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*