Interest Tree Discoveries Can Unlock Learning

Our reading engagement team is just scratching the surface, when it comes to engaging kids via their deepest interests. So far this year our team has spent time with kids ages seven through 12 in the U.S. and the U.K. We’ve invited them to think about the subjects and activities they truly love and then create their very own interests trees, complete with branches representing their keenest interests.

This process enables kids to discover more about themselves and to feel successful as they take charge of their own learning. We’re discovering that keenest interests are the key to peeling away the layers of stress that can contribute to learning struggles in our kids.

Here’s an example from Charli, one of the students we recently spoke with in the U.K. Charli knows she loves to sing, and she shared this as one of her deepest interests in our recent lesson together. Singing is just one of the branches on her interest tree that she plans to nurture and develop.

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.

Transform Your Library with a (Low-Budget!) Makerspace

You may have heard of “maker” programs before, but, due to cost constraints, thought they were out of the realm of possibility for your own library. Think again.

Aided by new technologies like 3-D printers, maker programs emphasize both physical and digital creations, from simple arts and crafts programs to robots, advanced graphic design, and 3-D modeling. Creating a dedicated “Makerspace” of your own can help promote these activities, while encouraging a creative, do-it-yourself culture throughout your library and greater community.

Low-Tech, High-Impact Learning

But for libraries that don’t have the resources to purchase a 3-D printer or build their dream makerspaces, this School Library Journal piece offers some great ideas for providing low-tech, high-impact maker programming.

Turns out, many of the programs libraries have been offering for years—arts and crafts or sewing and cooking classes, for instance—are already highly creative activities that can easily be re-branded with the “maker” label. Other inexpensive ideas, such as offering free time with Legos, Tinker Toys, or simple craft materials, are great ways to support imaginative thinking, spatial reasoning, and other important skills.

More Than a Buzzword

The maker label is more than just a buzzword, it’s a movement of educators, parents, and kids to promote creativity and empowerment through experiential learning. By providing opportunities for your patrons to create, build, and connect with each other, a makerspace can transform your library, making it not just a place to read and learn, but also a place to create and do.

Next Steps?

For some great makerspace project ideas, explore the resources below, and stay tuned. Soon, we’ll also be posting tips for finding makerspace funding.

5 Great Takeaways from “Written by a Kid”

If you haven’t seen the “Written by a Kid” series yet, you should. As advertised, the short episodes are conceived entirely by young children and are acted out and animated by some rather high-profile adults. For instance, the first in the series, “Scary Smash,” includes Dave Foley (from “Kids in the Hall” and “News Radio” fame), Joss Whedon (of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “Veronica Mars”), and Kate Micucci (of the comedy duo Garfunkel and Oates.)

But the stories and their authors are what matter most. In “Scary Smash,” as told by a boy named Brett, a red, one-eyed monster smashes a milk truck and a “S.Q.U.A.T.” team is sent in to save the day. In “Fire City,” six-year-old Aaron tells an apocalyptic tale set in “S country” where one million fire fighters reside in a single fire station. And six-year-old Emily’s “La Munkya”—about a really hungry, paper horse—is another noteworthy episode.

Never mind that these stories are incredibly well produced and entertaining for kids and adults alike, “Written by a Kid” affords teachers and parents some great lessons.

Use oral storytelling to empower kids.

For very young children—or for kids who struggle with putting their thoughts down on paper—oral storytelling can be very empowering. Oral storytelling enables them to focus on developing a plot in an easy, fun way—without being hampered by the physical act of writing or the challenge of “writer’s block.” Sometimes, kids also will use oral storytelling to try out new vocabulary words that they haven’t yet learned to spell.

Teach the elements of story.

With oral storytelling, kids have the freedom to create a story’s title, its setting, its characters and their motivations and actions, as well as a story’s conflicts and resolution. As with written stories, oral tales include sequences and transitions—kids understand that something happens first, next, and last.

Kids may also pick up the concepts of “theme” and “genre.” Love, death, and good-versus-evil pop up a lot in “Written by a Kid” episodes, many of which fall into the “horror” and “sci-fi” categories.

Don’t sweat the details.

Josh Flaum and Will Bowles, the creators of “Written by a Kid,” change absolutely nothing in the stories kids tell them, and errors are allowed to stand. (In one exchange, a young storyteller announced her story takes place in California. When asked where in California, she confidently replied, “Texas, California!”)

To stop and correct the child would have stopped her creative flow and also, perhaps, shaken her confidence and willingness to share her thoughts.

Pay attention.

When listening to a new story, Flaum and Bowles pay very close attention. Both physically and emotionally, they get down on the storyteller’s level, allowing the storyteller to drive his or her story with minimal interruptions. (Flaum and Bowles do ask clarifying questions which only further demonstrate the extent to which they are paying attention.)

By serving as an attentive audience, we validate our storytellers, we encourage their creativity, and we give them purpose.

Use technology to bring their stories to life.

Although they certainly do help, you don’t have to have iMovie and a Mac to bring children’s stories to life. There are many free digital storytelling tools worth checking out.

Froggy Phonics Develops Surprising Skills

Lindsey Hill, our lead for reading engagement innovation, recently appeared on Matthew Winner’s “Let’s Get Busy” podcast where the pair discussed Froggy Phonics. Turns out there’s a lot more to the game than simply leaping from lily pad to lily pad, gulping fireflies, and hunting for froggy friends.


Listen to the audio clip below to find out which specific skills Froggy Phonics helps children to develop.


Motivation Drives the Educational Process for Children

As we continue to discuss the literacy crisis facing the United States, we recently brought up the importance that reading to young children plays in their development. Not only does it give them key skills that form the foundation of life-long literacy, but just as importantly, it teaches them that reading is fun.

Kids like fun.

We’ve already seen how kids who are de-motivated to read struggle when they get to secondary school, and today we’ll examine the indispensable element that motivation plays in the learning process.

Simply put, motivation is the gas that fuels a child’s educational engine. Kids who value learning and see the benefits are more engaged and successful than kids who aren’t motivated.

Skinner and Belmont from the University of Rochester (1991) noted that students who are motivated to engage in school “select tasks at the border of their competencies, initiate action when given the opportunity, and exert intense effort and concentration in the implementation of learning tasks; they show generally positive emotions during ongoing action, including enthusiasm, optimism, curiosity, and interest.”

In other words, motivated kids push themselves to learn and grow, and they enjoy the process.

Motivation is the key to developing successful readers. It affects how students approach school in general, including how they relate to teachers, how much time and effort they devote to their studies, how much support they seek when they are struggling, how they perform on tests, and many other aspects of education.

Higher motivation to learn is linked not only to better academic performance but also to greater conceptual understanding, satisfaction with school, self-esteem, social adjustment, and school completion rates.

The amount of motivation that a student has for reading determines whether the learning derived will be meaningful, deep, and internalized, or if it will be trivial (Gambrell, Morrow & Pressley, 2007).

If students are not motivated, it is difficult, if not impossible, to improve their academic achievement, no matter how good the teacher, curriculum or school is.

Means, Jonassen, and Dwyer In Education Technology Research and Development (1997) cite studies that showing motivation accounts for 16 percent to 38 percent of the variations in overall student achievement.

The problem is how to keep kids motivated as they age. The more years a child is in school, the more likely he or she is to be discouraged by the experience.

Motivation often declines as students progress from elementary through high school. Upwards of 40 percent of high school students are disengaged from learning, are inattentive, exert little effort on school work, and report being bored in school, according to a 2004 analysis by the National Research Council.

The quest to keep interested in school and motivated to learn can feel quixotic, but next week we’ll explore the central internal and external factors that we can optimize to best encourage our children to embrace the educational process on their path to becoming life-long readers and learners.

What Does it Mean to Teach a Child to Read?

We take reading for granted.

For most of us, it’s such a fundamental part of our lives, that we forget we are even doing it. Decoding signs and letters and books is more reflex than chore. We read without a thought.

That’s not true for everyone. For children (and many teens and adults), reading requires tremendous focus and effort. It is a complex skill that must be honed and refined before it becomes effortless.

Having already discussed the literacy crisis in the United States and the factors that prevent kids from being avid readers, it’s time to focus our attention on the nature of the challenge before us. What does it take to teach a child to read?

There’s more to literacy than meets the eye.

Reading isn’t just about translating text into words. The ultimate goal in teaching reading is to have students comprehend the ideas buried in the text. Reading requires critical thinking skills, concentration, a growing vocabulary and leads to effectively mastering the student’s environment.

There’s a lot more to it than just c-a-t, cat.

Reading fluency is a complex act that requires many years of experience and use. Many “models” of reading have been offered, each attempting to describe the essential components of skilled reading. Reading can be described at many levels, from the neurological to the psychological to the sociological. For our purposes, it is useful to think of skilled English readers as individuals who:

  • - Understand and use the “alphabetic principle,” that is, the translation of printed letters into sounds that form words;
  • - Can obtain meaning from printed words by using background knowledge of words and comprehension strategies;
  • - Fluently and effortlessly comprehend what they are reading, except when they come across unfamiliar text; and
  • - Do it all on a regular and sustained basis.

As easy as A-B-C, huh?

Learning to read English presents particular challenges that are not seen in other languages and reading systems. English is based upon that translation of letters to sounds to words. Research indicates that this process should begin in preschool and kindergarten so that children can learn that written words represent spoken sounds. We call this “decoding” and means breaking down a word into its separate sounds. To decode, children need to be explicitly taught how to sound out words. Comprehension is built as children become more adept at decoding and reading words.

Stringing words together is a great accomplishment, but it’s not the same as reading.

Fluency comes when a student recognizes more and more words on sight. The more words are recognized by sight the fewer the reading errors made. A student struggling with decoding will lack fluency and comprehension.

A lack of reading progress sometimes involves what child hears, rather than what he or she sees.

Reading problems often are not related to learning disabilities but to a child’s awareness of sounds. Not all kids have the ability to “hear” the English language, and limited exposure to the English alphabet can slow progress. Rhyming words and repeating lines help children develop an “ear” for language—by appreciating the sounds of words.

The more a child is exposed to reading, the more likely the child is to acquire the requisite skills for reading. Children must learn that words on a page have meaning and that reading is done from left to right and from top to bottom.

We take these simple truths as a matter of course, but they are foundational to literacy, and not every child is exposed enough to the written word at home.

Children who have not been read to when very young may not have experience listening to rhythms and sounds. They may have yet to develop an interest in reading. Contrast this to children who have been read to in childhood. They are more motivated to learn to read and appreciate that reading is a gateway to new ideas.

Ultimately, the enjoyment of reading comes from comprehension, however, and not merely decoding words. Skilled readers “interact” with a text, thinking about what will happen next, creating questions about the main characters and so on. Kids who love to read have good comprehension skills.

The most important form of early reading instruction possible is also the most obvious: read to kids.

When you read to a young child, you not only import some of the most fundamental skills necessary for higher literacy, but you teach them reading is valuable and even fun. A child can learn very early that those little squiggles on a page have meaning, and that meaning can illuminate and enrapture them.

We will explore the role of motivation on Thursday, but for now remember that while the technical process of learning to read is complex, the most basic instruction is not.

Reading to kids will help them learn to read.