I used to tell kids all the time, “You need to read every day because it makes you smarter.” Kids would share related reasons for reading that were perhaps more connected to the markers they understood as indicating smartness: “reading makes your fluency go up;” “you need to read so you can get to Level P,” “you have to read so you can do well on the state test.” The newcomers I work with now talk about how reading will help them learn English. Of course, I had defined my goals for students, for myself and for them, in reference to these scoring systems. They knew we were trying to grow our fluency by 50 words per minute, or grow two grade levels in one year, or move up one band on the CST. That’s what I wanted for them, and because of my enthusiasm, they wanted it too.
But why? Why do they need to read faster, or read more challenging books, or do well on state tests? I know that that’s not the end goal for literacy: those are simply measures of skills that usually go along with what we really want for kids: to love language, and to love reading and writing, and to use these powerful tools to achieve their personal goals. I want kids to read every night not because they’re obedient, but because they can’t even begin to put the book down.
Will a reading habit help students with long-term economic and career success? Yes, of course, and a crucial part of our jobs as educators is to prepare children with the skills and knowledge that will give them freedom as adults. But a reading habit will just not happen if reading is treated solely as an instrument to achieve good grades or a good salary. Ironically, kids will develop the reading they need for life success only if they read for love, not for reward.
Deci and Flaste (1996) wrote about their experiments with reward and motivation. They found that, contradicting the traditional behaviorist view of motivation (think: give the dog a cookie for rolling over; Pavlov’s dogs; etc.), promising a reward actually undermines humans’ interest in doing things that they otherwise find inherently enjoyable and would do on their own, like drawing. When we talk to kids about the extrinsic rewards of reading, we might be undermining the very thing we most want to promote.
Maybe from my own perspective, I’m still thinking of reading as a means to an end: I know that my kids will need to be strong readers to have the kinds of options and freedoms that I want for them in life. I also know that they’ll only get that good at reading through mountains of practice. But since I also know that they’ll never get that practice unless they love it, I’ve stopped talking to my kids about reading in terms of extrinsic goals. Instead I ask, “What are you reading? Do you like it? Why? If you don’t, you can switch books!” If they’re not reading, I ask, “Do you have books you like? What kinds of books do you want me to get from the library for you?”
Of course, wanting children to love what they read does not mean we never challenge them with difficult literature or with genres outside of their current preferences. Part of our job is to help kids expand their knowledge of the written world so they can find new things they love. But you know what? They don’t have to mostly read what we want them to. They should mostly read what they like to. I’m grateful that teachers exposed me to historical fiction, as I continue to be a huge fan of the genre; but despite my teachers’ best efforts, I just don’t like reading poetry. But I don’t have to read it, because I’m an adult, and I get to make my own choices, and the lack of poetry in my life is not holding me back or making me unhappy. Let’s allow our students the same freedom of choice, right now. The first focus of reading should be love.