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"Mouthwatering Motivation"

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Should pizza be used to motivate students to read more?

An Associated Press story about Pizza Hut's Book It program, which rewards young readers with free pizzas based on the number of books they read, says critics of the program are concerned that it contributes to poor eating habits and encourages kids to read lots of easy books, rather than fewer, more difficult ones.

Company officials claim that Book It is the nation's largest reading motivation program, reaching roughly 50,000 schools across the country, and turning many non-readers into readers. They also discount the idea that Book It is somehow contributing to the nation's childhood obesity problem.

It does seem that a couple of free pizzas is unlikely make a kid fat. So it's hard for me to buy that argument even if the program's use of the phrase "Mouthwatering Motivation" on its Web site seems to send the wrong message.

However, having watched my sons participate in this program, I can say that it did encourage them to read lots of short, easy books rather than longer, more difficult ones. My boys deliberately looked for as many easy books as they could find and plowed through them as quickly as they could. Not exactly the best approach for building smart, analytical readers.

But if pizza (extrinsic motivator) sparks a love of reading (intrinsic motivator), that would be a good thing, right?

What do you think? Is this an appropriate and effective way to motivate kids to read?

5 Comments

As in most cases, it depends on the pre and post activities associated with this reading-for-pizza Pavlovian mechanism.

For those non-readers or readers who claim to dislike to read, this could be a blessing. For the others, it could be a "safe" reward for as long as the adult supervising the child's reading is able to (1) explain to the child that the pizza, or any other extrinsic reward, is no substitute for the learning that the child has experienced, (the parent can ask some questions or make some comments in order for the child to understand what he/she has learned;) and (2)encourage the child to choose books of all reading levels. The parent can have his/her own set of extra-motivators at home for when the degree of difficulty of the book selected is on or higher than the child's actual reading level. Any parent who asks this question should understand and be able to do (1) and (2).

This dilemma mirrors one the teachers and I had when implementing a school-wide positive behaviors reinforcement program, in which students would earn points for their classes (not for the individual) redeemable for school supplies, field trips, etc. Upon inquiring an expert, we learned that even middle school students do not fully understand the intrinsic value of a "positive" action until later in life. We then observed that those students who continued to practice those actions, even if for the rewards, eventually developed the capacity to understand the value of maintaining healthy interpersonal relationships and were most able to appreciate their own "random acts" of positive behaviors.

Extrinsic motivators are only positive under very specialized circumstances. The goal of all teachers should be to get students to love reading for what they get out of reading. The amount of books that you have read in elementary school does not matter as much as how you interact with the books that you do read. Reading should be the prize, not pizza. "What I get if I read a certain number of books?" The truth is you only get what you put into the reading experience. You may get new best friend, a cherished memory, a better understanding of the world. You may even get a better understanding of yourself. Pizza is digested, used by the body and flushed. What a student gets from following a character through a great story lasts forever.
I have never been a big fan of token economies and other extrinsic motivators. Learning is a gift unto itself.

The way to alleviate the problem of "choosing easy books" is simply to change the reading requirement from number of books to number of hours. Then teachers, librarians and parents can steer students to books that are both interesting and challenging. Add to that the opportunity to do creative book reports that will convince classmates to read the same book, and the "pizza motivation" can be multiplied.
As for the pizza, extrinsic rewards are sometimes needed to lead us toward developing our own intrinsic reward system. I agree, a free pizza is not going to create poor eating habits in children.

The Pizza Hut program allows the teacher to set the requirements. I set a minimum number of minutes to read each day, five days per week. By setting a time limit, rather than number of books, each student is meeting the same standard. When a reward is based on number of books read, you are giving top readers an advantage and de-motivating your slower readers.

As for the obesity problem, they only earn one personal pan pizza per month. I seriously doubt that will cause anyone to become obese.

I don't know about you, but I still get a kick out of reading Dr. Seuss books, and I'm a high school English teacher.

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