External Motivation and the Desire to Read within Children

In discussing the role of motivation in helping children become avid readers, it’s clear that internal motivation drives much a reader’s behavior. Internal motivation occurs when a child enjoys reading because it’s fun or because he or she is interested in the subject matter.

But what about external motivators? Can punishments or prizes and rewards help generate long-term reading gains? The results of recent studies may surprise you.

External rewards may actually do more harm than good. Research demonstrates that using extrinsic motivators to engage students in learning can both lower achievement and negatively affect student motivation (Dev, Remedial and Special Education, 1997; Lumsden, ERIC, 1994).

When students are motivated to complete a task only to avoid consequences or to earn a certain grade, they rarely exert more than the minimum effort necessary to meet their goal. When students are focused on comparing themselves with their classmates, rather than on mastering skills at their own rate, they are more easily discouraged and their intrinsic motivation to learn may actually decrease.

Prizes can keep a kid reading for the short term, but discourage long term gains. Brooks et al.(St. Xavier University, 1998) observe that while external rewards sustain productivity, they “decrease interest in the task, thereby diminishing the likelihood that the task will be continued in the future.” Getting a trinket or badge may keep a child reading for a little while, but it’s not a viable strategy for long-term reading growth.

Of course there are also researchers who object to describing student motivation as either intrinsic or extrinsic. Sternberg and Lubart (as cited in Strong, Silver, & Robinson, Educational Leadership,1995) for example, argue that this division is too simple to reflect the many complex and interrelated factors that influence students’ motivation to succeed in school. They point out that most successful people are motivated by both internal and external factors.

It only makes sense that for any task as multifaceted as literacy, there will be a wide variety of influences and factors that we can employ to encourage students to read. The real challenge is not to get a single child to finish a single book or even a single list of books, but rather to encourage children to fall completely in love with reading for the simple joy of it. Only then can we know we’ve created life-long readers.

On Monday, we’ll begin to unpack the key factors in the complex tapestry of motivation, including self-confidence, interest in the content, a desire to be challenged and social interaction with peers. By fostering these core motivators in young readers, we can help them move beyond simple rewards/punishments as the driving forces behind why they choose to pick up a book.

Reading for the sake of reading: it is possible.

Top 10 Reasons to PLAY with Your Kids this Holiday Weekend

There is certainly more to this holiday weekend than just eating and shopping. Find time to PLAY with your kids as we celebrate National Games and Puzzles Week!

PLAY . . .

#10     Engages kids in critical thinking and problem solving

#9       Develops physical coordination skills

#8       Improves ability to focus

#7       Encourages good sportsmanship

#6       Promotes collaborative interactions

#5       Sparks the imagination

#4       Relieves emotional stress

#3       Boosts self-confidence

#2       Launches strategies for learning

#1       Builds solid relationships



Internal Motivation and the Desire to Read within Children

In our continuing series on the literacy crisis facing the United States, we recently came to the question of motivation. We know that motivation drives the education process for children.

We think we know what motivation is, but how does that flesh itself out in the lives of school-aged kids in the United States? What drives a student to want to read?

Great minds ranging from Skinner to Maslow have battled back and forth as to whether motivation is strictly driven by external factors or internal ones, but current thinking would advise us to choose a both/and approach rather than either/or.

Motivation is difficult to define and measure, but scholars generally recognize two major types: intrinsic and extrinsic. Intrinsic motivation is the desire to do or achieve something because one truly wants to and takes pleasure or sees value in doing so.

Extrinsic motivation is the desire to do or achieve something not so much for the enjoyment of the activity itself, but because it will produce a certain result. The difference between the two is more like a spectrum than a divide; any action can be motivated by a combination of intrinsic and extrinsic factors, and the same person may be motivated differently in different contexts.

In other words, students are motivated both by an internal drive for success as well as by external rewards. The interplay between the two is fascinating. While external rewards have some effect, students who find internal motivation to read tend have the most lasting success.

According to Dev (Special Education and Remediation, 1997), “A student who is intrinsically motivated . . . will not need any type of reward or incentive to initiate or complete a task. This type of student is more likely to complete the chosen task and be excited by the challenging nature of an activity.” There is compelling evidence that students who are more intrinsically than extrinsically motivated fare better (Brooks, thesis at Saint Xavier Univeristy, 1998; Lumsden, ERIC, 1994).

Likewise, Pachtman and Wilson (The Reading Teacher, 2006) found that motivation can develop from intrinsic or extrinsic stimuli. Intrinsic motivation is developed through the choice of literacy activities based on individual interest and the child’s beliefs that he/she can successfully complete the reading task. Lapp and Douglas (Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy, 2009) expand on this notion, finding that peer influence and intrinsic motivation are primary factors associated with encouraging teens to want to read.

When students read for aesthetic reasons (Rosenblatt, Literature S.O.S!, 2005), they are motivated because the reading provokes feelings, ideas, and attitudes that are linked through private, past experiences. Therefore, when students’ readings evoke connections to individual responses, they will be more likely to want to continue to read.

Kids read more when they are interested in what they are reading, they have confidence they can read and their friends like reading. It makes sense, doesn’t it? Kids don’t read books because someone offers them a trinket. They read books because they are interested in what they are reading.

The lasting effects of internal motivation are legion. Intrinsically motivated students:

  • - Earn higher grades and achievement test scores, on average, than extrinsically motivated students (Dev, 1997; Skinner & Belmont, University of Rochester, 1991)
  • - Are better personally adjusted to school (Skinner & Belmont, 1991)
  • - Employ “strategies that demand more effort and that enable them to process information more deeply” (Lumsden, 1994, p. 2)
  • - Are more likely to feel confident about their ability to learn new material (Dev, 1997)
  • - Use “more logical information-gathering and decision-making strategies” than do extrinsically motivated students (Lumsden, 1994, p. 2)
  • - Are more likely to engage in “tasks that are moderately challenging, whereas extrinsically oriented students gravitate toward tasks that are low in degree of difficulty” (Lumsden, 1994, p.2)
  • - Are more likely to persist with and complete assigned tasks (Dev, 1997)
  • - Retain information and concepts longer, and are less likely to need remedial courses and review (Dev, 1997)
  • - Are more likely to be lifelong learners, continuing to educate themselves outside the formal school setting long after external motivators such as grades and diplomas are removed (Kohn, 1993)

There is more than one way to address the issue, however, and many literacy programs use a heavy dose of extrinsic motivators to encourage reading behavior. On Thursday, we’ll further explore the interplay between internal and external motivators in pursuit of finding ways to properly motivate young people to become high-frequency readers.