Reading: Motivating children to read

by Chris F

Throughout the journal articles that I’ve saved for researching motivation is one that I’ve found interesting not because it sheds some much needed light on my dissertation per se, but because it stands to show that different target audiences require different motivators. This article is written by Amber Gear, Rhonda Wizniak and Judy Cameron at the University of Alberta, and it’s called “Rewards for Reading: A Review of Seven Programs”.

It’s a really short journal article which analyzes 7 different reading programs for kids from kindergarden to grade 6 (7-12 year olds) based on how the reward systems for them were created. I guess you could argue that they were “gamified” and in fact, the study does mention a system that’s similar to leveling up, but I’ll get into that shortly. What I found interesting here were the following notes, based on other research, which mention the factors that influence a good reward system in reading programs.

  • the rewards involve spontaneous and sincere positive feedback and praise;
  • students are rewarded often and immediately following successful
    performance;
  • students are given occasional unexpected rewards;
  • tangible rewards (e.g., prizes, grades, stars, etc.) are given for meeting clear performance standards;
  • tangible rewards are given for succeeding at increasingly challenging tasks;
  • tangible rewards are items students enjoy (e.g., books, computer games);
  • students are involved in setting up the reward system;
  • student performance is recorded and rewards are phased out when
    behavior increases
  • All of the above are really useful in part of my research, mostly because it shows that people were toying with game-related ideas from before the gamification term was coined, but also because it creates an incentive-creation framework that I can then take and adapt to my own purposes, if I ever were to work with children of those ages or equivalent people. All in all, it’s a nice list. Here’s my thoughts on it.

    I will start with the easier ones:

    tangible rewards are items students enjoy (e.g., books, computer games);

    Make sure that your target audience likes the incentives that you’re giving them. This is probably the most obvious one, but from what I’ve seen in real life it’s often forgotten, most marketers choosing to take the easy way out of offering money as rewards because everyone wants money and they forget that they might get a better-focused audience if they were to give more targeted rewards, i.e. you can give £1000 to a farmer for winning a prize, and hope he will buy a tractor, or you can give him a tractor to begin with, especially if you’re creating your competition with farmers who want a tractor but don’t have one in mind.

    students are rewarded often and immediately following successful
    performance;

    tangible rewards (e.g., prizes, grades, stars, etc.) are given for meeting clear performance standards;

    These 2 work hand in hand and they draw on basic game design concepts (no, Pavlov, I’m not forgetting you, just trying to make a point): your player needs to know what his actions do, and every time they do that action they should see the same reaction, i.e. pushing the up button will always make your character jump 5 pixels. It works the same with this list as well. When a student meets a clear criteria set for them, they are rewarded “immediately”. For each book read, you get $1 after writing a review for it.

    Now we’re getting into the more interesting concepts of this list:

    the rewards involve spontaneous and sincere positive feedback and praise;

    As I was mentioning in my previous reading post, tangible rewards are not the only way forward, especially when you want to work on someone’s intrinsic motivation, like reading a book for the sake of enriching your knowledge or taking part in an adventure. This is why I find this point very important: you shouldn’t just give kids $1 or a cheeseburger when they’ve read a book, because after a while they will think that the only thing they’re losing by not reading a book is that $1 or cheeseburger, and not all the knowledge in the book and act of reading.

    students are given occasional unexpected rewards;

    This is one that I’ve seen a lot in talks about Facebook and social games that exploit the freemium scheme. You give your players a seemingly random (for them, not for the designers) reward of something that’s consumable but really rare in order to give them a taste of it, and then you remember them of it to buy it. This point on the list is not that creepy (really now, out of context it seemed like a drug dealer tactic), but it attaches to the same type of human behaviour: we like surprises, and if we are given a surprise reward for doing something, we tend to do that thing more, hoping to get another surprise reward sometime in the future. As I’ve mentioned, these “occasional unexpected rewards” are something that the designer has included in the game, but that the player has no way of knowing about if they haven’t played the game before.

    tangible rewards are given for succeeding at increasingly challenging tasks;

    student performance is recorded and rewards are phased out when
    behavior increases

    Student performance is recorded -> leaderboards, if they are displayed publicly. The other two, though, are much more interesting. Students are given rewards for succeeding at increasingly challenging tasks, but at the same time rewards are phased out when behaviour increases. This is a leveling up system right here. Put experience and levels in the mix, and that’s it. A student gets $1 for the first 3 books read, but then you give him a longer book to read, and he can be seen as having leveled up. So take into account phasing out rewards, and you’ll see that you give him $5 for the next books read, but only after he’s read the new, more challenging books. He needs to put more effort into it, but at the same time, the reward is greater.

    The last point on the list is one I really like:

    students are involved in setting up the reward system;

    By including the students in setting up the game, or a part of it, such as the reward system, you’re giving them the most important thing that a player can have in a game: meaningful choice. Even if you can only give them candy, at least let them select the flavour, and they will feel like they’ve done something, like they’ve had a say in it and will be more inclined to participate in this, because they did something for it.

    The article then goes on to put 7 different reading programs into a table and awarding each of the programs a tick for the points on the list they respect. Interestingly, most of the programs examined keep detailed records to track student progress, the rewards are items that students enjoy, and praise is given, while none of the programs phases out the rewards when reading increases. The first part of the statement shows that schools know to keep track of students and tell them to strive harder and praise them, as well as understanding the basic wants of a 2004 kindergarden student. The latter shows one of two things, in my opinion: either in 2004 tutors weren’t that familiar with the above-explained concept of leveling up or it did not occur to them that they could use it to motivate advanced students. As someone who has done some teaching before, I understand that a class is made up of mixed people of varying levels of skill, and that the best students of some classes will get bored if they’re left behind, so you need to give them something more challenging to do while you work with the ones who have less skills or learn differently.

    I’ve really enjoyed this short reading, and I actually believe that this blog post is longer than the article itself. Really liked the list and I’m looking forward to see if I can apply parts of it to my projects from now on.

    Chris F.

    Bibliography:

    Gear, A; Wizniak, R; Cameron, J. (2004). Rewards for Reading: A Review of Seven Programs. The Alberta Journal of Educational Research. 50 (2), 200-203. Available at: http://ajer.synergiesprairies.ca/ajer/index.php/ajer/article/view/454/444 [Last accessed: 20th Oct. 2013]

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