BOOK BUCKS System for Reluctant Readers (printable PDF included)

Please note: this system is designed specifically for RELUCTANT READERS. I do not recommend for kids who readily grab a book and read.

If you recall, rewards were all the rage in the 80’s and 90’s “Praise Age of Parenting.” Sticker charts and prize buckets abounded in most homes and classrooms, and gold stars were doled out almost as generously as all those blow pops, and ring pops, and bottle pops that accounted for an entire food group in so many of our diets as children. There have been a few key changes (not all of them good) in the past couple of decades leading up to our modern age of parenting, starting with our view of high fructose corn syrup.

HOMEMADE CANDY TUTORIAL: 3-ingredient Gummies, & 4-ingredient Chocolate Date “Snickers” Eggs

In the 21st century, rewards at home and at school are largely frowned upon by parenting experts. You could say that the gold star is “out.” Of course, many parents and teachers still use these methods . . . often to the chagrin of those who are more . . . “up-to-date” on their child-development literature. If you are late to the party (no worries . . . I’m almost always late to everything), the shift is mainly founded on the belief that rewards and excessive praise rob the child of the natural and inherent satisfaction of engaging in the activity or task at hand purely on the basis of it’s own merit.

Maria Montessori even went as far as to say that rewards “are a means of enslaving a child’s soul.” This may be a somewhat dramatic take, but I believe it to be foundationally true. Then again, for those of us with wild children running around our homes, “enslaving” their souls may not sound half bad when we are at our absolute wit’s end.

All joking aside, our movement away from rewards at home and at school allows for a stronger emphasis on effort and attitude, and a gentler focus on achievement. We are encouraged by many childhood development experts to replace the “gold star” techniques with simple verbal feedback acknowledging progress and noticing detail: “I see you are using a lot of blue in your drawing” rather than the vague “good job!” or “your handwriting has improved so much from the beginning of the school year.” Overall, I think this shift is a very good one. By removing the bulk of extrinsic rewards, we have given back to the child his or her right to the simple and intrinsic satisfaction of the activity or subject itself. We have shifted the focus away from achievement, and are concentrating our efforts on emphasizing what truly matters: that the child is engaged and growing.

All that being said, today’s post may seem like a complete contradiction. And in many ways . . . it is. But parenting may be the most contradictory subject of them all! The further I get into this parenting gig, the more I realize how much gray area there is to raising a child . . . the more I recognize just how many parenting decisions must rely on case-by-case scenarios . . . the more I acknowledge that the “rule of thumb” doesn’t always get a thumbs up!

There are so many occasions in parenting where we have to go “off-book,” or “off-roading,” or even be willing to be “off-base” because parenting is a wild and unpredictable journey. And our kids are crazy, or at least are driving us so half the time. Sometimes, we have to cut ourselves some slack and take a tip from Captain Barbosa (Pirates of the Caribbean) and view the “rules” of child-rearing as more like “guidelines.” Or as my lovely book-friend Miss Merriweather teaches us in Library Lion: “sometimes, there is a good reason to break the rules.”

A Spoonful of Sugar

For teachers and Homeschooling mamas (and papas) our goal is to make education so enticing, so engaging, so enriching, so enthralling, that learning itself is the reward. This is a worthy and noble quest. And this is exactly what I set out to do in teaching our son to read this year.

But despite my good intentions and best efforts, despite all my planning and prepping, there were tears at reading time . . . on only the third day of school. I was deflated. I was a teacher for crying out loud! I am an alternative-education enthusiast (aka nerd). I am a teacher-author and Homeschool mama. You could say that I should know what I’m doing! But as any of us who have or work with children know . . . no one can humble you or cause you to re-evaluate what you are doing the way that a child can. Making learning “fun” and “engaging” and “irresistible” is not as easy as it sounds. For those of us in the trenches of teaching or parenting or both (gulp!), we know how unpredictable and everchanging our role is with any child . . . not to mention a “difficult” or “special needs” child.

Thankfully, I had just watched Mary Poppins with our son the day before. And in that moment, Julie Andrews sang sweetly in my ear: “Just a spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down in the most delightful way!”

So in complete defiance to my usual stance on rewards, I decided to give Mary Poppins a chance. I ended school for the day and put together this “BOOK BUCK$” System. Necessity is the mother of invention . . . unless you are a mother. Then desperation is the mother of invention. I presented these “bucks” to our son and explained that in life there is a lot of medicine that we have to take . . . sometimes even that pink chalky stuff that tastes like strawberries from hell. Adults don’t always want to go to work, I told him, but that paycheck really sweetens the deal. We don’t always want to fold the laundry or do the dishes, but we need clean clothes to wear and clean dishes to eat off of, and listening to some music or watching a movie while we work can make it much more bearable. I then told him that these “bucks” would be our sugar to sweeten our reading time and explained how it would work. (Keep reading for more details.)

The truth is, no matter how enticing, engaging, or enchanting you make Homeschooling, at some point in your journey, your child is sure to show reluctance toward a certain subject or content area. This will happen at “regular” school too, by the way.

Mary Poppins (1964)

Don’t stress. This is normal. Education experts such as Rudolf Steiner (Waldorf) or Maria Montessori would encourage us to give it some space and allow the child to accept the invitation to that subject area when he or she is ready, in his or her own time. This is a beautiful philosophy, but I have found that it is not always practical. Our son is a reluctant reader, although he loves to be read to. We have been reading to him since he was born, and he will listen to an audiobook for hours at a time. Because of this, he has been reticent to read for himself. “See Dick Run” is just not nearly as interesting as traveling with Laura Ingalls across the prairie or flying with Louis and his trumpet back to Billings, Montana. What he is interested in and what he is able to comprehend are vastly different from the reading material he is able to decode by himself. Different kids have different reasons for being reticent to read . . . from a learning disability to disinterest to fear of failure.

So, if you have a “Reluctant Reader” of your own, then today I am giving you permission (not that you need it) to join me in breaking the NO-REWARDS-RULE.

We are two weeks into our new system and I am happy to report that there have been no tears at reading time. What’s more, our son has gotten past the “fear zone” of beginning to read, and is through that most difficult initial hurdle of reading. Best of all, he is actually enjoying reading time and has even been practicing reading on his own, with no reward other than his own satisfaction and feeling of pride. He came to me just a few days ago and said: “Mama, the sugar has worked so well that the medicine is starting to become the sugar, too!” (Yeah, he’s an odd one like his mama.) Even if the BOOK BUCK$ don’t work forever, which they probably won’t, I will always remember how they helped our son to take his medicine before the real magic began.

Our BOOK BUCK$ System

Celebrates . . .

~Reading, Vintage Illustrations, Effort, and Creativity~


1.) Print the black & white versions onto woven white cardstock and allow your child to color or paint to create a “uniquely-theirs” product. Otherwise, print the color version I have included onto plain cardstock.

2.) Cut out. We painted outside the lines and just cut them out straight, which is a lot easier than cutting out around the elaborate border.

3.) Designate a “BANK” and a “STASH”. You may recall this step from our Customizable MOVIE TICKET SYSTEM. Store these “BOOK BUCK$” in a “bank” close to or with your child’s reading material. I keep my bank of “BOOK BUCK$” in our Cozy Corner Bucket with our son’s reader and phonics cards. Have your child also designate his or her “stash” to keep saved up bucks.

4.) Anchor to a task, attitude/effort, and a reward. Our son gets a “BOOK BUCK” every day that he reads me an entire story from his reader with good effort and attitude. He gets a new book out of his “book bag” for every five “BOOK BUCK$”. I don’t spend very much money on this . . . I get very affordable used books from Amazon, Thriftbooks, and books as cheap as 25 cents at garage sales. I even spirit away gifted books to the book bag. For other alternative reward ideas, see next section.

5.) Focus the “sugar” of the BOOK BUCK$ on increasing the LOVE of reading rather than increasing the reading LEVEL. Keep reading together (and loving it!) and the level will come.

Ways to use BOOK BUCK$

For reading tasks:

  • Completing a reading assignment such as sight word ladders, phonics cards, story in a reader, etc.
  • Finishing a book or book report

With an attitude clause:

  • With good effort
  • Without complaint
  • With good focus

NOT for:

  • Achievement such as moving up a reading level
  • Accuracy or comprehension


  • Five to ten book bucks (depending on age and personality) for a new book out of a special book bag (this is what we do!)

If this reward does not work with your child, you may need to get creative:

  • Ten to twenty book bucks to be used to take the family out for dinner
  • Ten to twenty book bucks used to go on a special outing or field trip

Well, here they are! Ready to print and use!

My new philosophy on rewards is that they work wonderfully and can even be beneficial to the child if only used as the exception. If we learned anything from the 80’s and 90’s, I think it would be that sugar should be sprinkled, not poured.

If you and your child enjoy these BOOK BUCK$ please leave me a comment and tell me how you are using them!

Thanks for reading!

Love, ~Our Holistic Homeschool~

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