I have the fondest memories of the summer reading program as a child. My teeny tiny hometown had an equally teeny tiny library, and consequently, the book selection was somewhat limited (but our awesome librarian would basically inter-library loan anything we wanted, so it didn't matter), but the summer reading program was amazing. I loved to read anyway, but because of that program, I definitely dedicated a large percentage of my summer logging away more time.
I didn't even realize what a lucky kid I was until I signed up little Aaron for his first summer reading program. Of course, having only my own experience to reference, I was filled with eager anticipation, but it wasn't anything like what I was used to: kids could earn a total of four prizes (no matter how much they read) and each prize was pre-assigned. I guess it maybe motivated kids who weren't already readers to keep up their habit of 20-minutes of school reading (but maybe not--the prizes were rather lame), but it certainly didn't push kids who were already strong readers to read more. It was one of those moments where I realized growing up in a teeny tiny town definitely had its perks.
As the years went by and my own kids got older, I grew increasingly frustrated with the library's summer reading program. It almost didn't seem worth the hassle of filling out a chart and remembering to take it in for what basically seemed like a consolation prize. I kept thinking, If you don't like it, why don't you just do your own?
And finally this summer, I decided to do just that.
(And as it turned out, the library must have had another budget cut because the reading program this year was the most pathetic one yet: kids didn't even have to read for it to count. They could also play outside, learn something new, or help a younger child--all good things, of course, but it kind of took the reading out of the summer reading program. Also, there were no prizes along the way, just one final one, which ended up being their choice of a really nice, high quality book, so there was one redeeming thing that came out of it. But at any rate, I'm sure you can guess that I was very glad I'd already put my own program into place before I discovered what the library had done to theirs in the name of "simplifying.")
Now before I give you all the details, I want to address one other thing, call it a justification, if you will. A few weeks ago, I read this line on Janssen's blog: "We don't want kids to read to get a donut or a free pizza. The reward for reading is more reading." It stood out to me because, at that very moment, tucked away in a couple of boxes in our storage room and also placed out of reach on a shelf in my bedroom closet, were literally dozens of prizes . . . for reading. But instead of feeling offended or like I'd just ruined my kids' chances of ever enjoying reading for reading's sake, I just laughed because honestly? This summer reading program has been one of the highlights of our summer, and I wouldn't change a thing about it. I'll get into the details below, and you can judge for yourself (and of course, leave your own opinion in the comments). Of course it's not going to work for everyone, but we are very much a family of charts and graphs and goals and external rewards, and so it was just the thing to kick up our summer a notch.
The Basic Idea
Because I was trying to recreate my childhood, I patterned our program after the one my library did when I was growing up, and the basic idea is this: for every two hours of reading, you earn a prize. When you hit twenty hours, you earn a book. (For Bradley, who is a fairly new reader, we cut it down to one hour for a prize and ten hours for a book.)
I had Mike make a simple chart for each boy, containing several rows of stars. Every time one of them hit two hours of reading (or one, in Bradley's case), they colored in a star. This required them to keep track of how long they were reading. Bradley and Aaron both wear watches (this one), and so they used the stopwatch feature to time themselves. Maxwell can't handle wearing a watch, so he kept track of his time on an iPod. Aaron was already a pro at this, having timed himself all year for school, but it took some effort to train Bradley and Max. Many times they either forgot to start their time, or they accidentally cleared it before they got to two hours. But eventually, they got the hang of it, and it's been smooth sailing ever since.
For the two-hour prizes, I wasn't interested in cheap toys that would break in the first two seconds. Rather, I wanted things that could either be eaten (I can still remember having a snack stash of summer reading prizes) or would inspire creativity or fun play. Here are some of the things I came up with:
- Sculpey clay (one brick=one prize)
- Diving rings
- Plastic lacing cord (for making beaded creations; one skein=one prize)
- Fineliner pens (My kids' loved using these for their own comic books; one pen=one prize)
- Perler bead pegboards (This is one of Bradley's favorite quiet time activities; one board=one prize)
- Star Wars cups (not the kind of thing I normally buy, and I think my kids were appropriately surprised)
- Diving squids (these turned out to be my kids' favorite water toys at the pool)
- Embroidery floss (I passed on my friendship bracelet skills this summer, and my kids stocked up on colors; one skein=one prize)
- Stamp set (one stamp=one prize)
- Gel pens (one pen=one prize)
- Single-serving bags of chips, crackers, cookies, fruit snacks, etc.
- Juice boxes, small cans of soda, etc.
- Gum (this was probably my kids' most consistently favorite prize, which kind of cracked me up)
Cashing in reading time
Once a week, usually on Fridays, I set out all the prizes on the kitchen table. My kids came in with their charts. We started with Bradley, and he chose his first prize; then it went to Maxwell, then Aaron, then back to Bradley until they'd received all their prizes. Then I initialed on the last star they filled in for the week so we would know where to pick up on the next week.
For every twenty hours my kids read, they earned a book, and you can probably guess that I kind of enjoyed having an excuse to buy more books. Some of these came from the thrift store, some from Amazon, and some from ThriftBooks. Here are the books I got for each boy (they didn't read enough to earn all of these, so now I'll just save them for birthdays or other rewards).
The Tale of Despereaux by Kate DiCamillo
Peter and the Starcatchers by Ridley Pearson and Dave Barry
On the Wings of Heroes by Richard Peck
Ginger Pye by Eleanor Estes
Dominic by William Steig
The Candy Shop War by Brandon Mull
Tiny Creatures: The World of Microbes by Nicola Davies
Muggie Maggie by Beverly Cleary (kind of the anomaly in this list, and, surprise surprise, he never chose it)
Mr. Putter and Tabby Paint the Porch by Cynthia Rylant
Mr. Putter and Tabby Catch the Cold by Cynthia Rylant
The Thank You Book by Mo Willems
George and Martha: Full of Surprises by James Marshall
Lizards by Nic Bishop
The Stories Julian Tells by Ann Cameron
Expanding reading tastes
I've mentioned this on Instagram, but Aaron and Max were on a major Calvin and Hobbes and Garfield kick for most of the summer. I was okay with it but didn't want it to make up all of their reading time, so in addition to their reading charts, I also printed off Carolyn's Reading Hopscotch Challenge, which had ten different categories to fill in (for example, a nonfiction book or a book published before you were born). For every category my kids filled in, they earned a bonus prize.
School begins this week (today actually), but I'm going to continue to do the program through the end of the month. We'll see how my kids feel about reading after the incentives are removed, but I'm not worried. I have seen benefits all around: Because Aaron was reading for several hours a day, he was no longer so intimidated by big, thick books. Because Maxwell got rewarded for reading something besides animal books, he became more of an adventurous reader (he read the entire Captain Awesome series, and even though they're not high quality books, they were so different from his usual fare that I was very pleased). Because Bradley read on his own every day, he transformed from struggling to fluent reader.
I have no doubt that we'll do something similar next summer (or maybe exactly the same--at this point, I can't think of a single thing I'd change). From the way my kids have enjoyed it and talked about it, I know they're creating the same fun memories I did when I was a kid, and that makes me really happy.
So tell me: Would you do something like this with your kids, or do you think reading should always be its own reward? How would you adapt something like this for your family?