Motivating Readers: Three Ways to Help Your Students Want to Read
After a brief review of concepts widely recognized for reading motivation, the author provides a detailed discussion of three areas of particular interest: setting relevant goals, providing deliberate comprehension instruction, and engaging students in lively discussions of their reading. Detailed examples are included on all aspects.
Imagine what your classroom looks like when all of your students are engaged in real learning. What evidence do you have that your students are truly engaged? What is happening in your classroom to foster engaged reading? What do you do as a teacher to increase the number of days and minutes per day your students are actively engaged in learning? What are your students reading? When and for how long do students read in your class? How much time do students spend discussing with peers what they have read and what they are learning? How do you know your students really understand what they are reading? What evidence do you have of deep learning?
This might be a very stressful list of questions to many teachers. These questions, however, are crucial for any teacher to consider when planning for engaging instruction as well as purposeful and impactful student learning.
Highlights from Prior Research
Motivating students to read is a complex challenge. Much has been written about students’ lack of motivation. We know that upper elementary students avoid reading more than primary grade students, and this trend gets worse in middle school and continues to decline through high school (Meece & Miller, 1999; Zuscho & Pintrich, 2001). Avoiding reading and resisting reading undermine students’ motivations to read. Students who are not reading are not getting better at reading, and if they are not reading they are not getting smarter. Students who are not reading are not gaining the knowledge they need to be successful in school and beyond (Guthrie, Wigfield, Metsala, & Cox, 1999; Swan, Coddington, & Guthrie, 2010).
We also know from research the positive effects of engaged reading: For example, when students’ intrinsicmotivations such as interest, social interaction, involvement, and curiosity are fostered, they read more (Cunningham & Stanovich, 1998). Students’ beliefs about their own competence as readers, including their intrinsic and extrinsic motivations and the reasons for their achievement, help determine their choices about which activities to do, how long to do them, and how much effort to be willing to expend at these activities, even in the face of difficulty (Bandura, 1997; Deci & Ryan, 1985; Eccles, Wigfield, & Scheiefele, 1998.) There is a direct correlation between the amount of time students spend reading and their increased achievement (Wang & Guthrie, 2004). When students are engaged, they read a greater variety of books on a broader range of topics, spend extended time reading, have more positive attitudes toward reading, and are more persistent (Swan, Coddington, & Guthrie, 2010).
One of the most stressful problems teachers have is motivating their students to learn the material they have prepared to teach (Wagner, 2008). We know not only that consciously creating classrooms for engaged learning is possible, but that there are specific research-based principles teachers can employ to create engaging classrooms where students actually want to read (Guthrie & Anderson, 1999; Swan, 2003; Swan, Coddington, & Guthrie, 2010).
The purpose of engaged reading is to increase students’ knowledge and improve their performance, and student impact is the result of deliberate and effective instruction (Fisher, Frey, & Hattie, 2016). Engaged reading combines cognitive, motivational, and social aspects of reading (Baker, Afflerbach, & Reinking, 1996; Guthrie, & Alvermann, 1999; Guthrie & Anderson, 19989). Classrooms can strengthen motivations for student learning by increasing intrinsic motivations to read such as curiosity, autonomy, challenge, and grit; or classrooms can undermine students’ motivations by creating more student resistance and avoidance with practices like punitive structures, competition, and public student comparison (Swan, Coddington, & Guthrie, 2010).
The purpose of this article is to relieve some instructional stress by providing three effective ways to increase student motivation and engagement in the classroom, regardless of subject or grade level (Guthrie, Anderson, Alao, & Rinehart, 1997; Guthrie, Wigfield, Metsala, & Cox, 1999; Swan 2003; Swan, Coddington, & Guthrie, 2010). These three research-based principles will engage students in reading by affirming students’ motivations in positive ways: (a) set relevant learning goals with success criteria, (b) provide deliberate and diligent comprehension instruction around text, and (c) engage in frequent and lively discussions about text. While these three are not the only ways to engage readers, they are effective places to begin.
Setting clear and obtainable goals (objectives) for students’ learning is the first step in creating engaging classrooms. Goals are reasons for reading, reasons for learning content beyond a surface level, and reasons for paying attention (Ames, 1992; Ames & Ames, 1989; Dweck & Leggett, 1988; Stipek, 1996). Goals set the purpose for instruction and guide learning not only for the teacher, but for the students as well. Students have an immediate reason to engage in learning when the teacher’s plan is visible, with clear learning objectives written and discussed. Students are much more likely to engage in learning when they (a) are aware of the teacher’s goals for student learning and (b) can see that there is a way to be successful in meeting these objectives. Yet all goals are not created equal.
Set relevant, meaningful goals. Quality goals and objectives for meaningful learning, as opposed to a goal merely to complete a task or to outperform others, means that learning is deep enough to be remembered and applied. Learning goals are based on knowledge to be gained as designated in the core standards. Levels of knowledge may vary by the complexity of the tasks required of students to gain each. For example, surface learning is crucial for building background knowledge for students. Teachers spend 70% of their time teaching surface level knowledge (Fisher, Frey, & Hattie, 2016). Yet surface knowledge is not enough. Teachers need to build on this level and teach for deeper literacy learning so students can remember and transfer this knowledge to other domains. Deep literacy learning is challenging; it is also motivating. For deep learning to happen, teachers’ goals for learning must be clear and must build on each other over time.
Create goals to increase knowledge. Creating depth of knowledge depends on the complexity of the tasks we ask students to perform. Task complexity can be manipulated by simply altering the verbs in the written learning objective. For many years I helped beginning as well as veteran teachers use verbs from Bloom’s Taxonomy (see Figure 1) to help with the language of writing clear learning goals. Bloom’s Taxonomy describes levels of complexity for tasks. By merely changing the verb in a learning objective from listing to describing to analyzing, the teacher can change the complexity of the students’ tasks. Some tasks warrant knowledge on a superficial level, while other tasks require deeper analysis, making higher demands on cognition for deeper learning and transfer of knowledge.
When I was working on a research project in a large school district, some of our graduate students helped develop a “four-part goal formula” for writing clear learning objectives using Bloom’s Taxonomy. I have taught this formula to teachers for many years in countless settings, and it has helped teachers create learning goals with more clarity. The formula has four specific parts: “You will be able to ______________(Bloom’s verb) about ____________ (content to be learned) by____________ (strategy for learning) in _____________ (social conditions or time constraints). An example in written form would look like this:
Monday:You will be able todescribehow the evolution of a character aids in plot development by (1) discussing a statement by Michelle Obama, (2) reviewing individual notes and summaries of the first few chapters, and (3) noting any expected changes in the main characters individually. You will be successful when you have created Facebook walls and have posted one comment based on your summary to one wall.
Students in Mrs. Tabery’s sixth grade class were reading Esperanza Rising by Pam Muñoz Ryan. The conceptual question posed by Mrs. Tabery at the beginning of Week 3 was “Can people truly change? If so, how?” The teacher’s daily learning goals throughout the week helped students answer this larger essential question with lessons and activities. Each day students knew exactly what was expected of them when class began because the goal clearly written on the board was an extension of what they had learned the day before. Students had a purpose for reading, a reason to engage: to look for and describe the main characters’ traits and the write about them. Each day Mrs. Tabery’s lessons about Esperanza Rising built upon the previous day by focusing on the main characters’ development occurring in the novel.
Tuesday: You will be able to provide a summary of the text about character traits distinct from personal opinions or judgment, filling out your summary chart and discussing it with your table. You will be able to cite textual evidence to support character analysis of what the text says explicitly by answering questions in your book club. You will be successful when all group members are able to explain and cite their individual textual evidence in these small groups.
Wednesday: You will be able to identify and demonstrate the importance of verbs in writing by working in pairs to define 6 words on the vocabulary dice. You will be successful when these definitions are written as friendly definitions in your journals.
Thursday: You will be able to provide a summary of the text about character traits distinct from personal opinions or judgment by individually (a) answering comprehension questions 1, 2, and 5 and (b) filling in your summary chart. You will be successful when you can tie your answers to the text and connect relevant vocabulary in your summary.
Make goals relevant to students’ lives. Mrs. Tabery was a master at making her goals for learning relevant to students’ lives. One activity that lasted for several days during Week 3 had the students create Facebook walls of several main characters in the novel. These Facebook walls were made on large white chart paper and displayed under the whiteboard in the front of the classroom so everyone could see them. Students posted comments or questions on these characters’ Facebook walls, based on what they thought the characters were like. As students read and learned more about the characters in the novel, they added Facebook posts accordingly.
Mrs. Tabery accomplished her goal of teaching her students how to think about someone’s character and personality traits in a variety of ways to build deep, transferrable knowledge over time (Fisher, Frey, & Hattie, 2016). Bridging students’ real world social media experience to the characters in Esperanza Rising generated a classroom full of engaged readers. Her lessons were well planned from day to day, but they always answered some aspect of her weekly essential or conceptual question. Her students were engaged because they knew that she was teaching them real content, for real reasons, in authentic and relevant ways, with an interesting novel.
Include Criteria for Success. In addition to a clear learning objective, criteria for success can be added so students have ways to recognize when the learning objective has been successfully achieved (Fisher, Frey, & Hattie, 2016). Mrs. Tabery outlined daily how success would be experienced: what a successful Facebook post looked like, what a successful discussion included. As students read about the characters in the novel, summarized chapters, and looked for ways in which the characters were developing, they gained an in-depth understanding of the events of the novel. Students knew each day how to be successful because the teacher outlined what success entailed. Doing this doesn’t guarantee that all students will choose to be successful, but it definitely increases the likelihood that more students will engage when success is clearly communicated and defined.
When teachers make learning visible to their students by first communicating a clear learning objective and then adding success criteria so students know what is expected to demonstrate their learning, students are empowered for engaged reading. Fisher, Frey, and Hattie (2016) showed that when teachers clearly articulate learning goals, students are more successful. The effect size was .50 for goals; with the addition of success criteria, the impact increased by an additional 25% to .75 for teacher clarity.
Teacher clarity empowers all students. Most students want to know what they will learn each day, why they are learning these concepts, and how the learning will help them. They also want to know what it looks like to be successful. I have never met a student whose goals included deliberate failure. Teachers can begin motivating readers in real, relevant, and deep learning by having clear learning goals and a definition for success.
A second way to engage students in reading and empower them to be successful is with daily deliberate and explicit comprehension instruction that is centered around the texts they are reading. Instruction in comprehension strategies cannot be an isolated exercise students do for 15 minutes in a literacy center. Nor can strategy instruction be taught for a week and then stopped. Teachers need to tie strategy instruction every text so students see the benefit of being strategic readers, regardless of what they are reading.
Strategically reading for meaning takes effort (Guthrie & Anderson, 1998). Engaging students in real reading in many content areas with complex and confusing texts takes fierce comprehension instruction. Strategy instruction needs to be ongoing so students learn to transfer their strategic knowledge throughout the day in different content areas. Comprehension strategies impact student learning (effect size of .62; Dole, Duffy, Roehler, & Pearson, 1991; Fisher, Frey, & Hattie, 2016).
Provide deliberate comprehension instruction. We recognize an obvious difference by observing how an expert reader gains knowledge from text and how a novice reader is not able to do this in the same way (Dole, Duffy, Roehler, & Pearson, 1991). Novice readers need deliberate instruction. I would posit that even good readers need deliberate instruction to achieve deep, transferable meaning. Making certain every student knows what expert readers do to make sense of what they read cannot be taken for granted in today’s world.
A teacher could be teaching out of the most amazing novel, but her students are not really reading the novel for meaning if they do not understand the message the author is conveying; cannot imagine the setting, having no idea about the time period in which the novel takes place; and are not paying attention to how the characters are developing, Students might be reading the novel to compete an assignment or to pass a requirement, but these reasons for reading make reading boring because students are missing out on all of the amazing elements that make reading so enjoyable. Reading for these reasons will not make students want to read; reading becomes more like a chore.
Mrs. Tabery’s class had been taught expert reading strategies for three years in their previous classes. As a principal I required all teachers to teach explicit reading strategies in all grades. As a faculty we focused on teaching different strategies deeply for different grade levels so students were more likely to transfer this knowledge from year to year. As students progressed, they added strategies to their repertoire. Mrs. Tabery’s sixth graders knew how to recognize expert reading strategies, how and when to use them, and how these strategies could help them to be more effective readers. So while Mrs. Tabery’s lessons were not always focused on explicitness, her language was always focused on strategies for engaging in text and gaining deeper levels of knowledge.
Build students’ personal knowledge and connections. Mrs. Tabery knew that she needed to build students’ background knowledge about the setting and characters for students to want to read the novel. To help build background knowledge about what character traits might be involved and how people’s personalities would differ, Mrs. Tabery engaged her students by providing relevant quotations from famous people. She chose comments from influential African Americans because she happened to be teaching Espersanza Rising during Black History Month. These inspirational quotations helped create relevance for concepts of identity and character.
Students discussed a quotation in small groups to activate their background knowledge and get them thinking about character traits that they could then compare to one or more characters in the novel. For example, Mrs. Tabery had students discuss this statement from Michelle Obama (2016): “People who are truly strong lift others up. People who are truly powerful bring others together.” In their small groups students discussed what this quotation meant to them¾ individually and collectively. Then they connected their personal perspectives about personal strength to characters in the novel. Students could see how Esperanza’s strength in supporting her family and friends and keeping them together was a “powerful” character trait. Making personal connections while reading is engaging.
Help students understand background and contexts. Mrs. Tabery also spent time helping students build concepts that would help them understand about major ideas in the novel. The concept of migrant workers was new to most of her sixth graders. Students did not know what migrant workers do, how hard they work, and what life is like for their families. Students were taught to search and retrieve information about migrant workers on their own so they could learn how important it is to find additional information about unknown words or concepts important to understanding a novel. Mrs. Tabery taught vocabulary words that were crucial to understanding the text, and she encouraged her students to read factual books to more deeply and personally relate to Esperanza’s experience.
Students asked and answered comprehension questions, wrote summaries on each chapter, and annotated their ideas and connections on post-it notes while reading in preparation for small group discussions. Students kept track of the questions they had while reading, ranging from learning what a word means to drawing conclusions or making predictions. Mrs. Tabery’s comprehension instruction focused a lot on making inferences and using text clues combined with students’ background knowledge to predict, infer, draw conclusions, and keep track of important events in the story.
Students learned the narrative structure of a story and watched as each element of this structure unfolded while they read. They could identify the rising action, the climax, and then the falling action. They learned about cause and effect and were able to change levels of their questions to dig deeper.
Point out interaction of strategies.Comprehension strategy instruction is not a linear process, but rather a dynamic interaction of several strategies functioning together to help students make meaning (Duffy, 2009). This iterative process of making meaning changes daily based on students’ questions, small group discussions, a-ha moments, textual evidence and increased understanding of what is really happening in the novel.
When I observed students in this classroom reading this novel, I lost track of time. I became so engaged in the learning: listening to Mrs. Tabery asking the class probing questions, observing students asking insightful questions, reading students’ written summaries, listening to students reading in small groups, and attending to the whole class discussion around the events of the latest chapter.
But even if the book is inherently engaging, if students do not have purposeful, deliberate, and diligent comprehension instruction, they may get lost. Getting them engaged and keeping them engaged makes learning so exciting and makes reading come alive. To motivate readers, teach them how to comprehend everything they read.
Discussions About Text
A third way to motivate students is through frequent, lively, and safe discussions about what they are reading (Gambrell & Almasi, 1996). Oprah Winfrey captured the attention of the nation when she started her Book Club in 1996. Each month Oprah recommended a new book to her television audience, usually a novel, and included a discussion segment about the book on her television show. Oprah’s network television show ended in 2011. During the 15 years of her Book Club, Oprah recommended over 70 books. It was estimated that over 55 million books were sold during these years; publishers called this the “Oprah effect.” If Oprah suggested a book to read, people read it. She took discussions about books to a whole new level.
Provide opportunities to talk and ask questions. Talking about books is fun. Social interaction around a topic leads to understanding the substance more in depth. Explaining one’s side of a school uniform debate, one’s perspective on global warming, or one’s attitude towards exercise helps form ideas and deepen understanding (Chi, DeLeeuw, Chiu, & LaVancher, 1994). Allowing students to discuss, debate, and interact about what they are reading is a powerful and engaging way for them to actually do the reading, which results in real learning (Almasi, 2002; Gambrell & Almasi, 1996). Classroom discussion has a huge impact on student learning with an effect size of .82 (Fisher, Frey, & Hattie, 2016).
One of my favorite children’s authors is Kate DiCamillo. I love her novels, especially how they help students of all ages learn about universal concepts such as love, loss, and compassion for others. In a third grade class I was observing, the students were reading The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane (2006), which is one I particularly enjoy. The teacher had taught her students how to annotate their questions, their connections, their predictions, and any unknown vocabulary words they encountered while reading.
I was so excited when I saw these books with several post-it notes in every chapter. One day I was observing in this classroom and I talked to a small group of students,
Visitor: “How do you like this book so far?”
Student 1: Oh, it’s okay.
Student 2: I don’t really get it. The rabbit keeps getting lost.
Student 3: I just wish we could talk about it. I have so many questions.
Visitor: You don’t get to talk about it?
Student 3: No.
Visitor: Never? You never get to talk about this amazing book?
Student 3: No. The teacher said we don’t have time. We just put our questions and connections on post it notes and that is all we do. It’s sort of boring.
That observation made my heart sad. I wanted to start the entire book over again for that class. Yet the solution to this problem was so simple: I asked the teacher to build in 15 minutes for students to share what they had written on their post-it notes each day, and the fire was lit. From that day forward the discussions became more natural, and whether they were teacher led or student led or happened in small groups, the most important thing was that students were talking. Sometimes they talked all the way to recess and were still talking in the lunch line.
Discussions around novels with big ideas can take many forms. Discussions may take time, careful planning, and organization. Yet simple, focused, and powerful discussions can take place daily if students are allowed to have a voice in the classroom. If our goal as educators is more motivated and engaged readers, one easy way is to allow students to talk about what they read (Almasi, 2002; Gambrell & Almasi, 1996).
Reading discussions can be about any text: a confusing graph on the page of a math book, a chapter in a chemistry class, issues involved in a world civilization class, a newspaper article in a journalism class, a novel, a student’s writing; the list goes on. In school students are reading all day: sometimes for information, sometimes for directions, sometimes for pleasure.
Organize/encourage book clubs. Mrs. Tabery had book clubs in her sixth grade classroom. Students were able to choose a novel to read, based on a limited choice offered, along with about five other students reading the same novel. Small groups formed based on students’ interest in the novels. While five different novels were being read simultaneously, the structure for a book club took a common form. Regardless of the novel, all students could focus on character development, author’s purpose, setting, and plot development.
The common elements made classroom discussions smooth; yet when Mrs. Tabery had students mix up the groups and the small groups had a student from each novel group discussing character development, the engagement spiraled upward. Not only were students discussing their own characters, but they were comparing and contrasting them to their peers’ characters from novels they were not reading. This social interaction created interest, deepened knowledge, and forged friendships. While all students had to annotate and summarize each chapter, the differences in the novels made discussions lively and rich.
Lively discussions also need to be safe places for students to share their ideas, their questions, their confusion, and their feelings. Students need to be taught how to disagree, to take turns, and to truly listen to each other.
Teachers can provide feedback to groups or individuals on ways that will keep their discussions relevant, meaningful, and motivating.
Supplementing a novel study with occasional short stories or small pieces of informational texts that are relevant to concepts in the novel can provide an opportunity for enriched discussion. When Mrs. Tabery had her students discuss quotations from famous people, her purpose was to build background knowledge and make connections to the novel they were reading. Her instructional purpose was clear. Discussion time was limited, but the yield was powerful for engaging students around text. To motivate readers, allow them to talk about what they are reading and what they are learning.
Motivating readers is one of our most important roles as educators if we really want to prepare our students for a successful future. Students need to know how to be successful in school, and that begins with teachers who have focused, clear, and rigorous goals for learning. Making these goals visible to students engages them, invites them, informs them, challenges them, and guides them through the process of gaining knowledge deep enough to transfer to the next class, the next grade, and beyond.
Years ago I used to say that if I was ever in charge of a school, I would teach all of the teachers how to teach students to be expert, motivated, knowledgeable, and social readers. I would teach teachers how to focus on the most important core concepts, weave literacy instruction into all content areas, teach for depth rather than breadth, and have fun doing it. I would teach teachers how to really know if their students “got it” and what to do if they didn’t.
And then one day I was in charge of a school, and I did all of those things. They worked. We had a school full of engaged readers and amazing teachers who taught effectively for student learning. We started with setting clear learning objectives, providing fierce comprehension instruction, and conducting lots of discussions around a variety of texts.
We did more than that to motivate readers, but that was where I began. I spent thousands of dollars ordering books for several years in a row so classrooms were full of interesting texts to read on a variety of topics for the grade level. We read a lot. Learning in that school was engaging and effective. Teachers made a real impact on their students. I spent a lot of time in classrooms observing. Many times I went into classrooms with the intention of observing, but I usually became too engaged in the learning. I couldn’t help it; learning was always happening.
I intentionally went into the third grade classroom the day they were finishing The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane; I love the ending of that book. As I watched these 9-year olds read the final two chapters, with tears streaming down many of their faces, I knew they really understood the novel. They had connected to it on a personal and emotional level. The class discussion that followed was truly magical. This is how to motivate students to read:
- Let them discuss their feelings, ideas, confusions, and questions about what they are reading. Read amazing novels with your students.
- Read books with themes and ideas that are relevant to your students’ lives. Help students make personal connections to what they are learning; they must see the relevance of what they are asked to do.
- Take your time. Motivating readers is not about a checklist of things to cross off each day; rather, it is how you teach your students to truly love reading and learning.
- Have goals that matter.
- Teach real concepts deeply.
- Teach students how to make connections with what they read, regardless of grade level, lexile level, content area, topic, genre, or length of text.
Connecting to books is what will motivate students to come back to reading again and again.
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Children's Books Cited
DiCamillo, K. (2006). The miraculous journey of Edward Tulane. Somerville, MA: Candlewick Press.
Muñoz Ryan, P. (2012). Esperanza rising. New York, NY: Scholastic.