Motivation: The KEY to Reading Success

Research shows that student motivation impacts reading comprehension success more than any other factor. Read to see what practices result in the greatest level of engagement on Comprehension Connection
The reading mountain may seem quite steep for some of our kids, and with the raised expectations our students face each year, motivation is more important than ever. According to the research done by Kelly Cartwright, nothing predicts a students level of reading comprehension more than STUDENT MOTIVATION, so our students who lag in decoding and fluency are NOT doomed to reading failure IF WE CAN MOTIVATE THEM. The million dollar strategy for teachers then is to find what it is that motivates our readers. Today, I'd like to share what I learned from Dr. Nell Duke in her VSRA session as well as a few things that have worked well for me. I hope that you are able to grab a hold of one or two ideas and find they work well for you too.

Before I share her suggestions to the motivation issue, let me share a little more about why motivation is so important. Back in 1987 (my junior year of college), Jere Brophy did a study and concluded that these teacher behaviors led to increased motivation (and interestingly, they are STILL very relevant):

Jere Brophy Conclusions

1. The teacher models an interest in learning. Kids must see that learning matters to us.

2. Teacher behaviors induce curiosity and suspense.

3. Teachers make abstract tasks concrete to students through demo lessons. We might use Think Aloud or mentor texts for modeling. We need to help our kids feel connected to the task by scaffolding their instruction.

4. Teachers make the objectives clear to the students not by posting it on a board, but rather in understandable student language. Kids must understand WHY learning XXX is important and see how they will reach the destination so to speak.

5. Teachers provide informative feedback to students. Taking a "state of the class" or using a rating scale for students to share their understanding helps the teacher gauge follow up instruction.

6. Teachers adapt tasks to student interests. By using interest inventories and by engaging students in one-on-one conversation, we can learn what they love. This helps us to make the match between curriculum needs and learning preferences.

7. Teachers give students choice for tasks. When possible, have assignment options so that your students' latch onto at least one.


As I thought about this list, one of my colleagues popped in my mind. She is the queen of deep thinking and just...plain...fun. It is not unusual to see her in costume as Mrs. Wishy Washy props and all. She ALWAYS weaves in rich vocabulary and refers to her students as Mr. President or Dr. Jones. She pulls them in with wonderings, surrounds them with rich texts, learns WITH them, and values thoughtful discussions. (In Kindergarten) Are the kids motivated?  Absolutely. Are they learning? Definitely. So, what do we do to keep that momentum going in the coming years?  Well, here is what Dr. Duke said.

"If you care about kid's interests, skills, and background knowledge, you'll get better comprehension results."

The goal for each of us should be to get 90% engagement with EVERY lesson we do, and here are a few ideas that have been shown to result in high engagement.

Suggestions from Dr. Duke

1) Project Based Learning

Project Based Learning has had positive results for increasing student engagement. It taps into student interests, builds skills over longer period of time, achieves a purpose beyond a school requirement, is interdisciplinary, and uses the student's creativity, curiosity, and even building skills, and answers questions they have. By implementing Project Based Learning, we give students choice and voice with curriculum.

If Project Based Learning is new to you, it's important to note that not all projects are equal. As you dive into implementing Project Based Learning, it's important to ensure that the projects you choose fit the following criteria in order to result in high engagement:
  • The project meets a real need in the world beyond the classroom,  and the products that students create are used by real people.
  • The project focuses on a problem, issue or topic that is relevant to students' lives (the more directly, the better) or on a problem or issue that is actually being faced by adults in the world students will soon enter.
  • The project sets up a model or simulation that is realistic, even if it is fictitious.
  • The project involves tools, tasks or skills used by adults in real settings and by professionals in the workplace.
The final product could include posters, brochures, flipbooks, lapbooks, 3-D models, and projects like this as well as a written requirement that shares the research gathered.

What does the research about PBL say?  Well, [here] is a great article you can read by Dr. Nell Duke about it. 

2) Grouping Texts by Topic (Text Sets)

Motivation: The KEY to Reading Success Text sets improves comprehension and builds enthusiasm for the topic. Check out other motivational techniques described on Comprehension Connection
For deeper understanding and higher level thinking, you might try using a group of texts on the same topic versus different topics each day. Often, authors include different information making it easy to compare/contrast them. Text sets improve student understanding of nonfiction topics, help reach readers at different levels, and improve content area vocabulary and academic words. You can pair texts for guided reading, mentor text lessons, and read alouds if multiple copies are not available. You can also find many titles available on Youtube and on websites such as Epic.

Another option with text sets is pairing fiction and nonfiction titles on similar topics. Fictional books that include content information work well for this. A few pairs I've used are Stellaluna by Janell Cannon and Bats by Gail Gibbons or Owl Moon by Jane Yolen and Owls by Gail Gibbons. Certainly other nonfiction titles could be included too. The key is to learn what your students are interested in before you choose your titles.

3) Use Technology to Build Enthusiasm

Kids love tech, and we have so many fun options available to us both for accessing books as well as discussing them. Last year, I started a blog with my students. The kids were able to share book reviews, comment about common books they'd read, and more. Blogging allows kids to also explore photography, builds writing skills, and socialize.

If you're not the blogging type, you can use websites like Today's Meet for group discussion. It works like Twitter, but the teacher can save the discussion for reference later (to view how kids participate). I have also used Edmodo this way which looks more like a Facebook platform. I loved that I could pose certain questions and watch how the conversation evolves. One other tech idea is to use Kahoot or Pixlers for group discussion. With all of these tech ideas, it's easy to tie in book clubs or lit circles too.

I think more than any of these ideas, knowing your students personally and deeply matters. Find out what they like reading so that you can match texts to their interests. Challenge them to think deeply and emphasize a growth mindset, effort, and stamina. Most importantly, remember that motivation impacts reading comprehension levels more than anything else we do.

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