to the library, etc. 
  • Remove Barriers to Participation - Re-evaluate your reading program to make it easier for all kids and types of readers to participate. Allow any and all types of reading and reading materials to count. Don't limit reading to library books, don't require a library card to participate or attend programs. Don't require specific titles, formats, or reading every day. If you must track, track by time rather than books, titles, pages, or days of reading. This levels the playing field among ages and abilities, allows for any and all types of reading, and validates all reading choices and habits.
  • Reading-Related Prizes - If you must offer rewards, make them related to reading (or supportive of early literacy skills with young children), no big, expensive flashy grand prizes. Books, bookmarks, e-readers, etc. 
  • Read to Them - Older kids still like to be read to! Be sure to read a variety of materials, genres, fiction, and non-fiction. Incorporate reading aloud to older kids in your programming, and encourage parents to continue reading aloud to older kids.
  • Help Them Find Books They Will Enjoy - Margaret Mackey (2014) asserts that one key difference between successful and unsuccessful readers is the ability to find and select books that they will like, a skill that is not taught in school and only innate to some. Providing finding aids such as shelf labels and signage, themed bibliographies, displays, book reviews, book talks, and instruction on using the online catalog are all ways to make it more likely kids can find books that will interest them.
  • Make Reading Relevant - Tie reading to real life experiences, current trends and interests, and engaging programs and activities that will stimulate curiosity.
  • Creating a Welcoming Environment - Make sure kids, families, and teens feel welcome in your library. Create play areas, cozy seating for families to read together, comfy seating or reading nooks for solitary reading, activities to do while at the library, displays that invite browsing, staff that are welcoming and provide excellent customer service and reader's advisory. The more welcome people are, the more often they will come to the library, the more time they will spend in the library, and the more books they will read in the library and checkout to read at home.
  • Market Collections & Programs - We try, yet it still seems that so many people are unaware of all the library has to offer. Partner with schools, other civic organizations, non-profits, and businesses to get the word out! What works for you will depend on your community. 

What might this look like? There is no "one size fits all", but I will describe the compromise I have come up with that satisfies my need to at least attempt to incorporate what the literature is telling me, and still satisfy the [former] director's need for stats to present to the board and resistance to new ideas (hopefully the next one will be more receptive to trying new things and thinking out of the box).

To start with, since I arrived at this library I have worked to create a welcoming, inviting environment, and I try to create fun, interesting programs for all ages with lots of hands-on, experiential learning to help draw people in, and of course the programming is increased during the summer with a combination of mostly in-house programs with some outside presenters and paid performers. I have displays, try to tie books to programming, starting each elementary program by inviting kids to share about what they had been reading and booktalking 3 new books, or books that relate to the activity we are about to do. And yes, I will bend the rules a bit if that means sending a kid home with a book they wanted.

For the reading challenge, instead of logging minutes, pages, books, or days, I created what I hoped would be more relaxed, fun, non-competitive "Bookopoly" board, with each square containing a prompt for reading or a learning activity that supported program attendance, interacting with library staff, family reading, or early literacy skills (there were also opportunities for free choice). This was for all ages, birth through adult. Participants were encouraged to set their own goals, though I did ask that at least 5 squares be completed (out of a total of 40). They did not have to go in any direction or order, and could pick and choose which squares to do. Every child/kid/teen that signed up got to pick a prize book! What better way to encourage reading that to start them off with a book of their own choosing to keep? When they turned it back in at the end, they got another book, and an entry into a prize drawing. I don't really like prize drawings to be honest, but I felt they were expected. My compromise was to keep them modest ($20-$30 value) and reading or learning related.

I pushed that this was leisure reading and meant to be FUN, not a competition or a chore, and that ALL genres and formats were valid, and that kids should be allowed to choose what they wanted to read. There was no requirement to read only library books or to have a library card to participate. The only stipulation was that grand prizes were limited to those in our service area (our county and surrounding counties) and must be picked up in person (sorry, Aaron), and the child had to be present to pick their own prize book (to encourage free choice, and be sure the child existed). I got a lot of positive feedback, though not as many were turned back in at the end as I'd hoped. I'm basically doing things the same this year, but maybe doing a finale event to encourage returned reading logs. So that's what I am actually doing, for now. 

But, what would I do if I could *really* do whatever I wanted, and had the staff and funding to do so? First off, I would ditch the whole formal reading challenge and reading logs! Are you clutching your pearls? I know it sounds like blasphemy, but I just think they are largely ineffective, people are over them, and no matter how fun and easy we try to make it, it still feels too much like homework when it's required (I would still put out various reading challenges as purely optional activities for those who enjoy them). 

Instead, I would just give books away! No strings attached. Not only at the kickoff at the library, but also at various locations around town where families or kids who might not typically come to the library might be. The park, the splash pad, the health department, the farmers market, low-income housing complexes, community centers (if we had one), etc. I would also like to see a significant summer outreach program in addition to our in-house programs.

If your library has successfully moved away from incentivized reading programs, please share in the comments, or by e-mail at I'd really love to hear what others are doing instead, and how they were able to convince the powers-that-be to try something totally different. Did they give up their focus on stats, or just shift to focusing on other stats, like program attendance? How did staff and the community respond?

Let's make summer reading less about numbers and prizes, and more about kids and reading!


  1. I wish more libraries would move away from incentivized reading. The whole SRP idea does nothing but cause stress and anxiety for staff and I think it does on patrons as well.

    1. I do, too. I am all for promoting reading and having additional programming in the summer since kids are out of school, but not the crazy, stressful circus it has become for many of us. It really disturbs me how as a profession we tend to fervently cling to certain practices just because that's how it's always been done, and resistant to critically examining what we do in light of abundant research. Every time this is mentioned in the online community, it's met with a chorus of "Yes, but..." rationalizations based in emotion, not evidence. It's just like how the education system ignored how phonics are critical for reading instruction for 20 years or more. I've been able to keep summer program manageable and not too much of a circus and people seem happy with it, but I do think they are totally over reading logs. We are an educated bunch; we should be able to find ways to promote, encourage, and facilitate reading that doesn't involve reading logs!

  2. I appreciate your work on this Jen. It's an issue that is so important and needs this kind of clarion call. Over ten years ago, the library I worked at jettisoned incentivized SLPs and created a richer experience for kids and I never looked back. In my consulting and workshop presenting work, I gathered dozens of blog posts and articles on a Summer Library R/Evolution Pinterest board (subtitle: Let's talk about new and better ways to do public library youth SRP/SLP. Prizeless? Yes! Badges? Yes! Transliteracy? Yes! Experiential discovery? Yes!). It has 80 Pins that I kept current until I retired a few years ago. Keep on fighting the good fight!

    1. I would really love to hear more about your experiences with moving away from incentivized programs. How did you convince the powers-that-be, how did you get staff and community buy-in? Feel free to email me at I look forward to exploring your Pinterest board! Thanks for sharing!

    2. I would love to hear Marge's answer as well. This is flippin' fantastically helpful work on what frustrates so many of us, and any way I can learn to further staff/community buy-in would be so welcome. I revamped our summer reading program to be much more respectful of choice--having kids choose their own goals. And I took away a huge plastic prize component. But I still have some work I'd like to do on this front to get where I want to go. THANK YOU for your writing!

    3. Here's what I wrote in reply to Jen about how the process went for me. I am including it here.

      "I was very fortunate to work for 22 years at a medium size library as head of youth services with a director who was willing to collaborate as well as step aside and trust change, especially in letting SLP evolve. We did lots of experimenting, tinkering and trying.

      The breakthrough was working with our school district on a district wide collaborative winter reading program. My eyes were opened in the design process and unlocked what we could do in summer. That was powerful networking that accelerated our change dynamic.

      This blog post from my old Tiny Tips for Library Fun blog talks about it.

      Once I got my final job as head of youth services (2008-2015) before retirement, I was able to introduce change with a veteran staff and then accelerate that change when we brought in newer younger staff as the older staff retired. That team really flew with the concept of no prizes -and got me there with them - and we finally made the transition!

      If you check the tags on my blog, hit “SLP Revolution” for the blog posts that most directly deal with SLP change.

      I always found that the communities I lived in were far more open to change than I expected. And admin was able to trust that our youth team knew where we could go to better serve the kids."

    4. Wild violets, you're welcome! I just wish more people would be willing to at least consider the possibility that that way it's always been done may not be the best way. I think people feel powerless to effect any change, so they'd just rather ignore the research and not think about the difficult questions.