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With Larry Ferlazzo

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Teaching Opinion

Encourage Students ‘to See Reading as a Relational Experience’

By Larry Ferlazzo — November 16, 2020 10 min read
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(This is the third post in a four-part series. You can see Part One here and Part Two here.)

The new question of the week is:

What are ways to help students develop intrinsic motivation to read?

Part One’s guest contributors were Melissa Butler, Sawsan Jaber, Jennifer Orr, and Katie Alaniz. All of today’s writers also were guests on my 10-minute BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

In Part Two, Dave Stuart Jr., Dr. Rebecca Alber, Kate Sullivan, and Joy Hamm shared their commentaries.

Today, Pam Allyn, Ryan Huels, and Dr. Donna Wilson write about their experiences.

“Make choice and agency central to the work”

Pam Allyn, senior vice president, innovation & development, Scholastic Education, is a leading literacy expert, author, and motivational speaker. In 2007, she founded LitWorld, a global literacy organization serving children across the United States and in more than 60 countries, pioneering initiatives including the summer reading program LitCamp and World Read Aloud Day:

Particularly during times of social separation and distance, developing in our students the intrinsic motivation to read is a matter of urgency. Let us give them the tools of constant company and comfort, no matter what these days bring.

Here are four ways we as educators can help our students build the power of intrinsic motivation:

  1. Make choice and agency central to the work we do in helping our students build lifelong reading habits. Choice gives children power to learn what they are passionate about, interested in, and wondering. Having agency in reading habits builds intrinsic motivation. Ask children to define what a great reading experience feels like for them, then have them name it, and do it; this can include where they read, what they prefer to read, how long they read for, and with whom they want to read. Talk about these reading habits with your students and in turn, share your own authentic experiences with them to show that you are also striving to create a reading life.

  1. Give students time for deep self-reflection about the books and texts they are reading, both through dialogue and through writing (or on the chat bar of our digital platforms). Intrinsic motivation comes from the hunger and true desire children have to share ideas, ponder their thoughts, and absorb ideas from their peers. As Paulo Freire said, “We read the word and the world.” Recently, I read the book The Rooster who Would Not be Quiet! by Carmen Agra Deedy aloud to a class of children on Zoom. The conversation was deeply meaningful and very moving. The children discussed the themes of power, powerlessness, courage, and fearfulness. They saw the metaphorical connections to present-day life—the needs of the village versus the needs of the individual. Self-reflection begins with modeling, and children build intrinsic motivation for reading by watching us and by witnessing our own reflections—how books have the capacity to change us, to provoke us, to inspire us.

  1. Build ways to value the importance of children’s imaginations in response to the texts they read. By imagining the lives of characters, settings, and actions—whether through discussion, acting, sketching, or drawing—our students come to see reading as a lively companion. Intrinsically motivated readers are not passive. Their minds are ablaze with internal conversation and constant creation. As the poet Natalie Diaz said, “Reading is a way of practicing the imagination necessary to broaden our capacities to understand ourselves and others.” Ask questions such as, “How can you envision a new world because you read this book?” or “What would you do to change the world, if this book changed you?” This helps our students to see that reading does not end on the last page; the experience is made whole by the reader’s imagination.

  1. Foster intrinsic motivation in our young readers by helping them to see reading as a relational experience rather than a solitary one. Let us invite active collaboration, discussion, and dialogue around books. We become closer to others in our reading community through dynamic explorations of textual ideas, whether we are crying, laughing, or feeling meditative. We want to talk about those things that seize us with delight, wonder, and awe. When I first read Langston Hughes with my 7th grade students, I remember as if it were yesterday seeing one of my students begin to cry as he read these words:

“Well, son, I’ll tell you:

Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.

It’s had tacks in it,

And splinters..”

He signed to me the words of the poem, saying: “Mrs. Allyn, I didn’t know someone could write my life.” When readers feel reading is relational to their inner spirits, reading becomes something they want to do and love deeply to do, each and every day.

Don’t make reading a “chore”

Ryan Huels is currently an assistant principal at Oregon Elementary School in Oregon,Ill., after an extended tenure as an early-elementary classroom teacher. Ryan is an advocate for creating a more student-focused learning environment centered around the principles of positive relationships, restorative practices, and family engagement:

Students develop intrinsic motivation to read by removing many traditional methods/practices that have been found to be barriers to developing a love of reading in young people. Reading logs are a tremendous deterrent to intrinsic motivation in reading. By making something a chore/required task, we instantly make reading less enjoyable. If something becomes a battle or struggle at home, kids are going to resort to other means of entertainment—video games, television, social media.

Richard Allington has extensive research in the area of allowing students ample opportunity of choice in reading. We crush intrinsic motivation by dictating what a child reads based on refusing to allow them to choose based on a kid’s reading level, textbook assignment, or other adult-centered reason that keeps books kids love out of their hands. Too often, I see adults get in a power struggle of sorts with a kid who wants to read a particular type of book, specifically graphic novels, because they “aren’t real books.” That power struggle instantly makes reading a less enjoyable experience and turns kids off to the act of reading because we as adults have decided a certain type of book isn’t “real reading.”

Lastly, the most important tool I have used to build an intrinsic motivation to read as a building leader is to model a love of reading for the students in my school. I love to get into classrooms and share stories with our classes. This allows them to see that reading can be enjoyable by modeling how much fun reading can be and hopefully turning students on to a particular book/series.

“Interest is fundamental”

Dr. Donna Wilson is a psychologist and author of 20 books, including Developing Growth Mindsets, Teaching Students to Drive Their Brains, and Five Big Ideas for Effective Teaching (2nd Edition). She is an international speaker who has worked in Asia, the Middle East, Australia, Europe, Jamaica, and throughout the U.S. and Canada. Dr. Wilson can be reached at donna@brainsmart.org; visit her website at www.brainsmart.org:

Teachers who are “with it” can tell right away when students are intrinsically motivated to read. They observe students who are engaged in reading for no apparent reason other than the satisfaction and enjoyment of doing so. Students’ intrinsic motivation is increased in a number of ways—for instance, when reading material is relevant and challenging but not too far beyond their current ability; when the material is interesting to them personally; and when they are given plenty of time to read appropriate material of their choice silently at school.

Giving all students the opportunity to use multiple brain pathways in the reading classroom is a key to helping them develop the intrinsic motivation to read and improve throughout their school years. Effective teachers incorporate a variety of methods in their lessons to accommodate students with different interests, processing styles, and strengths. Some of these strategies are described below.

Interest is fundamental. Even the most resistant readers are motivated to read about topics they are passionate about. Mrs. Dahl, a teacher I know, allows about 30 to 60 minutes a week for kids to research a topic of their choice. They are allowed to work at their own pace and use the resources they prefer. Mrs. Dahl gathers valuable information about her readers, as students tend to gravitate toward their most comfortable method of reading. She watches carefully as students choose to read quietly out of a book, in a group, or on an electronic device. Others may prefer to listen as the book is read to them or to read aloud to themselves. This information is used judiciously to encourage students to continue reading in the way that suits them best.

Students inevitably will have to read books they don’t choose; however, it is still possible to build intrinsic motivation through choice. Mrs. Dahl gives students the option of reading in groups or, in the case of her fast readers, independently. Students who prefer auditory processing may choose to listen to an audio version while reading from the book. Some kids need absolute quiet, so noise-canceling headphones are available. Additionally, students are able to choose where to sit around the room. All the options give students a sense of control, increasing their motivation to read.

Mrs. Dahl has had tremendous success helping students build intrinsic motivation with regular book discussions. The discussions take place in person or online, and peer feedback is key. Students love to share their thoughts and be valued. Mrs. Dahl teaches her students in advance how to have respectful conversations through the use of accountable talk. She provides the following examples:

  • I respect your opinion, but I think ___.
  • I agree with ___ and would like to add _____.
  • Can you tell me where you found that in the text?

As a result, students feel safe to share their thinking, and even introverts are willing to take chances. The kids look forward to these conversations and are therefore intrinsically motivated to read.

Thanks to Pam, Ryan, and Donna for their contributions!

Please feel free to leave a comment with your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org. When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

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