You lost me at levels and incentives…

A few weeks ago I attended a training session for an online reading product. I arrived open-minded and ready to learn about a new tool to help my students develop their love of reading.

Then words and phrases from the presentation started to buzz around me like pesky bees.

“stars earned for books read”… swat!

“limit their levels”… swat!

“comprehension quiz”… swat!

“pre-made”… swat!

“worksheets”… swat!

“generic lessons”… swat!

Then it started to become worse than buzzing. I was shown how to control what students read, how to restrict how they read and how to send them messages to which they could not reply. Cringe.

Where is the student ownership, voice, agency?

So I began to do a little research on their website:





Ranking. Control. Practice, practice and more practice. 

Nothing about love, joy or passion. 

The whole time I was listening to the presentation and browsing the website I could not get this poem written by John Locke our of my head:


I don’t want to do anything that gives my students an aversion to reading or learning. I do not want to make reading a business for them. I want to help them grow their passion as readers.

5 years ago I probably would have jumped on board and signed my students up. I’ve become more discerning since then. I become more informed since then. I’ve become more critical since then. I’ve become more emboldened since then.

Amazing provocateurs like Pernille Ripp, Mark Barnes and Alfie Kohn have challenged my thinking about reading practices like reading logs, levelling, and incentives. They have prompted me to reflect on how the choices I make as a teacher can kill my students’ love of reading. They have forced me to think of myself as a reader when thinking about what I should be asking of students. They have provided me with guidance about how to create a passionate reading environment. They have inspired me to become a reading warrior where I critically think about and advocate against literacy practices and products that negatively impact children. They have inspired me to break the rules.

Yet time remained in this presentation, so I tried to see the potential uses. Here was a website offering thousands of online books. Books… hmmm. I began to wonder about these “books”. So I dug a little deeper.

“professional illustrators who have years of experience illustrating educational material

excerpts and adaptations from literature”

Was this a place where students could access real books or materials for reading instruction?Because those aren’t the same things.

I think my students deserve exposure to good quality literature. I think my students deserve to be free from levelling and ranking. I think my students deserve voice and choice in what they read and how they read. I think my students deserve to develop their love for reading away from prizes, rewards and incentives.

Is there not an app or website where students have access to literature with no levels, no incentives, no restrictions or limitations?

Is so, please tell me about that.

8 thoughts on “You lost me at levels and incentives…

  1. Kathryn Ramsay September 16, 2016 / 8:55 am

    Hi, Thank you for your blog post, I always enjoy reading them.

    This post is particularly timely as I am currently working with our Grade 1 team on developing agreements and beliefs about reading and their associated practices. For many years my school has used the red, yellow, pink, green basel/reading scheme books system that does exactly as you described, and I have always been uncomfortable with it. And I am so excited that over the last year, many teachers have also begun to question the practices we have. Yesterday after reading some articles (The chapter ‘The reading process and learning to read’ from The Reading for Real Handbook, and Alfie Kohn’s article ‘On Teaching Reading, Spelling and Related Subjects’) we had such an amazing meeting where we began to come up with some shared agreements.
    Reading for meaning/understanding/comprehension is the overall aim
    Enjoyment/engagement is essential
    Letter/sound correspondence is important but shouldn’t be the only way we teach reading
    Phonics is important to teach but not through ‘skill and drill’
    Use of a balance of books (if we had them, we would LOVE a rich ‘real book’ classroom library)
    We need to teach the children how to choose books
    Students should be making choices (but guided at times and monitored by the teacher to ensure a variety)
    Parent education is important

    I have made digital the articles that I mentioned, if you would like me to send them to you.

    I would be interested to hear how your school as a whole reacted to the training you had. Is this the way you are expected to teach? Do you have the possibility to opt out? I am suprised that they suggested this workshop. Page 71 of MTPYPH is great to help guide, maybe they (whoever chose the workshop) need a reminder!


    • tbondclegg September 16, 2016 / 11:44 am

      Hi Kathryn,

      That is amazing that you’ve encouraged a dialogue at your school where teachers are supported in critically examining their (and traditionally) accepted literacy practices. I believe that if we want to help our students become critical thinkers that question the status quo, we must first walk the walk and reflect on and challenge what practices are, and are not, best for students.

      As for the reaction of the training from other teachers, I cannot comment because I did not chat to anyone about it. But I do acknowledge that as teachers we are all at different stages of our journey (as I mentioned in my post, me 5 years ago would have been all over it!) and we all have different perspectives, of which I am in no position to judge. All I can do is keep provoking and challenging my own thinking, keep reading and inquiring to learn more and keep developing my own philosophy and what I believe is best for my students. 🙂


  2. Judy Imamudeen September 16, 2016 / 11:09 pm

    Taryn– I appreciate how you challenge ideas and so I shouldn’t be surprised that you got so fired up over an online reading program. I can’t speak to the context to which you must apply this reading program into your school curriculum, nor the program and its merits, but I’m going to challenge your perspective since it sounds more like a supplement rather than a critical component of your reading program. No one can “teach” reading in a virtual environment. Research done on toddlers has demonstrated the need for face-to-face connection when learning language. We learn life skills always in a context by virtue of being human, which is why I find how you personally got upset surprising because there is no way that these computer programs can convey a LOVE for reading–that’s not their intention. I know they try to package that, but c’mon, we all know that it’s the adults, mentors, and peers (read HUMANS) in a student’s life who help shape their LOVE of anything. Yet what this program can do is develop skills through deliberate practice. Every since reading MindSet by Carol Dweck, it is obvious that genius isn’t born–it is created. And it is created through deliberate practice.

    As teachers, we shape the attitudes of your learners, but the only way to get good at something is to practice. Whether it is reading or knitting or golf! And practice generates more competency, and when you are good at something, you want to do it more-you put in the time and effort–and one develops their own intrinsic reward system. So breath, and stay open. Perhaps you can find some space in your mind since this training to allow a partnership between passion and practice to flourish. I don’t think you have to give up one to have the other.


    • tbondclegg September 17, 2016 / 6:16 am

      Hi Judy,

      Thank you so much for taking the time to comment and share your perspective! 🙂

      You are completely right, the on-line program is a supplemental component, yet even as a supplemental component the messages that the nature of the program delivers – that teachers should be able to control what and how students read, that reading material selection is limited to their level, that reading is something done as a means to get better at reading, that reading is something done for extrinsic rewards – are not messages I wish to bring into my classroom.

      So although I agree with you completely that practice is essential for humans to get better at something, I would like that practice to be done with literature – not pseudo-books/quasi-books; because of curiosity and interest – not levels; based on student choice and voice – not teacher pre-selection and restrictions. I’m very open to ways that passion and practice can flourish together – I’m just not sure this company’s on-line product is it.


  3. deschatjes September 25, 2016 / 1:29 pm

    I’m just wondering if you’re referring to Scholastic Literacy Pro – since I too attended a presentation on it about a week ago and the same kind of little niggles were popping around my head. I was particularly worried about the child’s “label” aka “level” being front and centre on the screen all the time, and also worried about the range & age of the online books available … Not that my students are fans of online reading anyway. But it also bothered me that they wouldn’t get points and stars unless they were quizzed and the book was part of the program … aarrgghh the one bright point was being able to integrate it with my library collection.


    • tbondclegg September 28, 2016 / 10:30 am

      It was not the same program, but I assume many online reading products have similarities. Does your school have a Tumble Books account? It is great – an online library with real books, real authors available to all! 🙂


      • deschatjes September 29, 2016 / 2:19 pm

        Yes we do have Tumblebooks, and it’s slowly gaining traction now that I’m promoting it. My students did the summer trial with Epic Books and it was fabulous – we have an educators account but I wish we could get it for our school. We’re going to try out Wheelers as we can add that to a school consortium. My kids still love real books the best when I surveyed them last year after 3 weeks of intensive experimentation with eBooks on all platforms they all voted I shouldn’t spend any of my library $$ on eBooks!


      • tbondclegg September 29, 2016 / 3:19 pm

        Thanks for sharing about Epic Books and Wheelers, I have not heard of them but I will explore!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s