Posted by Nate Dunlevy

In discussing the role of motivation in helping children become avid readers, it’s clear that

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internal motivation drives much a reader’s behavior. Internal

motivation occurs when a child enjoys reading because it’s fun or because he or she is interested in the subject matter.

But what about external motivators? Can punishments or prizes and rewards help generate long-term reading gains? The

results of recent studies may surprise you.

External rewards may actually do more harm than good. Research demonstrates that using extrinsic motivators to engage students in learning can both lower achievement and negatively affect student motivation (Dev, Remedial and Special Education, 1997; Lumsden, ERIC, 1994).

When students are motivated to complete a task only to avoid consequences or to earn a certain grade, they rarely exert more than the minimum effort necessary to meet their goal. When students are focused on comparing themselves with their classmates, rather than on mastering skills at their own rate, they are more easily discouraged and their intrinsic motivation to learn may actually decrease.

Prizes can keep a kid reading for the short term, but discourage long term gains. Brooks et al.(St. Xavier University, 1998) observe that while external rewards sustain productivity, they “decrease interest in the task, thereby diminishing the likelihood that the task will be continued in the future.” Getting a trinket or badge may keep a child reading for a little while, but it’s not a viable strategy for long-term reading growth.

Of course there are also researchers who object to describing student motivation as either intrinsic or extrinsic. Sternberg and Lubart (as cited in Strong, Silver, & Robinson, Educational Leadership,1995) for example, argue that this division is too simple to reflect the many complex and interrelated factors that influence students’ motivation to succeed in school. They point out that most successful people are motivated by both internal and external factors.

It only makes sense that for any task as multifaceted as literacy, there will be a wide variety of influences and factors that we can employ to encourage students to read. The real challenge is not to get a single child to finish a single book or even a single list of books, but rather to encourage children to fall completely in love with reading for the simple joy of it. Only then can we know we’ve created life-long readers.

On Monday, we’ll begin to unpack the key factors in the complex tapestry of motivation, including self-confidence, interest in the content, a desire to be challenged and social interaction with peers. By fostering these core motivators in young readers, we can help them move beyond simple rewards/punishments as the driving forces behind why they choose to pick up a book.

Reading for the sake of reading: it is possible.

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