Posted by Nate Dunlevy

Last week, we examined some of our failures as educators and parents when it comes to motivating children to read. The good news is that things don’t have to stay the way they are. There are more steps we can take to fight the literacy crisis.

Research suggests that reading motivation, and as a result performance, can be changed for the better. (Brooks, Freiburger & Grotheer, St. Xavier University, 1998; Dev, Remedial and Special Education, 1997; Skinner &Belmont, University of Rochester 1991)

As mentioned in earlier posts, focusing on the interests of children is a major key to unlock the urge to read. There is evidence that suggest it’s more important to focus on interest than reading level when selecting books for kids. It turns out that interest is far more significant than readability. When students have strong interest in what they read, they can frequently transcend their reading level (Worthy, The Reading Teacher, 1996).

Interest is a clear indicator of the quality of learning derived. Hidi (Educational Psychology Review, 2001) found that all types of interests serve as powerful agents that contribute to students’ increased recognition, comprehension, and recall. Kids recognize, remember and process things better when they care about the subject matter.

Even for kids who find reading to be a challenge, there is hope. Under the right circumstances, a challenging task can be motivating. For particularly challenging tasks, require students to use prior knowledge and construct an understanding of a topic. This practice increases the personal meaning that students attach to an activity, therefore, increasing the likelihood of becoming engaged in an activity (Miller, Reading & Writing Quarterly, 2003). Offering a book about a subject familiar to the child can help him or her overcome his or her difficulty. If the child connects the subject of the book to his or her real life, they can use that experience to deepen and clarify understanding.

Finally, positive peer pressure can be a powerful ally. Vygotsky (Mind in Society, 1978) argues that one internalizes the higher cognitive abilities applicable to reading through social interaction. Learning is as a profoundly social process, and that individuals master their surroundings when immersed in dialogue and engaged in the social construction of meaning.

That’s a fancy way of saying that given the right environment, we can use play and social interaction to imbue learning with meaning. This can be a powerful tool to helping kids understand why what they are learning matters. Encouraging kids to talk about books and characters in small groups can amplify the learning process and encourage kids that reading can benefit them socially.

Interest, familiarity and social connection can be the fuel a young child needs to become engaged in reading in a new, powerful way. Employed correctly, these tools can help us properly motivate even the most disconnected readers. On Thursday, we’ll examine more ways we can devise lessons that engage and motivate students.

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