Time recently published an article on incentive programs to help raise test scores in the US. The entire idea was the controversial. PAY kids for learning? SACRILEDGE. Various programs were tested. Did paying for grades work best? Good behavior? Test scores themselves?
The most obviously effective program was the simplest. Pay second grade kids $2 for each book they read and passed a short quiz about (to make sure they understood what they read). The average cost per student was $14. (so they read 7 extra books per school year). How effective was it? it was MORE effective in raising grades than actually paying kids for grades. It was as effective as cutting class sizes to reduce the teacher to student ratio.
How can something so simple produce such a big effect? Can reading really make that big a difference in multiple subjects? Simply put, yes. Textbooks are books. If a child struggles with reading, they’ll struggle with the subject matter too. If a child struggles with reading, he’ll struggle to read his math book too. Consider it like dancing. If a kid struggles to get their feet in the right place, they pay no attention to the music, to making it look graceful, or any of the other details that go into transforming it from walking in circles to dancing. And like dancing, if not given encouragement, kids may give up in frustration and never have the easy confidence needed for the process to become invisible and effortless. The process gets in the way of whole.
Libraries have known this for ages and summer reading programs dole out all kinds of rewards for finishing a certain number of books; toys, games, stickers, erasers, pizza, all kinds of incentives. This may seem a bit like bribery, but it serves a more important purpose. Those little treats doled out with each book reinforce that reading is a pleasurable activity, not simply work or something only done for a specific purpose.
By what does this mean for a bookseller?
In a few years, the kid learning to read today will push a crumpled dollar bill and a handful of coins across the counter at you to buy his first book. And come back through high school to get his books for school and a little something for vacation. And then for when he’s flying for business. And then to read to the new baby. And then his own child will put a pile of change on the counter and get his very first book.
Or that child can become discouraged and never read for anything but utilitarian purposes, reading only when he HAS to. And the same will likely be true of any children he has.
For a bookstore, the first scenario is a path for growth and sustainability, the second the route to a shuttered store.
Paying children to read is a bit too direct, but there are certainly things you can do to encourage children in the right direction. If the local library or school distract has this type of incentive program in place already, contributing to it would be a wise investment. If not, working with the library to develop this sort of thing may be in your best interest. Even if the majority of the books the kids read come free from the library, this will still lay the foundation for buying books later. Today he doesn’t have the money. Five years from now, raking the neighbors leaves may be how he gets the cash to come buy that fantasy series he wants and the library doesn’t have.
In your own store you can make sure that it is welcoming to young readers. Even if they can’t read, you can still make sure the store is seen as a fun place to go. Have a little basket of toys for toddlers so they think fondly of your store when their parents bring them in. For the slightly older set, make sure there’s some things for them down at their eye level. Knee level is a no mans land for adults, but for kids, it can be prime real estate. Make sure there’s stools or chairs suited for their size. You don’t need lots, but at least one. (short stools also work well for adults with bad knees that may have trouble seeing things on lower shelves)
If you have the space, having the occasional event for children helps as well. Story hour is the most common, but if you’re cramped for space and short of staff, that may not be a good option. You can opt for other things such as a coloring contest related to a specific book or author.
Or offer a frequent buyer card just for kids where they get a reward after they’ve gotten a specific number of books. A free book is the natural progression, but many small toys are available cheaply but still a delight to kids as prizes. Simple prizes like crayons, bookmarks, or bounce balls are easy to deal with. You can also go about making filling the card itself fun by using something like stickers or stamps instead. A fun idea might be a poster that they can fill with stamps for letters of the alphabet.
There’s lot of ways to make kids think your store is somewhere they want to visit and reading is something they want to do for fun. And their parents will likely thank you for it and spend longer shopping for their own books if they have a happy child along. Not only will you increase your current business, you’ll set yourself up for success for years to come.
And for goodness sake, when the kid buys his very first book on his own, smile and be patient while he counts out the pennies on the counter!