Many children participate in reading programs over the summer. Some are promoted by libraries; some are rewards programs invented on the fly by parents desperate to get their kids off screens. Most of these programs are fairly free form, and, of course, lots of children spend the summer blissfully free of any rules or restraints on their reading.
Heading back to school means millions of American children will resume their vexed relationships with formal reading programs. Whether the mechanism is a simple reading log or online reading-comprehension checks, these programs are designed to reward kids for reading. While this sounds like a good thing, and for some kids these programs have a positive impact, incentive-based reading programs have the unintended consequence of discouraging valuable kinds of reading.
Some critics argue that by providing external motivations for reading, these programs may allow intrinsic motivations to fade away. In a recent New York Times piece “The Right Way to Bribe Your Kids to Read,” K.J. Dell’Antonia summarized research that shows when children are given rewards for completing tasks they once enjoyed, such as reading or coloring, they will no longer perform those tasks without rewards.
Dell’Antonia writes about parents who bribe their children to read over the summer, but the same concerns are raised during the school year when teachers reward students for reading. Instead of reading because it’s enjoyable or illuminating or a welcome escape, a kid chooses a book because it will take her to 100 points. That same kid won’t choose a book that she won’t get credit for, and this means that despite the well-intentioned efforts to encourage reading, incentive programs actually discourage some kids from reading the books they feel most drawn to.
Especially troubling is that children rarely receive credit for re-reading a book, an important intellectual exercise. Free from the constraints of a reading program, some children spend the summer re-reading favorite books, and going back to school means putting these favorites back on the shelf.
Re-reading is a different intellectual challenge than reading a book for a first and only time. When a child re-reads a book, he reads it more deeply. Because he already knows the story, subsequent readings allow him to glimpse the author’s craft. He notices that in the first chapter a seed is planted that doesn’t sprout until later in the book. He sees how the author hints at what’s to come. He also reads differently on later readings. Maybe on a first read, the plot was so engrossing the reader hurried through some passages that she lingers over the second time through.
Maybe the child re-reads a book after a few years have passed—this is when re-reading gets really magical. In addition to noticing character and plot elements that weren’t interesting to the younger reader, the older reader also discovers she can use the book as a way to measure and know herself. When she realizes that she totally missed the older sister’s story on her first read but now finds that story compelling, she has an opportunity to reflect on her own growth and where she is in her life. This re-reader makes the miraculous discovery that books are not static: they grow and change as we do.
Re-reading is also essential for higher-level reading that will happen in high school and college. A first read can be a thoughtful and analytic experience, certainly, but a second read always involves some critical thinking. When a child re-reads, he doesn’t just follow the story; he begins to pull back the curtain and understand how the story is made. He doesn’t have to go on to be an English major, but he can carry with him through life the ability to delight in understanding how books work. Understanding how books work is a great platform on which to build an understanding of how people and societies work. This is the foundation of a liberal arts education, the foundation, really, of being a person.
So, as children head back to school, I exhort parents and teachers to encourage re-reading. Even if an incentive is offered, I think intrinsic desire always kicks in when a reader is given the chance to go back to a favorite book. In my children’s novel The Rosemary Spell, the main character refers to the books that help you know who you are—these are books that you re-read at intervals in your life. You go back to them again and again, you read them until the pages grow soft and the cover falls away, and each time, you find something new and you become not only a better reader and an experienced critical thinker, but also a richer person.
Virginia Zimmerman is professor of English at Bucknell University and the author of The Rosemary Spell (Clarion Books, 2015), a novel for young readers.