We Don’t Need Badges for Reading


(c) 2016 Michelle K. Baldwin (all rights reserved)

My students love to read… and I don’t exaggerate when I say “love.” They adore books of all kinds, and they are excited for any time of the day that includes a book. This love for reading has come from a very carefully cultivated classroom environment where they have access and abundant choice in reading. (I can’t take all the credit, though. For many of them, that love of books is also nurtured greatly at home. My goal as their teacher is to help that love continue to grow.)

When I want them to do some research about the topics that interest them, I pull as many books as I can from our own little library and spread them across the tables in our classroom. We read picture books together. We read books with accompanying CDs and songs. There’s a great mix of non-fiction and fiction available to them. Reading is not a chore in this classroom – it’s a right that feels like a gift.

My emergent readers have access to the same books that my developing and fluent readers have. Sometimes they choose books that they cannot yet read (emphasis on “yet”), and sometimes they choose books that might be considered too easy. What I see is a continued love for books and continued progress in where they started when they first came to this classroom in the fall.

Earlier in the year, we were very excited to get an app on our iPads that brought us access to even more books. The kids could search for a keyword, and many titles showed up in the results. When we needed to do some investigating in our inquiry block and didn’t have enough books on each topic for individual research, this app helped fill a void. I was very pleased and often tweeted about how happy I was with this app*.

Then something changed. All of a sudden, my kids wanted to read on this app all the time. They were quietly chattering amongst themselves about how many books they had been reading, how much they read over the weekend… but something seemed “off” to me.

This past Monday, one of my little girls was in tears. I couldn’t figure out what was wrong until she was finally able to tell me that she didn’t get the Mother’s Day badge. I asked her what she was talking about, and the other kids showed me their badges page in the app. Sometimes, you get a badge just for reading on a special day. I explained to her that it was ok that she didn’t get a badge for reading on that day… and that the badges don’t matter at all to me. She told me that she had spent the day with her family and not on her iPad… and I explained to her that it was a better thing to be doing than reading for the purpose of getting a special badge.

On top of that exchange, I heard my students’ conversations change. Instead of being excited about what they had learned from reading, as had been the case before, now they were all talking about which badges they received.

I brought them all to the center of the room and asked them what was going on. I questioned, “Why are we reading books?” Some of them answered, “because we like reading and because we learn a lot.” But then the responses changed, too. They started to talk all about the badges- how they liked getting more badges and how important that is. One of them even mentioned how you can page through all of the books in the app to trick the app into thinking you’ve read the book… and then you get MORE BADGES.

They could tell from the look on my face how disappointed I was. There was a bit of silence for a while, and then one of the 7 year olds started to say, “Guys, I think we forgot about why we read. Badges aren’t important.” Not everyone agreed with him. My solution was to tell them that we will continue to use the app for research, but that’s it. If we’re reading just to get a badge, then we’re reading for all the wrong reasons. If the badge mania continues, we’re going to delete the app. 

Just like that… my students’ motivation to read – because they love reading and want to learn more – flipped like a switch. This is what happens every single time we apply extrinsic motivation to something we want to encourage. EVERY. TIME. I’ve taught long enough to see cycles of rewards for reading… or learning to play the recorder… or learning multiplication tables… whatever you want to add to the list. You might help a kid memorize something or change a behavior, but extrinsic rewards always fail on a long-term basis.

I’m not the only person to write about this…

Pernille Ripp has written extensively on reading motivation here, here, and here – These posts are very specific to reading logs, but make a similar point. (If you’re not reading her blog, please do. The posts on reading instruction alone will be well worth your time.)

Alfie Kohn wrote a great post (amongst many) about The Risk of Rewards… but most directly about this topic in A Closer Look at Reading Incentive Programs.

As I spoke with Kelly Tenkely this morning about this blog post I needed to write about reading incentives, she recommended a book called Readicide: How Schools Are Killing Reading and What You Can Do About It by Kelly Gallagher. I haven’t yet read this book, but I can guarantee that badges (or pizza coupons) are not going to be the solution to what’s happening in reading instruction and motivating kids to read.

Larry Ferlazzo has an entire curated list dedicated to posts he and others have written about the failure of extrinsic rewards in education. Take the time to read these!

Honestly, I could have just posted links to the above posts and the book recommendation and not even written THIS post… however, there’s a story here. I saw firsthand what happened to my littles when they were incentivized with something other than reading itself. They already loved reading… but then their focus changed for the worse. I have some “badge damage” to undo with a few of my kids.

*I’m not blaming the makers of this particular app, and I’m not using this blog post to call them out publicly. They are providing what scores of other teachers (unfortunately) want.

Here’s what I want:

  1. Get rid of the badges. ENTIRELY.
  2. Create a graphic of a bookshelf within your app to show kids which books they’ve already read (I know there’s a scrollable section where they can see what they’ve read, but the virtual bookshelf would make it easier to see the sum total.)
  4. Continue to provide great choices for the kids to read… because ultimately, that’s what will keep us reading.

If none of my suggestions are possible, then consider giving teachers the option to turn off the badges. We don’t need them, and I’m not putting my students in a situation where badges are an option anymore.

Thanks for taking the time to read this. If you made it all the way to the end, you can give yourself 10,000 make-believe points as a reward. *wink*

6 thoughts on “We Don’t Need Badges for Reading

  1. Carol McLaughlin

    I SO agree with this post! I always HATED programs like Book It! for pizza coupons, and Accelerated Reader Program where students were tested after every book read and they only read ones that had AR points. It takes all the joy out of reading. Children didn’t read to laugh, learn and relax. They rushed through the books to get whatever the program dangled in front of them.

    My kids love reading and love books because books are AWESOME! Whether they are digital or paper, they are fun! Just as reading responses/book logs hurt the love of reading, the other end of the spectrum to give a prize for something that is enjoyable anyway hurts as well.

    I am super happy with my 10,000 make believe points but I would have read it anyway! 🙂 Now where to spend my make believe points…

  2. Great post!Thanks for sharing.

  3. I worry that this is a simplistic response to the complex challenge of personalisation in learning and teaching. Extrinsic and intrinsic motivations are not discrete. They are fluid and mediated by developmental, physical, social, emotional and cognitive factors over time. As a result, there’s no one-size-fits-all answer to the question of how best to support learning at any given time. This particular example of how badges influence behaviour seems to me to reflect normal social behaviours given the situation. The behaviours are not ‘bad’ or undesirable per se and they’re not likely to undermine love of reading in the children. I wonder whether you’ve nipped in the bud something that the children would have worked out for themselves with their responses differentiated according to their personal needs. Making ‘badges’ the only game in town would be a mistake I think. As one of a range of strategies available to educators, I believe badges and gamification have a place. For example, some children find that badges support repetitive practice when intrinsic motivation is at a low ebb as may happen if their skill level is poor in relation to others or they’re not receiving support at home. They provide an entry point and support for the repetitive process required to acquire skill over time. However, once a threshold is achieved, intrinsic motivation is generated for a more sustainable ‘love’ of the skill. If all of your children are intrinsically engaged by reading, all the time, you can count your blessings 🙂

    • Thanks for the comment. To address a few of your points:
      1. Personalization in learning means we know our students well… it can’t be limited to an algorithm. At Anastasis (where I teach), we hold that principle as our first priority. These are students with names, and we work to know them as people, learners, and integral parts of our community.
      2. As I wrote in the post, my students love to read because they have access and choice at all times. We have very intentionally cultivated a love and respect of books, both physical and e-books. My kids are always excited to read, because of that intention. They love to read, because of how we spend time discussing what we’ve read, how we prioritize what we learn from what we read, and because we are also very intentional to remove obstacles like reading logs and other punitive measures. I don’t count this as a blessing or that I’m simply lucky… this is a very purposeful environment that I (and teachers like me) have created. For the record, I have been in education for over 20 years, and my research and my experience have proven that rewards (like the badges in this specific app) are not effective for LEARNING. If you want to change a short-term behavior, rewards might be effective, but the alternative has to be unappealing, (e.g. potty training rewards). Long-term behavior and effects on actual learning do not change because of rewards. The rewards almost always have a negative effect – see GRADES in schools. (We don’t give grades at our school.)
      3. Gamification and leveling up are completely different than receiving badges for reading a book. I also use these concepts in teaching where they can be helpful in learning – but that is above and beyond a mere reward, as I’m certain you know.
      4. I hope you followed the numerous links I provided in this post with not only more anecdotal evidence of damage to learning motivation, but also solid research. Alfie Kohn’s work alone is extremely important in this area.

      Finally, I understand, from reading your profile and background, where you’re coming from… and I hope that you understand that I’m not against gamification or leveling up. This particular situation showed an IMMEDIATE change in behavior, and the change from where we were to where they are with the badging app is uncanny… and unacceptable. Thanks again for your comment.

  4. Great post – I think it is such an important point that instead of teaching our students to want to do something to receive a reward we teach them to enjoy whatever that task is and so they will want to do it on their own!

  5. Frank Cademartori

    Badges are positive reinforcement, basic Behaviorism philosophy. No one really bases their entire teaching practice on that bottom-up approach anymore. We realize its outdated and obsolete. However, for some students (low level, A/BRTI, SPED) it can really help to have those physical reminders of what they have done and need to be doing.
    You’ve discussed personalization in the comments, and you’re right… giving everyone badges ISN’T personalization. However, taking them away from everyone isn’t personalization either. It might work really well for some emergent or struggling readers. I understand your frustrations but you can’t just discount and entire movement.


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