The secret to education: reading for pleasure

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?  SACRILEGE. 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.

reading for pleasure

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!

9 thoughts on “The secret to education: reading for pleasure”

  1. WOW! I loved this article! It really is up to us to build the readers of tomorrow – I’m headed to the craft store after hours today to purchase a punch so I can start a book earning program!


  2. I’ve known schools that partnered with Pizza Hut to give away free personal pan pizzas for reading a certain number of books and local libraries to offered a free book at the end of the summer if a child checked out a certain number of books, but never thought of this idea being applied to a bookstore. It’s brilliant and a win, win situation. I especially like the idea of giving a child his own frequent buyer/reader card.

    Just discovered you on Twitter.


    • I have always believed in positive reinforcement to teach children to read. So many schools now are making children read for a letter grade as early as first grade. They are getting graded on their accelerated reader score. I think that especially with younger children that you first need to teach them to enjoy reading before you started looking at whether they are remembering all the content. Nice article, thank you for sharing.

  3. This is a topic I am very passionate about, both as a mom and a used bookseller. I think our schools inevitably tend to take the fun out of reading for kids, and I try to keep our store as a fun reading haven apart from school. I personally think that kids will only be reading addicts when they realize the power of the stories, and then find and can read the stories they love.That requires exposure to lots and lots of stories. Most stories for early readers or below grade level readers are just boring, and there is nothing worse than having to read a “little kid” book, for a struggling older reader. When kids get to that point, you’ve lost them as reading addicts. So rewards may have a place to at least get kids to open the books and maybe discover the stories, but exposure to compelling stories is still the best. Kids did not (and still do not) need to be paid to read Harry Potter!

    At our store, we do all kinds of things to keep reading fun, but two of my favorites are the Halloween Ghost Story party, (there is nothing spookier than a haunted used bookstore), and a spring Leprechaun Party featuring magical stories of the fairies and other multicultural little people. The Read Across America campaign did trigger another successful community effort in our town, and we did partner with local schools for that one. Schools, bookstores and the library all had simple paper chains building for about 4 months with each link representing a book a child or community member read for fun. Dr. Seuss’s birthday in March is still pretty cold, so our “chain day” was moved to April when all of the kids hauled their chains from school to Main Street (yes we are in a pretty small town) and stretched the chain up one side of Main Street. Kids waved, cars and big trucks honked… pretty simple reward but I think more symbolic and fun than paying the kids to read books. The class I worked with certainly read more than 7 books apiece! An hour or two out of class on a spring morning plus some semi horns blasting, what could be better?

    The tricky part as a library or bookstore is attracting kids whose families are not already readers! If the parents bring them to the bookstore in the first place, they probably have books in their lives. I do keep a stash of “free books” for the neighborhood kids who drop by and for other young customers who seem like they need one. I’d love to see ideas on how other stores bring in new young readers.

    Thanks for the article, it’s an important topic!

    • We have a downtown “safe” trick or treat during daylight hours that’s intended for wee ones that live in neighborhoods without sidewalks. So they go trick or treat in the downtown strip of businesses and have some activities on the green. I normally give the trick or treaters books to go with the candy.

  4. Here I am, a middle-aged guy and I still have a fondness for a “kid’s book.” But, wait a moment. Is it really? The Phantom Tollbooth really pulled me in when I was young, but I gave it a read again…found the only copy in the local Barnes & Noble…and I enjoyed it even more, now that I see the satire that I missed before.

  5. Without a doubt reading for fun can help children do better in school. Any reading. My nephew suffers from dyslexia and reading in school has been nearly impossible for him. I started giving him Batman comic books to read and before I knew it he was trying to read more and more. I think it did a lot to help stabilize him for school.

  6. I saw an another article like this ‘play for win’ . But your article also give some good tips like pay kids for learning because in the greed of something the don’t take it as burden.

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