Do Reading Incentive Programs Work to Engage Readers at the Middle Level? A Practitioner’s Prospective.

For the last seven years, I have facilitated a customized student reading incentive program at my school that seeks to reduce the “middle school slide” for readership. This program has been successful in keeping books in students hands and a steady flow of new and on-demand books available. In reflecting on this program and discussing with colleagues in my school district the strategies that I employ, I recognize that this in-house reading program has benefits and challenges.

Addressing the Need to Engage Students

I’ve spent the bulk of my career (16 years) as a middle school librarian. One of the first challenges that I recognized in this type of librarian role was that students were not engaged as readers. Yes, there were some students that were avid fans and would become my best marketing resources for engaging other students. But there was also a distinct apathy towards reading and disengagement by many students. There were several factors associated with this condition, but the primary cause appeared to be associated with the type of reading assessment or reading literacy program used at the elementary level (examples: Accelerated Reader, Reading Counts, Silent Sustained Reading, Hooked on Phonics, Reading Rockets, etc.).

My initial effort was to investigate what was the real reason students were “turned off” with reading and discovered that the primary issue stemmed from demands by teachers and parents to have students complete a series of prescribed reading program activities. Students described their previous experience with reading as stressful and lacked any fun or engaging rewards. This new knowledge provided me the inspiration to create my own reading incentive program, which I named “Reading Super Stars!” The primary purpose was to keep students engaged as readers, reduce the complexity for tracking, and provide frequent incentives for students to be recognized.

This program uses a Google Form online system where students are able to document their success in reading in a timely and efficient manner. I’m able to monitor student success by reviewing submitted Google Forms that I created using the following criteria:

  • Student first and last name (and ID number)
  • Homeroom teacher
  • English language arts teacher
  • Title of the book
  • Author of the book
  • Type of book (fiction, non-fiction, biography)
  • List the names of the TWO main characters in the book (one for biography)
  • In two sentences, describe the main plot of the book
  • In two sentences, describe what you liked or didn’t like about the book
  • Using your imagination and in just two sentences, describe either a different ending for the book or the next major event if the story were to continue

Sample Google Reading Log Form

Typically, it takes just a few minutes for students to complete the form, which also provides an opportunity for students to reflect on their experience as a reader. My best instructional partners at my school are English language arts (ELA) teachers. Students can enter their online forms during the homeroom time period and other flexible time throughout the day, as well as at home (the form is linked to our school webpage). When students have submitted four forms during the quarter, they will earn a ticket to a celebration event. Currently, we offer Game Day, Bingo for Reading Prizes (donations that I collect throughout the year), and Ice Cream Celebration. I allocate roughly $1,000 from my PTO-provided funds to cover any expense that occurs throughout the year to support this program. This type of program can be facilitated at no or reduced cost when the incentives come from resources that already exist in house (example: Free Time in the Gym, Craft Make It Day, Pop Corn Treat Day, etc.).

During the last few years that I have facilitated my Reading Super Stars program (I now use my school mascot in the program name), I’ve seen a steady increase in participation. We now have roughly over 50% of the student body participating and receiving recognition. ELA teachers love posting the list of students in their classroom and encouraging students to buddy together to recommend books and talk about what they are reading. Marketing the program initially was time consuming but now is part of our school culture. I’m at the point, where I need to switch up events because students know what to expect and are looking for something different. Overall, the greatest benefit of my in-house reading incentive program is to see students reading books that pique their interest and keep them engaged.


Author: Dr. Kevin M. Washburn

School Library Media Specialist: Charlotte NC
Information Literacy Researcher
Children’s Literature Advocate
Adjunct Faculty: UNC Greensboro

Categories: Blog Topics, Student Engagement/ Teaching Models

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2 replies

  1. what is the benefits of in-house reading program ?

  2. Thanks for some great ideas. I am experiencing the same problem of disengagement at my middle school. I hope next year to have a plan in place that reflects some of those ideas.

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