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Motivation and Reading

Creating early, engaged learners

Motivation is often cited as an important factor in students' becoming proficient readers. How does student motivation affect the development of reading skills? And what can teachers do to tap into students' motivation to read? The research on reading motivation is not robust enough to fully answer these questions, but recent studies offer intriguing insights.

Young Children


Paul Morgan and Douglas Fuchs (2007) draw on a large body of research to explain the importance of early reading experiences. "Children who read frequently grow to become skillful readers," they write. "Given sufficient print resources, how often a child reads is explained by two factors"- early success and motivation. The cycle of poor readers becoming poorer readers seems to begin as early as first grade, according to some studies (Morgan, Fuchs, Compton, Cordray, & Fuchs, in press). For students who don't master reading skills early, reading may become a painful experience. As a result, they may pass up opportunities for practice, putting themselves even further behind successful, motivated readers, who may be reading as much as three times more on their own time (Wigfield & Guthrie, 1997; Powell-Brown, 2006).

In 2007 Morgan and Fuchs reviewed the research on young children's reading motivation. They focused on two well-established indicators: competency beliefs (children's beliefs about their ability to read) and goal orientation (whether and why children want to be good readers). After examining 15 studies that met their criteria for relevance and rigor, the professors found that reading skills and motivation correlate with and influence one another over time, but there was not enough evidence to say that one caused the other. Morgan and Fuchs note that motivation is a multidimensional factor that is hard to measure. They recommend targeting both reading skills and motivation.

The need to address both is supported by recent analyses. The National Reading Panel reported in 2000 that systematic phonics instruction can benefit K6 students and children with reading difficulties. However, the panel lamented that "few if any studies have investigated the contribution of motivation to the effectiveness of phonics programs." A 2004 study of five popular remedial reading programs indicated that the impact of motivation on struggling readers seemed to be largely ignored by the program developers (Quick & Schwanenflugel, 2004).



As students enter middle school, their motivation to read begins to decline (Aarnoutse & Schellings, 2003). To gain insights, a team of researchers led by Sharon Pitcher (2007) adapted the Motivation to Read Profile for use with adolescent readers. Originally developed to assess the value elementary school students put on reading and their self-concept as a reader, it consists of a survey and a conversational interview. They administered it to 384 students in schools across the United States and interviewed 100 of the students. Discrepancies between survey and interview responses led to an intriguing discovery-teens who spent hours each week reading online content did not count these activities as "reading." One student marked on his survey that he never read a book but mentioned during the interview that he read online magazines, hobby books, and stories written by friends. This discovery prompted the researchers to suggest that educators might improve students' motivation to read academic content by incorporating into classroom instruction the multiple literacies that students engage in outside of school.

Not surprisingly, choice emerged in the survey and interviews as a motivational factor. Numerous studies have found that students value having a say about reading materials, topics, and related assignments (e.g., Ivey & Broaddus, 2001). Survey results also suggest that secondary teachers should model reading enjoyment, use engaging activities such as literature circles and book clubs, and make varied reading materials accessible. These ideas are supported by other research (see Guthrie, 2001).

No Quick Fix

Researcher John Guthrie (2001) cautions that there is no "quick fix" for increasing long-term reading motivation and engagement. His review of the research helped identify 10 elements that "set the stage" for engagement and motivation in reading: conceptual orientation, real-world instruction, autonomy support (providing students with meaningful choices), interesting texts, strategy instruction, collaborative learning, teacher involvement (e.g., interest in student knowledge, preferences, and abilities), appropriate rewards and specific praise, and evaluation aligned with instructional purposes.

Carla Thomas McClure is a staff writer at Edvantia, a nonprofit education research and development organization ( For references used in this article, go to