In our ever-changing digital world, new information spills out of devices by the second. This means that no matter which career students choose, there will always be more to learn and consider.
As researcher and professor emeritus of education at the University of Maryland, Dr. John T. Guthrie explains, the road to lifelong learning starts with proficient reading. Unfortunately, says Guthrie, students’ reading motivation is often "shockingly low."
After spending 45 years studying how to motivate and engage students, Guthrie has learned that the secret to developing successful readers lies in understanding the right—and wrong—ways to motivate them.
Guthrie spoke with EdSurge, sharing how classroom teachers can use intrinsic motivation, text choice, and real-life connections to encourage students to want to read. He also explains how adaptive literacy technology makes adopting these strategies easier for educators.
EdSurge: Why are some students not motivated to read?
Reading interest decreases when the diet is set entirely by the program, the school, the teacher, or the state that they live in.
John T. Guthrie: Two significant barriers to motivation include students’ low self-efficacy—or, confidence in their reading skills—and a lack of input in choosing what they read.
Students’ confidence levels are challenged when they are given reading material that is too hard for them to understand. If this situation repeats itself, they may cope by retreating and not reading. Teachers’ intentions might be good—they want to help students get stronger by giving them challenging material. But, if material is too challenging, it's self-defeating for the teacher and discouraging for the student.
Another issue is when students don't have any input into what they read. Reading interest decreases when the diet is set entirely by the program, the school, the teacher, or the state that they live in.
How can teachers motivate students to read?
The problem is: what are they thinking about? Not the books and the content. They're thinking about the ice cream party! The quality of their thinking about the reading material won’t be good. Because their motivation is external and superficial, this type of reading won’t help students become long-term readers. A lot of people think external motivation—giving students a reward—is going to get them interested in reading. If a teacher says, "If everybody reads well today, we'll have an ice cream party," students will work hard for the ice cream.
Educators should provide activities that encourage intrinsic motivation in students. These activities will create confidence in their skills, interest in the content, value in what they are reading, and belief in the importance of reading. This will also help them to be social in their reading, meaning they want to share and communicate what they've learned with other people.
If teachers can take the time to find texts students can read and help them stay in their zone, it helps build confidence.
What are some strategies for encouraging intrinsic motivation?
Teachers can use confidence as a motivator by matching the texts to the students. If it's too hard, they can't learn from it and won't learn to enjoy the process. But if it's too easy, they'll be bored. If teachers can take the time to find texts students can read and help them stay in their zone, it helps build confidence.
Say your students are learning to draw a conclusion from a paragraph. They should be able to read the paragraph out loud almost at the speed at which they can speak. If you have a passage that is well-suited to them, then they can focus on learning the skill you're trying to teach instead of stumbling over some of the words.
It also helps when students see the value in a text. One way to do that is to show how it relates to their lives. For example, students might wonder what the value of knowing about environmental conservation and forests are when their interests lie elsewhere. Teachers can provide a learning experience with videos, picture books, and discussions about forests and their importance today and for future generations. This can be followed up with readings about threats to forests and ways students can aid environmental conservation. When you connect texts to what students know and care about, it creates value.
Another way to motivate students is by making the content useful to them in school on that particular day. Maybe students have to read and explain a text to each other. When a student does that successfully, he can say, “It is valuable because it helped me tell my partner about this topic.” Or, maybe it helps a student draw a map she needs to complete a project. Collaborating by working in pairs and small teams is also a technique that encourages the social aspect of reading, which is valuable motivation for reading comprehension.
Reading Plus Research Data on Motivation and Literacy Achievement
How can technology help educators motivate students to read?
Finding the time and resources to support these strategies can be hard. In a fifth-grade classroom, teachers could have students reading at a 10th-grade level, second-grade level, third-grade level, and so on. Finding material that works for all of them is a challenge. But tools like CommonLit give teachers a large bank of resources. If they need material on the historical westward expansion in the United States, for example, it's easy to find texts on the same topic for students. Students gain the same knowledge and skills, but do it at their own level.
Another challenge teachers face is knowing whether students have gained real, deep competency in the tasks they're working on. If you have 25 students, are they all able to understand this story and understand the character well? Teachers can estimate that. But they can't test every student all the time or track how much of the story they are reading.
But with a computer-based system, such as Reading Plus, educators can do those exact things. Essentially, it provides a tutor who's with the student for every task. And students can read at their own levels and work on their own specific skill sets until they're comfortable and competent. When students have this type of support, and a chance to read a high volume before moving to the next stage of complexity, that promotes deep learning.
Guthrie’s latest research and resources
Do these strategies support digital literacy, too?
Yes, research shows that self-confidence, interest in the material, and collaborative reading and writing are just as important in the digital world as they are in the print world. How frequently students work on reading and the intensity of their engagement are the biggest predictors of whether they learn. It’s simple: the kids who read the most grow the fastest.