Wednesday, March 13, 2024

The Inconvenient Truth of Incentivized Reading Programs

So, I've been working on that deeper dive into incentivized reading I kept saying I was going to do, and I have found that there is a plethora of literature on incentivizing desired behaviors and extrinsic vs. intrinsic motivations in general and specifically in regards to reading, and even some about summer reading programs in particular. In fact, there is so much research on extrinsic vs. intrinsic motivation I could work on this for years and not get through it all, but I now feel like I've read more than enough to draw and support informed conclusions about summer reading programs (see Annotated Bibliography).

*Spoiler Alert* - We're doing it wrong

Let me qualify that....we're doing it wrong IF our goal is to encourage reading, and especially if our goal is to create life-long readers. Moreover, this is not new information. Not only does research regarding extrinsic vs. intrinsic motivation go back several decades, I discovered that an article reviewing the existing research and making evidence-based recommendations for summer reading program design was published in the top journal for children's librarianship seven years ago, and an opinion piece cautioning against incentivized reading supported with references appeared in the same journal FIFTEEN years ago! And apparently ignored, likely because they didn't fit the narrative librarians want to believe or meet the demand for statistics by administrators and politicians. It is, as Al Gore would say, an inconvenient truth.

Let's back up for a minute... So, just what is our goal for summer reading and other reading programs? Summer reading programs date back as far as 1896, but they rapidly expanded and gained importance after early research seemed to confirm the idea of summer learning loss, often referred to as the "summer slide", and show it was responsible for the increasing achievement gaps between students from upper and lower socioeconomic households (more recent research casting doubts on this notwithstanding). Summer reading programs then gained a sense of urgency and evolved from relatively simple, laid-back programs to be a major focus of public libraries. 

Then the perfect storm of recession, reduced funding, the advent of the internet, and development of new digital media threw public libraries into a fight to continuously prove their relevance, and administrators and bureaucrats relied heavily on statistics to do this. This emphasis on stats is where summer reading programs began to go off the rails, in my opinion. The focus changed from children to numbers as staff became pressured to increase their stats year after year. More programs, more people attending, more kids participating in summer reading....more, more, more. Summer reading became a stressful, exhausting circus and the original goals of fighting the alleged "summer slide", encouraging reading, and creating a life-long love of reading fell by the wayside in the pursuit of numbers.

This focus on numbers over children led to the incentivized reading programs that are the standard today. In order to get kids to participate, prizes were given. To get even more kids participating the next year more prizes were given, then chances at raffles for increasingly expensive, flashy prizes: bicycles, videogames, iPads, e-readers (at least those are related to reading), gift cards, elaborate themed gift or "experience" packages, and more. I once worked for a library that literally paid kids to check out books! In the late 1970s-early 1980s my siblings and I were happy to get a coupon for a free DQ ice cream cone; now some kids are walking away with prizes valued at hundreds of dollars. 

So, what's wrong with this? Anyone who has had basic psychology (or heard enough pop psychology) is familiar with the Skinnerian theory that giving rewards increases a desired behavior, right? It's such a widely held belief that most people take it as fact rather than theory, but the truth is that it's not quite that simple. Yes, rewards may increase the desired behavior---in the short term. But once the reward is removed, the behavior decreases. In order to make long-term, lasting changes in behavior, you have to have a carefully designed, long-term behavior modification program that is designed to gradually transfer extrinsic motivation to intrinsic motivation. And that's not going to happen in an 8-week summer program.

There is an abundance of research going back decades that supports this, but much like the research showing the necessity of phonics instruction was ignored for decades by the educational system, this research has also largely been ignored. To be fair, all research has to be looked at with a critical eye, many are very small studies and there is research that suggests otherwise, but what I've read so far, combined with my own training in behavior modification and observations from a decade of summer reading programs, has me convinced that the typical incentivized summer reading program is not very effective in developing life-long readers. Big flashy prizes and cash payouts motivate more cheating rather than more reading, in my observations.

And what about the articles claiming successful incentivized summer reading programs? That brings us back to the question of what the goal of summer reading really is, what behaviors are we actually wanting to increase? What are we measuring? If the goal is simply a short-term increase in circulation and "participation" stats by getting people to check out books and complete reading logs, then incentives work. But if the goal is to actually increase reading, and *especially* if the goal is for that increase to be long-term, then typical incentivized summer reading programs aren't going to do that. Even more concerning is research that suggests that incentivizing something the person previously did on their own, without incentives, can actually cause the desired behavior to decrease​. The mere offering of a reward for a behavior may lead the subject to infer that the desired behavior must be unpleasant if they need to be bribed to do it. So not only are we NOT really creating a bunch of new lifelong readers, we could be hurting kids that are already readers!

So if there is so much research suggesting short-term, incentivized reading programs are not in the best interest of encouraging life-long reading, why are we still doing them? For many reasons it is not only an inconvenient truth, but an uncomfortable one that many of us, and most of our bosses, just don't want to talk about: 

  1. We've fallen into the trap of "that's the way it's always been done"; we've drunk the Kool-Aid.
  2. Denial - it's not just a river in Egypt. People don't want to know or believe the truth because they don't want to admit what we've always done isn't working, feel powerless to change it, don't want to have to make changes, or don't know how to change; so they'd rather just ignore it.
  3. We tend to create emotional narratives to rationalize it, because we so badly WANT it to work, "if incentives motivate them to even pick up a book, then hopefully something will catch their attention and they will start reading", sounds good, tugs at the heartstrings, but is this really happening enough to warrant continuing the status quo? Do they really keep reading after the summer is over and rewards are gone? Could there not be better ways to facilitate this scenario than flashy prizes?
  4. Admin and stakeholders like numbers, and are VERY resistant to giving up anything that generates statistics! Stats can be useful and have their place, but do not tell the whole story. This is where children's librarians and library administrations can be at odds; we tend to focus on the kids, they tend to focus on the numbers. And I won't lie, I also like numbers and data because they are a concrete way to show the powers-that-be (who generally don't really understand my job and have different priorities) that I'm doing a good job.
  5. It's not really possible to do controlled, long-term studies of reading habits in relation to library summer reading programs to clearly show what works and doesn't work; but measuring short-term concrete behavior such as completion of reading logs is easy
  6. Front-line librarians often don't have a voice in the design of summer reading or authority to make radical changes; these decisions are often far-removed from those who have the most knowledge and expertise, and actually work with the kids.
  7. FEAR! The fear of change, the fear of questioning the status quo, the fear of not having convenient stats to demonstrate our worth, the fear of going against the grain, the fear of less participation. But consider this quote from Suzanne Stauffer in her 2009 article in Children and Libraries (the peer-reviewed ALSC journal):

"If you find yourself thinking, 'If I don't give incentives, no one will come [participate],' ask yourself what that says about the children's real motivation and the program's real effect."

If our goal is truly to promote reading and life-long reading habits, and the typical incentivized reading program doesn't really support that, what do we do? That's a very good question, and one I will attempt to explore in my next postIn the meantime, please see my annotated bibliography (link below) for supporting references:


  1. Thank you for this! I have read a little about this, but I really appreciate the convenience of the annotated bibliography you provided. I have also been questioning the typical summer reading program, and reading incentives in general, after making similar observations. It is frustrating that as a field we are so mired in the way things have always been done and our love of statistics that we are afraid to even question if these stats are even meaningful, or if we are really acting in the best interest of our young patrons.

  2. Oh, I so love and appreciate this!!!! I actually changed our SR program 6 years ago from a ridiculous, huge focus on prizes to a focus on kindness, and would never go back. I can't measure the differences I've seen with statistics, but I have 6 years of amazing and I believe life-changing stories that make me know this way is better. I look forward to reading more!!!!! Thank you!!

    1. I would love to hear more about your summer program and the focus on kindness, and I'm sure others would, too. I've mostly just toned-down they typical reading program by giving books instead of junk, and modest, learning-related prizes instead of big flashy prizes, but I'm looking for ways to completely re-invent it. Would you be interested in writing a guest post to describe your program, and the process of effecting change and getting buy-in from admin, staff, and the community? If you'd be interested, e-mail me at

  3. Many of our parents have asked over the years that we not give books for rewards as the school cleans out their books and sends them home with the children. The parents also asked we not do little prizes as that is more junk to pick up. We gave out coupons to a variety of places included the local movie theater--they weren't used.
    Now we have a weekly summer program with two stations. We offer reading challenges and do the happy dance for ones turned in. We occasionally have something other than a craft to take home during the program. At the wrap-up / last day, we have an ice cream party and send home a party favor (if you will) consisting of things like school supplies, ice cream tokens, or something that might be useful. This has been the best received. AND...they keep coming back to the Library which has become our goal--make our library a go to place for reading and fun and fellowship.

    1. Wow, I can't image parents not wanting books as prizes, but I definitely understand not wanting all the little plastic junk. I'm glad you have found something that works for your community! It's not easy to stop prizes once a community has been trained to expect them, so it can be a rough transition. I had really hoped the pandemic would provide a good stopping point to encourage more libraries to move away from prizes and try something different, make a fresh start, but it seems most have gone right back to the heavily incentivized programs from pre-pandemic days.