Best Practices for Motivating Students to Read

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Best Practices for Motivating Students to Read

John T. Guthrie

University of Maryland College Park

September 2, 2013

To appear in:

Morrow, L. & Gambrell, L. Eds. (in press 2013). Best Practices in Literacy Instruction. Fifth Edition. Guilford Press. New York.

Dr. John T. Guthrie,

Jean Mullan Professor of Literacy Emeritus

Department of Human Development and Quantitative Methodology

University of Maryland College Park, USA

Best Practices for Motivating Students to Read

John T. Guthrie

University of Maryland


  • This chapter will:

  • Convey the research evidence for the importance of motivation and classroom practices to foster motivation and engagement in reading.

  • Relate the Core Content State Standards (CCSS) to motivation and engagement

  • Present the prevailing motivations that impact students’ reading including interest, confidence and dedication.

  • Portray classroom practices such as assuring relevance, providing choices, generating success, arranging collaborations, setting up thematic units, and emphasizing importance to build valuing.

What Do We Mean by Motivation?

Many teachers think of a motivated reader as a student who is having fun while reading. While this is often true, motivation is diverse. What we mean by motivation are the values, beliefs, and behaviors surrounding reading. Some productive values and beliefs may lead to excitement, yet other values may lead to determined hard work. We talk about three powerful motivations that drive students’ reading. They operate in school and out of school, and they touch nearly every child. Some students may have all of these motivations and some may have only one. For some students, these motivations appear in the positive form driving students toward reading. Other motivations are negative and push students away from books. When we talk about reading motivations we refer to (1) interest, (2) dedication, and (3) confidence. An interested student reads because he enjoys it, a dedicated student reads because he believes it is important, and a confident student reads because he can do it.

Relating motivation to the Core Content State Standards (CCSS)

The CCSS map a new terrain for reading proficiency. This landscape goes beyond previous perspectives that reading was mainly based on word recognition and listening comprehension. To meet the CCSS, students have to grapple with complex text, and reason deeply to understand. They are expected to make meaningful connections within and across texts. But the CCSS not only presents new cognitive demands. The CCSS raises the bar for higher motivation. Complex texts are challenging. Reasoning with text is daunting. To meet these aims successful students must be motivated. They need the confidence to keep trying in the face of difficulty; they need the reading interests to make their effort worthwhile; they need the social belief that they can give and receive help from peers effectively; and they will have to read more widely and deeply than ever. The CCSS implicitly mandates teachers to motivate.

Key Motivations to Read—Interest, Confidence, Dedication

Interest. When we think of motivation our mind first turns to interest. Motivation is enjoying a book, being excited about an author, or being delighted by new information. Researchers refer to interest as intrinsic motivation, meaning something we do for its own sake. On a rainy day, we might rather read our favorite book than do anything else. We are not trying to get a reward when falling into a novel.

Motivation also brings to mind the reward for success. Who doesn’t like to win a trinket for hitting the target with a dart at the State Fair? Who doesn’t want to earn serious money for working hard in a career? These are extrinsic rewards because someone gives them to us. We do not give them to ourselves, and these rewards do propel us to put out effort, focus energy, and get up in the morning. Yet extrinsic rewards do not motivate reading achievement in the long term. Students who read only for the reward of money, a grade, or a future job are not the best readers. The reason is that if you read for the reward of a good quiz score, what happens after the quiz is that you stop reading. If the test score is the only thing that matters, it is okay to take shortcuts, not really understand, or cheat. It encourages students to become more interested in the reward than the learning. None of these generate long-term achievement. Sometimes a reward, such as candy or early recess, will jump-start a group of students to read in this moment for this purpose. But if the motivation is not intrinsic, it will not increase achievement in the long term. (Wigfield & Guthrie, 1997).

Confidence. Believing in yourself is more closely linked to achievement than any other motivation throughout school. The reason is that confidence, which is belief in your capacity, is tied intimately to success. This link occurs for simple, daily reading tasks. A student who reads one page fluently thinks he can read the next page in the same book proficiently. The link is also forged for reading in general. A student who reads fluently and understands well is also sure of himself as a reader. In and out of school, people like the things they do well.

Conversely, students who struggle begin to doubt their abilities. They expect to do poorly in reading, writing, and talking about text. The real dilemma is that lower-achieving students often exaggerate their limitations. Believing they are worse than they really are, they stop trying completely. Retreating from all text interactions, they reduce their own opportunity to do what they want to do more than anything---to be a good reader. Their low confidence undermines them even further in a cycle of doubt and failure. By middle school, breaking this cycle is a formidable challenge for teachers.

Dedication. Although intrinsic motivation is desirable, this type of motivation is not always possible in school. There are assignments that are not desirable to a student, yet are part of the curriculum. There are books that do not appeal to some individuals, yet at a given moment in a given school, it is necessary to read them. What motivation enables students to read in this situation? The reason to read in this case is the students’ belief that reading is important, and the students’ persistence in reading, whatever the assignment. We call this dedication and researchers call it behavioral engagement (Skinner, Kindermann, & Furrer, 2009).

Every student has the potential to be dedicated. Skills are hard for some students to develop, but dedication is related to will. It is up to a student to decide whether to be dedicated or not. Students are either avoidant, dedicated, or somewhere in between the two. Students who value reading are dedicated in the sense that they devote effort, time, and persistence to their reading. These are the three key signs of dedication in students.

Persisting. One of the most important distinctions between dedicated and avoidant students is that avoidant students do not make the connection between their efforts and the outcomes. A fourth-grade teacher, Taysha Gateau-Barrera, told us that “Dedicated students know that they don’t improve by mistake. They make continued efforts to try hard and be well organized because they want to be successful in school.” Avoidance is a particularly powerful sign because it stops all learning abruptly. If a student wants to read and tries to read well, she may learn. If another student refuses to interact with text, all hope for gaining skill, knowledge, or experience from text is dashed.

Valuing knowledge from reading. Dedicated students read to attain information that expands their knowledge of their perceived world. Reading is a vehicle to take them to the knowledge they want. Unlike the kids who are reading for practice, these students are reading to know. In our interview study (Guthrie, Klauda, & Morrison, in preparation), one middle school student said reading was important because “It informs us because we read about the Titanic, and it happened on April 12. It’s not boring, it’s more like fun because they give you information and stuff about the past.” Others remarked, “Reading actually teaches you things and makes you really think about life that’s going on this Earth.” Another said, “In Science [we read about] this bacteria that I didn’t know about and it’s called hiking disease. When you’re hiking and you get some water from the pond, and it’s this little bug that if it hits you too long it can make you very sick.”

Values for the future. Dedicated middle school students think about their future. Here is one example: “Well I guess if you are a good student and get a good education then you can go somewhere in life.” Another said, “By being a good student you get in good colleges, and that’s what I’m trying to do.” One claimed, “Being a good reader will help you in the future because like if you got a job, you read a lot, like, even if you didn’t like it. If you didn’t read in school, you wouldn’t know the meaning of it.” A fourth said, “I sort of want to be a vet when I get older, so readings in Science and learning about chemicals help me. Learning how to write things and all that stuff will help me later on.” Belief in the importance of reading fuels dedication to wide and frequent reading (Guthrie, Klauda & Ho, 2013).

Evidence-Based Practices in Classroom Motivation

Evidence for the power of motivation and engagement is expanding rapidly

Evidence that motivation is vital to achievement is now expressed not in a few studies, but in many reviews and Handbooks. The Handbook of Research on Student Engagement contains more than 800 pages of literature reviews by more than 55 authors (Christensen, Reschly & Wiley, 2012). In the Reading Research Quarterly, reading motivation and its roles in building proficient and dedicated readers was comprehensively documented (Schiefele, Schaffner, Moller & Wigfield, 2012). Classroom practices that energize motivated students have been systematically reviewed (Guthrie, Wigfield, & You, 2012). Reading motivation has come of age as in indispensible ingredient of teacher preparation. The International Reading Association’s Literacy Research Panel was charged to identify the central issues in reading education. Following extended debate, the Panel proclaimed that:

“IRA’s vision that schools must be transformed into places

where students at all levels of schooling are actively engaged

in personally and socially meaningful learning and inquiry.”
Most teachers and the IRA aim to nurture lifelong readers. Motivation is an end goal. At the same time motivation is a means. It stands as a vital link to attainment of the CCSS. As the research shows, and the Literacy Research Panel has articulated, motivation is imperative in progressing toward 21st Century literacy.

Intervention Research in Reading Motivation

Following a meta-analysis of motivation studies involving text interaction, Guthrie and Humenick (2004) concluded that a variety of positive motivations were increased by experimental conditions related to relevance, content goals, choices, and collaborations. Contributions of these practices to middle school students’ reading engagement and proficiency with information text in Concept-Oriented Reading Instruction (CORI) has been demonstrated (Guthrie, Klauda & Ho, 2013).

Although interventions are rare in motivation research, a few studies can be identified. Vansteenkiste, Lens, and Deci (2006) compared experimental groups who received either intrinsically motivating goals for reading or extrinsically motivating goals for reading the same text. In the intrinsic condition, students who were obese were asked to read a text on nutrition for their own purposes. In the extrinsic condition, similar students were asked to read the same text for the extrinsic goal of memorizing facts to score well on a test. The students with intrinsic goals recalled the text more fully and reported more involvement in the reading than students with the extrinsic goals (Vansteenkiste, Lens, & Deci, 2006). Furthermore, when a brief computer-based instructional unit was embellished with personalized features and inconsequential choices, students showed more intrinsic motivation for the activity than if the program did not have the embellishments (Cordova & Lepper, 1996).

In summary, a variety of correlational, experimental, and qualitative research confirms the positive impacts of motivational practices on students’ interest, confidence, and dedication in reading. This body of research affirms the effectiveness of specific practices that will be described next including making reading relevant, affording choices, assuring success, arranging for collaborations, emphasizing importance of reading, organizing thematic units, and integrating multiple motivation supports during instruction.

From K-12, teachers can and do use motivational practices in their classrooms. Each practice described here has been afforded to students across the age range. For example, kindergartners can be given the choice of which story they want the teacher to read aloud; and secondary students can be given a choice of which 2-3 subtopics to pursue in a long term multi-genre inquiry. In this chapter, we often provide examples for middle elementary age students. You can generate how to apply the practice for students of the age, ethnicity, background, ability and currently existing motivation in your classroom.

Best Practices in Action


Appealing to students’ interest is a popular motivational approach. In a book-length treatment on building reading motivation for boys, Brozo (2002) found that boys respond when teachers become aware of their students’ personal interests and needs. Some boys may want to read about heroes, adventurers, magicians, or tricksters. If their curiosities can be identified through interest inventories, they may become engrossed in a book or a topic and learn to find satisfaction through literacy. Although this suggestion is useful for book clubs or free reading activities, it is not easily used for instruction with information books and is not easy to relate to curriculum-connected, academic accountabilities that are widespread in middle schools.

Real-world materials. When it is possible to bring media based in the real world into classroom instruction, the text becomes relevant. For example, in a Social Studies class studying civil rights, the teacher found a poignant newspaper article. It described an elderly female protester who was on a picket line objecting to racist policies. Although she was a civil rights activist she behaved hypocritically by owning a segregated grocery store. The article captivated students’ attention and through their critical analysis of the text and the historical situation, they developed keen insights about the economic and moral pressures surrounding racism (Johnson & Cowles, 2009).

Relevant texts are commonplace in vocational schools or courses. One vocational school’s students worked in shops that were run like real jobsites. Students were presented many opportunities to participate in work-related scenarios. As well as providing services to the community such as changing the oil or repairing people’s car brakes, they read texts on auto mechanics, construction, electricity, plumbing, graphic design, and computer technology. The school did not have to stretch to provide students with authentic tasks or reading materials. Because of their relevance, the students valued these reading tasks. The vast majority of students dedicated themselves to mastering these texts despite their complexity (Darvin, 2006). Whether they are newspapers, job-related texts, or part of the popular culture, texts from the real world are relevant in themselves.

For elementary school students in urban settings, a team of teachers built relevance by forming linkages between students in the upper elementary grades and adult pen pals in local businesses, non-profit organizations, and government agencies in the area. Adult pen pals read the same books as the students and wrote questions and commentaries guided by a Web site. Teachers selected grade level books from five domains: fiction, social studies, biography, folk tales, and science. In a final look at the program, the author stated:

A key to active student engagement was the series of literacy activities reflective of real life experiences. Students interacted purposefully above all with their adult pen pals. They read to answer real questions, compose responses to their pen pals’ questions, and to build conceptual knowledge. The pen pal context provided powerful motivation for students to read and write strategically and learn skills in order to make their letters as good as possible for the real person to whom they wrote. For many students the motivation extended beyond the particular book and the particular letter. They were motivated enough to read many other books at their grade level on the same topic or the same genre (p. 736) (Kelley & Clausen-Grace, 2009).

In this case, it was not the real-world materials, but the real-world members of their community and authentic questions that inspired reading dedication.

Poignant topics. A powerful source of relevant texts for young adolescents is novels or biographies on the theme of freedom. As Bean and Harper (2006) showed, young adolescents are captivated by The Breadwinner, a novel about Parvana, a 12-year-old girl living in Afghanistan under Taliban rule. In an act of survival, Parvana poses as a boy selling goods to earn money for her family. She achieves some freedom by making her femininity invisible, but she loses some of her ethnic identity. Reading this book, students became immersed in her loses of religious identity as she gained economic freedoms. Many of them discovered they had paid a price for freedoms as well. Relevance of this text to their lives generated dedicated reading.

The quickest way to locate topics relevant to students’ interests is to enable them to select a topic for project-based activities. In one example, students in an upper elementary school class selected topics on social justice, which was new to them. In the media center and on the Internet they found books and articles on injustices in housing, employment, and access to healthcare. Reading these multiple self-selected texts, students composed five-panel comic strips using computer software to explain their particular topic. They read deeply and wrote sharply to portray and explain the injustice they unearthed.

In a study at the elementary school level, students volunteered that their personal interests were the main factor that made them want to read a narrative text. In asking why they chose certain books students replied:

  • “I like dolphins. I think they are cool because they live in the ocean and I like oceans.”

  • “It was important because I like different cultures.”

  • “Because it was about an Indian and I am interested in Indians.”

Identifying students’ topical interests through a conversation or a questionnaire can enable teachers to heighten the relevance of books and entice students into dedicated reading.

Teachers create relevance. It is often impossible to locate real-world materials. On many occasions, the teacher needs to create relevance by designing events that enable students to see connections of text to themselves. For example, a middle school class was reading Night by Elie Wiesel, an account of the author’s experiences during the Holocaust. Taking place on another continent in an earlier generation, students did not take much interest in the scene in which Jewish individuals were herded like cattle into a railroad car. To render the scene more personal, the teacher made a large rectangle of red tape on the classroom floor. He asked the class to crowd into this limited space. After students’ giggling and complaining subsided, the teacher explained that this is how Jews stood for days at a time on a moving train. Following this weak simulation, students began to ask about the people and their circumstances, and their reading was reignited.

A teacher-guided event that is relevance generating consists of enabling students to create their own questions about text. In one Social Studies class, students wrote their questions about the freedoms of religion, speech, assembly, petition, and the press. Students were expected to learn about the five basic freedoms embodied in the Constitution. They read for definitions, historical origins, and limits of all these freedoms and prepared a six to eight minute oral report. Their report centered on a single person, event, battle, or place during the Civil War that was connected to one of these freedoms. By enabling students to be guided by their own questions, as well as the curriculum framework, students bring their knowledge, interests, and idiosyncrasies into their reading activities. As a consequence, their willingness to spend time and effort grows and their products display the benefits of dedicated reading.

For students at many ages, the teacher may set up situations involving a discrepant event, a reality that conflicts with what the students might expect to see. For example, as Duke, Purcell-Gates, Hall, and Tower (2006) reported in a study on light, one teacher set up a prism on the overhead projector while her class was out of the room. This caused rainbows to appear on the ceiling. When the students returned there were many oohs and aahs and a rush of questions about how the rainbow effects occurred. Teachers led students to find and read information text on light to help them answer their questions. Such discrepant events may be created for literature and fiction as well. If students are asked to predict the outcome of a chapter or what a character will do in a scene, the teacher can create a discrepancy between the students’ expectations and the events in the book. Exploring and explaining the discrepancies between students’ predictions and the actual events can lead to teachable moments that deepen students’ comprehension and enhance their reading dedication.

Relationships of teachers and students in elementary school can often be built around finding the right books for students. If teachers use an interest inventory to determine topics that students enjoy, they can often find great books based on this information. Highlighting these books in book talks, book commercials, or other means helps build students’ faith in teachers’ ability to find relevant materials for them. In teacher-student conferences during independent reading, teachers can help students find and stick with a good book. As students gain trust in the teacher as an ally in finding and enjoying books, students’ all important time spent in reading grows.

Relevance is an instructional practice central to Concept-Oriented Reading Instruction (CORI) activities (Guthrie, Klauda & Ho, 2013). In this context, relevance refers to linking books and reading activities to the students’ personal experiences. These connections to “me” as a person are especially poignant for adolescents who are centered on thinking about who they are. Such links to self can be tied to long-term history, such as students’ cultural experiences in their ethnic group, to a personal interest such as skateboarding, or to a recent personal experience. In CORI for middle school students, we give context through videos related to the conceptual theme. For example, in Week 1, we present a video on predation where a cheetah is capturing a gazelle on the Serengeti Plain. After watching the 3-minute video, students make observations about it, draw inferences, and make connections between the events. The students then read a paragraph of text to learn more about predation in cheetahs and other animals. They draw inferences from the text and share their observations with peers.

In this 20-minute activity, reading information text is made relevant by connecting it to a vivid personal encounter with the phenomenon through video. Needless to say, the color, audio effects, and drama rivet the students’ attention and arouse their interest. Asking students to perform the processes with the video that we later ask them to perform with the text brings a linkage not only in content, but in the process of learning across the media. Thus, relevance is formed through the immediacy of experience with video and text. It is relevance situated in a disciplinary domain and information texts on the subject matter. We believe that this level of relevancy is effective as a starting point for learning the relevance of other texts on other topics in the future.

When students view a video on predation in the Serengeti the experience is effortless, eye opening, and interesting. It activates what they already know and arouses natural curiosities. Watching the video is intrinsically motivating, which means that students will do it for their own enjoyment. Students often ask to see the video many times. Linking a readable trade book to this interesting event projects the qualities of the video enjoyment into the text interaction. For this moment, in this situation, reading becomes interesting. Thus, the students’ interest in reading is scaffolded by creating situated interest in an extremely concrete situation. Then we extrapolate outward from it. Students are weaned from the relevance-generating event and learn to find interest in other texts and other topics.


The most widespread recommendation for motivation is providing choices. In the classroom, students are often thrilled to have a choice in their reading. They rise to it with enthusiasm, at least temporarily. A theoretical framework for choice in the classroom is Self-Determination Theory (Ryan & Deci, 2000), which argues that students’ development of autonomy, or being in charge of their lives, is central to their academic achievement and emotional adjustment. After reviewing Self-Determination Theory, Reed, Schallert, Beth, and Woodruff (2004) stated, “When it comes to addressing specifically the motivational processes of adolescents in literacy-focused classrooms, the single, most powerful suggestion we can make is to encourage teachers to develop learning environments that are autonomy-supportive” (p.274).

Autonomy support in this context refers to enabling students to become self-directing and self-controlling of their literacy and academic work. Reeve (1996) explained autonomy support in the classroom in a book-length treatment entitled Motivating Others: Nurturing Inner Motivational Resources. As Reeve said,

Autonomy support refers to the amount of freedom a teacher gives a student so the student can connect his or her behavior to personal goals, interests, and values. The opposite of autonomy support is coercion or being controlled. Teacher autonomy support expresses itself when teachers allow students choices, respect their agendas, and provide learning activities that are relevant to personal goals and interests (p. 206).

Among the proposals for instructional practices described in this section, autonomy support may enjoy the largest amount of empirical verification, which has been reviewed in Guthrie and Humenick (2004).

Providing choice is a motivational support system in CORI for middle school that enables students to develop self-direction in the classroom. Teachers provide the following kinds of choices within the six-week CORI program: self-selection of books or sections of books, student input into topics or sequence of topics, student suggestions for strategy use for comprehension, options for demonstrating learning from text, and selecting partners for teams. As these examples show, we are not affording students open opportunity to take complete charge of everything they do for a week in Reading/Language Arts. These are mini-choices during literacy lessons. Yet as small as these choices may appear, they enable students to feel a stronger sense of investment and to commit larger amounts of effort to their reading work. We have given many examples of the roles and ranges of choices that are possible in middle school elsewhere (McRae & Guthrie, 2009).

On a daily basis effective teachers can give mini-choices. They empower students to increase their investment in learning. When appropriate, in every lesson have students do at least one of the following:

  1. Select a story.

  2. Select a page to read.

  3. Select sentences to explain.

  4. Identify a goal for the day.

  5. Choose 3 of 5 questions to answer.

  6. Write questions for a partner exchange.


Support for students’ self-efficacy in reading and other subjects is crucial. Without the belief in themselves, students in the upper elementary and middle school grades often retreat from books. As portrayed by Schunk and Zimmerman (2007), several explicit teaching practices increase students’ self-efficacy. The self-efficacy-fostering framework consists of providing students’ process goals. These are steps for performing reading tasks successfully. Teachers provide feedback for success in the process goals rather than feedback for the students’ products or outcomes. That is, teachers give specific direction to students about the effectiveness of their strategy for performing work. They help students set realistic goals for reading. Also beneficial to students’ self-efficacy is their perception of coherence in the texts and tasks of instruction. When students can identify the links across contents of reading, and perceive themes in the substance of their reading materials, they gain a belief that they can succeed in reading and writing about text (Guthrie, Mason-Singh, & Coddington, in preparation).

To afford your students practices that boost success, assure that at least one of the following is very prominent in every lesson:

  1. Text matched to students’ reading levels

  2. Frequent feedback for reading

  3. Authentic reading merged with skills

  4. Multiple opportunities for reading

  5. Sharing competency with peers

  6. Student goal setting

  7. Rewarding effort


Collaboration is a central process in Concept-Oriented Reading Instruction. Teachers implementing collaboration are initiating the following activities: (a) reading in partners or small groups, (b) exchanging ideas and sharing expertise, (c) student-led discussion groups (d) book talks, (d) team projects such as a poster-making activity, and (e) peer feedback. As with the other motivation supports, these activities are contextualized within the conceptual theme and books on the theme. For example, partners may be given five minutes to discuss the inferences they generated from reading three pages of text on the conceptual question of the day. In each 90-minute lesson, teachers arrange for students to work in whole group, partnerships, small team interactions, and individually. The structure for small team interaction is collaborative reasoning, based on research from Chinn, Anderson, and Waggoner (2001). In this interactive structure, students make claims about the text, add to each other’s interpretations, raise clarifying questions, and attempt to synthesize their own brainstorming. Shown to impact higher order thinking about text, collaborative reasoning is not merely a social break from learning or an open discussion, but a scaffolded process of cumulative contributions based on reading about a topic. The outcome is a collective understanding about text.

Collaboration can occur in every lesson. It may be a broad plan or a brief event. Each lesson can include one of the following:

  1. Have partners read aloud together

  2. Partners question exchange questions to answer over text

  3. Team summarizes a chapter

  4. Literature circles

  5. Collaborative reasoning

  6. Organize a jigsaw

  7. Set up peer editing about text

Emphasizing Importance

Too many students avoid reading because they believe it is not important to them now or in the future. They do not value reading and do not think it will benefit them. To address this dilemma, we believe in providing students with a concrete experience rather than an abstract principle. Rather than attempting a global strategy of persuading students that reading will enable them to go to college or enter a career of their choice, we attempt to situate the benefit of literacy in a concrete situation. For example, have students view a video of plant/animal relationships. Then have them read a related text and share their new learning with a partner. After the lesson, ask the question, “What were your sources of new learning today?” Students will respond by saying, “the video” or “my partner” or “my writing.” Soon they will discover that it was the text that enabled them to gain knowledge most effectively on this topic on this day. This recognition is an awareness of the value of reading. It often comes as a surprise to the students. The teacher may also ask how a choice made during the lesson benefitted them. Students’ awareness of how well they enjoyed the choice, and how it helped them focus cognitively, raises their estimate of the value of reading.

Valuing literacy is the motivational process we attempt to facilitate with the practice of emphasizing importance. When the students begin to reflect on how the text helped them speak effectively with their team or write effectively, they begin to view the book reading process as beneficial in a new way. Obviously, a single event is limited to one topic in one day in one classroom. This cannot create a lifelong value. However, it is a starting point for the journey of finding literacy to be important. It is a first step in working hard because reading is valuable. If five minutes of concentrated effort paid off in today’s activity, the ethic of hard work in reading activities can be acquired and applied to broader reaches of schooling.

For each lesson you can ask students to show the importance of reading. Have them:

  1. Identify the portion of text they used to answer a question.

  2. Point to a text that was most informative about a character in literature.

  3. Identify a text that enabled them to explain a concept in information text.

  4. Compare what they learned from a text vs. what they learned from a video on the topic.

  5. Contrast the content they learned from reading, writing, or discussing in a lesson.

  6. Explain how the content of a text could help them in an out-of-school situation.

Thematic Unit

Thematic units can be taught on many topics. First, you begin with a main theme, or big idea. Next, identify supporting concepts to explain the big idea. Then, identify texts that contain the concepts. Texts should also afford you the opportunities to teach reading strategies, such as concept mapping. In one unit of CORI for Grade 7, the theme is the Diversity of Plants and Animals in Community Interactions. The superordinate idea of the unit is symbiosis, including such forms as mutualism and parasitism. To accentuate the conceptual theme, teachers give students a big question for each week, as well as daily questions related to the week’s big question. This does not preclude student questioning, but sets a frame for the topic. In Week 1, the following four questions were presented on the first four days of instruction:

  1. What are the characteristics of an ecosystem?

  2. How does predation contribute to balance in an ecosystem?

  3. How do different species of animals rely on their environment for feeding?

  4. In what ways do animals adapt to their environment for survival?

To provide resources for literacy in this theme all books are unified around it for the six weeks. Texts for whole class instruction, individual guided reading, and individual books for group projects are selected to be theme relevant. Strategies that are taught for comprehension, including summarizing and concept mapping, are placed within the context of the conceptual theme. For example, student summaries represent their reading related to a particular question on a given day. Motivation supports, such as choice, are provided in the context of thematic learning. For example, the teacher may provide a choice for which chapter in a selected book to read on a given day. Students make their selection based on their view of what will enable them to learn about the question of the day and to discuss it effectively with a peer. Thus, motivational support of choice is not global, but is framed by the content question of the day and undergirded by the content learning of yesterday.

Build in the following qualities to your thematic units:

  1. Instructional units have conceptual complexity and duration.

  2. Students learn big ideas of survival, war and peace, discovery, oppression.

  3. Topics persist over days and weeks.

  4. Students write concept maps of pages, chapters, books, and unit.

  5. Connect diverse genre (stories, nonfiction, poems) to each other.

  6. Have overarching guiding questions that link texts.

Teacher Support
Vital to the classroom is the quality of teacher-student relationships. When teachers emphasize positive interpersonal relationships, student motivation increases. Believing that their teachers think they are important, students participate more socially in the classroom (Furrer & Skinner, 2003). According to both teachers and students, the quality of teacher-student relationships enhances engagement (Decker, Dona, & Christenson, 2007). For African American students in particular, collaborative learning environments enhance students’ recall of stories and their desire to participate in similar activities in the future (Dill & Boykin, 2000).

In this line of research, teacher support represents student centeredness of instruction. It contrasts with a domineering or controlling approach by the teacher. Teacher support refers to students’ perceptions of teacher involvement (warmth, knowledge, and dependability), and classroom structure (clarity of goals and expectations) (Skinner, Kindermann, & Furrer, 2009). Furrer and Skinner (2003) found that teacher support was associated with increases in students’ engagement in classroom activities from fall to spring for students in grades 4 to 7. Students’ engagement referred to their self-reported effort, attention, and persistence while participating in classroom learning activities. In contrast, students’ behavioral disaffection decreased from fall to spring as a consequence of teacher support. This decrease consisted of a reduction in students’ lack of effort or withdrawal from learning activities. Although teacher support is not a specific practice, but rather a broad attribute that may be associated with a number of specific practices such as assuring success, providing relevance, offering choices, arranging collaborations, and providing themes for learning, it was strongly associated with students’ increases in behavioral engagement and decreases in behavioral disaffection.

The findings on the favorable effects of emotional support range from Grade 1 (Hamre & Pianta, 2005) to college classrooms (Filaka & Sheldon, 2008). For example, teacher support was found to increase competence in reading words and passages in the middle of first grade, especially for at-risk students. In fact, the benefits of emotional support were stronger than the benefits of excellent pedagogy for cognitive learning in beginning reading (Hamre & Pianta, 2005).

Social relationships and teacher support in the classroom are pivotal in middle schools. In overviewing the literature on social motivation, Juvonen (2007) stated,

Of school-based social relationships, teacher support is probably the most salient. When students feel supported and respected by their teachers they are presumed to comply with the expectations and norms set by instructors and engage in the behaviors endorsed by these authority figures. When students lack a bond or do not get along with a teacher, students are presumed to disengage themselves from school-related activities and the institution (p. 200).

She continues, “Perceptions of positive teacher regard at seventh grade have been shown to predict improved academic competence, mental health, and higher academic values in eighth grade” (p. 200). Likewise, lack of sense of belonging in school frequently predicts adolescents’ dropout rates (Finn & Rock, 1997).

Teacher caring is central to teacher support (Wentzel, 2009). Students who say, “The teacher cares about me” are higher achievers than those who do not feel that the teacher cares. Teachers can learn the practices we have presented, which are ways of expressing that they care about students.

Integration of Motivational Practices

It is entirely possible to integrate multiple motivation practices into a coherent teaching unit. Following are two examples, one at the elementary level and one at the primary level.

We and our colleagues have examined how Concept-Oriented Reading Instruction (CORI) influences third, fourth, fifth, and seventh grade students’ reading comprehension and engagement in reading (Guthrie et al., 2004). CORI includes the classroom practices of providing relevance, choices, collaboration, leveled texts, and thematic units. This cluster of practices is designed to increase intrinsic motivation, self-efficacy, social motivation, and valuing for reading (Guthrie, Wigfield, & Perencevich, 2004). Guthrie, McRae, and Klauda (2007) performed a meta-analysis of CORI’s effects across 11 experiments with 75 effect sizes. CORI was found to surpass comparison treatments in increasing students’ competence according to standardized tests of reading comprehension, 2-day reading and writing tasks, passage comprehension, reading fluency, and word recognition. CORI also fostered students’ reading motivation and engagement in reading. This confirms that an integrated cluster of motivational practices over extended time can increase students’ performance on educationally significant measures of reading comprehension. The bulk of the evidence shows that CORI impacted reading comprehension outcomes, although one study also showed that this instructional effect was mediated by behavioral engagement (Wigfield et al., 2008; see further discussion below). Furthermore, these effects were confirmed by investigators who showed that an intervention that added motivational supports to instruction in self-regulation increased students’ self-regulated reading more effectively than instruction that did not include motivational practices (Souvignier & Mokhlesgerami, 2006).

Integration is also shown to be effective at the primary level. For example, in Hamre and Pianta’s (2005) study of reading instruction in kindergarten, classroom quality was assessed in terms of teachers’ provision of effective instruction while building warm, emotional connections with students, which included support for students’ self-regulation, a balance of activities for children’s diverse skill levels, and sensitivity to students’ interests. Classrooms with high global quality induced high levels of student behavioral engagement, which consisted of attending to tasks, completing reading activities, following rules, persisting in the face of difficulty, and exercising control. Students with high behavioral engagement showed higher gains in reading competencies than students with lower behavioral engagement and lower global quality of instruction (Ponitz, Rimm-Kaufman, Grimm, & Curby, 2009). What motivating teachers were doing was being responsive to students’ interests (reading a story the students preferred), providing abundant praise, giving students time to complete their work, showing their appreciation for individual students, and expressing confidence in students’ ability to learn. At the same time, motivating teachers were not too teacher-centered, authoritative, or controlling.

Instructional practices may decrease motivation.

Some instructional practices are demotivating for students. For example, negative feedback from teachers may be devaluing for students. When teachers consistently scold or make students feel badly for having the wrong answers, students respond by devaluing academic work, as indicated by their expressions that they do not care about learning or grades (Strambler & Weinstein, 2010). In addition, students who experience no choices or limited choices in reading in Language Arts or Science classes show losses of intrinsic motivation for reading. Likewise, when books are extremely difficult to read, students report declines in self-efficacy for reading. When books are irrelevant, as indicated by students’ failure to connect the content to their prior knowledge or their life experiences, they report low levels of interest or dedication to reading (Mason-Signh & Guthrie, 2012).

What this shows is that classroom practices are swords that cut in two directions. Affirming practices may foster motivational growth. But undermining practices, such as negative feedback, controlling instruction, and irrelevance may generate losses in motivation. In sum, almost all teaching practices have either positive or negative effects on motivation. Effective teachers can use and sustain the positive ones outlined in this chapter.

Concluding reflections—

Every teacher is a motivator. Teachers empower students to become active with print. Otherwise reading never happens. On the other side of the coin, motivating students to their fullest is rare. Not often do teachers put motivation first. But when they do, students become interested, confident and dedicated. And almost every teacher is rewarded by having motivated readers.

Engagement in this Chapter

  1. Reflection. To grapple with the ideas in this chapter, first make an appraisal of where you are. Many teachers support motivation—some more than others. Where are you? For each motivational practice, such as providing relevance, ask the following questions. You might do it alone or in a grade level school team. Take a few notes on each question and share your perceptions. Almost certainly, you, especially along with your colleagues, can take steps forward.

          1. Do I do this practice already?

          2. How often do I do this?

          3. When do I do this?

          4. How well does it work?

          5. How can I do this more?

          6. How can I do this better?

          7. How can I connect this practice to my teaching more deeply?

  1. Appraisal. To understand how your students experience your classroom, ask them. You can give a brief questionnaire with statements such as, “The teacher relates the reading to my interests.” You may be surprised at what they say. Some questionnaires for students and teachers are available in the Appendix of Engaging Adolescents in Reading (Guthrie, 2008). They are easily used or adapted for students in grades 3 to 12.

  2. Application. Select a lesson coming up in the next week. Ask yourself, “What choice am I going to give during the lesson?” Give that small choice. Then compare how the lesson went with a lesson where you did not give any choice. How did the students respond? Do this application for each motivational practice including relevance and so on. Then enrich your lessons by giving two motivation supports, say choice and relevance, in the same lesson. How do your students respond, and how can you improve those supports? Your students will become a bit more dedicated to reading. Build momentum.


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