The Power of Rewards and Incentives in Reading Instruction

Say hello to Jessica Sanders, the Director of Social Outreach for Learn2Earn and our fabulous guest for the day!

It’s called extrinsic motivation—being motivated to read, or do anything, based on outside factors such as money or rewards. Extrinsic motivation is evoked when students are incentivized to read more and this is a hot topic in the education world. Many people who are against using a reward system or incentives have two main issues with the technique.

First, they claim that it manipulates kids, cheapens intrinsic motivation, and turns good behavior into work. However, proponents of reward systems agree that, especially in the case of reading, incentives are a powerful way to motivate children to read before they’ve learned to enjoy it.
The fact is kids have to start reading regularly first before they find topics and books they truly impassion them,” said Raphael Menko, co-founder of Learn2Earnan online platform that allows students to earn wisdom points and decorate their Owlvatar for reading.
What’s more, teachers that use Learn2Earn to incentivize reading continue to see improvements in their students’ abilities and excitement to read:
Many of my 4th graders are reading below grade level and hate to read. I started using this website a week ago and I am shocked with the improvement of their independent reading. I used to get 5 or 6 paper logs returned each week, now I have 20 out of 25 students reading and logging,” said Corinne G.
The second most popular reason for pushback on using incentives is that it can become expensive for schools that are already hard-pressed for funding. Yet, in the study summary of The Hamilton Project, conducted by Roland G. Freyer, Jr. from Harvard University and Bradley M. Allan from EdLabs, the two authors explained that they discovered this may not be the case:
Incentives can be a cost-effective strategy to raise achievement among even the poorest minority students in the lowest performing schools if the incentives are given for certain inputs to the educational production function. Paying students to read books yields large and statistically significant increases in reading comprehension.
Within this particular study, second graders were offered $2 per book read, which lead to a .180 standard deviation improvement—this would normally occur in 2.2 months of schooling.

Incentives vs. What’s Being Incentivized

While the Hamilton study offered money as a reward, you don’t need to follow suit to see positive results. Learn2Earn uses fake online money, called Wisdom Coins, which students use to decorate their owl avatars and the progress teachers see is significant:
My reluctant readers are actually begging me for more time reading and responding. They love earning coins for their work and designing their page and avatars,” said Cheryl R.
The Hamilton Project authors also found that the incentive itself may not even be as important as whether you’re incentivizing input, reading, or output, a high test score, for example. They summarized this finding:
In our experiments, input incentives were more effective than output incentives, suggesting that students do not know how to increase their test scores. If students only have a vague idea of how to increase their test scores, then when provided with incentives for performance, they may not be motivated to increase effort,” said Freyer and Allan.
Using this theory, it would be best to incentivize students to complete their homework or read more, which may naturally result in improved outputs like higher test scores.

Using This Data in Class

You know your students best. Utilizing incentives, in whatever way you know will motivate your students, is the key to making it a powerful educational tool. Before implementing any system, consider what the ultimate goal is.
A system starts with a firm idea of what your classroom should look like when all students are actively engaged in the learning process. Then you develop a system that will help you and the students reach that goal. If the system is something that is going to take a huge amount of time and effort to keep track of, it probably won’t work. If instead it is used as a catalyst to appropriate behavior, that works much better,” said high school teacher Tory Klemensten to Education World.
Once you know your goal, choose the incentives. Here are a few reward ideas that can be used right away with minimal preparation:
  • Free-time for using computers or playing games
  • Front of the line privileges for a day
  • Sit with the teacher at lunch
  • Get a homework pass
  • Sit at the teacher’s desk for a period of time
  • Fake money to be redeemed in class for small (inexpensive) rewards
  • Be the teacher’s helper for a day
  • Be the chalkboard writer for a day
While the education world is still split on the use of incentives and reward systems in education, many teachers have found this to be a powerful motivator. In the case of reading, incentives motivate students to read more, which helps them discover what they like and ultimately makes reading more fun and enjoyable, both now and later in life.

Jessica Sanders is the Director of Social Outreach for Learn2Earn. She grew up reading books like The Giver and Holes and is passionate about making reading as exciting for young kids today as it has always been for her. Follow Learn2Earn on Twitter and Facebook, and send content inquiries to
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