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Teacher Practices that Impact Reading Motivation

Using Concept-Oriented Reading Instruction (CORI) or practices to encourage engagement, educators can advance the breadth and depth of students’ reading by explicitly and systematically nourishing students’ motivations as readers.

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Almost all agree that some amount of reading is vital to becoming a good reader. Expertise does not arise without active participation. Some educators would advocate that the best way to become a proficient reader is by reading widely and frequently. But other educators suggest that gaining proficiency may not be so simple for many students who may need more contextual support.

Contextual support is extremely valuable for gaining reading proficiency, but we are suggesting that, while explicit instruction and appropriate texts are valuable, an often overlooked factor is motivational support. We propose that when the classroom encourages the powerful motivations for reading, students acquire proficiency steadily and predictably.

Intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation

When students read a passage or a book, they usually have a reason for doing it. Likewise when they avoid reading a text that they may be expected to read, they usually have a reason for their resistance. The most prominent reason for recreational reading is “I enjoy it.” This reason refers to interest or intrinsic motivation, which means doing something for its own sake, and these motivations are internal to the student.

Students who consistently read for their own interest are often quite competent and are usually highly achieving readers. Wigfield and Guthrie (1997) documented that students who are intrinsically motivated spend 300% more time reading than students who have low intrinsic motivation for reading. Compared to 10 other motivations, intrinsic motivation for reading was most highly associated with whether or not students read widely and frequently on their own accord.

Another reason students read in school is external pressure. Often students say that their reason for reading is that “The teacher assigned it,” or “I’ll get in trouble if I don’t.” In this case the reason for reading is external motivation (Ryan & Connell, 1989). This reason is not chosen by the student and this reading will be avoided if possible. An extremely widespread research finding is that internal motivations (interest, intrinsic motivation) are positively correlated with reading achievement, and external motivations (pressure, requirements, rules) are not correlated with reading achievement (Guthrie & Coddington, 2009).

In elementary school external motivations are usually not negatively correlated with reading competence, but in secondary school the external reasons for reading become negatively related to achievement. By secondary school, students who read only for the reason of avoiding getting in trouble, or only to avoid feeling ashamed for failing, show low and declining achievement (Otis, Frederick, & Pelletier, 2005).

The reasons for reading, then, are crucial. Simply reading is insufficient. When internal motivations such as intrinsic motivation and interest energize students’ reading, students interact with text deeply and gain relatively high amounts of knowledge or aesthetic experience (Schiefele, 1999). If students’ reading interests are weak, their competency grows little and their quality as readers diminishes (Guthrie et al., 2007).

Motivation, reading achievement, and CORI

In this article, we present five motivations that have been widely found to foster achievement. In Tables 1 and Table 2 we display these motivations consisting of the following:

  • Interest
  • Ownership
  • Self-efficacy
  • Social interaction
  • Mastery

Associated with these, we share the reasons for reading when the motivation is affirming (positive) and the reasons for avoiding reading when the motivation is undermining (negative).

Most important, there are classroom practices that encourage these five reasons for reading, and each practice can be implemented in the short term or the long term. We present classroom practices that impact internal reasons for reading, according to empirical studies. We draw on a variety of research including studies of Concept-Oriented Reading Instruction (CORI) (Guthrie, McRae, & Klauda, 2007) and a meta-analysis of 22 studies (Guthrie & Humenick, 2004).

What makes CORI and other motivational programs different from traditional reading instruction is the focus on increasing not only reading comprehension, but also reading engagement for students at all reading levels. This is achieved through the explicit inclusion of motivation support in the classroom. In CORI, teachers are trained in five motivational practices, and these are embedded in the curriculum. We will also refer to other research that confirms these practices.

Intrinsic motivation

Students who read for the sheer enjoyment of reading are intrinsically motivated. They are not reading for the external rewards sometimes offered by teachers, such as toys, food, candy, or grades. These students also choose to read during their free time both in and out of school, initiating reading without promises of either reward or punishment. Teachers can implement practices in the classroom that either support or undermine student intrinsic motivation.

Assuring Relevance Builds Intrinsic Motivation

When reading material is made relevant for students, they are more likely to become engaged and competent readers (Vansteenkiste, Lens, & Deci, 2006). When teachers encourage intrinsic motivation in students by making the reading activity in class relevant, students initiate and persist with the reading tasks.

To assure relevance, text and activities should be linked to real life experiences, hands on activities, a conceptual theme, and should be culturally relevant. This is the purpose of hands-on science activities in Concept-Oriented Reading Instruction that we have examined extensively (Guthrie et al., 2007). Activating the background knowledge of students before, during and after reading helps them to make connections between their own lives, their interests, and the text. For example, having a discussion about a child’s recent trip to the city may help get students’ minds set for an upcoming text about urban architecture.

For situations where students have little or no existing background knowledge, hands-on activities help to bring personal experience of a new concept to the class. Dissecting an owl pellet and observing the animal bones, skulls and hair found within is a good way to bring quick personal experience to a text about the survival mechanisms of the owl. These are some of the activities used in Grade 3 implementations of Concept-Oriented Reading Instruction (Guthrie et al., 2004).

This experience provided an enriched foundation for students’ reading of a text about the survival mechanisms of the owl. Students are much more likely to pick up a book about owls and read it with engagement after such a hands-on activity, resulting in effective practice of cognitive reading strategies and gained conceptual knowledge (Guthrie, McRae & Klauda, 2007). The power of hands-on experiences that are tightly linked to book reading activities was shown in one investigation by Guthrie et al. (2006). Reading growth was higher for students in classrooms where there were a larger number of hands-on science activities (tightly linked to books), than in classrooms where fewer activities of this kind occurred.

As well as selecting texts that connect to students’ interests and backgrounds, teachers encourage intrinsic motivation in students by making the reading activity in class relevant for students. Relevance gives them reason to initiate and persist with the reading task. Students are also more likely to be engaged in reading if there is an ongoing, relevant conceptual theme. Teachers who create units of study that focus on some conceptual theme based on student interest are encouraging students to enthusiastically read the expository and narrative texts over a prolonged period of time, sustaining engagement.

In different versions of CORI we have used the conceptual themes of survival of life in wetlands, plant and animal communities, or habitats for birds around the world. For third graders, concepts of survival were explored with subconcepts of feeding, locomotion, predation, defense, reproduction, respiration, communication, niche, competition, and adaptation to habitat (Barbosa & Alexander, 2004).

While providing experiences for students that activate and add to their background knowledge centered on a conceptual theme, teachers must be aware of the cultural backgrounds in their classrooms. This is especially important since studies have found differences in levels of intrinsic motivation between ethnic groups. Unrau and Schlackman (2006) studied urban middle school students’ intrinsic motivation for reading. The middle school was located in Los Angeles, and the majority of the students (about 75%) were Hispanic and 20% were Asian.

The authors found that intrinsic motivation positively related to and predicted reading achievement for the Asian students, but they did not find this result for Hispanic students. With respect to intrinsic motivation, there was also a direct effect on reading achievement for Asian students but not for Hispanic students (Unrau & Schlackman, 2006). It is, therefore, important to consider what cultural values and what opportunities students are presented within the context of their homes and communities.

Including themes and texts from varied parts of the world enriches students’ appreciation for and understanding of their culture as well as cultures outside their own. Teachers who include texts and references to the specific cultures represented in the classroom are more likely to engage students, especially those who do not normally see their backgrounds reflected in mainstream instruction and texts.

This helps to bring some of their own personal background knowledge to the reading activity, thereby increasing comprehension. With repeated experiences of relevance in the classroom, students increase their interest, and their reasons for reading increasingly become enjoyment rather than external pressure.

Non-relevance Undermines Intrinsic Motivation

When teachers do not assure the relevance of text or reading activity, students tend to avoid reading (Assor, Kaplan, & Roth, 2002). For example, students may experience low relevance when there are multiple unrelated topics within one lesson, with few or no links to background knowledge. Teaching texts and topics that have no basis or connection to students’ background knowledge disengages students and gives them a reason not to read the text.

If they are consistently given texts and reading activities that are outside of their own experiences, with no regard to student interest or preferences, there is little reason for students to initiate reading the text, and even less chance that students will become immersed in the reading. Over time, the readings will be seen as tedious chores. Disliking the texts, students will tend to avoid reading (Oldfather, 2002).


Students who feel ownership of their reading are more likely to become engaged in that experience. Too often, teachers create an environment in the classroom that emphasizes the teacher’s authority and ownership of the space, the materials, the curriculum, and by extension, the learning that takes place. Once students are placed at the center of the learning experience and are encouraged to think of reading as their own personal asset, they will see the value of investing their time and energy in reading.

Affording Choices Strengthens Ownership

There are opportunities throughout the school day to offer meaningful choices to students. These choices can be manifested in several ways that effectively give students a sense of ownership that becomes one of the reasons to read.

The main factors to consider when providing choice are whether the choice is meaningful, whether it is relevant to the activity, and whether the level of choice is appropriate for the student. If the choices provided by the teacher meet these criteria, the result is an increased sense of ownership that the student feels towards reading, as well as increased self-regulation and investment in the acquisition of reading strategies. Experiments show that giving choices of what to read or how long to spend on specific texts increases students’ sense of being “in charge” and their time spent reading (Reynolds & Symons, 2001).

For choices to be meaningful, they should be based on students’ personal goals and interests (Assor, Kaplan, & Roth, 2002). A simple but impactful choice is that of text selection.

Students have individual interests and preferences when it comes to text genre, format, and topic. Even if the topic has been set by the teacher, a variety of texts can be offered that appeal to students, giving them a sense of responsibility; once they choose a particular text, there is now a responsibility to read and follow through with that choice. One research team observed teachers in a brief, 10-minute lesson on how to solve a problem. Afterward, they asked students about their motivation and their sense of being in charge of their learning.

Students were demotivated when the teacher did the following: talked constantly, gave detailed directions, asked controlling questions, gave deadlines, criticized students, and gave answers before students finished. In contrast, students reported feeling engaged and motivated for the tasks when teachers did these things: listened, asked what students wanted, provided a rationale for work, picked up on student questions, gave encouraging feedback, and recognized challenges (Reeve & Jang, 2006).

In another study, Vansteenkiste and colleagues (2006) worked with students who were moderately or highly obese. He gave these students a text on nutrition. One group was asked to read this for their own interest and personal benefit. Another group was asked to read quickly to get a high score on a test. The former group, whose personal needs were addressed in the reading, felt a sense of ownership of the text. They comprehended deeply and understood the implications of the text for them. The second group, who read for external goals only, gained superficial knowledge of a few facts, but missed the central messages of the text.

Effective teachers scaffold choices so that at first there are limited options, and eventually, students are making multiple choices within a lesson such as topic and text selection, partner or group selection, or making decisions about the end product. It is vital, however, that students are not given choices that are overwhelming either in breadth or depth. If students have a particularly hard time with decoding text, for example, an appropriate approach would be for the teacher to select the topic and provide two texts from which the student can make a choice.

Students who are more independent could choose from five texts, and especially proficient students might have a choice of topic as well as text. The goal is to move students gradually to the point where they are making multiple choices within a lesson, such as topic and text selection, partner or group selection, and decisions about the end product. If students are expected to make multiple choices initially, they will be overwhelmed and unlikely to accomplish the desired goals of lessons.

In discussion of scaffolding for student choice, Antonio and Guthrie (2008) suggested that teachers consider:

  1. Offering simple choices at first
  2. Helping students practice making good choices
  3. Providing feedback about their choices
  4. Using team choices for younger students
  5. Offering information that clarifies good choices
  6. Affording choices within a task (e.g., ordering, sequence, topic). in effective scaffolding for choice, a teacher initially shares responsibility with the students and gradually shifts the decision-making into the students’ hands

In an interview study with secondary teachers, Flowerday and Schraw (2000) found that teachers offer choices on:

  1. Topic of study
  2. Reading materials
  3. Method of assessment
  4. Order of activities
  5. Social arrangements
  6. Procedural sequences

These teachers said that their purposes were to increase students’ interest and commitment to the learning and reading activities.

In an environment such as CORI, where students are consistently given meaningful options and then guided to make appropriate choices, students subsequently experience an increase in reading comprehension and increased self regulation (Guthrie et al., 2004). This contributes to greater attention to reading tasks and commitment to completion of these tasks. Throughout the process of reading, and once it is complete, students emerge with a sense of ownership of the reading strategies they have learned and practiced, ownership of the knowledge they have attained, and accountability for the further development of the strategies and knowledge that have been developed through their choices.

Excessive Control Undermines Ownership

A teacher who controls every aspect of reading instruction is sending the clear message to students that their opinions and preferences do not matter. When students do not have any options in designing their learning, they become passive spectators to the teacher’s agenda.

As a result, students have no sense of ownership of the strategies being taught, the text used, or the knowledge presented, and have no reason to read that text. When it comes time to share the results of the learning experience, students feel no accountability. For many students, this lack of accountability means a failure to complete tasks and the likelihood that information is forgotten as soon as the experience is over.

Based on observations of classrooms, Assor, Kaplan, Kanat-Maymon, and Roth (2005) found that excessive control included frequent directives, interfering with preferred pace of learning, and suppressing critical thinking. Such over-control resulted in behaviors of anger, anxiety, and resentment toward the teacher among fourth and fifth grade students.

Readers need to establish and maintain a state of flow, or engagement while reading. If readers are constantly interrupted, or made to start and stop at the teacher’s will, there is no feeling of ownership or personal responsibility for the reading assignment (Assor et al., 2005). Students who sense that their opinions and preferences are not heard and not valued are made to feel unimportant and powerless in the classroom.

This can transfer to the view that the reading activity itself is unimportant (Seifert & O’Keefe, 2001). There is no need for maintenance of self-regulation if the teacher is making all of the decisions. Students may follow along passively, without any decision-making processes taking place, and without the benefit of the trial and error involved in developing effective learning processes.

Lack of ownership also diminishes the selection and use of reading strategies (Reynolds & Symons, 2001). When teachers give a trivial choice such as which pen color to use, students know the choice is irrelevant to their learning and provides no connection between that student and reading. Students who are not allowed to make choices about which strategy to use or how to use it are being taught to view reading in a very limited manner, where there is only one way to approach a problem and no alternatives are presented. With little ownership, students’ reasons for reading become external. They may say “The teacher wants it done,” or “I’m only reading because I have to.” These external reasons are likely to lead to superficial use of strategies and lower proficiency in challenging tasks.


Students who believe they can read well are going to read often. When students have high self-efficacy in reading, the potentially daunting task of reading a text that is challenging becomes surmountable. They work towards goals and enjoy the feeling of success that comes with tackling a difficult passage. Self-efficacy in students is related to cognitive engagement and persistence at challenging tasks (Pintrich & De Groot, 1990).

Maintaining Success Improves Self-efficacy

Teachers who support their students’ perception that they are capable of reading well are setting the students up for success as a major reason to become engaged in reading (Wigfield, Guthrie, Tonks, & Perencevich, 2004). When teachers guide students to repeat tasks until they are proficient, students enjoy increases in self-efficacy. Teachers who support student self-efficacy also evaluate student work based on effort and accuracy. This promotes student willingness to place effort on challenging texts and reading tasks, which then has a reciprocal effect of the student experiencing meaningful success.

In classrooms that promote student self-efficacy, the success of students is linked to challenging tasks. In a study of third graders’ motivation, Miller and Meece (1999) found that students prefer challenging reading and writing tasks. The students were interviewed after completing tasks such as essays, research papers, and analysis of characters in a class novel. The interviews revealed that even when students found a task easy, they did not necessarily have an interest in completing the task, finding it boring. When presented with a challenging task, however, students stated that they enjoyed making up responses and preferred these types of tasks.

In order to include challenge in their lessons, teachers should identify the current level of the student in decoding, comprehension, and writing, and then create challenging tasks that build upon and extend the student’s current capacities. This means providing decodable text for students that is slightly above their reading level, but within a level of comfort where the student is able to become engaged and read fluently with little interruption. The focus here should be on solidifying existing decoding skills while building vocabulary and conceptual knowledge, giving the student a sense of accomplishing a meaningful task that is challenging.

Once the student has successfully attained the reading strategy or concept at hand, and has shown proficiency in decoding that text, the difficulty of the text may be increased, always challenging the student but never overwhelming them. This approach fosters self-efficacy and encourages reading engagement (Linnenbrink & Pintrich, 2003).

The assessment of the student should be based on effort and persistence with challenging text. Text that is well below the level of the student has already been mastered, and the student gains very little if there is no conceptual knowledge to be learned. Evaluating reading ability with this kind of text does not accurately represent the student’s reading level or growth, even though the student appears successful. On the other hand, a student who is applying effort to the reading task and who experiences challenge is more likely to experience growth in reading ability, and the assessment of student success should be based in this context of appropriate challenge.

Allowing Frequent Failure Undermines Self-efficacy

When students perceive that reading tasks are insurmountable, they are less likely to put forth effort or even to attempt new and challenging reading tasks (Schunk, 2003). This leads to teacher evaluations that rate the student as poor readers, which in turn further discourages students from attempting reading activities.

A focus on task completion, rather than a focus on students’ learning, lies at the heart of practices that undermine self-efficacy, as shown by Schunk (2003) in a review of studies designed to increase self-efficacy in reading and learning. Such a task focus occurs most often when students are expected to read a textbook that is too difficult. For example, many textbooks in content areas contain excessive vocabulary, are relatively incoherent, and are disconnected from students’ background knowledge. For secondary students, this threat to self-efficacy prevents them from believing that school is worthwhile (Otis et al., 2005).

Focusing on content coverage and completion of the tasks in a lesson plan or teachers’ guide can hinder the self-efficacy of students who are developing readers, as well as proficient readers. In the case of developing readers, students who are given tasks that are too difficult and asked to repeat the tasks repeatedly, without additional instruction, are likely to be disengaged (Chapman & Tunmer, 1995). Vestiges of students’ self-efficacy for reading drops even more. This experience of repeated failure causes the students to detach from the reading task and in a broader sense, from reading (Coddington & Guthrie, in press). The most frequent reason for not reading is the belief that “I cannot read it.” Repeated experiences of excessive difficulty humiliate students, and naturally, they become avoidant.

Teachers may unintentionally undermine self-efficacy when reading lessons are focused on a task, such as a skill exercise, with no consideration given to whether students are gaining success and competence. Students who do not feel challenged are less motivated and have lower self-efficacy (Miller & Meece, 1999). When nothing but completion of the task is required, and students are given the message that their success is irrelevant, they may complete the task to the teacher’s specifications, but it is possible neither knowledge nor strategy has been acquired. Students then learn to go through the motions of completing tasks without any purpose or benefit, translating success to performance rather than mastery of a goal.

Social motivation

Sharing reading is a social experience, whether students are reading in unison, discussing a novel, or working together to decode and define a new word. One of the aspects of school that children enjoy is spending time with friends. When given the opportunity to interact with friend during class time, students will approach the given task with more enthusiasm.

Arranging Collaboration Fosters Social Motivation

Students are social beings, and this is apparent both in and out of the classroom. Just as they crave social interaction on the playground, when in the classroom, discussion and collaboration are natural parts of a student’s learning and development, and students will readily embrace collaboration with peers as a reason to read.

When teachers support this need for collaboration by allowing students to share ideas and build knowledge together, a sense of belongingness to the classroom community is established, and the extension and elaboration of existing knowledge is facilitated (Wentzel, 2005). Students gain the perspective of others while debating topics in the classroom, extending their initial views. Students who work together on a reading task are combining their background knowledge and skill sets, learning from each other, and building a shared understanding of the material (Chinn, Anderson, & Waggoner, 2001).

In a study by Almasi (1995), fourth graders average and below average readers were observed and interviewed while engaging in discussion of stories during reading class. Students were placed in either peer-led or teacher-led groups, and given stories to read based on student interest and reading level. The resulting text related discussions between students in the peer-led discussions were more elaborate than the discussions that were teacher-led.

In the peer-led groups, students shared their opinions and background knowledge, leading to new interpretations of the text. The students in the teacher-led groups were not actively engaged in discussing incongruities in the text, as the teacher was the dominant member of the group and posed explicit questions, guiding students through the analysis of the text. Student engagement is supported when students are encouraged to read aloud together, create questions together, and extract meaning from text together (Chinn, Anderson, & Waggoner, 2001).

In a literature review of motivation and engagement among Caucasian and African American students, it was found from multiple, experimental studies that African American students benefit from collaborative structures for interacting with text more than Caucasian students. Not only do African American students prefer collaborative to individual learning, but their text comprehension is enhanced relatively highly in collaborative learning activities that are well structured (Guthrie, Rueda, Gambrell, & Morrison, in press). Even sharing prior knowledge is motivating for students, when they are allowed to find common experiences with their peers, making them feel a sense of belonging within the classroom community.

When they learn that a classmate has experienced something that they have never seen or even thought of before, this creates a respect for and curiosity about fellow students. Once this kind of rapport is established, and dialogue has taken place about the given topic, students are more likely to engage in reading text communally and recall the resulting knowledge, as seen in a study of African American fifth graders (Dill & Boykin, 2000).

Grouping students of varying reading levels can also be motivating, as the struggling students gain the perspective of more experienced readers, and the advanced readers clarify their own understanding through explaining concepts and reading strategies to their peers (Sikorski, 2004). For example, modeling and scaffolding students to say appropriately, “I disagree with you,” or “I want to add two points to what you are saying,” enables learners to become more interactively effective.

Students working individually may be more likely to acquire misconceptions and hold limited perspectives on a text than students in an open discussion. Working individually, students also miss the chance. This also relaxes the dependence on the teacher, and students feel a greater sense of independence when creating meaning with peers instead of always receiving help from the authority figure.

This extension of knowledge and perception leads to the elaboration of text. The initial concepts are read and decoded by the students, but then these concepts are extended beyond the boundaries of the text to include multiple interpretations and a complex structure of prior knowledge, perspective and emerging knowledge that has been build collaboratively. It is important for teachers to model and facilitate elaborative speech in their lessons in order for students to build their skill at collaboration (Webb & Farivar, 1994).

Individual Work Undermines Social Motivation

Some teachers feel that a classroom that is quiet and filled with students working individually and independently at all times is a controlled and well maintained class. The silence in the room is not an indicator of student engagement nor is it necessarily conducive to complex learning processes such as building an argument or combining multifaceted knowledge to form new knowledge.

Students in this environment tend to feel isolated and do not sense a connection between themselves and a larger unit of scholars. Isolated learners may adhere to faulty logic or inaccurate interpretations without realizing the alternatives, or focus solely on one “correct” interpretation or conclusion (Applebee, Langer, Nystrand, & Gamoran, 2003).

These students also miss the chance to build social skills that include negotiation, persuasion, and synthesis of one’s perspectives with those of peers, which is something researchers have found students enjoy when given the opportunity (Clark, Anderson, Kuo, Kim, Archodidou, & Nguyen-Jahiel, 2003).

Mastery Motivation

Students’ goals in the classroom vary from wanting to perform well in order to earn a grade, to wanting to master and become experts in some new reading strategy or conceptual topic. The quest for deep understanding or conquering reading skills is mastery motivation.

Thematic Units Cultivate Mastery Motivation

By emphasizing mastery goals as a reason to read, teachers are contributing to both student motivation and reading comprehension (Grolnick & Ryan, 1987; Pintrich, 2000).

Teachers who provide concepts that are complex, and persist over an extended period of time, are supporting the acquisition of deep conceptual knowledge. Goal orientation has been shown to be related to reading achievement (Guthrie et al., 2006). One way to scaffold mastery goals is to place large conceptual learning goals on the blackboard, bulletin board, or chart. As the lessons progress, key information is added and additional concepts are linked to the visible display. A teacher might scaffold mastery goal learning by beginning a large concept map and adding to it during the course of a thematic unit. This focuses students on deep understanding, rather than test scores or pages covered in a text.

Placing an emphasis on mastery of new material, not just the performance of tasks typifies a teacher with a focus on mastery goal orientation. In her classroom, concepts are introduced and then related to each other to form a complex web of knowledge. Students are able to explore topics in depth and at length, and come away with understanding of text that can then enhance future reading experiences.

Even at the lower elementary grades, students are capable of learning multiple concepts and making connections between those concepts. Although at first they may appear more challenging, decodable texts that include conceptual knowledge are more likely to sustain student interest and foster curiosity, thereby creating engaged readers. Teacher attention to mastery goals for students are facilitating this conceptual learning (Meece, Anderman, & Anderman, 2006). Making a lesson conceptual also facilitates integration of domains such as science or social studies.

The concepts within reading lessons should also span several days or even weeks. This allows students to gain a sense of becoming experts in a given topic or concept. Introducing the concept in a way that accounts for students’ prior knowledge can in itself take multiple lessons to accomplish. Then, providing students with hands-on experiences and exposure to multiple texts should be the core piece of the unit, and again may span several days or weeks. Teachers can conclude with a culminating project that lets students express their gained conceptual knowledge.

There is also a connection between other motivational practices and mastery orientation. In a study by Meece and Miller (1999), teachers who supported student choice, intrinsic motivation, collaboration and self-efficacy were effective in promoting mastery goals in their third grade classrooms. This finding was based on an intervention study that increased opportunities for students to complete challenging assignments in a small group setting. Ratings of performance and work avoidant goals decreased, and mastery goals remained stable for the students in classrooms where teachers were rated as having high implementation of the intervention.

Disconnected Units Undermine Mastery Motivation

In lessons that emphasize factual knowledge and disjointed topics that lack consistency, students are taught to avoid mastery and focus instead on short term gains that do not result in the meaningful building of strategies or knowledge (Seifert & O’Keefe, 2001). It is important for teachers to be cognizant of the goal orientation of their classrooms, as students experience fluctuations in orientation as they move into the upper elementary school years (Meece & Miller, 1999).

Student engagement is diminished when the topics change daily, and students are left with no clear conceptual reason to read the text. Teachers who jump quickly from one unrelated topic to another are not giving students the chance to reflect on or digest new information. Even if the teacher is choosing appropriate conceptual themes, this is not effective unless students are given the time to manipulate these concepts and integrate them with existing knowledge. When students are made to read unrelated texts and then questioned in an oversimplified manner, such as asking them to recite dates that have been memorized or other surface knowledge without any connection to larger systems, their disposition for deep understanding is discouraged.

Finally, students may learn new reading strategies while reading text just for factual information or to receive a grade for their performance. This does not mean that they are engaged readers or that they are mastering anything more than a skill set to be used within a specific context. Teachers who emphasize performance instead of mastery tend to stress formal assessments and grades, rather than engagement (Patrick, Anderman, Ryan, Edelin, & Midgley, 2001).

Limiting the reading strategy use to shallow themes teaches students to think in a very restricted way about reading and its purpose. Once a strategy has been employed and comprehension gained from text, if that meaning is trivial, then the student is not compelled to initiate use of the strategy in the future, nor are they excited about beginning a new text, since there is no meaningful knowledge to be gained.

Reading identity

Reading identity refers to the extent that an individual values reading as personally important, and views success in reading as an important goal. Regrettably, very little is known about educational conditions that foster the development of reading identity. However, it is well established that high achievers tend to identify with school and feel a sense of belonging in the classroom (Voelkl, 1997). Students who identify themselves as readers are the ones who are more likely to read and to gain knowledge from reading. Teachers support this by explaining that texts are important and functional, and that reading is relevant for student long-term interest and personal development. Under the best conditions, students connect reading skill and life outcomes such as career attainment and personal success.

Although there is little research on this issue, we suggest that when teachers model their own personal identification as readers and make explicit the fact that they value reading, students may perceive reading as beneficial and worthwhile. When teachers support students’ identity as readers, students have a commitment to complete the act of reading, not just to the satisfaction of the teacher, but to their own personal standard of excellence. This may result in a sense of accomplishment once a reading task is mastered that goes beyond the teacher and lesson, as the student is fulfilling his own personal sense of responsibility to excel at reading.

As students progress through school, their identity as learners and readers can progressively deteriorate. Young children typically give high ratings to reading and learning (Coddington & Guthrie, in press). However, as students approach the end of the elementary grades, many students cease to aspire to higher achievement or proficiency in tasks such as reading in any subject matter (Wigfield & Eccles, 2002).

As they enter middle school, some students detach their sense of self-worth from school success. This is especially true for African American or Hispanic students. Beginning in grades seven and eight, many of these minority students reject reading achievement and view it as unimportant. Taylor and Graham (2007) showed that African American and Hispanic students cease to value achievement in middle school. As Osborne (1997) documented for a national sample, African American males increasingly disidentify with academics through middle and high school.

Their sense of self-worth progressively detaches from their level of achievement. They do not experience any benefit that justifies putting effort into reading. School is not viewed as an avenue for advancement or success, but is merely a requirement imposed on them. Nussbaum and Steele (2007) found that African American students often disengage themselves from evaluations in order to prevent unfavorable appraisals of their achievements.

Although there is little evidence on this issue, it is likely that when teachers encourage students to make connections with reading and to apply their personal experiences in the classroom, students may increase their engagement with text. Teachers’ interpersonal relationships with students are also likely to impact their engagement favorably, which may foster their process of identification in the long term.

Next steps for educators

One remarkable quality about the motivations presented here consisting of interest, ownership, self-efficacy, social interaction, and mastery goals is that they are associated with more and better reading at all grade levels K through 12.

These motivations are also associated with more and better reading in classroom contexts that are created in the short term or the long term. If a teacher supports students’ ownership by giving many choices in one lesson, the students are likely to respond positively with more motivation for reading. More profoundly, however, if a curriculum embeds choices across the school year and daily instruction underscores students’ self-directed learning, students’ ownership of reading will grow substantially and drive achievement upward.

As a first step in short-term planning, educators can take stock of their current teaching. For each of the motivations presented in this article educators can ask:

  1. Do I support this motivation already?
  2. How often do I do this?
  3. When do I support this motivation?
  4. How well does my support work?
  5. How can I support this motivation more?
  6. How can I support this motivation more effectively?
  7. How can I connect this practice to my current teaching more deeply?

Many teachers are already connecting reading to students’ real-world experiences and background knowledge to some degree. However, using these questions to reflect on teaching and to expand their support for relevance will improve the amount and depth of students’ reading.

For an entire course or a discipline in school such as reading instruction, educators can ask:

  1. How does the course increase student motivations already?
  2. How often does the course support these motivations explicitly?
  3. When does the course do this?
  4. How well do the instructional supports for motivation work?
  5. How can we do this more frequently?
  6. How can we do this better?
  7. How can the course connect to the motivation practices described here more thoroughly?

A first step for thinking about supporting motivation more fully is self-appraisal. One starting point for self-appraisal is to use conversational questionnaires about motivation in the classroom. Useful inquiries can be made into the students’ viewpoint (student questionnaire). Educators can explore the teachers’ viewpoint (teacher questionnaire). One set of questionnaires is available in Engaging Adolescents in Reading by Guthrie (2008).

Regardless of which tools for self-improvement may be used, the implications of this article are that educators can advance the breadth and depth of students’ reading by explicitly and systematically nourishing their practices that affirm students’ motivations as readers.

Table 1: Classroom Practices that Affirm Motivation 

Teacher practicesMotivationsReasons to read when practice is affirming
RelevanceInterest/Intrinsic motivationI enjoy it.
It’s fun.
ChoiceOwnershipI chose it.
It belongs to me.
SuccessSelf-efficacyI can do it well.
I like to be successful.
CollaborationSocial interaction with peersI can do it with others.
I enjoy relating to my peers.
Thematic unitsMasteryI want to understand.
I like to learn new things.

Table 2: Classroom Practices that Undermine Motivation 

Teacher practicesStudent outcomesReasons to avoid reading when practice is undermining
Non-relevanceAvoidanceI do not enjoy it.
It is not fun.
Excessive controlLow ownershipI did not choose it.
It does not belong to me.
Difficult lessonsPerceived difficultyI cannot do it.
I am not capable.
Frequent individual workIsolationI cannot do it with others.
I am not able to relate to my peers.
Disconnected unitsMastery avoidanceI do not care about understanding.
I cannot make meaning.

McRae, A., & Guthrie, J.T. (2009). Promoting reasons for reading: Teacher practices that impact motivation. In E. H. Hiebert (Ed.), Reading more, reading better (pp. 55-76). New York: Guilford Press.

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