Do Summer Reading Program Incentives Work?

I guess this question depends first on what libraries hope to achieve by setting incentives with their summer reading programs.

Is it to get kids to enjoy reading?

Is it to create a community of readers?

Is it to reward kids for their growing love of reading?

Is it to get kids to come to the library who may not otherwise do so during the summer?

And maybe it’s a combination of a few. But amid all the research on the harm that extrinsic rewards and even reading logs themselves can have on students’ intrinsic desire to read, it does make me stop and think.

Don’t get me wrong. I love our community’s summer reading program–the story times, the crafts. My daughter even pretend plays “library,” directing her cousins to call her by the name of her favorite local librarian. But it’s the incentives aspect that I wonder about, both in the library and at school.

Take the third possible question, for instance. Aren’t the kids who are being brought to the library on a regular basis also typically receiving reading immersion at home? (habits like laptime reading as babies, bedtime stories, healthy book collecting, watching parents read, etc.) So it seems to follow that kids who receive summer reading program rewards are being doubly rewarded–mostly for their parents’ initial commitment to cultivate a love of reading. Which further follows that the incentives aren’t actually rewarding growing reading habits, but existing reading habits.

Then there’s the matter of tracking books. Libraries and schools will often put stipulations on books to “qualify” toward the quota–after all, we don’t want to give the same reward to a nine-year-old who read 20 picture books vs. one who read 10 hefty chapter books, do we? (I have certainly bought into this thinking in the past)

But consider this anecdote from Misty Adoniou:

“When my son was nine years old, he put aside the large Harry Potter novel he had been slowly, but enthusiastically, reading each evening and instead began ploughing through lots of fairly uninspiring books that he brought home from school each day.

It turned out the Year 4 teachers had devised a competition at his school – whichever class read the most books would be rewarded with an end of term pizza party.

The aim, I presume, was to motivate the children to read. It is ironic then that the effect was that my son stopped reading for pleasure and instead began reading for the numbers.”

Don’t students get enough of this numbers game without summer reading programs jumping on that bandwagon, too?

I really appreciated how Nancy Bailey put it in a recent article, “Those who control what a student reads, really mean they don’t expect the student will read without being pushed to do so. They actually have low expectations, or no expectations, of the student.”

Of course, every summer reading program is different, and many strive to give as much choice as possible to their readers. But for the sake of protecting and cultivating our readers’ authentic love of learning, we need to be ever-vigilant for incentives that make reading about a carrot and stick instead. 

featured image: Bethany Petrik

3 Timeless Lessons From “The Yellow Star” About Cyberbullying

The “Yellow Star” by Carmen Agra Deedy beautifully illustrates the legend of King Christian X standing with his Jewish people by wearing a yellow star during Nazi occupation.

And while the Danish Jews were never actually forced to wear the star, confirmation of the king’s support for his Jewish people have surfaced, including “substantial evidence that the King actually suggested the idea of everyone wearing the yellow star should the Danish Jews be forced to wear it.” (source)

Legend or not, this 20th century story highlights timeless lessons of humanity that we find especially applicable to the 21st century subject of cyberbullying.

  1. Teach Solidarity

“Early in the year 1940…there were only Danes. Tall Danes, stout Danes, cranky Danes, even Great Danes.”

We must actively teach our students that what we have in common outweighs our differences. Cyberbullying offers a shroud of anonymity that can tempt some people to forget that a living, feeling human being is on the other side of that unkind post or dehumanizing poll. We can bring that shroud out of obscurity by directly talking about it. About digital citizenship. About the human experience. And about whether it’s really worth making someone else feel like they don’t belong.

  1. Teach Courage

“If you wished to hide a star,” wondered the king to himself, “where would you place it?” His eyes searched the heavens. “Of course!” he thought. The answer was so simple. “You would hide it among its sisters.”

I recently came across a disturbing article about a poll for the ugliest girl at a high school. And though the young woman who was targeted responded courageously, I was left wondering how each kid involved in that poll could have acted with more courage, too. How can we teach them to take initiative and take a stand, even if it isn’t very popular? I believe it starts with us. We need to model the courage to stand up and say no, even in a society that often turns “cruelty into entertainment and sport.”  

  1. Teach Empathy

“What if the good and strong people of the world stood shoulder to shoulder, crowding the streets and filling the squares, saying,’ You cannot do this injustice to our sisters and brothers, or you must do it to us as well.’ What if?”

Empathy requires us to truly reach other people. It rejects in-group/out-group. It embraces vulnerability and imperfections. It places genuine value on every human being. Cyberbullying creates in-group/out-groups. It exploits people’s vulnerabilities and imperfections. And it tears apart the self-worth of everyone it can. We need teachers who will dare to voice exactly what cyberbullying is all about, “Go[ing] beyond praising the right behaviors — proactively counteract[ing] the forces that stand in their way. This is where standing up, not just standing by, comes in.” (“Empathy: The Most Important Back-to-School Supply”).

King Christian X’s Jewish people may never have been forced to wear the yellow star, but his solidarity, courage, and empathy are likely what prevented that unjust mandate to begin with. What could these three qualities do for your students, your school, and your community?

Image credit: the lost gallery

Resources for More Authentic Reading Comprehension Strategies

As a freshly-graduated educator, I had been extensively drilled on reading comprehension strategies. Excited to try out my research-backed literary stockpile, I whipped up beautiful little guided reading packets that featured multiple copies of each comprehension strategy, complete with instructions and fill-in-the-blanks.

So I was shocked to discover that my students hated those packets. No matter how much support I offered, all I seemed to receive in return were lost pages and careless responses. After months of toiling in futility, we eventually ditched those packets and sought other ways to cultivate reading comprehension strategies.

Years later, my reflections have revisited those packets. What went wrong? Why were even my advanced readers disengaged?  Why didn’t they help students see the value of the strategies?

After further reflection, I realized we need to put ourselves in our students’ shoes. Imagine you’re deep in the thralls of your novel when someone comes up to you and asks you to synthesize the perspectives and settings so far.  Or to make an inference right now.  Or to come up with a question about your last chapter. Maybe you’re able to give adequate responses, but how likely are they to be genuine, meaningful reflections that enhance your reading experience?

Both my packets and this not-so-hypothetical example are missing one crucial element:  authenticity. As we examine practical ways to increase authenticity in our reading comprehension strategies instruction, we should consider how metacognition and ownership can work in this setting.


Research has instructed us to focus on the “what good readers do” angle as we explicitly teach these strategies.  But does that really mean telling them that good readers constantly pause for outside-mandated reflections at arbitrary times?  Of course not.

We need to build on this instruction by teaching them to notice the natural moments of self-conversation and wonderings as they read, and then to learn how to identify the strategies that are already at play. This awareness of their own thinking will enhance their authentic use of these comprehension strategies because it will gradually strengthen their ability to consciously utilize and articulate them.


Fifth grade teacher Jessica Lifshitz shared what happened when she shifted from merely teaching the what and how of comprehension strategies toward the why (1/12/17 edit: She’s also constantly using Google Apps to create student checklists and self-assessments that packed with ownership and metacognition, such as this Revision Checklist). These conversations help students internalize the real impact these strategies can have on our individual lives, which is crucial in using them in more authentic, meaningful ways.

To further help students take the reins on their own reading experience, I realized that we need to rethink how we ask students to express their thinking, being mindful of flexibility and choice. So I created the organizer below, which encourages them to consider which strategy they’ve used and how it improves their personal understanding.  Click here for the pdf!

FlexibleStudent-CenteredReadingComprehensionPracticeAs researcher Brene Brown summarizes, “Authenticity is a collection of choices that we have to make every day. It’s about the choice to show up and be real. The choice to be honest. The choice to let our true selves be seen” (The Gifts of Imperfection).  Let’s give our students the chance to make learning more honest and real for them, for reading comprehension strategies and everywhere else.  What are other measures you’ve taken to encourage authenticity in your classroom?

Featured image: Hazel Marie via flickr

23 Appropriate Books to Challenge Young Readers

Has your young student’s reading level exceeded their grade level? Having trouble finding texts that are challenging but still age-appropriate? We’re here to help you find that “just right” book. Below are 23 texts with upper grade difficulty, but lower grade interest and appropriateness. (Fountas-Pinnell Levels Q-U, interest grades 1-3).

Continue reading “23 Appropriate Books to Challenge Young Readers”

Review: Pam Allyn’s Core Ready Lesson Sets for Grades 3-5

If you are thinking of adopting Pam Allyn’s Core Ready series for teaching the Common Core English Language Arts standards, be sure to check out our review based on our experience with the program!


Core Ready lesson sets picAs teachers, we know that it’s difficult to truly evaluate a program until we’ve actually used it for a solid time-period.  At the same time, we also know it’s not often practical just to try out programs, due to financial and time constraints.  For this reason, I’d like to share my experience with teaching using Pam Allyn’s Core Ready books, in the hopes that it assists teachers considering their implementation.  My fifth grade team decided to adopt the series this past year since we wanted a Common Core-aligned reading and writing workshop program.  We had previously been using The Complete Year in Reading & Writing: Year 5 by Pam Allyn with much success, so we had high hopes for the new series.  I was personally able to teach using all of the books this year except The Journey to Meaning, due to maternity leave.


Each of the four books have 1 “lesson set” or unit per grade, which includes:
  • 10 lessons each for reading and writing (reading and writing to be taught simultaneously)
  • 1 Language Lesson (to be taught at some point within the lesson set)
  • Appendix of resources, including graphic organizers and rubrics
Grades 3-5 Books (can be taught in any order you prefer):
  • The Power to Persuade: Opinion & Argument
    • Focuses on strategies on what makes writing persuasive
    • Main published piece for 5th grade: a persuasive text
  • The Road to Knowledge: Information & Research
    • Focuses on how to gather research, note-taking skills, and how to correctly cite others’ work
    • Main published piece for 5th grade: an informational text; topic chosen by students
  • The Journey to Meaning: Comprehension & Critique
    • Focuses on reading poetry & essays to analyze themes, subjects, and author point of view
    • Main published piece for 5th grade: analytical essay
  • The Shape of Story: Yesterday & Today
    • Focuses on various types and components of stories, including character development and conflict, with an emphasis on fantasy for the 5th grade lessons
    • Main published piece for 5th grade: a narrative fantasy story
Other Corresponding Resources
  • Be Core Ready: Powerful, Effective Steps to Implementing and Achieving the Common Core State Standards: Detailed introduction both to the Core Ready series and to the ELA Common Core Standards themselves.
  • PDToolKit: An online resource in which you can access additional resources for the lessons


♥Common Core-aligned, vertically and horizontally!

This is obviously a major attraction to this series.  Now that the Common Core has simplified the focuses of ELA standards, it can be difficult to revise your current ELA program to be completely Common Core aligned–especially across an entire school!  The beauty of the Core Ready books is that not only is it completely Common Core-aligned within your own grade level, but it masterfully builds learning between grades.

Simple structure in each lesson (Warm up, Teach, Try, Clarify, Practice, Wrap-up)

I enjoyed this framework both because it facilitates plenty of guided student application, and because it allowed me to easily divide up the lessons into multiple days (if we needed to break it up, we would often end with “Clarify” one day, and begin with “Practice” the next).

Fosters teacher authenticity

The series thoroughly embraces the 21st century view of teachers as readers and writers growing right alongside students (rather than as wizened experts or sources of knowledge). A perfect illustration of this approach lies in the fact that as students create a published piece in each lesson set, the books also encourage teachers to do the same.  The benefits here are reciprocal; first, it builds in authenticity as teachers model their own warts-and-all literary process.  As a result, students glimpse the true nature of literary learning: not a neat, manufactured, step-by-step process, but one that is messy, purposeful, and beautiful.

Denise Krebs
Denise Krebs
Student-centered –> Plenty of room for inquiry!

Rather than teachers directly pointing out literary concepts, it encourages students to discover the concepts themselves within texts.  The lessons also constantly invite students to consider their own literary backgrounds, to identify their personal inspiration, and to make purposeful choices as unique readers and writers.

Encourages critical thinking and metacognition

The lessons are designed to continually challenge students to ask, “WHY?”  For instance, any time students are asked to find examples of literary concepts in texts, they are also nearly always asked to locate text evidence that defends their reasoning.  This makes for lively student discussions as they share their personal analyses. Additionally, every lesson set involves student reflection, and I definitely saw growth in my students as they regularly examined their own thinking and decision-making processes.


During a webinar early in the school year, I asked Pam Allyn and Debbie Lera whether 40 lessons would be enough to span the entire school year, as we worried this seemed like more of a supplemental program.  They assured me that many lessons would likely take more than a day to teach, and they were absolutely right; particularly when students gathered research or revised, some lessons took more than a week!  Additionally, our grade kept a couple small units from previous years, which we found easy to incorporate alongside the Core Ready series.

Encourages digital literacy

For the informational text unit, my students turned essays into multi-media blog posts.  For the fantasy narrative, my students created illustrated Storybirds.  The Core Ready books are packed with suggestions for engaging and natural technology integration.

Abundant resources

This is part of the reason that each lesson can be extended well beyond a day.  They include:

  • Ideas for both high-tech & low-tech classrooms
  • Suggestions to bridge concepts for English Language Learning students
  • Suggestions for Speaking & Listening development
  • Concrete ideas for formative assessments throughout the lessons.
  • Fantastic Appendix of resources and rubrics
Few anchor texts required

If you previously used the Complete Year in Reading and Writing books, you understand the financial strain of programs that require many anchor texts.  While this series does recommend a few anchor texts, it more frequently gives suggestions for online-accessible texts!



Of course, dedicating time for daily reading and writing is essential.  However, this program requires at least 40 minutes each for the reading and writing lessons.  You will also likely want to find time to incorporate guided reading groups, and while it’s been suggested that these groups can be run during the “practice” component of each reading lesson, that simply isn’t always practical.  For one thing, it keeps you from one-on-one interactions available during their practice time.  Plus, that practice time doesn’t happen the same way every day since some individual lessons are stretched over multiple days, which makes it very difficult to predictably schedule guided reading within the reading/writing workshop time.

Language Standards not fully integrated

Throughout the 4 books for 5th grade, some of the Language standards are only covered once–and a couple, not at all (Standards 4 and 5).  While a wonderful characteristic of the Core Ready books is that each lesson masterfully integrates a variety ELA standards, this can also make it difficult to keep track of which areas need to be supplemented if they aren’t included.  For how time-consuming this program is, I found myself wishing that the entire ELA standards were covered so we didn’t feel we needed an additional grammar program to provide complete Language instruction and spiraling practice.

Teacher talk can be lengthy

Each phase of each lesson includes detailed sample teacher talk, which is positive in that it gives teachers clear ideas on the lesson’s intended direction.  However, it can get quite long–the “Teach” component in particular.  For this reason, the lengthy teacher talk only becomes a “con” when teachers don’t realize it’s essential to adapt it to their own timetable and student needs.


The strengths of this series clearly outweigh the few drawbacks.  I would highly recommend these books to any teacher, especially if they are looking for a way to naturally build reading and writing skills in an interdependent, authentic manner!

Photo Credit:

R. Nial Bradshaw (featured image)

Denise Krebs