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Five ways to get kids to want to read and write

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By Larry Ferlazzo

Even though it’s not necessarily an either/or situation, I would suggest that both educators and students would be better served by emphasizing creating the conditions for intrinsic motivation over teaching techniques designed to communicate standards-based content.

This focus on strengthening students’ appetite for learning can result in exceptional academic learning of that standards-based content.

It’s similar to the perspective held by most community organizers (I was one for 19 years prior to becoming a teacher)—when they approach a problem such as the lack of affordable housing or the need for more neighborhood safety, they first ask themselves, “How can we develop leadership and intrinsic motivation by working on this issue, and then how can that energy be used to get more affordable housing built or more police in the neighborhood?”

They don’t first ask themselves, “How can we get more affordable housing built or more police in the neighborhood?”

And, nine times out of ten, addressing the first question yields far greater concrete results than trying to tackle the second one. This chapter excerpt, and my entire book, suggests ways to apply this same perspective in the classroom to gain similarly positive results.

Let’s look at what some research shows to be necessary to create the conditions for intrinsic motivation to flourish, and how that research can be applied specifically to teaching and learning about reading and writing.

Daniel Pink, in his book Drive, has elaborated more on these conditions, building on the Self-Determination Theory (p. 71), developed by Edward Deci and Richard Ryan.

Pink argues that there are three key elements required for the development of intrinsic motivation—autonomy, mastery, and purpose.

Autonomy means “acting with choice” (p. 90). In the area of reading and writing, it could mean having options of books to read, topics to write about, and partners to work with in class. It could also mean teachers having enough of a relationship with students to know their individual hopes and dreams, and then to help students see how lessons are relevant to achieving their goals. It’s a recognition by teachers that all of us—including students—are “meant to be players, not pawns. We’re meant to be autonomous individuals, not individual automatons” (p. 107).

Mastery of skills that require higher-order thinking is defined by Pink as “the desire to get better and better at something that matters” (p.111), and it is promoted through engagement (coming from the French root word meaning “attract the attention of”), not compliance. Students need to see what reading and writing well can do for them now and in the future. We can support this appetite for mastery in reading and writing by setting up situations where students are likely to be successful; creating opportunities where students can visibly see how much they are improving; and by eliciting from students themselves the multiple situations in their present and future lives where those skills are and will be essential.

Purpose is Pink’s final element for developing intrinsic motivation—the desire for some “greater objective . . . a cause greater than themselves” (p. 133). The one-sentence project, where students are asked to come up with a sentence about how they want their life described and remembered years from now, speaks to this point, and we can explore with students how reading and writing well might help them achieve their sentence.

Here are some immediate actions teachers can take to reinforce Pink’s three elements in the area of reading and writing instruction:

 Free Voluntary Reading or Sustained Silent Reading

In order for students to motivate themselves to read, multiple studies have shown that they need access to high-interest reading material, ideally in a well-stocked classroom library.  In addition to access, students need choice in what they will read. By providing access and choice, students gain a sense of power, and once students feel empowered they are more motivated to read. Strict leveling of books that limit student choice by using predetermined guidelines based on reading level has been found to actually discourage reading motivation. Instead, students can be encouraged to choose “just right” books that are engaging and accessible. Though classroom book access is easier for students, the school library is obviously another source for books.

Of course, once students identify the books they want to read, there is the question of how best to support them reading in the classroom. Silent sustained reading, also sometimes called free voluntary reading, is designed to have students read for pleasure with minimal paperwork accountability, and there is substantial research showing that it enhances student motivation to read and increased academic gains.

Having students spend fifteen minutes at the beginning of each or most class periods, and having them read books of their choice for thirty minutes each evening, is one way to encourage reading for pleasure. Though some teachers feel that it is important for them to model reading a book during this classroom reading time, studies have suggested that, instead, students can benefit most by teachers circulating and providing individual feedback (having short conversations about the book, discussing the use of reading strategies, etc.)

 Read a Book to a Younger Child

Having students read a book to a younger child can achieve two results—helping students develop a sense of purpose (discussed earlier in this chapter) connected to reading and strengthening prosody—rhythm, intonation, and fluency. If desired, this simple form can be completed by  students in two-or-three minutes and turned in to the teacher as extra credit.

 Book Talks

It’s not unusual for adults to talk about books they’re reading, so why not have students do the same? Teachers can create a simple form that would take students five minutes to complete, asking questions like: “What is the title of the book? What is the book about? Who is your favorite character and why? What is your favorite passage, and why do you like it?” The questions could periodically change. Then, in small groups, students can show their books in small groups, verbally share what they wrote, and ask questions of one another.  Students can also write short online book reviews for “authentic audiences” online, as well as create video book reviews.

 Publishing on a Small Scale

One way to encourage students to see themselves as writers is to publish student work. This can often be a time consuming and expensive task. One way to avoid this is to publish on a smaller scale; Kelly Gallagher, author of Teaching Adolescent Writers, refers to this idea as “Golden Lines.” After students have written, formally or informally, have them select their best lines. They may choose a phrase or a whole sentence, but no more than two or three sentences. Teachers can have students highlight the sentence or write it on a Post-it note. Students can remain anonymous or take ownership. Teachers could post the notes on the wall or compile them into one document. Typing them up and giving them to the class allows students to see their work published alongside their classmates’. Students usually pore over the document looking for their own lines and then read their classmates’ work.

 Writing Frames

Sometimes when students are faced with a blank page, they freeze. Giving students structures for writing can be motivational. However, when taken too far, or when taught as the only way to write, writing formulas can be detrimental to students’ growth as writers. When used correctly, formulas and strategies can help students to find their voices and motivate them to write..  Research has shown that one of the key elements necessary for intrinsic motivation is a sense of self-efficacy, or competence. Our students will be more likely to want to write if they feel confident in their ability to do so competently.

There are a variety of acronyms for structured paragraph writing to help students: ABC, PQC, PEA, SSE, PEE. We have found ABC and PQC to be effective in helping students to start their writings. Using the ABC format, students Answer the question; Back it up with a quote or other evidence; make a Connection to an experience or another text. If the teacher is working on quote integration or using quotations from text as evidence, then PQC is a good start: Make a Point, Quote from the text supporting your point., Make a Comment or a Connection to your personal experience, another text, or some other knowledge. Other variations are PEA (make a Point, provide Evidence, Analyze the evidence by connecting it to the point), SSE (Summarize the issue, take a Stance, provide Evidence to support the stance), and PEE (make a Point, provide Evidence, Explain how the evidence proves the point). All of these formats represent some variation of students making a point, providing evidence, and analyzing this evidence.

Helping students to motivate themselves is a far more effective and energizing teaching/learning strategy than the faux magical one of extrinsic motivation.

This article was adapted and excerpted with permission from Ferlazzo, Larry, Self-Driven Learning: Teaching Strategies for Student Motivation, Copyright © 2013 Eye On Education, Inc. Larchmont, NY. All rights reserved. More information about this title is available here.