Chapter 42: Rewards and Consequences

What if it’s not working?

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We have talked a lot about making reading fun. And why not? When something is fun, it’s easier to practice and easier to learn. And, even more important, reading really is fun. How many school subjects can you say that about? Neat things like games, comic books, and the Internet all naturally involve reading.

But, if you’ve tried all of the earlier suggestions for making reading fun and engaging, and your child is still very reluctant to spend time on reading practice or reading homework, it may be time to set up some rewards for meeting reading goals and some consequences for not meeting them.

Before you start

If you’ve decided it’s time to use rewards and consequences as part of a plan to help your child learn to read, here are some important things to keep in mind:

  • Recognize that baby steps lead to walking – All learning starts with baby steps. If you set up a system of rewards and consequences, be sure that the activities you are trying to represent small, easily reachable increments of improvement. If your child is reading at a fourth-grade level, for example, then “read at a sixth-grade level” is not a realistic goal. Instead, pick a more realistic one like, “Read one chapter in a fourth-grade level book on the weekend.”
  • Know the difference between “consequences” and “punishment” – Consequences are something that arises naturally from failing to do an activity. An example from the adult world would be getting a traffic ticket because you forgot to renew your car insurance. Punishment is different. It is more arbitrary and can be frightening and confusing. In the example we just used, it would be like getting kicked out of your apartment because you didn’t renew your car insurance.  Try to choose “logical” consequences for your child. If he refuses to do his reading assignment, for example, a logical consequence would be losing the right to do other, more fun activities – like playing video games – until the assignment is done. Failing to do reading practice during the week would logically lead to having to do it on the weekend instead of having friends over.
  • Remember the “ten-minute rule” – The PTA’s ten-minute homework rule was discussed in Chapter 29, “Homework Help.” The rule recommends that a child has no more than 10 minutes of homework per night for each grade level. That would mean 10 minutes of homework for a first grader, on average, and 40 minutes for a fourth grader. When deciding on the reading activities you are going to target, make sure that they fit within this time frame. The time your child spends nightly on reading activities and homework combined should not exceed the ten-minute rule.
  • Reward effort, not achievement – As we’ve discussed before, many of the reasons behind a child’s struggle with reading are simply beyond his control. When choosing rewards and consequences, target the time and effort he spends practicing, not his level of achievement. For example, it’s reasonable to say, “You will spend 10 minutes on your reading homework each night.” It’s not reasonable, however, to say, “You will improve your reading by one grade level before the end of the month.” For some children, that would simply be unrealistic. If your child is honestly trying, his efforts should be rewarded.
  • Keep your child’s age in mind – Once goals are set, and rewards and consequences outlined, an older child may be able to monitor his own progress and efforts. He may be able to start his reading homework after dinner on his own, for example, and only bring it to you to show that it’s been finished. A younger child, however, will likely require some hands-on help meeting the goals you have established. You may need to remind him when it’s time to get out his homework, set a specific timeframe in which to finish it or even use a timer to show him how long he will need to stay at the task.

Make it clear

For rewards and consequences to really work, they must be clear. For rewards to be motivating, your child needs to know exactly what he has to do to earn them. For consequences to have weight, your child needs to know just what they are and how he can avoid them. Statements like, “If you do better at reading, we’ll do something fun,” or “If you spend enough time at your homework, you can go somewhere,” are vague. Your child may think these statements mean one thing, while you may think they mean something else entirely. This can lead to frustration – for both of you.

Instead, choose very specific goals like, “Read out loud to Dad for ten minutes at bedtime,” or “Do reading homework every night this week.” The offer clearly defined rewards, as well. For examples: “Rent a video game,” “Have a friend over on Saturday,” or “Go to the mall with $3 to spend.” You can get even more reading into your child’s life by including rewards that involve reading! Think: the next book in a series your child is enjoying, a new comic book or family time spent playing a fun word game.

Chart your child’s progress

A chart is a helpful tool for you and your child.  Include places to write all of the four most important points that need to be clear when implementing rewards and consequences: the goal being targeted, a timeframe for meeting that goal, the reward that can be earned, and the consequences for not meeting the goal.

Be sure to involve your child in each step while filling out the chart. It will help you both avoid misunderstandings and will also insure that the rewards and consequences you choose are meaningful to your child and, therefore, more motivating.