Monday, July 11, 2011
My six year old girl child, is learning how to read. I am generally letting her get on with it, not particularly concerned with how fast she is moving from illiterate to scholarship, but I am running a lot of interference with others who have more defined ideas about how much she should go about the business of learning to read.
However well-meaning yet unwanted the personalized ‘help’ with the reading is, the reading programs or ‘adventures in literacy’ as they sometimes bill themselves, have chiefly provoked my ire. Particularly suspect are summer reading programs hosted by libraries. We have steered clear of any reading done under the promise (or threat) or incentives. But now, as the summer reading program is once again underway at our public library and our reading of Lemony Snickett’s Series of Unfortunate Events has been interrupted by the sudden increase in juvenile patrons annoying borrowing the next book in the series out from under us, I am wondering if my reading program ire needs be provoked. Perhaps I have unfairly judged the programs?
The reading programs offer sticker and free books as rewards for a certain amount of books read. This is what is called extrinsic motivation, otherwise known as a bribe. I have read somewhere (a suspicious phrase, I know, but bear with me) that all children have an internal drive to learn to read in the same way that they will learn to walk and talk. Given enough time, raw materials, opportunities to ask questions and literacy experiences (such as being read to out loud), most children will teach themselves to read. If, however, you offer an extrinsic reward (stickers and books) for a naturally intrinsically motivated activity (reading for pleasure and learning), the extrinsic motivation will replace the intrinsic. The focus on the shiny external reward murders the quiet inner drive. Eventually, in a reward based reading program, children will begin to read only for the prize. Reading will become a chore to do before they can move onto the good stuff. Consequently, after grade school, already doing the minimal amount of reading they can get away with, using Cliff Notes and illicit internet essays to grimly squeak through literature classes, they cease all reading except celebrity gossip and spend their free time watching reality television.
Now that I type it all out, I suspect the initial culprit for this theory may be John Holt with my own particular brand of paranoia overlaid. As a new parent and, I admit, a particularly insecure one, I tended to swallow these kinds of theories reflexively. My daughter was born with a congenital heart defect and I had what seemed to be a vast amount of time to sit in hospital chairs, watch her sleep fitfully, and to read great tracts of parenting literature. Feeling maudlin and frightened at the invasive medical start to my child’s life, I began to lean heavily upon the editorial content of Mothering Magazine, a ‘natural’ family monthly, from which the glossy pages with pictures of shiny, healthy babies soothed my troubled heart. When facing these sorts of life and death situations with your own child, there is no such thing as critical thinking. At that point, among the magazine pages, I was looking for something to believe in. Natural family living became my religion.
A discussion for another day, perhaps, is how attempting to parent ‘naturally’ has recreated some difficult and guilt soaked situations for our family, often pitting me against my husband, extended family and, sometimes, my children. It is through these struggles, however, that the theories that I so naively, unquestionably, melded to my synapses during my daughter’s infancy come into the light and reveal themselves as just one way of thinking and, given that life is not conducted in a sunny field of organic poppies, not necessarily the best way.
When one of the things that I think I know about children becomes inconvenient, either by the way in which I want or must live my life or through embarrassingly overwhelming evidence to the contrary, my latent reserves of critical thinking once again dryly grind back to work and I am able to shake off some of the more rigid and unforgiving rhetoric of the natural family movement.
And here we are at the actual question: Does extrinsic motivation destroy an innate love of reading?
I don’t know.
But I do remember learning how to read myself. I was six years old, in grade one. There was a poster size chart on the wall with the names of my classmates in a column, a row of boxes beside each name. Inside each box was either a star or emptiness. Each star represented a book read or pretended to be read.
I recall encountering our first reader books, of ten or less words, and being rendered inarticulate with frustrated tears and misery. I believed I was never going to master this perversely difficult task, the connection between sound and character was elusive and devilishly irresolute. Each evening, slogging through the assigned reading, became known to me as the hour of torture. I hated reading.
Every day at school there were those who had completed their reading and those who had not. Each child with a finished book to hold up was given a coveted star sticker to place with their own hand on the chart. Before long, the poster visually revealed an intellectual hierarchy among the rows. Most names had only two or three stars attached, a few sad cases had none, and there were just a couple of names with a dozen or more bright shiny stars trailing behind like comets.
Looking at my two stars in the row directly beneath the name of that girl with the clipped tone and neatly combed hair who parked her colour coordinated pencils and novelty erasers in the shape of animals at the front by teacher and never got in trouble for playing rough games with the boys at recess. She who had a virtual universe of stars lined up stately behind her name. Under her and her stars, with my messy hair and boring pink erasers, each of my spaces sat empty as an accusation of idiocy.
I cannot say that this is the time that the world of knowledge suddenly became open and interesting to me, but it is when my intellectual competitiveness became strong enough to overcome the inertia of my general slackertude. It was that girl and her smug fucking stars that motivated me to push away my helpless tears and put my game face on.
I worked harder than ever before to learn the sounds and words, memorizing and puzzling and fitting it all together into a finally coherent message about throwing balls and running dogs. Every night I sweat and cried still, yet I did keep picking away at the clues until I finally found myself not only reading the words but actually comprehending the message.
This is also when I realized that many of the readings given to children for study at school was vacuous fluff, but that is, also, a discussion for another day.
I do not think I ever caught up to Miss Snotty Stars but I know I managed to pack away quite a few books that year. Enough to earn me the title of a ‘smart girl’, an honour and accusation that haunts me to this day. Whatever else happened with my social aspirations, extrinsic motivation – stars and prestige - is what got me reading. So what has become of my intrinsic drive?
Today I am a voracious and incorrigible reader. No matter how much I complain that I have no time for anything, I still manage to zip through two or more books a week. That is because I make room for reading the same way that I make room for bathroom breaks. It is just something that I have to do. Otherwise terrible things will happen. Nobody makes me read and, if I am truly honest, my house would be cleaner and my children neater if I took up television watching instead. Yet here I am, the readingest reader I know.
Perhaps I am an exception but I suspect that the case between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation is not clear cut. Each works to encourage or undercut one another, given the proclivity of each person’s individual brain chemistry and general disposition towards authority, and it is best not to make definitive statements about the right or wrong way to learn to read.
I have yet to sign up my daughter for the summer reading program. This year, given my girl’s dislike of pressure or score keeping, we will skip it, although when next June rolls around I will have to give it some serious thought. Perhaps she will enjoy keeping track of the number of books she had read and enjoy periodic reinforcement in the shape of a free book from a commercial enterprise such as Scholastic who sponsors such programs. It is just as likely that she will start to glean over the words and book to rack up the points in order to show up some other pint-sized Type-A.
The real question now is, what will you give me to find out?