Posted by Nate Dunlevy

In our continuing series on the literacy crisis facing the United States, we recently came to the question of motivation. boy_reading3_500x333We know that motivation drives the education process for children.

We think we know what motivation is, but how does that flesh itself out in the lives of school-aged kids in the United States? What drives a student to want to read?

Great minds ranging from Skinner to Maslow have battled back and forth as to whether motivation is strictly driven by external factors or internal ones, but current thinking would advise us to choose a both/and approach rather than either/or.

Motivation is difficult to define and measure, but scholars generally recognize two major types: intrinsic and extrinsic. Intrinsic motivation is the desire to do or achieve something because one truly wants to and takes pleasure or sees value in doing so.

Extrinsic motivation is the desire to do or achieve something not so much for the enjoyment of the activity itself, but because it will produce a certain result. The difference between the two is more like a spectrum than a divide; any action can be motivated by a combination of intrinsic and extrinsic factors, and the same person may be motivated differently in different contexts.

In other words, students are motivated both by an internal drive for success as well as by external rewards. The interplay between the two is fascinating. While external rewards have some effect, students who find internal motivation to read tend have the most lasting success.

According to Dev (Special Education and Remediation, 1997), “A student who is intrinsically motivated . . . will not need any type of reward or incentive to initiate or complete a task. This type of student is more likely to complete the chosen task and be excited by the challenging nature of an activity.” There is compelling evidence that students who are more intrinsically than extrinsically motivated fare better (Brooks, thesis at Saint Xavier Univeristy, 1998; Lumsden, ERIC, 1994).

Likewise, Pachtman and Wilson (The Reading Teacher, 2006) found that motivation can develop from intrinsic or extrinsic stimuli. Intrinsic motivation is developed through the choice of literacy activities based on individual interest and the child’s beliefs that he/she can successfully complete the reading task. Lapp and Douglas (Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy, 2009) expand on this notion, finding that peer influence and intrinsic motivation are primary factors associated with encouraging teens to want to read.

When students read for aesthetic reasons (Rosenblatt, Literature S.O.S!, 2005), they are motivated because the reading provokes feelings, ideas, and attitudes that are linked through private, past experiences. Therefore, when students’ readings evoke connections to individual responses, they will be more likely to want to continue to read.

Kids read more when they are interested in what they are reading, they have confidence they can read and their friends like reading. It makes sense, doesn’t it? Kids don’t read books because someone offers them a trinket. They read books because they are interested in what they are reading.

The lasting effects of internal motivation are legion. Intrinsically motivated students:

  • Earn higher grades and achievement test scores, on average, than extrinsically motivated students (Dev, 1997; Skinner & Belmont, University of Rochester, 1991)
  • Are better personally adjusted to school (Skinner & Belmont, 1991)
  • Employ “strategies that demand more effort and that enable them to process information more deeply” (Lumsden, 1994, p. 2)
  • Are more likely to feel confident about their ability to learn new material (Dev, 1997)
  • Use “more logical information-gathering and decision-making strategies” than do extrinsically motivated students (Lumsden, 1994, p. 2)
  • Are more likely to engage in “tasks that are moderately challenging, whereas extrinsically oriented students gravitate toward tasks that are low in degree of difficulty” (Lumsden, 1994, p.2)
  • Are more likely to persist with and complete assigned tasks (Dev, 1997)
  • Retain information and concepts longer, and are less likely to need remedial courses and review (Dev, 1997)
  • Are more likely to be lifelong learners, continuing to educate themselves outside the formal school setting long after external motivators such as grades and diplomas are removed (Kohn, 1993)

There is more than one way to address the issue, however, and many literacy programs use a heavy dose of extrinsic motivators to encourage reading behavior. On Thursday, we’ll further explore the interplay between internal and external motivators in pursuit of finding ways to properly motivate young people to become high-frequency readers.

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