Summer Reading: Moving Past Carrots, Sticks and Lollipops

Rabbi Dr. Joshua Wise

As the end of the school year comes closer, I can’t help but think back to my own childhood summers and the summer reading program at my local library. To be clear, I was what might be called a reluctant reader. But my mother brought my sister and me to the library on a regular basis, and eventually, I’d find a few books that didn’t look too terrible. My sister, on the other hand, was a voracious reader, no matter the topic.

The summer reading program at the library worked like this: For every two books read, a sticker with your name on it was added to the Wall of Books. There was a separate section on the wall for kids who read 10 books, another when a reader made it all the way to 16 books—and a lollipop prize, and finally, the long awaited choose-your-own prize from the librarian’s bin, when 25 books were completed. This was 1984, and a lollipop and a blue bouncy ball were coveted prizes. This past summer, my own kids entered into a drawing for an iPad mini and Amazon gift cards at our library’s summer reading program, but the point remains the same. The motivation for reading was, and still is, externally driven.

Rewind for a minute to my childhood. My sister and I would check out a stack of books (that was the easy part) and return a week later to heroically announce to the librarian that we had done the reading—as did many of the other kids in the neighborhood—and the Wall of Books quickly became crowded with the names of kids who read two books. The 10-book section of the wall had a little more breathing room, and the 16-book section had even more room, even though anyone who was anyone knew that that was where the potential for candy was hiding. (I love candy, and yet I rarely made it to 16 books. My sister, she always did.) And the 25-book section of the wall? My sister’s sticker hung there and not that many others, which, looking back, seems strange because that’s where the real prizes were. Past the 25-book mark, there were no more prizes to be had, but there was an extra star sticker for each finished book.

Thus, the essential question is, did the incentives make any difference at all?

The children who dropped out before the first few incentives were obviously not sufficiently motivated by having their name printed on a sticker or by earning a lollipop. And the children who seemingly were incentivized by the prize bin kept on reading past the 25-book mark without the lure of a reward at all. How do we reconcile the two?

Ask almost any teacher about summer homework, and you’ll usually be met with a heavy sigh, maybe even a couple of furrowed eyebrows. Why is it that after all these years, we have not figured out a system that works to prevent the dreaded summer slide?

Collectively, as educators, it seems that we’ve tried it all. We have offered students who have completed their summer work prizes, pizza parties, ice cream sundaes and even points on a report card. We’ve tried offering consequences to students who do not complete the work by giving a zero for the work, having students stay after school the first week of school to complete the work, sending the packets home again, and even leaving the delinquent out of the pizza or ice cream party. But by now, I think we all know that these methods (both the positive and the negative) are not terribly effective. However, they do all have something in common: They are all extrinsic in nature.

In his book Drive, Daniel Pink laments about an overreliance on resorting to carrots and sticks. He discusses the use of these extrinsic approaches, why they fail, and how anyone, not just teachers, can use his ideas to motivate others. His primary idea revolves around the need of the boss/parent/educator to change focus from extrinsic motivation to intrinsic by using the ideas of autonomy, purpose and mastery.


To start with, provide kids with autonomy, control over what they read. We could debate how much autonomy students should have over their learning during the school year, but during the summer, when students and teachers don’t see each other for more than two months, it can be extremely powerful to give students a chance to drive the bus.

For a lot of teachers, though, this can be a very difficult idea to swallow.

The concern from a teacher who is obviously doing a wonderful job and thinking ahead to September might go something like this: “If each student reads a different book, how can we discuss the book as a group once school starts again?” One solution might be to allow students to choose a book from a short list with diverse topics, and come September, the class would break into groups based on the chosen book. Another option might be to place a greater focus on the skills that can be derived from the book, such as finding and understanding the plot or character development, rather than on the story itself. And finally, there are always book reports or presentations, paper or digital, to fall back on. And I know from watching my own students, working on projects with my own children, and looking back at my own summer reading escapades that a student will always be more willing to do the work when he or she enjoyed the book.


Some students are more inquisitive than others, and it’s usually the inquisitive ones who need to see a purpose in what they are doing. Why are we reading these books/doing these math problems/learning about volcanoes? Sometimes it is the extra bright kids who ask these questions, but oftentimes, it is the student who struggles and does not see the value in his coming to school every day. And it’s this other group of students who really do have a deep need to understand the value in their work to motivate themselves.

How can we help students see a purpose in their summer reading?

This is an ongoing battle in many classrooms. Some students just don’t see what they get out of school. For many students, their sense of purpose only comes from the deep relationships they develop with their teachers. Pleasing their teacher, making their beloved teacher proud, is often the main reason that students who struggle make any effort at all.

For students like these, who need a purpose in order to accomplish schoolwork, teachers can go a long way in helping. I have often found, especially in the middle grades, that students will work for a teacher who shows that she cares, and I believe that one of the biggest issues standing in the way of accomplishing summer reading is that students don’t read because they think no one cares whether they do it or not. Easy ways to further this goal could be having the students submit their summer homework to their beloved teacher who actually assigned it, and not to their new teacher whom they have not yet had the chance to bond with. Another way might be for a teacher to mail simple postcards or send a quick email to her former students over the summer, checking in and asking how the assignments are coming along.


The final step in the process of cultivating intrinsic motivation is teaching the value of mastery. In any given class, students may be reading on several different levels, but no matter the reading level, there is a book for every reader, and it’s on that reading level that summer reading should be assigned. Forcing students to read on a level that is too high (or too low) for them will always backfire. Either the student will have no understanding of what he is reading or he will find the book boring and too easy.

So, how do we find that Goldilocks zone? Metacognition, some self-assessment and a little variety should do the trick. Getting students to think about their thinking—metacognition—has been shown over and over to boost student academic achievement levels. This activity helps students appreciate and value the process while taking the spotlight off of a “results-only” perspective. In addition to giving their autonomy a boost, giving the students the opportunity to assess their own mastery levels will remind them that they are partners in the learning process. Finally, giving students multiple options for demonstrating, and advancing, their mastery level will help students see how they can improve their ability for all types of reading, not just what’s been assigned to them.

But having to think about thinking about what you’re thinking? That’s enough to give any teacher, let alone every student everywhere, a headache. There are, though, simple steps that can be taken to effectively teach metacognition, but the steps need to be practiced, ideally several times over the final weeks of the school year, so that students can then put their new skills to good use over the summer. 

First, begin by teaching students to set clear goals. What do they hope to learn from this book? How can they read more critically to find what they are looking for? These are intense questions, and attempting to answer them can feel awkward and might leave more than one student staring at a blank page, but the more often students are asked to set personal goals, the easier it will become. 

Second, introduce the idea of using a checklist or rubric while reading. The rubric works best when students familiarize themselves with it before starting the book. Using the same rubric for every book or essay assigned gets students comfortable with this method, enabling them to stay on task well before the summer even begins. Once using a rubric becomes second nature, students can design their own, asking themselves questions before, during and after reading. 

Third, model the behavior that you are looking to instill—and model it again. Reading comprehension is a skill that can be taught to all students. Show the class how to read a passage, to pause, to reflect. Show how you might take notes as you read, or highlight a sentence that speaks to you. Engage the five senses while reading: How might it feel to be in this story? What does it look like, smell like? Often, students will have a thought while reading, but because they have not been shown how to pause and sit with that thought, they just keep reading and in turn, lose out on what might be, for them, the point of the story.

For years, researchers have tried to better understand the dreaded summer slide and to find ways to prevent it, or at least to mitigate its effects. The research has often focused on the idea that certain students have advantages over other students, but I think we can break away from that entire argument. When we can turn the motivation internally—by allowing them to choose, by demonstrating that we are in it for the long haul alongside our students, and that we are genuinely impressed by what they can do, and they should be as well—it is a game changer. By teaching them how to actually learn and how to think, instead of having them spit back what they are taught in class, we can turn the summer from a place of losing ground to a season of growing.

Just imagine a world where students read because they want to, and think because they know how. And a world where the local librarians get to help kids choose books that they will cherish, instead of spending their summer checking their inventory of star-shaped stickers and lollipops.

Return to the issue home page:
HaYidion Summer Homework Summer 2017
Summer Homework
Summer 2017