Children's Literature in Southern Africa

What works for getting kids to read more?

Photo: Boy reading with a headlamp, ww2.kqed.org/mindshift

MindShift, July 31 2017

An excerpt from “The Reading Mind: A Cognitive Approach to Understanding How the Mind Reads” by Daniel T. Willingham.

Getting Kids to Read

I said at the outset that our goal is simply to get kids reading — it’s reading, not positive attitudes toward reading that will make for better lexical representations and broader background knowledge. But then we saw that reading attitudes, reading self-image, and frequency of reading are interconnected.

So in fact, getting kids to read will not only improve their reading, it will make them like reading more.

Getting children to like reading more in order to prompt more reading is not our only option. We can reverse it—get them reading more, and that will improve reading attitudes and reading self-concept. Well then, how do we prompt a child with negative or indifferent attitudes toward reading to pick up a book?


Adults are frequently confronted with children who don’t want to do what we want them to do. A common solution is to use rewards or punishments as short-term motivators. What if I told a fourth-grader, “If you read a chapter of that book, you can have some ice cream”? The child will likely take me up on the deal and it sounds like he’d have a positive experience. And that’s what we said we’re aiming for, positive reading experiences.

Page photo: The Reading Mind, by Daniel T. Willingham

Rewards do work, at least in the short term.

If you find a reward that the child cares about, he will read in order to get it. The problem is that you don’t get the attitude boost we’ve predicted. In fact, the attitude is often less positive because of the reward.

The classic experiment on this phenomenon was conducted in a preschool. A set of really attractive Magic Markers appeared during free play, and the researchers confirmed that kids often chose the markers from among many toys. Then the markers disappeared from the classroom. A few weeks later, researchers took kids, one at a time, into a separate room. They offered the child a fancy “good player” certificate if she would draw with the markers. Other kids were given the opportunity to draw with the markers, but were not offered the certificate. A few weeks later, the Magic Markers reappeared in the classroom. The kids who got the certificate showed notably less interest in the Magic Markers than the kids who didn’t get the certificate. The reward had backfired. It had made kids like the markers less.

The interpretation of the study rests on how kids think about their own behavior. The rewarded kids likely thought, “I drew with the markers because I was offered a reward to do so. Now here are the markers, but no reward. So why would I draw with them?” There have been many studies of rewards in academic contexts, and they often backfire in this way.

We can imagine that rewarding kids for reading could work in certain circumstances.

What if the child has such a positive experience while reading that it overwhelms his thinking that he’s only reading for the sake of the reward? In other words, the child thinks, “Gosh, I only started this book to get the ice cream I was promised, but actually it’s awesome. Mom was a sucker to offer me a reward!

This scenario is, of course, the fond hope of the adult who offers a reward for reading, but let’s be honest, it’s probably rare. If you’re thinking of rewarding a child to read, that is surely a child who has not been reading recently, and whose attitude toward reading is pretty set. A massive turnaround is unlikely.

If not rewards, then what?

The expectancy-value model suggests some strategies, most of them pretty intuitive. The value will be higher if the book is on a topic the child already loves, or if it’s a book that a lot of his peers have read, or if it concerns a topic of practical utility to the child. The expectation of successful reading will be higher if it’s at the right reading level, if it includes a lot of pictures (as a graphic novel does), if the chapters are short, or if the child already knows the story (as in a novelization of a movie she’s seen). So the expectancy-value model suggests that we boost the book’s value to the child, or her expectation of successful reading.

What else might we try?

Make the Choice Easy

People often overlook the fact that leisure reading is a choice.

A child is not deciding to read or not read. The child is choosing among competing activities: Should I read, or have a snack, or see what my friend’s doing, or play a video game? When we’re talking about leisure reading, it’s not enough that the child like reading, and that she have a positive attitude; if she’s to choose reading, it must be the most appealing activity available...

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