Intrinsic Gimmicks by Brett Vogelsinger

I’ll be honest: as a kid, pizza had a strange power over my mind. So when my elementary school participated in a reading incentive program that earned me little star stickers on a badge and those badges led to pizza, let me tell you, I could read like the wind, blasting through books in a way that made my teachers proud and my belly full of personal pan pizzas.  


The problem is that extrinsic motivators for reading are no more than shallow gimmicks. In my own experience, when the pizza stopped, so did the reading. OK, maybe that’s not entirely fair.  It’s not like I went on a reading strike, demanding more pizza.  It is just that the program didn’t extend into middle school, and I hit those vulnerable years when everything changes and the workload increases and reading habits falter.  Mine did.  I nearly stopped.


So now, as a teacher in a grade 7-9 middle school, I am forever searching for ways to help kids tap into the intrinsic motivators that led me, and so many adults, back to reading for pleasure.  When I promote reading to my ninth-grade students, I examine my own reading life, think about what makes me open a book, plunge in, and just keep swimming.  Then I create a gimmick, a catchy little phrase that names a habit I want them to internalize. My goal is to marry the power of a gimmick to the power of intrinsic motivation, thereby helping the readers under my care to grow.


Here are a few of what I like to call “Intrinsic Gimmicks” that show up in my classroom throughout the year.


Give It A Good Stretch

Strong readers look for books that are fresh, original, exciting in some way, and often that means reaching for a new challenge.  We call this a “good stretch” in my classroom; just as stretching is key to physical fitness, so stretching ourselves as readers is key to intellectual fitness.  In reading conferences throughout the year, I ask kids to tell me “How is this book stretching you?”  I book talk texts that stretch kids to read from unusual points of view or in new genres.  I explain how the book I am reading is stretching me.


The Week of Sneaky Reading

Kids are strained for time, so learning how to sneak in five or ten or twenty minutes of reading a book can be critical to their growth. Encouraging them to take books to places they don’t usually read books but end up waiting — what Donalyn Miller calls “reading emergencies” — is a skill I teach during this week, but taking classtime to brag about how we are being “sneaky readers,” as Kristin Ziemke calls them,  is just the best! To kids, it has the thrill of confessing to something revolutionary, yet it reflects what voracious readers do habitually.


The Week of the 100 Pages

To help bolster the volume of our reading early in the year, we have the “Week of the 100 Pages.”  For some ninth-graders, this is a moment to shine; they read 100+ pages per week already.  I invite them to set their own volume goal, a “good stretch” for the week.  For other kids, the end of the week is a moment to shine because 100 pages seemed unrealistic on Monday, but by Friday they have met this expectation in a book of their choice, and they realize that when it comes to reading, volume affects joy.  Later in the year, we do something similar with the Book-in-a-Week. I challenge kids who have never had the experience of reading a book cover-to-cover in a week’s time to join me in the challenge.


Burn Through Books

I start the new calendar year with a bulletin board in my classroom that says “Burn Through Books in 2016” and has a homemade flame border all around. It catches their attention because it first looks like I’m suggesting a book burning, but they soon discover it is a place to share the personalized QR code posters we create from  As weeks pass and kids move on to new books, the display keeps the same fiery title and frame, but features the full-page cover art of books that are getting good reviews and circulating well among my students.  


Public Congratulations

I keep a book log over a period of two months of independent reading on my team to see how many pages they can read collectively. I casually ask at the beginning of class twice a week whether anyone has a finished book to add to our log.  When we near the end of the two months, I tell them that I really want to be able to tell the school that our team read 200 books in that time frame and that I think it was a reachable goal.  This year, they exceeded my hopes, and I congratulated my entire team of students over the morning intercom announcements, pointing out that those 200 books equalled about 50,000 pages of reading!


An App For That

Let’s face it, middle school kids are intrinsically motivated to stare their smart phones.  Suggesting kids open a Goodreads account and add it to their smartphone or sharing my enthusiasm for articles I discover on Flipboard allows kids to know that their reading lives and their screentime lives can, in fact, coexist in harmony. Because these apps have social features, I always communicate with parents about the apps I discuss in class, and many kids end up making reading apps a part of their digital life.


So back to the pizza . . . don’t get me wrong, I was grateful for it as a child.  But pizza does not groom good readers: good habits do.  So think of a habit that helps you read, give it a gimmick — a sticky catchphrase, not candy — and invite kids to join you in the joy of a new and productive routine.


Brett Vogelsinger is a ninth-grade English teacher at Holicong Middle School in Doylestown, PA.  He is also a gardener. Currently, every windowsill in his home is filled with baby tomato plants.