Win-Win? Win-Lose? Win-Whatever? On Reading Competitions

School has started. I mean really started. Not "pick out your first-day outfit" "who's in your class?" "does your teacher seem nice?" More like "Oh wow, you have a bunch of homework" and "Gee I guess that plan where we wake up 45 minutes before you have to leave isn't really going to work."

But so far it's pretty much fine. Every kid in our house is in middle school, which takes my breath away and scares me a bit, but they seem (mostly) unfazed. Diana is outraged that her class library has no Agatha Christie at all, and Chestnut came home to announce that her ELA teacher is having a contest. A reading contest.

My first reaction: unease.

My second reaction: scoffing at myself for my first reaction.

My third reaction: more unease.

Here's the deal: whoever reads the most books "on their level" by the end of the year will win a prize! And I know, I know—the teacher is just trying to spur them to read more. Which is a laudable thing, right? She's getting kids excited about reading, OK? And it is certainly true that kids love prizes and competitions etc etc.

What sticks in my craw: on their level. Which is, I think, a terrible way to choose books. Also sticking in my craw: that the excitement generated is all about the prize; am I just idiotic to want them to read something so awesome that the book itself is exciting? Am I just misguided? Also in my craw: the people at the low end, the nonreaders, will KNOW they can't win, and how will this help them unless there are a series of prizes? But there's only one.

I know I am stupidly lucky that both my kids just like to read, because it will help them in all these ways with the rest of their life. And I just get to have that—I don't have to spur them on, they just go there themselves.

The only semi-useful analogy I can make is food. My kids are…not "good" eaters. They are nervous and wary about foods they don't know, they cling to the familiar, they won't try new things. A contest to inspire them to try more foods? It would make sense. But…part of me feels like it's going about things in the wrong way. That I should just wait for them to discover that food is awesome on their own? But maybe this part of me isn't right? Also maybe this is a crappy analogy?

Help! What's your feeling? (The evil being within me is trying to force me to make some sort of joke/ending line about "no contest" and I am fighting it…fighting it!)

20 thoughts on “Win-Win? Win-Lose? Win-Whatever? On Reading Competitions

  1. Both my boys are in middle school (6th and 8th grades). Only one likes to read. The younger has some learning disabilities, particularly with reading and spelling. That kind of contest would make me feel terrible — he’s incredibly competitive, but he would fail miserably. I hate all of that crap — the contests, the stratification of reading, etc. I can’t see how it helps anyone.


  2. I had the same reaction when our school started a readathon, where the kids compete for prizes and you “sponsor” a kid for reading minutes as a fundraiser. I hated paying my kid (who loves to read) to read. Just felt all wrong. The funny thing is, she got really competetive at first, then she just went right back to reading whenever she felt like it (at dinnertime, in the car, before getting dressed) and forgot to record the minutes. For lots of kids, the “prize” is just too far off or not intriguing enough for it to motivate them I think.


  3. Ugh. We are experiencing this kind of thing for the first time this year. My daughter has to always be reading a book *on her level* that she will have to do a book report about. Which, really, means NO READING FOR PLEASURE.


  4. I’m no help, b/c I think it’s a crock. I’m sorry you have to find a way through this garbage. I hated it at school, and never had any motivation to win after a couple weeks (same scenario as Nicole’s daughter). My mother just ignored the whole thing, and miraculously, it seemed to go away. Reading contests creep me out, and I don’t think you need talk yourself out of your own feelings about them.
    oh, and I think the food analogy works pretty well. Presumably, you kids would either choose to complete b/c they were ready to try new foods, or not compete b/c they weren’t ready. Then you would either choose to make a big production of the winner and the prize…etc etc.


  5. Our elementary school asks kids to read 1,000 pages over the summer. My kids LOVE to read so this wasn’t a problem for them – well, my son loves to read but he HATES having to write down what he reads. He read the 1,000 pages within 2 days of school ending. Usually they have a “flip flop” party and give the kids who did the required reading a popsicle. This year, they had the kids come to a concert by a couple of teachers. Very nice, sure, whatever….except the kids in my son’s 4th grade class who did NOT read the 1,000 pages (the majority of the kids) stayed in the classroom to watch a fun video and then got extra outside time. Great – the kdis who don’t read get a better reward than the ones that did! My son said he wished he hadn’t turned his paper in — the paper he was so proud to give his brand new teacher, to show her how quickly he’d done the required 1,000 pages.
    My 2nd grade daughter is currently frustrated because during her library time, she is not “allowed” to get higher level books to read than the ones she “should be” reading in second grade. Who decides these things? I agree with teaching kids to read books that are appropriate for their reading ability and their developmental ability, sure, but if a kid wants to read “up”, then why can’t they? Well we’ll just continue to give her challenging books at home, and telling her that we don’t understand either why the school won’t let her do more.


  6. My craw is full as well. Even more so after reading the comments. Ugh. I know it is all in good faith that these things occur, but come on. REALLY. If you want more kids to read, then REAL PEOPLE have to put the time in with those who do not read in order to win them over. And, I am sure some students will not be won over no matter what you try. The students need to step up for themselves.


  7. Have you thought about talking to the teacher about some of your concerns? Maybe raise the possibility of offering a series of small prizes — fastest reader, most improved reader, best reader-out-loud…


  8. Both my boys are out of middle school now, but went through the same problems while there. In NYS kids have to read a certain number of pages by the end of the year…or so they tell the parents. All I know is that I had happy, wonderful readers when they entered middle school and when they came out, they won’t pick up a book unless it’s required. They are totally burned out. I just hope that I’ve laid the groundwork and that they will come back when they are ready.


  9. Yes. Alfie would be all up in arms over this. I just wanted to say that your kids are into this because they like to read, they are good at it and it will make them feel even more successful. Rich get richer, so to speak. The kids these contests are targeting are the ones who DON”T read, and they are just going to feel more failure. I will step off the soapbox now. And go read the new post.


  10. I am with Megsie here, although I would add that in the long run it’s also not so great even for the kids who do read easily and enjoy nothing so much as a good book. As evidence, I have only my own experience, but I remember taking part in such a contest when I was in 3rd grade. I wanted to WIN. So I read fast, I read indiscriminately, I read to the exclusion of all else.
    What other things did I miss that summer devoted to nothing but reading? Why was it good for me to just make sure I had finished X number of books and not re-read here and there, either for enjoyment or further clarification?
    A pox on these, say I.


  11. Nope, this is not cool. The kids who are slower readers already know they can’t win, the kids who don’t like to read won’t go for it even for the prize, a few might be tempted to cheat, and the readers who are naturally fast will all know it’s a competition between them and the other fast readers. Besides, as a frighteningly fast reader myself, I don’t think ‘more’ is necessarily better in this case. Part of my problem is that I often go so fast I miss out on some of the beauty in the descriptions, simply because I want to know what happens plot-wise. This actually leads to less enjoyment on my part! I re-read books in part because I want to find out what I missed the first time.
    Speed reading shouldn’t be the name of the game, which is what it turns into with competitions like these. I’m not even going to touch the whole ‘on-level’ aspect, because I think I’ve previously commented a number of times on my issue with leveling.
    Diamond, maybe you could ask your daughter why she thinks the teacher picked this kind of contest, and what the outcome might be? That way, you’re not judging the contest outright, but you’re


  12. opening a space in which she can start to think more critically about these kind of gimmicks.
    (sorry, I posted accidentally before I was finished.)


  13. This sounds like a housekeeping nightmare to me, as well as a motivation crusher. Keeping track of all the books, deciding if every single one is ‘on-level’, what a pain! Didn’t you have a post on here once about the scourge of reading logs? One of my kids, a non-stop reader, actually got a C grade in reading a couple of years ago because of not filling in the reading log.
    I think teachers who feel they have to bribe kids to read must not actually think reading is very fun.


  14. I think I have finally decided that if my child ever comes home with a ‘reading log’ or some kind of contest notification that I will email the teacher and let them know we will not be participating. My child reads all the time, she reads things that are easy for her and things that are ‘just right’ for her and sometimes she reads things that are challenging, and she’s starting to look at the challenging stuff on her own more often. Why on earth would I want to ruin that with contests and logs?


  15. The PTO at our school plans (optional!) reading challenges during summer, winter, and spring breaks. We use reward dollars from our book fairs to purchase books and bookmarks that are given away to everyone who participates. I think it’s a fun way to encourage reluctant readers as well as a treat for kids who are already bookworms.


  16. I have much the same situation-the teacher at a 13 year old relative of mine’s has issued an ‘twice a semester complete a worksheet on your independent reading book’ assignment, and I feel that even the worksheets questions go against what I believe reading is about.


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