I receive a number of emails from educators that are about reading motivation. Many educators, particularly in secondary schools, report that their students are reluctant readers and they want to know how to boost motivation. It is a worthy aim with a multifaceted solution.
In the literature, reading motivation has been found to be a fairly complex combination of reading ability and reading habit (e.g. Wigfield, 2010). My advice to schools is to focus on both. In very simple terms, we are more likely to spend time doing things we are good at, rather than be faced with struggle, but even if we are good at things, unless they are routinely valued and more appealing than the alternatives, we won't prioritise allocating time to them. Good readers will routinely choose watching television over reading. Good cooks will routinely choose take-away over cooking. Ability matters, but so does the often unconscious cost-benefit analysis that goes along with enacting it.
A survey of teachers quite a few years ago now demonstrated 'creating interest in reading' as the top priority for reading research. This was from a choice of eighty-four research topics. There were three other options in the top ten choices that related to reading motivation. These were 'increasing the amount and breadth of children’s reading', 'developing intrinsic desire for reading', and 'exploring the roles teachers, peers, and parents play in increasing children’s motivation to read' (O'Flahavan et al, 1992; Gambrell, 1996).
I think educators are conditioned to think about reading motivation a lot, and I think fostering a love of reading is talked about a lot in teacher education. What is discussed less is how much adult mediation is required to get students there, and what high quality instruction looks like. Below I discuss some of the key considerations when thinking about developing motivated and successful readers.
I have loved reading Peps Mccrea's (2020) 'Motivated Teaching' this year. He is able to simplify the complex in a way that I really admire. He defines motivation as a system for allocating attention. If you thought that was a gem, how about this?
"What we are motivated towards is what we attend to, and what we attend to is what we learn." (Mccrea, 2020, p.18)
Mccrea (2020) is upfront that motivation on its own is insufficient. What we teach and how we teach it need careful thought. When it comes to what students attend to or are motivated toward, he posits we need to think about their return on investment. What are the potential benefits if they invest their time? How likely do they think it is that they will receive those benefits, and how much attention/effort (cost) is required? Mccrea (2020) says that our attention is most attracted to that with the greatest value (benefit), highest chance of attainment of said benefit, and at the lowest personal cost. We want a lot for a little.
"Motivation allocates attention based on the best available investment. Motivation governs both our initial choice and ongoing effort." (Mccrea, 2020, p.20)
The other critical aspect of attention that Mccrea (2020) talks about is that our decision making is generally unconscious. We don't think about whether we should pay attention, what we will get for doing so, and so on. So how much of that do we need to drive as educators? Quite a lot, in fact. Mccrea (2020) talks about there being five core drivers of motivation. These are 'secure success', 'run routines', 'nudge norms', 'build belonging', and 'boost buy-in'. The key idea is that we can systematically build motivation for our students by attending to these five drivers in the course of our instruction, regardless of subject or content.
Carl Hendrick, one of the authors of 'How Learning Happens', writes clearly on these concepts too. Hendrick (2017) writes that "motivation doesn’t always lead to achievement, but achievement often leads to motivation". He often quotes the works of Guay, Marsh and Boivin (2003) and Muijs and Reynolds (2011), which have demonstrated that achievement seems to have more of an impact on self-perception, than self-perception does on achievement. That is, paying close attention to what we teach and how we teach it to ensure success, can impact motivation.
In the reading literature, motivation constructs are often described and measured as interest (in reading), perceived control (over reading choices such as when and what), collaboration (opportunities to communicate orally and in writing about reading), involvement (degree of absorption and time spent reading), and efficacy (reading ability). There is moderate correlation between these constructs (some relationship), so they are considered semi-independent (Guthrie et al, 2007).
Students with high interest in reading typically:
- display positive thoughts and feelings toward books and topics
- enjoy reading
- can recall and describe what they have read (high coherence and significant amounts of detail)
- can name a number of books and authors and list favourites
- have re-read books or parts of books
- make plans to pursue topics or authors through reading
- have connected what they have read to their own experiences
Students with low interest in reading do not typically display many or any of the above (Guthrie et al, 2007).
I think we overestimate how important choice or control is to students when it comes to reading instruction. The thing is, students who value choice are more likely to be great readers, they report high interest and involvement in reading, and they have ample opportunities to independently evaluate and select books. Students with low interest or involvement in reading tend to report that choosing what they read is not that important (Guthrie et al, 2007) which is interesting given how much schools often focus on choice for students in those groups. One study found that many students thought teachers and sometimes parents were better placed to making reading choices for them, and consequently they did not feel the need for control over what was read (Guthrie et al, 2007).
In the study by Guthrie et al (2007), interacting socially and collaborating around reading occurred for some students, but not for the majority. Students were surveyed about home and school collaboration. The majority of students reported reading as a solitary activity. This is cause for concern given the pitfalls of a reliance on independent reading, which I'll discuss further below.
Students who have high involvement in reading tend to report:
- large amounts of time spent reading
- absorption in different books
- the importance of reading as an activity
- defining themselves as a reader
- devoting time and energy to reading, including making plans to read, reading complete series, and reading more than one book at a time (Guthrie et al, 2007)
Ability as a reader in motivation studies is usually reported by students as many or all of the following:
- believing one is a good reader
- having reading confidence
- knowing what to do during reading to maintain comprehension including use of strategies
- recognising most words
- knowing the meaning of most words
- being able to figure out unknown word meanings
- preference for challenging books
- feedback from others that they are a good reader (parents, teachers)
- believing one can read as well as or better than peers (Guthrie et al (2007)
Reading motivation overall
Students with low involvement (low amounts of reading), low interest (reading is not viewed as a valuable pastime), and low efficacy (poor ability), seem to be the least likely to see gains in reading comprehension over time, and unsurprisingly tend to have the lowest reading motivation. Herein lies a warning about privileging a reliance on student led reading instruction. My position is that we should approach every year level, every classroom, and every student, with an unwavering intention of boosting efficacy (ability), interest, and involvement.
Building on the findings of the National Reading Panel (2000), a new review of silent independent reading has just been published: Examining the Effects of Silent Independent Reading on Reading Outcomes: A Narrative Synthesis Review from 2000 to 2020: Reading & Writing Quarterly: Vol 0, No 0 (tandfonline.com)
"It is intuitively appealing to believe that silent independent reading will have a positive impact on a range of reading outcomes. In fact, there is a widespread acceptance of the idea among theorists, researchers, and practitioners alike that encouraging children and adolescents to read extensively on their own translates into better reading achievement outcomes. However, does extended reading in and of itself make children and adolescents better readers?" (p.1)
The results from this review of fourteen studies, comprising approximately 5000 students in each group (treatment and control), demonstrated "no meaningful beneficial effects of independent reading on reading outcomes" (p.1). It should be noted the authors stated they could not rule out whether there may be conditions within which silent reading could be effective, but we do not have evidence of it to date.
Read-alouds and shared reading lessons can have many benefits, but during silent (independent) reading, who is reading, and who is understanding? How do we know? Who is practicing good habits and who is practicing poor habits? It requires a whole other post to talk practically about what we know works best in read-aloud and shared reading lessons to boost knowledge, reading ability, writing ability, and reading motivation. There are many great ideas out there about how to boost accountability and rigour in independent reading (e.g. Accountable Independent Reading by Lemov, 2015). The key point here is that allocating time for students to read independently is unlikely to lead to any real benefit to reading ability or motivation.
Habits and routines
Finally, alongside a focus on ability, I want to talk about the importance of developing the habit of reading if we want the result of motivation. There are a lot of brilliant people who have done great work on habit formation and disruption, as well as routines. Ben Gardner is one person I have learned from. The sequence he proposes for habit formation is the following:
Identify the target behaviour
Ensure target behaviour has intrinsic value, and that it is simple, realistic, and achievable
Identify context cues (when, with whom, where, prior actions)
Repeat target behaviour in context (habit formation stage; revise target behaviour if it is too hard)
Formation of new habit
The 'Great Habits Great Readers' book by Bambrick-Santoyo, Settles, and Worrell (2013) proposes The Reading-by-Habit Model (p.16) which has four levels to it:
Set the habits of learning
Teach the skills of reading
Build the habits of reading
Lead by habit
Reading Reconsidered as well as Love and Literacy (which I am still reading) are also great books to consider, in order to add structure and rigour to reading instruction in a way that is likely to lead to capable, motivated readers. There is no single gold standard model, but it is certainly useful to consider what our own approach is and whether it could be better.
Some focus on developing reading efficacy (ability), with the view that enjoyment and motivation will come. This is a partial truth, but the former does not guarantee the latter. Some argue that motivation is not as important as efficacy, and that what matters is that students have the skills. They can choose to read for pleasure if they wish to. I do understand that argument, even if I don't really agree with it in its entirety. There are many reasons other than pleasure to read, especially when it comes to academic success, and we want our students to be motivated to do so. Others focus on fostering a love of reading, in a manner that is light on evidence and structure, with the view that ability and motivation will come.
The good news is we can develop reading ability in a structured, sequential, cumulative, rigorous manner, while fostering reading interest, involvement, and collaboration. There is even space for some student choice along the way. Many schools do all of these things well.
For reading ability and motivation to develop, there are some questions we need to ask ourselves. What do we do to scaffold success? Alongside knowledge and skills, in which ways do we teach reading motivation through daily routines? How are we fostering a habit of reading? How much time is spent reading and discussing grade-level or complex texts? We must carefully consider what we teach and how we teach it, to maximise success for all.
"Success is a science - if you have the conditions, you get the results." (Oscar Wilde in Mccrea, 2020, p.117)