If you’ve never heard of the term “reading log” — good for you! Let’s hope you never have to. I’d never heard of it until this week either, so I consider myself lucky. I get that whoever came up with the idea of reading logs probably meant well. It was probably someone who looked at the mountain of evidence supporting the benefits of reading and wanted to turn it into policy.
But…seriously? Did no one really think of saying, “Hold on, Dr. So-and-so. Shouldn’t we at least consider the possibility that turning something enjoyable into something mandatory could backfire spectacularly?”
What are reading logs?
Reading logs, for the blissfully uninitiated, are charts where a student documents what book they read, how many pages they read, and how many minutes they spent reading. The more torturous reading logs include stuff like page started, page ended, parent’s signature, et cetera, et cetera. Apparently, there are schools where kids are required to do this daily, as a way of encouraging them to read.
Right now, I’m so mind-blown that I can’t think straight enough yet to make a coherent list of why that’s a bad idea.
So let me tell you a story first. I can’t guarantee 100% accuracy for this retelling because it’s been decades since I read Bill Russell’s autobiography Second Wind but I can say it’s fairly accurate because that lesson really stuck to me. When he was a kid, the basketball legend was told by his dad not to smoke. But one time, he snuck into a closet and tried a cigarette. And his dad caught him. You know what his dad did? His dad got an entire pack of cigarettes and made him smoke the whole lot. Will his father get sent to jail if he did that these days? Sure. Did Bill Russell ever smoke anything again, other than the odd championship cigar? No.
Here’s another story. One of the things that prompted me to start this blog was the Montessori course that I was taking in preparation for handling my son’s pandemic-induced home-based Montessori program. As I listened to the instructor, I thought how great it would be if I could share what I was learning — because it truly was fascinating — to other people who might also find it interesting and helpful. So I created this blog and wrote and wrote and wrote posts about the things I was learning. I wrote a post after almost every session of the Montessori course. But then my son’s school asked us parents to write down and submit all the insights we learned from each session, along with answers to questions like, how did it shift our paradigms, or something like that. It wasn’t really too different from what I was already doing in the blog. But you know what I did? I stopped writing. Because, you know, this blog was my thing. I had psychological ownership of it, it was something I was intrinsically motivated to do, and I actually really liked doing it. But turning it into something that I had to do and then imposing external parameters on it? Nah. Not my thing.
(I love my son’s school, for the record. And I’m glad they’re the type of school that accepts feedback like “Is this really necessary?” from occasionally rebellious parents like me.)
(Also for the record, it’s not because I’m just lazy. I have a degree in psychology and medicine so I like to think it wouldn’t be totally accurate to say I’m just slumming through life. Writing blog posts actually took more effort than answering the questionnaires; it was just more satisfying and meaningful and the motivation came from me.)
In both stories, whether it’s something one shouldn’t be doing, like smoking, or something that one should be encouraged to be doing, like writing about something interesting, once it becomes required, the motivation to do it just drops, sometimes to the point of making a person want to not do it.
What psychologists, teachers, and researchers say about reading logs
But don’t just take my word for it. Says Erica Reischer at The Atlantic: “As a psychologist (and a parent), I have long opposed reading logs because of abundant research on the negative effects of external controls (such as rewards, deadlines, and assigned goals) on intrinsic motivation. In other words, when motivation to do an activity comes from outside, via rewards or mandates, it tends to undermine people’s interest in doing that activity for its own sake. This decline in motivation ultimately affects enjoyment, creativity, and even performance.”
And what do teachers have to say about it? You can read what some of them have to say here.
Basically, for kids who already like to read, a reading log turns interest into duty.
And for kids who don’t already like to read? It turns a bore into a chore. Disinterest into potential hate.
But why does it matter?
The evidence on the benefits of reading has been on pleasure reading. Leisure reading. Independent reading. Not reading-because-I-have-to reading. Not I-don’t-have-the-energy-to-foster-and-model-a-love-of-reading-so-the-school-might-as-well-force-kids-to-read reading.
The British Cohort Study, for example, which has been following the same group of people for 50 years, found that children who read for pleasure did better in spelling, vocabulary, and even math compared to those who rarely read while growing up, even after taking into account the effects of their different social backgrounds. The UK Department of Education has written a more comprehensive document about it and gives evidence-based insights on how a love of reading can be promoted including:
- “Children whose home experiences promote the view that reading is a source of entertainment are likely to become intrinsically motivated to read.”
- “Children whose parents reported that they had read a book with their child ‘every day or almost every day’ or ‘once or twice a week’ during the first year of primary school performed higher in PISA 2009 than children whose parents reported that they had done this ‘never or almost never’ or ‘once or twice a month’.”
As a parent, I realize that that puts a lot of pressure on me, but that’s okay. That’s my job. That’s what I’m here for.
But don’t — for the love of God, don’t — try to get my son to read by making him do reading logs. He already reads for hours every day, but if he’s forced to do it, he might actually stop. And that’s the very last thing I want.
If you must do a reading log…
If you’re in a position where it’s not really up to you to decide whether or not to implement reading logs, but you can decide the type of reading log to use, there’s an alternative reading log that everyone — from teachers to parents to kids — seems to prefer and actually love. I first read about it here and its creator talks a bit more about it here. Basically, instead of the usual starchy reading log, it’s a checklist of creative ideas on what, how, and with whom to read. It hands the choice to the reader — choice being something that studies have shown promotes pleasure reading — and a lot of the ideas are just really fun!
How do you feel about reading logs? Is your child using them? Do you think they’re actually quite helpful and that their benefits outweigh their risks?
Please let me know in the Comments section below. I don’t have much personal experience with reading logs — aside from a son for whom intrinsic motivation has been enough so far to get him to read — so I welcome any and all insights.