Motivating Students to Read Issues and Practices

by Deborah Reed
Published in SEDL Letter Volume XVll, Number 1, June 2005, Reaching Our Reading Goals

Photo of a girl reading a book.Most teachers would love to help students make a daily habit of reading across a wide variety of texts, and recent survey research indicates there is a need for students to do so. Only about 30–40 percent of fourth-, eighth-, and twelfth-grade students are reading at or above the proficient level on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) tests (Donahue, Daane, & Grigg, 2003). Reading at this level means that students can comprehend subject-matter material and apply appropriate analytical skills or relate to real-world situations. Unfortunately, performance on the NAEP has remained relatively stagnant over the test's 30-year history, while literacy demands have been steadily increasing. Less than half of the adult labor force is able to perform at a literacy level required for most jobs in the current labor market, according to an analysis of data collected in two adult literacy surveys (Sum, Kirsch, & Taggart, 2002).

The latter study and another literacy survey, Reading at Risk (National Endowment for the Arts, 2004), highlight the challenge of aliteracy and the large number of people it includes. Aliterate students and adults can read but either are not able to read with comprehension or choose not to read. Cramer and Castle (1994) report that best estimates indicate "only about 20 percent of adults who are able to read do so voluntarily with any degree of regularity."

Students with high interest in a topic might be able to read more difficult material than an ability test might indicate.

Fostering the ability and inclination of students to read more is an important instructional goal for a number of reasons. Many studies have shown a correlation between the amount of time students spend reading and the variety of texts they read with greater reading success and vocabulary growth (Anderson & Nagy, 1992; Biemiller 1977–1978; Juel, 1988; Krashen, 1989; Taylor, Pearson, Clark, & Walpole, 1999; Nagy & Anderson, 1984; Cunningham & Stanovich, 1998). Moreover, fluency and automaticity are likely to improve with more practice (Cunningham & Stanovich, 1998; National Reading Panel, 2000; Snow, Burns, & Griffin, 1998), which in turn facilitates comprehension. In short, a well-read student is typically a successful student.

Independent Reading Time

Good readers tend to be intrinsically motivated to read, and the amount of time they spend reading is highly correlated with their reading proficiency and overall academic success across all subject areas. Students who are less motivated to read, and who spend less time practicing their reading skills, typically lag behind their peers and often experience frustrating academic difficulties.

Motivation to read independently appears to be a key component of reading success and should be a goal of reading instruction. Teachers are not merely responsible for providing instruction in the mechanics of text and reading, they also bear responsibility for instilling in all students a desire to read independently from a variety of sources. Although research has provided a wealth of information to inform instruction on the mechanics of text, there are few findings from well-designed, experimental research studies to guide educators in motivating students to spend a great deal of time reading widely and independently.

In an attempt to simply get students to read more, many teachers have carved out blocks of uninterrupted class time for students to practice reading independently. This approach, sometimes known by the acronym SSR (Sustained Silent Reading) or DEAR (Drop Everything And Read), seems intuitively appropriate. While SSR and DEAR clearly communicate the value schools attach to reading and serve to alleviate the surface-level problem of students spending too little time practicing, there are other factors to consider beyond merely providing this basic encouragement for students to read more.

Providing time for silent reading does not, after all, guarantee that students will legitimately engage in reading or appropriately select materials to stimulate their growth (Kuhn & Stahl, 2003). Even students who are proficient, motivated readers often do not spend the allocated time actually engaging in reading activities. But students for whom the task of reading is too difficult or tedious, those for whom practice is most crucial, also frequently and deliberately engage in avoidance behaviors, thereby denying themselves any benefit that might follow from unguided, independent reading time. Even when students do conscientiously spend this time practicing reading, Shanahan (2002) cautions they may still be reinforcing bad habits. Teachers have no way of knowing or intervening when students make errors while reading silently, so the students may continually practice and habituate mistakes.

Several studies indicate a correlation between students' development of reading skills and their teachers' connection of free reading time with direct instruction in reading strategies or with reading extension activities (Elley & Mangubhai, 1983; Lawson, 1968; Wiesendanger & Birlem, 1984) but most of the experimental research—including the studies deemed the best designed and strongest by the National Reading Panel—found no clear benefit from devoting classroom time to unguided, silent reading (National Reading Panel, 2000). Every minute with a good teacher is precious to a struggling reader, and to the extent that independent practice time cuts into more effective instructional time, it can actually undermine reading success.

Intrinsic Versus Extrinsic Motivation

Many schools have turned to more formalized reading programs designed to encourage independent, self-paced reading while attempting to provide more structure and accountability than the basic sustained silent reading initiatives. These programs contain mechanisms to help students both select appropriate materials and be accountable for reading them with comprehension.

In one popular reading program, for example, students first take an interactive vocabulary test that identifies their reading levels and the books that are at this designated reading level. Students are generally discouraged from checking out books above or below the reading level the program has defined for them; thus, at least in theory, students are only reading material that is challenging but still within their grasp. After finishing a book, students take an objective test over the material. This is intended to provide some measure of accountability for actually reading and understanding the book, as well as an ongoing means of monitoring their established difficulty range.

Students who struggle with reading need consistent feedback on their efforts, regardless of their achievement.

These programs have been referred to as reading management tools since a computer can keep track of the amount of reading each student does and, presumably, help each student develop motivation to read more through a sense of competition or by simply quantifying achievement. However, this approach to motivation can be problematic. Students who are motivated by competitions are apt to show a high degree of reading avoidance, particularly for more difficult reading tasks or reading outside of school requirements (Baker & Wigfield, 1999; Nicholls, Cheung, Lauer, & Patashnick, 1989; Wigfield & Guthrie, 1997). There is also a danger that quantifying reading performance in this way will instigate or perpetuate a system of extrinsic rewards. For example, some schools offer pizza parties or other prizes to students who read a predetermined number of pages or books. Extrinsic rewards, particularly tangible rewards like pizza parties, actually can reduce internal motivations to read, as Cameron and Pierce (1994) found in their meta-analysis of 96 experimental studies related to intrinsic motivation. Studies have shown that students who are offered extrinsic rewards often become dependent on the rewards for their motivation, subsequently need more prodding and cajoling to read, and read less frequently when the reward is discontinued. Conversely, a correlation has been found between students who have increased internal motivation to read and the frequency and breadth of their reading (Guthrie et al., 1998). Although extrinsic motivators cannot be completely avoided in schools because grades must be assigned to work, the nontangible incentives of teacher praise and constructive feedback have proven more motivational than the tangible rewards (Cameron & Pierce, 1994; Deci, 1971; Lepper & Cordova, 1992). Students who struggle with reading need consistent and targeted feedback on their efforts, whatever their level of achievement.

Matching Readers with Appropriate Reading Material

As discussed in the previous section, programs or reading management tools that limit the selection of reading materials do so with the best of intentions. Without guidance, poor readers tend to overestimate their ability to read challenging text and usually select text that is beyond their independent reading level. So there is good cause for restricting students to a selection of leveled text for independent reading. However, as Renninger (1992) found, interest in the reading material enhances comprehension; therefore, students with high interest in a topic might be able to read more difficult material than an ability test might indicate. Conversely, students with little interest in a topic may demonstrate low comprehension of material that should be at an independent reading level for them. Hence, text leveling is not as formulaic as some reading programs suggest, and often readers are needlessly prohibited from reading high-interest material deemed too difficult for them to read independently.

Reading motivation is linked to setting goals and working toward those goals in an active, sustained manner (Pintrich & Schunk, 1996; Mosenthal, 1999). However, using the difficulty or reading level of a book, the number of words a book contains, or a student's performance on an objective comprehension test to calculate "points" in a competitive system does not accurately reflect progress and does little to inspire students. Subjected to this approach, a low-ability student who is working very hard will still not achieve a point score equivalent to her or his high-ability counterpart. Without acknowledging such a student's effort, it is easy to see why she or he would become discouraged and avoid further engagement in reading. Point systems have not proven to alleviate the disparity in reading practice times. In one study of a competitive reading program, participant readers in the top 5 percent of ability levels read 144 times more than those in the bottom 5 percent (Paul, 1996). Hence, neither reading volume nor motivation was positively impacted for those students most in need.

There is no simple method teachers can use to spur students to read more. Threats of failure or retention are as ineffective as extrinsic rewards (like points) in that they manufacture compliance rather than result in engagement. Instead, teachers may want to take suggestions from researchers and from the standards produced by the National Council of Teachers of English and the International Reading Association to foster motivation through a variety of more subtle behaviors, such as modeling reading, creating print-rich environments, encouraging word play, helping students set clear and specific goals, providing effective feedback on their efforts, and teaching self-regulation strategies (Langer, 1999; Moore, Bean, Birdyshaw, & Rycik, 1999; National Council of Teachers of English and International Reading Association, 1996; National Research Council, 1998).

Based on their work developing principles for creating a classroom conducive to increasing motivation and implementing those principles in classrooms (using five experimental classrooms and five control classrooms), Guthrie and Alao (1997) suggest teachers may enhance motivation by

  • using conceptual themes,
  • providing real-world experiences and personal connections, and
  • encouraging collaboration and discussion among students.

Teachers can also provide students with a diverse selection of texts from which to choose. Texts should be culturally relevant and should target students' different interests and reading levels. This is especially important for struggling adolescent readers, who might need low-level, high-interest books. These books provide comprehensible text with topics more relevant to the adolescent, such as those that target differing cultures; deal with hardships or crises, death, and heroism; or include modern-day humor. Literature for teens should also target their stages of literary appreciation, which might include living vicariously though the book character's life, seeing characters who resemble themselves, or confronting philosophical issues of life (Carlsen, 1974; Early, 1960).

Ultimately, what motivates students to spend a lot of time reading are the same things that motivate people everywhere to engage in certain behaviors: They see a real-world value in the behavior, it provides pleasure, it is a means to a worthy end, or all three. Extrinsic controls may give the illusion of increased reading motivation, but it is fleeting at best. To be successful readers, students must develop a desire to spend their own time outside of school reading an hour or two a day. That kind of desire cannot be cultivated through any one simple program or approach. Instead, teachers need to constantly, subtly, creatively invite children into the world of literacy.

Tips for Motivating Students

Here are suggestions for motivating students that author Deborah Reed has used and drawn from numerous sources.

  • Offer students choice in their reading materials.
  • Arouse curiosity of books by previewing them with students, activating students' prior knowledge, connecting the book to students' lives or to popular culture, and helping students make predictions about possible outcomes.
  • Allow students to respond to their reading through discussion with both peers and adults, through reflective writing, or both.
  • Frequently and explicitly model reading, responding, and monitoring comprehension.
  • Reduce the number of activities associated with the book to focus more on the reading itself and foster an aesthetic stance (as opposed to an efferent stance where students read to carry away information).

References and Further Reading

  • Anderson, R. C., & Nagy, W. (1992). The vocabulary conundrum. American Educator, 16(4), 14–18, 44–47.
  • Baker, L., & Wigfield, A. (1999). Dimensions of children's motivation for reading and their relations to reading activity and reading achievement. Reading Research Quarterly, 34, 452–477.
  • Biemiller, A. (1977–1978). Relationships between oral reading rates for letters, words, and simple text in the development of reading achievement. Reading Research Quarterly, 13, 223–253.
  • Cameron, J., & Pierce, W. D. (1994). Reinforcement, reward, and intrinsic motivation: A meta-analysis. Review of Educational Research, 64, 363–423.
  • Carlsen, G. R. (1974). Literature is. English Journal, 63, 23-27.
  • Cramer, E. H., & Castle, M. (1994). Developing lifelong readers. In E. H. Cramer & M. Castle (Eds.), Fostering the love of reading: The affective domain in reading education (pp. 3–12). Newark, DE: International Reading Association.
  • Cunningham, A. E., & Stanovich, K. E., (1998). What reading does for the mind. American Educator, 22, 8–15.
  • Deci, E. L. (1971). Effects of externally mediated rewards on intrinsic motivation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 18, 105–115.
  • Donahue, P. L., Daane, M. C., & Grigg, W. S. (2003). The nation's report card: Reading highlights 2003, NCES 2004–452. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education. Institute for Education Sciences, National Center for Education Statistics.
  • Early, M. (1960). Stages of growth in literary appreciation. English Journal, 49, 161-167.
  • Elley, W. B., & Mangubhai, F. (1983). The impact of reading on second language learning. Reading Research Quarterly, 19, 53–67.
  • Gambrell, L. B., & Marinak, B.A . (1997). Incentives and intrinsic motivation to read. In J. T. Guthrie & Wigfi eld, A. (Eds.), Reading engagement: Motivating readers through integrated instruction (pp. 205–217). Newark, DE: International Reading Association.
  • Guthrie, J. T., & Alao, S. (1997). Designing contexts to increase motivations for reading. Educational Psychologist, 32 (2), 95–105.
  • Guthrie, J. T., Van Meter, P., Hancock, G. R., Alao, S., Anderson, E., & McCann, A. (1998). Does concept-oriented reading instruction increase strategy use and conceptual learning from text? Journal of Educational Psychology, 90 (2), 261–278.
  • Guthrie, J. T., Wigfi eld, A., and VonSecker, C. (2000). Effects of integrated instruction on motivation and strategy use in reading. Journal of Educational Psychology, 92, 331–341.
  • Juel, C. (1988). Learning to read and write: A longitudinal study of fifty-four children from first through fourth grades. Journal of Educational Psychology, 80, 437–447.
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  • Kuhn, M. R., & Stahl, S. A. (2003). Fluency: A review of developmental and remedial practices. Journal of Educational Psychology, 95, 3–21.
  • Langer, J. A. (1999). Beating the odds: Teaching middle and high school students to read and write well (CELA Research Rep. No. 1204) [Online]. Albany, NY: National Research Center on English Language Learning and Achievement. Retrieved May 18, 2005 from
  • Lawson, H. D. (1968). Effects of free reading on the reading achievement of sixth-grade pupils. In J.A. Figurel (Ed.), Forging ahead in reading, (pp. 501–504). Newark, DE: International Reading Association.
  • Lepper, M. R., & Cordova, D. I. (1992). A desire to be taught: Instructional consequences of intrinsic motivation. Motivation and Emotion, 16, 187–208.
  • Moore, D. W., Bean, T. W., Birdyshaw, D., & Rycik, J. A. (1999). Adolescent literacy: A position statement. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 43, 97–112.
  • Mosenthal, P. B. (1999). Understanding engagement: Historical and political contexts. In J. T. Guthrie & D. E. Alvermann (Eds.), Engaged reading: Processes, practices, and policy implications (pp. 1–16). New York: Teachers College Press.
  • Nagy, W., & Anderson, R. C. (1984). How many words are there in printed school English? Reading Research Quarterly, 19, 304–330.
  • National Research Council. (1998). Preventing reading difficulties in young children [Electronic version]. Washington, DC: National Academy of Sciences, National Research Council. Retrieved November 24, 2004, at
  • Nicholls, J. G., Cheung, P., Lauer, J., & Patashnick, M. (1989). Individual differences in academic motivation: Perceived ability, goals, beliefs, and values. Learning and Individual Differences, 1, 63–84.
  • Paul, T. D. (1996). Patterns of reading practice. Madison, WI: Institute for Academic Excellence.
  • Pintrich, P. R., & Schunk, D. H. (1996). Motivation in education: Theory, research, and application. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
  • Renninger, K. A. (1992). Individual interest and development: Implications for theory and practice. In K. A. Renninger, S. Hidi, & A. Krapp (Eds.), The role of interest in learning and development (pp. 361–396). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.
  • Sanders, B. (1994). A is for ox. New York: Vintage Books
  • Shanahan, T. (2002, November). A sin of the second kind: The neglect of fluency instruction and what we can do about it. PowerPoint presentation at A Focus on Fluency Forum, San Francisco, CA. Retrieved November 24, 2004, from
  • Skinner, B. F. (1953). Science and human behavior. New York: Free Press. Sum, A., Kirsch, I., & Taggart, R. (2002). The Twin Challenges of Mediocrity and Inequality: Literacy in the U.S. from an International Perspective. Princeton, NJ: Educational Testing Service.
  • Snow, C. E., Burns, M. S., & Griffin, P. (Eds.) (1998). Preventing reading difficulties in young children. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.
  • Sweet, A. P. (1997). Teacher perceptions of student motivation and their relation to literacy learning. In J. T. Guthrie & A. Wigfield (Eds.), Reading engagement: Motivating readers through integrated instruction (pp. 86–101). Newark, DE: International Reading Association.
  • Taylor, B. M., Pearson, P. D., Clark, K. E., & Walpole, S. (1999). Beating the odds in teaching all children to read. (CIERA Rep. No. 2-006). Ann Arbor, MI: Center for Improvement of Early Reading Achievement.
  • Wiesendanger, K. D., & Birlem, E. D. (1984). The effectiveness of SSR: An overview of the research. Reading Horizons, 24, 197–201.
  • Wigfield, A., & Guthrie, J. T. (1997). Relations of children's motivation for reading to the amount and breadth of their reading. Journal of Educational Psychology, 89, 420–432.

Deborah Reed was a SEDL program associate who worked with SEDL's Regional Educational Laboratory intensive sites to improve reading instruction and performance. A former high school English teacher, she was chair of the reading department at Harlandale High School in San Antonio, Texas.

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