Posted by Nate Dunlevy

On Monday, we offered up three ways parents and teachers can better motivate young readers. As we take aim at the literacy crisis, here are more tips that can help engage young minds and inspire them to pick up a book and read. Research indicates there are several ways to structure activities to enhance a child’s motivation (Brooks et al., St. Xavier University, 1988).

First, ensure course materials are relevant to students’ lives and highlight ways learning can be applied in real-life situations (Lumsden, ERIC, 1994; Skinner & Belmont, University of Rochester, 1991). Schoolwork should be meaningful to students outside the school building. Students are more engaged in activities when they can build on what they already know and draw clear connections between what they are learning and the world in which they live.

If kids find what reading useful to their daily life, they are more likely to read. By keeping learning topical and applicable to life, we can head off the dreaded question, “When am I ever going use this in the real world?”

Second, allow students to have some degree of control over their own learning (Brooks, et al.). This can be done in any number of ways, from giving students choices between different assignments, to minimizing adult supervision over group projects, to letting students monitor and evaluate their own progress (Anderman & Midgley, ERIC, 1998; Dev, Remedial and Special Education, 1997; Policy Studies Associates, U.S. Department of Education,1995). “Even small opportunities for choice, such as whether to work with a partner or independently” give students a greater sense of autonomy (Anderman & Midgley).

When kids experience ownership and control, they value what they learn because it becomes their own. We’ve already talked about the role interest plays in motivation. Giving kids choices over their reading materials is a powerful incentive.

Focus on assigning challenging but achievable tasks for all students. Both impossible and painfully easy tasks demotivate learners (Dev; Policy Studies Associates). Remedial programs that limit students to repetitive basic skills activities actually “prompt students’ lack of engagement in their school-work and frequently result in limited achievement.” Kids respond well to being pushed appropriately.

Think about “the adult world”. No one likes busy work. No one likes to be bored. No one is motivated by a job he or she feels like is too easy to be meaningful. Neither do adults want to feel like their tasks are impossible. Kids are no different. If the level of challenge isn’t in line with pushing the student to the edge of his or her abilities, they won’t be motivated to complete it. One-size-fits-all reading assignments are going to leave kids on either end of the spectrum bored or frustrated.

Try to arouse students’ curiosity about the topic being studied. Strong, Silver, and Robinson (Educational Leadership,1995) suggest using the “mystery” approach, in which students are presented with fragmentary or contradictory information about a subject and are then asked to examine available evidence to develop their own hypotheses. Give students an opportunity to direct their questions and “discover for themselves.”

A sense of mystery can trigger a student to push beyond his or her current knowledge and go in search of a deeper understanding of the topic. Instead of having kids memorize facts or answers, present them puzzles to solve or questions to answer. Let them hunt in books for answers, reinforcing that books are a key source of information.

Finally, design projects that allow students to share new knowledge with others. Strong, Silver and Robinson (1995) observe that when students do assignments that only the teacher will read, they are entering into a non-reciprocal relationship. Projects are more engaging when students share what they are learning in reciprocal relationships where each student’s knowledge is needed by others in the group to complete an assignment.

Instead of the classic group project where one kid ends up doing all the work, try assigning teams where each child has a unique task, skill or investigation. Then require the team to assemble their collective knowledge to answer a larger more complex question or challenge from daily life. A reading challenge where students read different books that each have clues to a larger puzzle could lead to a sense of utility, discovery, challenge, agency and sharing.

There’s no one trick to magically motivate kids to read, but the more we present kids with opportunities to pursue their interests cooperatively in a challenging environment of discovery and sharing, the more likely they’ll be to be motivated to keep growing as reading and learners.

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