Getting to the Why: Motivating Students to Read

Why do we have to read this?

Does that lament sound familiar? It’s a common question and one that teachers should be able to answer if they want students to be motivated to read.

Catherine Snow, in Learning to Read with Voices Reading: Both How and Why, asserts that after students have mastered the how of reading—the fundamental skills they use to read words and make meaning—the why becomes central to their reading success.

Yes, teachers must continue to find innovative ways to teach students how to read, especially those students who function below grade level or are missing essential skills and strategies to be successful readers, but in the middle grades, they also should promote the why of reading.

Students read for extrinsic and intrinsic reasons. Extrinsic motivation usually includes some kind of reward, such as a grade or a certificate. Intrinsic motivation usually centers on wanting to learn something about a topic they care about or are curious about. Middle grades teachers can help students find an intrinsic reward in school-related reading.

At the heart of reading engagement is the desire to gain new knowledge, follow the excitement of a narrative, or expand one’s experiences. Engaged middle grades readers make time to read because that investment in time is rewarded by the experience of being immersed in the text.

Donna Alvermann, co-editor of Engaged Reading: Processes, Practices, and Policy Implications, suggests three common intrinsic motivations for reading.

  1. Involvement. Most readers enjoy being fully engaged—”lost” in a good book. That feeling motivates them to keep reading. Middle grades teachers can help their students find that kind of enjoyment in reading by getting to know the students’ interests.
  2. Curiosity. Young adolescent learners are motivated to read about topics that pique their interests. Invite them to learn and experience more. Intrigue them and spark their natural curiosity. Introduce literature that presents topics in a new light.
  3. Socialization. Middle grades learners want to talk with others about what they read. Incorporate meaningful opportunities for students to talk about books: pair or small group sharing, literature circles, Socratic Seminars, point-counterpoint challenges, debates, role playing, or simulations.

Finding the Motivators

Don’t think of middle grades learners as motivated or unmotivated, but rather as motivated in different ways, by different stimuli. Here are some strategies for motivating students to read.

Build students’ self-confidence. By instilling a sense of accomplishment in all students, teachers help them improve their self-perceptions and self-confidence. When learners believe they can achieve, they do achieve.

Some ideas for increasing students’ self-efficacy and thus their motivation to read include:

  1. Establish specific, short-term reading goals, such as “read one chapter every day.” Goals should be challenging but attainable.
  2. Introduce a variety of comprehension strategies like graphic organizers or two-column notes to help students better understand what they are reading.
  3. Allow students to make choices and feel a sense of ownership for their reading. Use choice boards, flexible grading, even self-determined due dates for assignments.
  4. Give frequent, focused feedback. Keep a watchful eye on students, so when they reach a milestone, you can praise and encourage.

Spark new learning. Appeal to middle grades students’ interests and learning styles. Incorporate a variety of instructional practices that embrace multiple forms of literacy and multiple sources of information, and include student choice. Instructional practices do not need to revolve around skills and strategies when it comes to the why of reading; students’ interests should be the starting point for reading instruction.

Build connections. Topics and reading materials that bridge students’ personal lives with their school lives increase their motivation for reading. Make a connection. Look for literature that addresses topics that are relevant to the subject and to your students’ reality.

Go beyond the print. Motivate students to read by encouraging them to make a connection to popular movies based on the literature. Explore ways to promote reading through iPods, iPads, and Kindles.

Incorporate a variety of texts. Young adolescents may consider the materials in most traditional school settings uninteresting and constrictive. Include a variety of appropriate, authentic young adolescent literature, including graphic novels, newspapers, and magazines.

Expand choices and options. Provide a platform for and encourage students to be agents of their own learning. Gather a variety of adolescent literature to accompany, support, enrich, and extend topics across all content areas. Include all literary genres and varying readability levels.

When students have a choice of what to read, they will make additional and deeper connections to the topic of study. In addition, each student will have a slightly different experience based on the literature selected. Lively discussions, writings, and re-enactments will increase motivation, engagement, and achievement.

Excite students about narrative texts. Like most readers, middle grades students will choose books that relate to topics of interest and that are popular. Have a varied selection of high-quality adolescent narratives that link to the content.

For example, if you are studying immigration, gather several narratives about the immigration experience, introduce each book in great detail, and allow students to select the book that most interests them. If their interest is piqued and they can self-select their narrative, students feel empowered, become excited to read, and look forward to sharing their reading experiences with others. Students’ learning soars to new heights!

Excite students about expository texts. When middle grades students believe they will learn something fascinating, they are motivated to read factual texts. When they have choice and their personal interests are met through their factual text choices, they are more motivated to read.

Build a classroom library that includes a wide range of nonfiction that naturally links to science, math, social studies, and the arts, and include varying readability levels. Encourage cover-to-cover reading, independent supplemental research, or read-alouds.

Promote conversations. Middle grades learners love to talk, so establishing literature-rich learning environments that capitalize on activities and provide time for talk supports students’ strengths, interests, and desires. Structuring the academic day to incorporate meaningful, purposeful opportunities for students to talk about books enhances their engagement.

Answering the Why

Middle grades students who are motivated and engaged in their reading increase their comprehension and improve their reading skills. This is a direct path to higher overall achievement and success inside and outside school. The few simple strategies outlined here can help engage students in their reading—and maybe you won’t hear, “Why do we have to read this?”

Previously published in Middle Ground magazine, April 2012