February 3, 2016

Cure Unmotivated Readers

We know the benefits of reading, so let's challenge ourselves to make reading a fun experience for learners. If something is fun, adults are more likely to do it... So, why wouldn't this be true for children as well?

Intrinsic Motivation

Though unequivocal differences exist, adults and children learn in similar ways. Both groups must experience motivation to learn. Whereas adults are more motivated by responsibility to family and career, young readers are almost entirely driven by intrinsic motivation. This refers to the "WHY" behind what we do and how we do it.

Read with purpose.
Setting explicit goals is one way to promote intrinsic motivation. Though effecting intrinsic (or individual) motivation seems a futile endeavor, research on human nature helps us create goals whereby learners choose to do the "heavy lifting". 

Bringing your child's reading goals into focus is well worth the effort. Get to know the child. Learn what drives them to take action. Keep reading to learn how...

Research on Reading

Bring goals into focus.
Jeremy's teacher suggests that he read more often to build vocabulary and improve comprehension. Following a conversation with Jeremy, you learn he likes cars. He likes custom cars with "pimped out" add-ons, engines, and paint jobs. Your first thought is to buy a book about "pimped out" cars, and wait for his grades to improve.

However, a more effective approach involves setting explicit reading goals whereby Jeremy has input, attainment is uncertain, and short-term tasks are identified. To facilitate intrinsic motivation, these three criteria are integral:

  1. Involve the student.
  2. Ensure goals are not too easy and not too hard.
  3. Develop a hierarchical plan with phases.

What do we know about human nature?
Learners are more likely to take ownership of a project if they have a say in how it unfolds. This first criteria is straightforward. However, we don't want to release children to their own devices without providing guidance.

Guidance with setting goals should be data-driven. That's to say, parents and educators want to examine performance data and set a goal that's neither too hard nor too easy. Human nature prompts us to avoid overly difficult and ridiculously easy tasks. The brain wants to solve a problem or resolve inconsistencies. As such, goal attainment should be probable, yet uncertain in order to achieve optimal levels of intrinsic motivation.

We're also hard-wired for immediate gratification. Since development of reading skill is a life-long process, we increase intrinsic motivation to read by emphasizing the short-term. An ideal approach leverages hierarchical goal systems to demonstrate how short-term tasks relate to a long-term goal. In this way, children visualize how puzzle pieces fit together to form the bigger picture.

Make reading fun

How do we leverage goal-setting to make reading fun?
Jeremy's explicit reading goals as reported by the classroom teacher are to (a) build vocabulary and (b) improve comprehension. These are long-term goals. Let's transform the second goal into one that makes learning fun: improve comprehension.

First, we need input from Jeremy. What are Jeremy's ideas for building vocabulary? Depending on his age, he may have little to offer initially. Don't fret. Do research. Ask Jeremy to offer feedback on comprehension practice completed in class; observe his behavior at home for clues about activities that keep his attention.

Let's say Jeremy likes drawing or computer activities, so you challenge him to make comic strips that summarize each chapter of Cars on the Move. With this approach, Jeremy looks forward to reading about an enjoyable topic and drawing comic strips or building them online.

To recap... 

  1. We involved Jeremy in developing an explicit, reading comprehension goal. 
  2. Since he has the skill (but has not produced comic strips as summaries), it's reasonable to conclude attainment is uncertain. 
  3. Comic strips are to be created for each chapter (rather than after reading the 24-page book), so we addressed the need for instant gratification. 
As with implementing any plan of action, remain flexible. Adjust. You may find it's better to create one comic strip frame every few pages. It may be ideal to switch from creating digital comic strips to drawing them by hand. Jeremy may suggest a different summary activity altogether.

Jackson Education Support promotes intrinsic motivation by involving students in setting challenging goals. Personalized learning plans leverage student interests to improve academic performance.

Access a more recently peer-reviewed publication on this topic here.