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Reading Motivation: What the Research Says

Researchers have identified a number of factors important to reading motivation including self-concept and value of reading, choice; time spent talking about books, types of text available, and the use of incentives.

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Research confirms that student motivation is a key factor in successful reading. However, in order to effectively support reading motivation in the classroom, it is helpful to consider the research on reading motivation and engagement.

Self-efficacy studies

Albert Bandura (1986) suggests that motivation (or a lack thereof) is the result of an individual’s self-efficacy related to a task. Bandura defines self-efficacy as the beliefs we have about ourselves that cause us to make choices, put forth effort, and persist in the face of difficulty. And for help in the classroom, Bandura notes that one of the most powerful sources of self-efficacy is mastery experience.

Mastery experience occurs when a child evaluates his or her own competence after learning and believes their efforts have been successful. Mastery experiences increase confidence and willingness to try similar and more challenging tasks. In addition, studies have also found that social experiences play a powerful role in the development of self-efficacy. The beliefs and behaviors held by teachers and peers are important in building the self-efficacy of all children in the classroom.

Reading motivation research

Researchers have identified a number of factors important to reading motivation including self-concept and value of reading, choice; time spent talking about books, types of text available, and the use of incentives.

Students’ self-concepts and the value they place on reading are critical to their success (Gambrell, Palmer, Coddling, and Mazzoni, 1996). And in a recent study of self- concept about reading and value of reading, gender differences were identified as early as third grade. Marinak and Gambrell (2007) found that though third grade boys are equally as self- confident as girls about their reading, they self- report valuing reading less than girls.

Choice is widely acknowledged as a method for enhancing motivation. Allowing young children to make even a minimal task choice increased learning from the task and enhanced subsequent interest in the activity (Cordova & Lepper, 1996; Iyengar & Lepper, 1999). Worthy and McKool (1996) found that allowing students to make choices about their reading material increased the likelihood that they would engage more in reading. In addition, Guthrie and Wigfield (2000) suggest that providing genuine student choices increases effort and commitment to reading.

Read-aloud and discussion are effective ways to engage in mastery modeling. Read-aloud allows teachers to model important reading strategies and behaviors. According to McGee & Richgels (2003), teacher read alouds can be used to promote deeper understanding and interpretation of text; allow children to take an active role in understanding text; and prompt children to begin using mental activities that will become automatic as they begin reading independently. And, according to Gambrell (1996), small group discussions invite children into active learning. When students engage in small group discussions, they have more opportunities to speak, interact, and exchange points of view than are afforded in other talk structures.

Providing balanced book collections at all grade levels is vital to engagement during both reading instruction and self-selection. This work suggests that a balanced collection includes lots of informational titles and a variety of print materials. Pappas (1993) found that children as young as kindergarten showed a preference for informational text and Mohr (2006) noted that nonfiction books were the overwhelming choice of first grade students. In addition, Marinak and Gambrell (2007) found that third grade boys and girls valued reading newspapers and magazines as well as books.

Many schools, teachers and parent organizations use rewards in their reading programs. (Fawson & Fawson, 1994). And though the use of such rewards continues to be debated, a recent study indicates that carefully selected rewards can support and not undermine reading motivation. Marinak and Gambrell (2008) found support for the reward proximity hypothesis (Gambrell, 1996). Specifically, students who were given a book (proximal reward) were more motivated to engage in subsequent reading than the students that received a token (less proximal reward).

A number of practical ideas for creating literacy-rich and motivating classrooms can be drawn from the research in self-efficacy and reading motivation. These simple but transformative suggestions can be found in Simple Practices to Nurture the Motivation to Read.

About the authors

Linda B. Gambrell is Distinguished Professor of Education in the Eugene T. Moore School of Education at Clemson University. She is a former 3rd and 5th grade teacher and reading specialist. Dr. Gambrell served as president of the International Reading Association from 2007-2008, and has served as an elected member of the National Reading Conference and the College Reading Association. In 2004 she was inducted into the Reading Hall of Fame. Her major research interests are in the areas of reading comprehension strategy instruction, literacy motivation, and the role of discussion in teaching and learning.

Dr. Barbara Marinak is Assistant Professor of Education and Graduate Program Coordinator for Literacy at Penn State Harrisburg. Prior to joining the faculty at Penn State, Dr. Marinak spent over twenty years as a public school educator. Her positions included reading consultant, reading supervisor, elementary curriculum supervisor, and acting superintendent. Dr. Marinak’s research interests include informational text, reading motivation, and the observation and supervision of literacy instruction.

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