I think most parents and teachers would agree that bribery isn’t always a bad thing. Nobody wants to resort to it, of course, but having an emergency pack of lifesavers to dole out to the kids when the going gets tough is sometimes, well, life saving.

The problem with bribery is that it can work well in the short term, but it’s often not the best path to long-term growth. Furthermore, because bribery so easy and effective, it can quickly get out of hand. When you ask your child to make his bed and he responds with, “What will you give me?” you know you’ve given out a few too many lifesavers. (This example happened at a friend’s house, I swear.)

But what if you have a reluctant reader, and bribery seems to be the only way to get her to pick up a book? If the bribe is the impetus to start reading, and the child subsequently discovers how much she enjoys reading, maybe long-term growth really can occur. In this case, isn’t the bribe a good thing?   

K. J. Dell’Antonia of the New York Times explores this question in her article, The Right Way to Bribe Your Kids to Read, and we like what she has to say. The author asserts that whether you reward your kids for reading may be less important than how.

According to Dell’Antonia and the experts she consulted, rewards can be useful in giving certain kids a “jump-start” into the joys of reading. In these cases, a bribe can be a good thing. Ideally, the bribe will be one that focuses on the value of reading, as opposed to “quick bribes” like money, treats, or toys. A reward of quality time with a parent or teacher that reinforces the importance of reading—for example, special time reading together, a one-on-one meeting to discuss the book, research together into a topic related to the book, a bonus trip to the library—has a better chance of helping the child become intrinsically motivated to read. And when intrinsic motivation is present, the need for extrinsic rewards falls away.

In Read Naturally programs, “rewards” that highlight the value of reading are built into the strategy, which is why our programs are so successful at motivating reluctant readers. The opportunity to advance through the program is even more appealing to students than coins or candy. How does it work?

Each student has a Words-Correct-Per-Minute (WCPM) goal he must reach in order to pass a story. Each time the student practices reading the story, he gets a WCPM score. Watching this score go up with each practice—and ultimately earning a passing score—motivates the student to keep practicing toward his goal. As he progresses through the program, the student’s goal and level increase, boosting his confidence. In addition, a “hot timing” on each story is a special opportunity for the student to show off his progress to his teacher. Charts that show improvement in WCPM scores from story to story and level to level become sources of pride, proof of hard work paying off.

For students using our programs, the reward is the realization that fluency is attainable. It’s a feeling of competence at a task that previously felt defeating. And when an offer like that is on the table, there’s no need for money, treats, or toys.

We’re not saying teachers should throw away their treat buckets. By all means, keep the lifesavers in your pockets! But if you have a program like Read Naturally, we think you’ll find yourselves using them less and less.