Rewarding Reading?: Perhaps Authenticity is the Answer
by Barbara A. Marinak & Linda B. Gambrell - April 07, 2009
After five decades of intensive research, questions remain about the effect of extrinsic rewards on intrinsic motivation. The debate can be seen recently as educators and economists square off regarding the recently instituted practice of paying students to take tests or attend school. More specifically, research over the past two decades has consistently suggested that it is not a question of whether rewards enhance or undermine intrinsic reading motivation but rather under what conditions rewards undermine intrinsic motivation. Several recent investigations suggest that authenticity might be the answer. For example, rewarding reading with proximal rewards and inviting students into authentic literacy tasks could serve to nurture the intrinsic motivation necessary to continue engaging with text. Given these findings, this commentary suggests it is helpful to consider the word reward as a verb or an adjective rather than a noun when deciding when and how to offer rewards for reading.
After five decades of intensive research, questions remain about the effect of extrinsic rewards on intrinsic motivation. The debate has resurfaced recently as educators and economists square off regarding the recently instituted practice of paying students to take tests or attend school. However, research over the past two decades has consistently suggested that it is not a question of whether rewards enhance or undermine intrinsic motivation (Cameron & Pierce, 1994; Deci, Koestner, & Ryan, 1999a), but rather under what conditions rewards undermine intrinsic motivation (Cameron, 2001; Deci, Koestner, & Ryan, 2001).
A number of studies (Condry, 1977; McLoyd, 1979), including several meta-analyses (Cameron & Pierce, 1994; Deci, Koestner, & Ryan, 1999; Eisenberger & Cameron, 1996; Tang & Hall, 1995; Wiersma, 1992) examined the effect of variables such as interest and reward value on intrinsic motivation. Findings indicate that being rewarded for engaging in a low interest activity produces more involvement in the task (Lepper, Greene, & Nisbett, 1973; McLoyd, 1979); if a reward is valued, interest in a task is enhanced (McLoyd, 1979); and an environment that emphasizes choice of activity enhances learning motivation (Kohn, 1994; Rigby, Deci, Patrick, & Ryan, 1992).
With regard to literacy, Hidi and Harackiewicz (2000) and Sansone and Harackiewicz (2000) suggest that external rewards for reading might prove beneficial under a number of conditions, such as: when paired with performance feedback; when children have no initial interest in a task; when the reading is effortful and complex; and when children have choice over the task and/or the reward (Hidi & Harackiewicz, 2000; Sansone & Harackiewicz, 2000, Zimmerman, 1985).
Given these findings, perhaps it is helpful to consider the word reward as a verb (how do we reward reading) or an adjective (what causes reading to be a rewarding experience) versus a noun (the reward). Several recent investigations suggest that authenticity might be the answer. For example, rewarding reading with proximal rewards and inviting students into authentic literacy tasks might serve to nurture the intrinsic motivation necessary to continue engaging with text.
Reward Proximity Hypothesis
In 1996, Linda Gambrell suggested that the relationship between the reward for reading and the desired behavior of reading should be examined. In positing the reward proximity hypothesis she noted that both teacher praise and feedback are always closely linked to the desired student behavior. Conversely, extrinsic rewards are usually unrelated to the desired behavior. In the reward proximity construct, Gambrell (1996) suggested that intrinsic motivation is enhanced when the reward is closely linked to the desired behavior. In other words, a readers intrinsic interest in reading is enhanced when the incentive not only rewards the behavior of reading but also reflects the value of and encourages future engagement in that behavior.
In an investigation of the reward proximity hypothesis, we (Marinak & Gambrell, 2008) found that students who received a reward more proximal to reading (book) demonstrated higher levels of reading engagement by choosing to read more often and reading more text than students who received a less proximal reward (token). The proximity of the reward to the desired behavior was a particularly salient factor in enhancing reading motivation. In other words, books were less undermining to intrinsic motivation than token rewards. Our study found support for the reward proximity hypothesis in that proximal rewards (books) did not diminish motivation to read while less proximal rewards (tokens) resulted in decreased motivation.
Another finding from our study of the reward proximity hypothesis is related to authentic tasks (Marinak & Gambrell, 2008). The reading task for which children received a reward was a library book activity. The children were asked to browse a selection of newly published books, choose one, read an excerpt, and offer their opinion regarding whether the book should be purchased for their library. At the end of the period, the children were asked, "If your best friend asked you what was the best or most fun thing to do in this room, what would you tell them?" Every one of the seventy-five children in the study responded that reading or reading the library books was the most fun thing they did in the room that day. Interestingly, this response was given even by children who received a token reward but who never returned to reading during a free-choice period. Clearly, the task of reading books to render an opinion about purchase for their school library proved motivating regardless of the reward offered for reading. This finding suggests that the library selection activity was an authentic literacy task that the children self-reported as motivating.
In another study by Gambrell, Hughes, Calvert, Malloy, & Igo (2009), reading, writing, and discussion were explored within the context of authentic tasks. Specifically, students read books, discussed their interpretations of the books with others, and engaged in letter writing about the books with adult pen pals. Findings revealed that students literacy motivation increased for both boys and girls from pre assessment at the beginning of a school year to post assessments at the end of the same school year. In addition, the study found that students engaged in important higher order thinking skills as they talked and wrote about their books. The conclusion that can be drawn from this study is that authentic literacy tasks such as book discussions and literacy pen pal exchanges support and sustain literacy motivation.
It seems likely that classroom teachers will continue to make use of rewards in an attempt to motivate readers (Hidi & Harackiewicz, 2000). Regardless of why or when educators employ the use of rewards, the findings from these studies have significant implications related to increasing and sustaining reading motivation through the use of authentic literacy tasks. Defining reward as an adjective or a verb can inform how we reward reading and what causes students to find reading rewarding. Below are a few implications we would offer from the research.
Use of Rewards That Are Proximal to Reading Supports Intrinsic Motivation To Read. The reward proximity hypothesis should be carefully considered when using rewards in the classroom. If the desired behavior is reading, rewards that are proximal to engaging with books should be offered (e.g., books, increased read-aloud time, increased time for self-selected reading, increased library time, and increased number of books available).
Carefully Chosen Rewards Can Foster a Culture of Reading Motivation. Turner (1995) urges teachers to know what is done in classrooms in the name of literacy and how it affects children. What and how children learn, she notes, are intimately intertwined. So, too, the case can be made that rewards and the classrooms in which they are offered are inseparable. If this is true, rewards offered for reading should be a natural extension of a literacy-rich classroom culture. However, the importance of reading-related rewards may go beyond recognizing the relationship between reward proximity and the desired behavior. It could be that the real value of using books to reward reading and foster intrinsic motivation is that both the desired behavior (reading) and the reward (books) define a classroom culture that supports and nurtures intrinsic motivation to read.
Authentic Literacy Tasks Can Nurture Motivation and Promote Higher Order Thinking. Literacy motivation and discussion competence are both worthwhile classroom goals. According to Neuman and Roskos (1997), participation in authentic literacy tasks not only provides opportunities for students to use their prior knowledge and to practice using interpretative strategies; it also provides a rich context for developing critical thinking skills in literacy development. Authentic and cognitively challenging literacy tasks such as choosing books for the school library, book discussions, and pen pal exchanges about books appear to foster literacy motivation and critical thinking skills.
In conclusion, we suggest it is helpful to think of reward as an adjective or a verb. Students are more likely to view reading as rewarding when they engage in authentic literacy tasks. And if tangible rewards are given for reading, consider proximity by providing copies of the next great book you want them to enjoy.
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