Learn About: Evaluating Performance | Common Core
Home > Instruction > Still learning—reading beyond grade three > Motivation and other components of reading
| print Print

Handout: Motivation and other components of reading

Because of the increasing complexity of texts, especially in academic content areas, reading skills should continue to evolve as students rise through middle and high school. Even students who are strong readers by the end of third grade need additional literacy instruction to sustain and enhance their reading skills (Heller and Greenleaf 2007). In addition to the components of reading, other important factors in reading ability and achievement at the middle and high school level are domain knowledge (Hirsch 2003), motivation (Snow et al. 2007), text selection (RAND 2002), and relevance (Lee 2007; Strickland and Alvermann 2004).

Motivation is key at this age level, for several reasons. First, even students who are strong readers may find the more difficult reading assignments (particularly those in content areas) too challenging. In addition, those students who struggle with reading will have become demoralized by years of frustration and will probably try to avoid reading at all costs. And students may be what Alvermann (2004) calls “aliterate”—able to read but choosing not to, often because they do not see a link between their everyday world and academic tasks.

Finding ways to motivate students in any of these three groups is important, but it is especially vital to reach out to struggling readers. As Lyon et al. (2001) explain, students with reading difficulties get caught in a negative cycle—they don’t enjoy reading and don’t learn from it, so their frustration leads them to avoid reading, and their vocabulary growth and learning in other subjects suffer as a result. This cycle typically erodes students’ self-confidence and motivation to learn. Gaskins, Gensemer, and Six (2003) suggest that some struggling readers have a “faulty belief system”—they believe they are “not smart” and nothing can help them.

Recommendations for effective instruction

Few studies have specifically examined the impact of motivation on reading, but several experts in the field have these suggestions for providing or enhancing adolescent readers’ motivation:

  • Choose reading assignments or texts that are “moderately difficult” so students are challenged; tasks that are too easy—or too hard—decrease intrinsic motivation (Guthrie and Alvermann 1999).
  • Give students a variety of tasks and activities that are linked to reading assignments, such as writing a song or jingle or illustrating key events from a text (Guthrie and Alvermann 1999).
  • Lecture infrequently and lead regular discussions on texts (Strickland and Alvermann 2004; Wade and Moje 2000). Lectures, a passive instruction model, can alienate students, while participatory instruction models such as discussions or literature circles enhance motivation as well as comprehension.
  • Explain the reason for a reading assignment and offer comprehension strategies matched to that assignment (Kennedy Manzo 2005; Wade and Moje 2000). Otherwise, students may see reading as “busy work” or unimportant to learning.
  • Help students understand that reading with comprehension requires effort but can improve with practice (Snow et al. 2007). Students may think reading is an inherent skill that should come naturally; teachers can empathize with students by showing that they have struggled at times and still struggle to comprehend texts on unfamiliar subjects. (Heller and Greenleaf 2007).

Recommendations for effective instruction

Text selection. Selecting an appropriate text is an important way to motivate students to read (RAND 2002). Obviously, this is not easy, as a teacher must balance students’ interest in the subject matter, their development levels, school or course curriculum goals, and the availability of texts—all while they think about the text’s vocabulary load, discourse style, and genre. If too many of these factors are not matched to a reader’s knowledge and experience, the text may be too difficult for the student to really understand it.

One fairly simple text-selection strategy might be to encourage and require students to read primary sources of real-world materials, instead of having students read teacher-created handouts or textbooks (Heller and Greenleaf 2007).
Relevance. The stereotype of middle and high school students as nonreaders is widespread, yet several researchers (Strickland and Alvermann 2004; Wade and Moje 2000) note that adolescents read a great deal—they read magazines, comic books, instructions for video and computer games, electronic texts on the Internet or cell phones, and texts related to television, radio, and movies. The trick, say Strickland and Alvermann (2004), Lee (2007), and other researchers, is to build a bridge between the “everyday literacies” students use and the skills they need to complete academic tasks.

Wade and Moje (2000) explain: 
Texts are viewed as cultural tools that shape not only what people know, but how they know and learn. The purpose of text use and of learning, then, is to expand the cultural tools to which students have access, not by dismissing or excluding the texts (or tools) they bring to school, but by incorporating them into the curriculum and working with students to make connections among the various texts they explore.

Recommendations for effective instruction

Lee’s work builds on the skills students use to make meaning from texts—including nontraditional texts, such as rap lyrics and graffiti—and adapts those skills to make meaning of the more challenging texts required for in-depth studies and preparation for college. Her work in inner-city high school English classes uses a modified form of an instructional approach called “cultural modeling,” which makes direct connections between content and literacy goals and the student’s knowledge and experience at home, in the community, and with peers. A unit on symbolism might begin with rap lyrics and videos, followed by the short story Everyday Use by Alice Walker (1994), the novel Beloved by Toni Morrison (1987), and selections from Dante’s "Inferno", from his Divine Comedy. This approach helps build students’ analytical skills and their self-confidence, Lee suggests: “in most cases, the students know more about the meaning of these texts than the teachers.”


This research review was prepared for the Center for Public Education by freelance writer Eileen M. O'Brien with additional editorial contributions from Sally Banks Zakariya. Much of O'Brien's work has focused on access to quality education for disadvantaged and minority populations. She has a master of public administration from George Washington University and a bachelor of science degree in psychology from Loyola University of Chicago. Zakariya, a free-lance writer based in Arlington, Virginia, is former editor-in-chief of American School Board Journal and director of publications for the National School Boards Association.

Posted: March 6, 2009

©Center for Public Education
Home > Instruction > Still learning—reading beyond grade three > Motivation and other components of reading