When Children Read Because They Want To, Not Because They Have To
As interest in reading research spiked in the 1980s, the bulk of activity focused on the cognitive aspects of reading, such as word recognition and comprehension. In the 1990s however, there was a general recognition that the affective elements of reading were equally important. Motivation, in particular, was designated as being as integral to reading instruction as skill building. In poll after poll, teachers voiced the notion that motivating students was their top priority.
To build motivation, one must first be able to define it. Leading researcher, J.T. Guthrie (2001), defines highly motivated readers as those who "generate their own literacy learning opportunities, and, in so doing, they begin to determine their own destiny as literacy learners."
From this perspective, motivation can be seen as part of the engagement process. According to researchers such as Gambrell, Wigfield, Guthrie, Alvermann, and Baker, reading motivation is the prime component of engagement. An engaged reader is one who reads for different purposes, builds knowledge to construct new learnings, and participates in meaningful social interactions around reading. "Engaged readers seek to understand; they enjoy learning and they believe in their reading abilities." (Guthrie, 2001)
Being an engaged reader is strongly correlated with reading achievement. In fact, engagement in reading can compensate for low achievement due to socioeconomic status or parents' educational level. Children who become engaged readers can overcome the disadvantages of risk.
What makes a child an engaged reader? The answer is not straightforward, for when it comes to motivation, it is not an either/or construct. It is not a question of being either motivated or unmotivated: motivation is multifaceted. This means that within every individual, some motivational factors will prove stronger than others.
One of the chief components of reading motivation is thought to be self-efficacy, a term first defined by Bandura (1997). Self-efficacy, the ability of a person to judge his own capabilities in regard to a task, seems to play a major role in whether or not a child takes on a reading challenge. If a child has high self-efficacy, he sees a reading challenge as just that-something he can master if he works diligently. In fact, researchers have documented that children's and adolescent's beliefs about their ability to accomplish a task relate to and predict achievement performance in both math and literacy.
Interest in reading is likewise a key component of engagement. Children who are interested in materials can comprehend them better than children with similar skills but lower interest. Even when materials are difficult for children to comprehend, interest value is an important factor in reading success. Related to the interest value of a reading task are two other factors: attainment value and utility value. Attainment value refers to the perceived importance of the task, and utility value is the perceived usefulness of the reading task.
Another related social factor that impacts motivation is what is known as "reading challenge." Challenge is defined as the satisfaction a reader gets from mastering a complex text. Researchers, however, have found that reading challenge is tempered by the degree of difficulty and the amount of time it takes to accomplish the goal. Goals that are challenging "at an appropriate level" and that can be achieved in a relatively short period of time are most likely to be pursued by readers.
Perhaps the most complicated part of sorting through the research on motivation and engagement is the role that intrinsic and extrinsic motivation play in literacy. Intrinsic motivation, which springs from internal desires, interests, and experiences, has long been established as integral to reading motivation and engagement. Most reading experts believe that intrinsic motivation is imperative to lifelong reading, as this excerpt from a 2001 paper by Guthrie explains:
It is well established that a competent reader is intrinsically motivated. Across the age span from grade 3 to adulthood, proficient readers show the traits of intrinsically motivated behavior-they read for their own sake, and they read frequently for personal interest. Intrinsically motivated readers have a sense of deep immersion during the reading process, an orientation to find challenging material, and enjoyment in the experience of reading. They read for longer amounts of time, with greater cognitive proficiency, and with more positive effects than readers who are less intrinsically motivated. In quantitative studies, major aspects of intrinsic motivation for reading, consisting of curiosity (reading to learn about the world), involvement (reading to become absorbed in a text), and preference for challenge (enjoyment in reading complex material) predict students' reading frequency and reading comprehension.
So powerful is intrinsic motivation that many educators from Dewey to Montessori have declared it "our greatest human resource."
Intrinsic motivation for reading is contrasted with external motivations, which are based on rewards and social controls. To illustrate, an externally motivated reader may decide to complete a reading assignment only because it is a course requirement and he does not wish to fail. Other extrinsic motivations include, in addition to compliance, recognition, competition, and work avoidance.
For many educators, intrinsic and extrinsic motivations take on a good vs. evil dichotomy. Intrinsic motivation is associated with deep and internalized learning, while extrinsic learning is deemed superficial and shallow. Research in the 1970s did much to perpetuate this image, casting the two forms of motivation as antagonistic to one another. Current research, however, does not find that the two need be pitted against one another. While intrinsic motivation is uniquely associated with reading motivation and success, external motivation is not a bad thing. Indeed, research by Gambrell, Guthrie, and others has shown that extrinsic motivation can even be used to bring about intrinsic motivation to read. As Gambrell and Marinak (1997) observe, "The appropriate use of incentives can lead learners to engage in reading and can lead to the internalization and integration of the value of reading. When incentives are linked to the desired behavior and promote engagement in the desired behavior, motivation can become self-determined and can foster high-quality learning. Further, appropriate incentives offered for goal-oriented, challenging reading performance can enhance intrinsic motivation to read."
Clearly, motivation and engagement are basic to reading instruction. It is not enough to know how to read. If one is to become a lifelong learner, it is imperative that one have the desire to read. Skill makes reading a possibility. Motivation makes reading a reality.
Bandura, A. Self-Efficacy: The Exercise of Control. New York: W.H. Freeman, 1997.
Gambrell, L. B. and B. Marinak. "Incentive and Intrinsic Motivation to Read." In Reading engagement: Motivating Readers Through Integrated Instruction edited by J. T. Guthrie and A. Wigfield, 205-217. Newark, Del.: International Reading Association, 1997.
Guthrie, J.T. "Contexts for Engagement and Motivation in Reading." In Handbook of Reading Research: Volume III, edited by M.L. Kamil, P.B. Mosenthal, P.D. Pearson and R. Barr. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum, 2000.
Reprinted with the permission of Reading is Fundamental, Inc. ©2007 Reading Is Fundamental, Inc.
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