Beyond Gold Stars: Fostering Intrinsic Motivation in Struggling Readers
Every summer, struggling readers in first through fourth grade participate in Tufts University’s Summer Reading Program for a month of remediation—and empowerment. Some skip through the door, seemingly filled with mirth at the idea of their alternative “summer camp.” Others are hesitant. They have just been told that the skill that presents them with the most difficulty is going to be their sole focus for the entire month of July.
"A significant body of research indicates that incentives are not only damaging to students' internal motivation to learn, but also negatively impact cognitive processing."
This hesitation often carries over into the classroom. It makes sense that, when confronted with the daunting puzzle of a word-filled page, many children shut down. In order to coax sounds out of the reluctant reader’s mouth, some educators use gold stars and prizes as an incentive for participation—but they do so at a cost. A significant body of research indicates that incentives are not only damaging to students’ internal motivation to learn, but also negatively impact cognitive processing.
Practice is essential for children with reading difficulties; it’s the only way to improve their abilities and prevent regression. According to one study, students who are motivated to read spend 300% more time reading than students who lack motivation (Wigfield & Guthrie, 1997). So how can we foster this internal motivation to read? At Tufts, we use research-based motivational strategies that are centered on four themes:
- Autonomy: We give children the opportunity to make choices in the texts they read and the assignments they complete. When these moments of freedom are built into a curriculum, students develop a sense of ownership over their learning experiences.
- Belonging. Group instruction can be a powerful tool, especially when teachers foster a sense of community among a group of students. In our summer program classrooms, students construct a class constitution, engage in team-building exercises, and give peer-to-peer compliments. Teachers work together with students to create an environment in which every student feels connected, valued, and important.
- Competence. In order to embrace reading, children first have to understand that they are capable—that they can experience success when they confront the page, not just fear and failure. We provide children with literary activities that allow them to succeed, but we also give them tools for coping with challenges.
- Meaning. We aren’t just trying to build readers who can power through a page without difficulty; we are striving to build learners who can connect deeply with what they read. We weave exercises into our daily lessons that allow children to relate even the most basic tasks to their larger aspirations, thoughts, and questions about the world.
Using these strategies, our program has not only improved literacy skills but also significantly reduced reading-related task avoidance—without a gold star in sight.
About the Author
Abigail McFee is program assistant at the Center for Reading and Language Research at Tufts University in Medford, Mass.