Sunday, October 7, 2007

rewards and reading

Some evidence that rewarding children for reading can inhibit reading.

Barbara Ann Marinak, 2004, dissertation, University of Maryland

This is a remarkable study that presents evidence against the use of rewards. Subjects were third graders, classified as “average” readers. All children were asked to read about 250 words of a storybook, written one year below their reading level, and were told that the experimenter wanted their opinion of the book (design similar to McLoyd, 1979). The experimenter told them a little about the available books and the students choose what they wanted to read.

After the reading, the experimenter told the child that they had some free time and could stay in the same room for a few minutes. The available activities were reading more, doing a math game, or a jigsaw puzzle.

The basic conditions were: children were offered a reward of a book for doing the activity, a “token” (e.g. friendship bracelet, Nerf ball, key chain, Pez dispenser), or no reward. (I am simplifying a bit; Some children were given a choice of what book or token, some not. This had no effect on the results. I present here the results only for groups given a choice.)

The investigator observed their behavior for these few minutes and noted whether the children selected reading or a token as their first choice, how many minutes they spent reading (some children who selected a token at first did some reading later) and how many words they read.

The results: Children given a reward of a book or no reward overwhelmingly choose a book as their first activity (13/15 of the book group, 11/15 of the no reward group). Only two out of 15 of token-reward group choose a book. Those in the book-reward and no reward groups also spent much more time reading, and read far more words.

An important point is that all the children liked to read: At the end of the study all children were asked, "If your best friend asked you what was the best or most fun thing to do in this room, what would you tell them?" All participants agreed that reading was the “most fun” activity in the room.

Using books as a reward did no harm: Apparently, using books sends the message that reading is a worthwhile thing to do. But using tokens as rewards had a profoundly negative effect. These results agree with those of McLoyd (1979).

McLoyd, V. (1979). The effects of extrinsic rewards of differential value on high and low intrinsic interest. Child Development, 50, 636-644.

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