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With Larry Ferlazzo

In this EdWeek blog, an experiment in knowledge-gathering, Ferlazzo will address readers’ questions on classroom management, ELL instruction, lesson planning, and other issues facing teachers. Send your questions to lferlazzo@epe.org. Read more from this blog.

Teaching Opinion

Give Students Choice When It’s Time to Read

By Larry Ferlazzo — November 17, 2020 12 min read
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(This is the final post in a four-part series. You can see Part One here, Part Two here, and Part Three 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.

In Part Three, Pam Allyn, Ryan Huels, and Dr. Donna Wilson wrote about their experiences.

Today, Laura Robb, Michele Haiken, and Barbara Blackburn “wrap up” the series. I’ve also included several reader comments.

“Reading offers great rewards to those who embrace it”

Author, teacher, coach, and speaker, Laura Robb has worked with children and teachers for more than 40 years. At present, she works at Daniel Morgan Intermediate School in Winchester, Va., training 5th and 6th grade teachers and teaching children who read four to five years below grade level. Author of more than 30 books on literacy, Robb co-authors therobbreviewblog.com with her son, Evan. In addition, Robb speaks at national and state conferences and trains teachers in schools in the U.S. Follow her on twitter @LRobbTeacher:

Adam was a student in my 6th and 8th grade English classes. An only child, his parents ran an African Safari travel business. Because they were away from home a great deal, a nanny cared for Adam who in 6th grade was a curious and high-achieving student. In 7th grade, when Adam’s grades started to drop, his parents began paying him $20 for every A and $10 for every B.

During the first semester of Adam’s 8th grade year, he raised the stakes for earning high grades. He told his parents that his grades would improve if they promised to take him out of school for six weeks and let him come on a safari with them. Their answer was, “No!,” and Adam’s grades began to plummet. When raising the dollar value for A’s and B’s didn’t work, Adam’s parents set up a conference with me. To their credit, they understood the folly of paying big bucks for Adam to achieve at school and explained how guilty they felt for being away from home during most of the school year. “Look,” I suggested. “Adam is smart. He knows the score. Level with him. Stop the grade payments and maybe plan a family vacation with him for the summer. “

Often, when adults manipulate kids to read and get high grades, it backfires. Once the points, pizza, and ice cream parties at school and payment for grades stops, quite often, so does the reading and hard work. The question to consider and reflect on is, Why read? If parents and teachers recognize that reading is not just something done at school—that it’s a lifelong experience—then, hopefully, they will stop giving extrinsic rewards!

Why Read?

Reading offers great rewards to those who embrace it. Readers can:

  • Travel the world and meet people and interact with characters they wouldn’t connect with in one lifetime!
  • Experience the past, present, and future as well as learn about topics they’re passionate about.
  • Build their bank of prior knowledge that supports reading with understanding.
  • Know the pleasure and enjoyment from reading a gripping story.
  • Build a large vocabulary as they meet words in diverse contexts.
  • Develop their imaginations as they visualize places, characters, and people.
  • Learn how different literary genres work so they can easily navigate a wide range of books.
  • Deepen their understanding of the writing process as they practice reading with a “writer’s eye.”
  • Refine their analytical and critical-thinking skills.
  • Share and discuss beloved books with friends.
  • Revisit books they enjoyed and reread all or parts, always finding something new to reflect on.

Readers develop the skill to become the problem solvers of the future because they have the capacity to concentrate, learn, think, and reflect. But here’s the elephant standing tall and large in the middle of the room:


Readers need and want choice for independent and instructional reading. Choice is the initial motivator, and engagement with the self-selected book often follows. Access to wonderful books creates readers, and that’s why CHOICE also extends to content subjects that have class libraries on a wide range of topics and reading levels. Intentionally carving out time to read at school every day can develop pleasure in reading among all students. When reading becomes a lifelong habit, motivation is intrinsic, and the reward is in the reading—the pleasure and enjoyment and learning.

Closing Thoughts

Several years ago, I conducted a survey among students in grades 3 to 8, asking them to respond to the question, Why do you read? The responses of two students still remain in my memory.

A 3rd grader wrote: Well, I live in the country. What better thing could I do after riding my bike?

An 8th grader wrote: I love sitting in my room and not being there. When I’m reading, I’m in other places visiting with characters I don’t meet every day. Only a book can take me everywhere.

I rest my case.

Reading in class

Michele L. Haiken is a middle school English teacher and adjunct professor of literacy in Westchester, N.Y. She is the author of New Realms for Writing: Inspire Student Expression with Digital Age Formats (ISTE, 2019) and Personalized Reading: Digital Strategies and Tools To Support All Learners (ISTE, 2018). Find out more about her classroom strategies at her blog and connect with her on Twitter @teachingfactor:

There is nothing like a great book to engross the reader, travel to another time or place, offer a new perspective on history, provide another perspective, bring new awareness, and hold up a mirror to one’s own life. As an English teacher, reading is a passion and pastime for me. But it wasn’t always this way. When I was in middle and high school, I was a reluctant reader. I disliked so many of the assigned books I read in my youth. The classics and canonical texts filled the reading lists. I found myself procrastinating summer reading requirements until days before school would begin again only to be faced with more required reading of people I did not connect with.

Today, it is the complete opposite in my own classroom. Students are given choices when it comes to school reading. Whether independent reading or working through our thematic units of instruction, students have book choice, and this leads to an increased motivation to read. To help them choose a book that piques their interest, I read aloud excerpts from books, share book trailers, and play audio selections of popular and poignant books I want to share with my students with the hope to match the right book at the right time with a reader. I share with my students books I am reading, listening to, and that comprise my ‘To Be Read List.’ Students have time to read every day in our English classroom. My classroom library is bursting with advanced-reader copies (ARCs) I collected at conferences like NCTE, ILA, and NerdCamp. Plus I am always purchasing books on Amazon after I read a new book review and get a recommendation from my professional learning community.

Educator and author of BookLove (Heinemann, 2013), Penny Kittle states that to motivate readers, students need choices, book talks, time to read in class, book clubs, access to books, and to see teachers passionate about reading. Literacy is a schoolwide initiative. When students see the adults in their life reading, talking about books, and share their reading life, they have positive reading role models. Similarly, carving out time in our classes for reading is key. When we flip reading time during class time rather than assigning reading outside of school, we allow students to practice reading in real time, promote discussion, and apply reading in the classroom. If we are going to help cultivate students who are avid readers of text—print, visual, digital, audio—then it means we are intentional about creating a culture of reading in our schools and classrooms.

Helping “students make their own connections”

Barbara Blackburn, Ph.D., is an international speaker and a Top 30 Global Guru. She has written over 25 books, specializing in rigor, motivation, and leadership. She regularly presents on-site and technology-based workshops:

Intrinsic motivation is that which comes from within a student. It is internal as opposed to external. With intrinsic motivation, students appreciate activities for the sake of those activities. They enjoy learning and the feelings of accomplishment that accompany the activity. There are many benefits to intrinsic motivation. Students tend to earn higher grades, score higher on achievement tests, prefer challenging activities, and are more confident about their abilities.

As we create an environment to encourage students’ intrinsic motivation in reading, there are two keys. Students are more motivated when they value what they are doing and when they believe they have a chance for success. Those are the two keys: value and success. Do students see value in your lesson? Do they believe they can be successful?

Students are more motivated to learn when they see the value, or the relevance, of the knowledge and skills presented to them. Students have a streaming radio station playing in their heads: WII-FM--What’s In It For Me? When they are reading, students are processing information through that filter. Why do I need to learn this? Will I ever use this again?

Ideally, your students will make their own connections about the relevance of content, and you should provide them opportunities to make those connections independently. But there are also times that you will need to facilitate that understanding, whether it is finding books that match their interests or helping a high school student connect poetry with song-writing lessons.

Students can also see value in activities and in their relationship with you. When we can provide a hands-on, interactive learning experience, students are more engaged and motivated. Students also find value in their relationships. For example, if you think about your most motivated students, you likely had a good relationship with them. Conversely, with your least motivated students, there was probably not a positive connection. It takes time to build a good relationship with our students, but it is an important part of our role as a teacher. One of the most important things you can do is to read in front of your students and share your own reading list with them.

Second, setting up opportunities for success is critical. Students need to achieve in order to build a sense of confidence, which is the foundation for a willingness to try something else. That in turn begins a cycle that results in higher levels of success, both in academic performance and collage and career readiness. Success leads to success, and the achievements of small goals or tasks are building blocks to larger ones.

Comments from readers:

Camie Lystrup Walker:

I think they need heart. Look at Harry Potter. It inspired a generation of readers by making reading cool! One avenue I am exploring is Podcasts. Wait, that’s not reading, right? Research shows those who can visualize what they read are better readers. Podcasting creates equity by allowing all to benefit from the heart of reading even if decoding is difficult. Yes, decoding text is important, but it won’t develop an intrinsic desire to read like forming emotional connections will. Bring back the read-aloud!

Chris Moore:

Read. Read to them. Read in front of them. Talk about what you’ve read. Read near them. Have books around. Always. Ask about what they’re reading. LET THEM CHOOSE. Get rid of the level stickers. Stop organizing books by level. Eliminate incentive-based reading “programs.”

Roxanne Stellmacher:

Reading shifts to joy and becomes intrinsically motivating when it becomes automated and connected to highly engaging subject matter. When students either 1) struggle with learning to read (starts early and is a major predictor of long-term reading engagement) and/or 2) are not given exposure and opportunities to engage with high-interest texts, they have little motivation to do the necessary work (whether strengthening skills or increasing exposure) needed to generate self-motivated engagement.

If we can help students who are struggling readers (this means direct reading instruction—phonological awareness/phonics/decoding/word recognition/fluency/vocabulary/comprehension) AND allow students to choose their texts (by way of book talks, peer recommendations, podcast/social-media recs, etc.), we can greatly increase the success felt with reading, and thus, generate intrinsic motivation to continue it.

Thanks to Laura, Michele, and Barbara, and to readers, 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.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

Education Week has published a collection of posts from this blog, along with new material, in an e-book form. It’s titled Classroom Management Q&As: Expert Strategies for Teaching.

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