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Growing Writers: Eight Alternatives to Extrinsic Rewards

Social psychology has found the more you reward people for doing something, the more they tend to lose interest in whatever they had to do to get the reward.” – Alfie Kohn (2000).

Sometimes our students expect something for the work that they do in the classroom. They become accustomed to manipulation techniques. We’ve heard the questions at one point or another… “Is this for a grade?” “What do I get if I do this?” “Is there a prize?”

Situations like these can also be more serious than the innocent questions of a child. They can often be traumatic tug-of-wars between students and teachers fighting for control, with little success on either side. If you’re close enough, you hear bits and pieces of the words that fly between them… “you’re going to finish your writing during recess… you just wasted all that time writing nothing…”

And on it goes.

When adults use fear, shame, or punishment to try to coerce students into writing, the odds of growing those students into authentic writers are slim. What often remains from situations like these are heavy negative feelings. These residual feelings carve deep into the hearts and minds of those students and attach themselves to each future writing experience, creating or establishing the reluctant writer.

When fear, shame, or punishment enter a classroom environment, reluctant writers become common in the classroom.

The Purpose of Manipulation Techniques

Manipulation techniques are used to make other people to do what you want. It may seem like a little candy or piece of gum, as a small prize, wouldn’t hurt much, but in reality, manipulations of any kind do more harm than good.

There are two ways to influence human behavior: manipulation and inspiration. They are similar, but they are not the same. As defined by the Cambridge Dictionary:

  • Manipulation noun (INFLUENCE) – the action of influencing or controlling someone or something to your advantage without anyone knowing it; controlling someone or something to your own advantage, often unfairly or dishonestly
  • Inspiration noun – someone or something that gives you ideas for doing something; a sudden good idea; someone that people admire and want to be like

How do we get students to try what we invite them to do? Better yet, how do we make sure to keep the invitation to write an actual invitation? In my 4th grade dual language classroom, where the language spoken by the teacher alternates each week, inviting students to write in another language is not motivated by prizes or punishments.

Writers are motivated by authentic and meaningful experiences. Creating these experiences takes time, patience, and struggle. It is a process, not a quick fix.

One thing is true… most of the time, manipulation techniques work. If they didn’t, we wouldn’t see them used inside and outside of classrooms, schools, and just about anywhere else in our daily lives. However, it is important to note that manipulation techniques are only temporary. They are not life-long learning strategies.

There are many other ways to motivate student writers in the classroom.

Eight Ways to Motivate Student Writers      

Life-long learning happens through authentic and meaningful experiences. Below are eight alternatives to extrinsic rewards that can be gradually added into the classroom environment:

  Don’t… Do…
1. Don’t punish students who are not writing. Some students need more think time. Every student is different, so you will have to do some deeper research on your student(s) to better understand their process. Do motivate them by being a teacher writer. It will allow you to use phrases like, “When I get stuck, this is what I do…” “When that happens to me, it helps to…”
2. Don’t exclude talking during writing workshop. Do allow students to collaborate, often.
3. Don’t give continuous individualized assignments. Do give students choice. Choice leads to autonomy.
4. Don’t single out students to praise work. Do ask for the student’s permission to share their work as one example of a good writerly move.
5. Don’t assign seating at all times. Do allow students to develop habits and seating preferences for writing.
6. Don’t design your classroom environment alone. Do invite students to help design the classroom environment. Students can dream up some creative ideas for a writing workshop.
7. Don’t ignore situations that go wrong. Do spend time listening, talking, and coaching students through situations.
8. Don’t bribe students. Do offer them admiration for specific hard effort.

When they first get to school they are endlessly fascinated by the world, they are filled with the delight by their new found ability to print their own name in huge shaky letters, to count everything in sight to decode the signs they see around them they sit on the floor at story time eyes wide… as the teacher reads. They come home bubbling with new facts and new connections between facts ‘you know what we learned today?’ they say. By the time the last bell has rung the spell has been broken. Their eyes have narrowed. They complain about homework. They count the minutes by the end for the period… the weeks they must endure until the next vacation.” – Alfie Kohn

There is no single solution or right answer to change the complex motivational issues that occur in the classroom, but if we work to find ways to bring back the natural fascination in our students, we will begin to see more of what we want growing in our classrooms.

However, if the only goal is to get a student to do what you say, then these suggestions may not work.

Writing workshops that offer students understanding, space for improvement, safe zones for making mistakes, and strategies like the eight mentioned above will help to create environments where writers can grow.

How do you motivate your students in a writing workshop?

For more on this –

  • Punished by Rewards by Alfie Kohn

Marina Rodriguez View All

California native. Dual language 4th grade teacher. NWP/HTWP Teacher Consultant. Kidblog Ambassador. Writer.

10 thoughts on “Growing Writers: Eight Alternatives to Extrinsic Rewards Leave a comment

  1. Such a thought-provoking post, Marina! It was interesting to see the word “manipulation” used in regards to extrinsic rewards. I never thought about it in those terms, but it makes sense. I think shame and punishment are used in schools at times. I am guilty of it in the past. Teachers sometimes feel desperate to get their students to meet standards and accomplish the goals set forth but this post reminds us that bribing or punishing is not a true way to help a student grow and improve. While it might possibly lead to a short term result, the damage is done and we are more interested in long term changes.

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    • I’m guilty of it, too, but I’m trying to do better. As a 4th grade teacher, it is easy for me to feel the weight of having kids pass a test at the end of the year. As a mom, I’ve done my fair share of “If you do this, I’ll give you that…” If all we do is reduce the use of these prize or punishment techniques, our classrooms and our students will be better for it.

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  2. This is a bit hard to read, because as much as I believe it to be true, I sure have been guilty of plenty of the don’ts….not just in writing workshop, but in parenting as well.
    I think it this data driven world, all teachers need tons of support to not feel pressured to be measured by what their students produce!
    Having just labored over writing a eulogy for my dad’s funeral, I’m very in touch with how much of the writing was actually the thinking I was doing and the conversation with others.
    So, I think if I could focus on just one thing that would help me put this wonderful advice into action, it is to start by making sure I am writing daily. Thanks for a wonderful post!

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    • Susie, I wanted to wish you condolences on the loss of your dad. I wrote eulogies for my grandparents and those pieces are writing that truly mattered in my life. I agree that being a teacher who writes is such a big step in growing as a writing teacher. I also think seeing writing as life work instead of a school assignment will help the teacher keep the work less externally motivated (grades, rewards, etc.)

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    • I’m sorry for your loss, Susie. Sometimes writing takes an unimaginable amount of strength and vulnerability. My heart goes out to you.

      Writing every day is a powerful focus. It is something I work to accomplish, too. I have been guilty of the don’ts as well… my own children could easily share, but I try to do better every day. It’s all we can hope to do. I think the best thing we could do is to keep ourselves and our classrooms a continuous work in progress.

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