Reading Contests: Who Wins?

We spent a lot of time in the library this summer break. After our first visit, as we checked out a stack of books, the librarian handed me a pamphlet for the summer reading program. For every book the boys read, they’d get a sticker in a passport. Since we clearly didn’t need this incentive to visit the library or read, I politely said no thanks—and let’s just say the look on the librarian’s face was one of surprise.

In my mind, reading is its own reward. So far, the beautiful boys read (or are read to) because they enjoy it, not for prizes. I see no need to mess with this formula. And a recent story in the news just confirms my belief that reading-for-awards programs can backfire.

According to the story bouncing around Twitter, a librarian criticized a child for reading too much after he won an award for reading the most books over the summer for the fifth year in a row. People are shocked and horrified, some even calling for the librarian to be fired. My opinion will not be popular (nothing new there…): I think people are missing the point.

You see, it is apparent the child in question is an avid reader. Probably the kind of kid who would read whether or not he got a prize, just for the sheer love of it. Which is wonderful. As a fellow bookworm, I can relate to this child, and suspect he’d have a few things in common with my own boys. But to my understanding, the librarian did not actually suggest he was reading “too much”. She was simply concerned that no other children even stood a chance of winning because they can’t keep up to the reigning champ. Other children, perhaps including those who don’t read as well or as avidly as this particular child, but actually need the encouragement and support of a library reading program more than he does.

In my mind, the library put itself into this position. The contest revolves around how many books each child reads. So where does that leave children who read longer, more complex texts, but fewer of them? Or children who struggle to read even the minimum number of books to enter (ten), but not for lack of trying? What about children who know they won’t “win”, so don’t even participate? Could this type of contest encourage children to skim through books without really comprehending them, or choose less challenging texts than they might have if no one was counting? How does this celebrate the achievements of the rest of the readers–those who picked up a book for pleasure for the first time, or who grew as readers? Perhaps the problem is not that a single child dominates the competition–but that reading is a competition at all.

I can completely understand the boy’s feelings (and when I was nine, I am certain I would have believed that children who didn’t read as much as I did weren’t working as hard—but now as a grown up and as a teacher, I understand those children might have been putting in far more effort than I ever did.) And it’s understandable he wants an award that he qualified for, based on the rules put in place by the library.

But I think the point of this whole debacle is not that a librarian is trying to discourage a nine-year-old from reading. The real point is that awards, stickers, points and logs are the wrong way to encourage readers—because the children who read anyway don’t need them, and those who need additional support can’t compete on those terms.

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Filed under education, in the news, reading, schools, teaching

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