Gumball-Inspired Reading Motivates Students

This teacher has a unique approach, with time-tested results.


I have known many fabulous, dedicated teachers who love teaching and adore their students, but Dahlia Cherny, a 4th grade teacher at in West Hartford, takes it to a whole new level.

She lives in the same town as her students and former students, so she sees them all over the place. Going anywhere with her is like being in the posse of a rock star. She greets everyone with a spine crushing hug and a “Helllllooooo!” that can be heard three aisles over at the supermarket. These kids and their parents are so thrilled to see her, I would not be at all surprised if they asked her to autograph a cantaloupe. Why so much love? Mrs. Cherny holds the magic key to motivating kids to read. Actually, it’s not a key, it’s a gumball. 

Recently, I sat down with Dahlia to hear how the “Gumball Reading Program” works. On her classroom bulletin board there are pictures of empty gumball machines – one for each student with the student’s name under it. The goal is to fill up the machines with gumballs (stickers).

To earn a gumball, the student must complete a reading related activity. So, if a student reads 80ish pages in their book and writes a 10-sentence summary, that student gets one gumball. If a student adds another section, let’s say a character analysis, another gumball. The more effort they put into their work, the more gumballs they receive. 

Each week there is an option to create and present a project, at which time the student is awarded four gumballs for the effort.

According to Mrs. Cherny, “Encouraging presentations increases public speaking skills and gets other students interested in reading the same book. The more students do, the faster they go through books, and the more reading becomes a habit.”

Also, students are in charge of how much they accomplish every week, which seems to motivate them even more. If you think this sounds like your typical book report, think again. I have never seen kids as eager to complete reports as when they are earning gumballs.

There is an air of competition about filling up machines, and we know most kids (especially boys) thrive on competition. When a machine is full ‘o gumballs, there is a “Gumball Ceremony” and this is a very big deal. If you want to see a kid burst with pride, attend one of these Gumball Ceremonies. Parents and relatives are invited, and the student receives a certificate and is able to pick out a book to keep. 

Mrs. Cherny makes a 10-15 minute speech about how wonderful the child is, and writes a personal message in the book praising the student on their accomplishment. She encourages the student to display the gumball machine at home as proof they have the characteristics to be successful and have a passion for reading. 

Mrs. Cherny shared with me that, “Years later, former students who are now in high school or college, tell me their gumball machines are still on their wall.”

Sue Schaefer is a student advocate, academic coach, and certified teacher. We encourage you to visit her website: Academic Coaching Associates. You may email Sue at susan.schaefer@academiccoachingct.com.

You can also follow Sue on twitter: @sueschaefer1


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