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Beyond Gold Stars: Fostering Intrinsic Motivation in Struggling Readers

Blog Type:  Teaching Date Posted:  Friday, July 14, 2017 Byline:  By Abigail McFee

three girls looking at book

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

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Tags:  cognitive process learning differences learning strategies motivating students reading reading difficulties reading motivation

Prevent Summer Learning Loss Before It Happens

Blog Type:  Learning Date Posted:  Tuesday, May 30, 2017 Byline:  By Joanna A. Christodoulou

boy reading

"Reading must be integrated into summer activities."

Reading activities during the summer can play an important role in helping students maintain their reading skills. Summer slump, or the potential for academic skills to regress during school vacation, is a concern for many students.

Children with language-based learning disabilities, such as dyslexia, may be at a higher risk of summer slump than their peers (Christodoulou et al., 2017). More generally, children who may also be more vulnerable to summer slump are those who take a vacation not just from school, but also from engaging with text during the summer months. These reduced reading experiences may be because students don’t enjoy reading; they may not feel good about their reading skills; or they have limited access to the library or books at home. In addition to options to enroll students in summer reading instruction, camps, or related activities, other programs are available to families at little to no financial burden.

Parents can help by considering three goals

First, parents and children can set a reading intention together about what to achieve during the summer. A reading intention can describe what to do and how it will be done. The focus does not have to be on the total number of books read, but can also be on what each child wants to learn about (e.g., the solar system, gardening, etc.). Creating a certificate or written agreement that both parents and children sign can offer a fun way to support this commitment. This goal can also be achieved through summer reading programs offered locally in libraries or community centers.

Second, identify the correct reading level for your child. To do so, you may seek assistance from your school or library staff. One rule of thumb for texts appropriate for a child to read independently is that they read five or fewer words incorrectly for every 100 words in the text. Independent level texts can be read by the student on his/her own, or students can read these texts aloud to others. Keep in mind that texts that are more challenging should not be excluded from summer reading lists as these may be great candidates for parents and children to read together. Identifying your child’s reading level for books she or he can read independently and those she or he can read with a partner is an important goal to aim for before the end of the school year.

Third, parents can identify their child’s areas of interest. Collecting topics that are intriguing, exciting, informative, and of interest will be key to selecting high interest reading material that children are motivated to read (Kim, 2007). More importantly, the motivation to learn about high-interest topics by reading can help struggling readers overcome some barriers; this is a common trait shared among successful adults with dyslexia (Fink, 1998).

Several organizations offer online texts for students with dyslexia. TextProject offers free books across a wide range of reading levels. Bookshare is a free online library that offers ebooks for students who have challenges accessing print. The Perkins Library offers free reading resources (e.g., audio, large print books, playback equipment) for Massachusetts residents with reading disabilities. Learning Ally offers audiobooks that can be useful for pairing with texts (i.e., listen and read at the same time) that students may otherwise have some difficulty reading independently.

In addition to supporting positive reading experiences during the summer months, families may consider contributing to research efforts aiming to improve outcomes for struggling readers. Supporting area researchers is a way to empower families and children with reading disabilities or difficulties, advance the science of reading, and meet other community members invested in supporting reading development. These opportunities range in their time commitment, gift card and prize offerings, and location. More information can be found on the website of the Massachusetts Branch of the International Dyslexia Association.

For children with language-based learning disabilities, such as dyslexia, in particular, summer vacation provides an opportunity for positive reading outcomes, but to achieve this, reading must be integrated into summer activities. To access appropriate texts, families can visit the local library, enjoy book swaps with neighbors, or explore online reading opportunities.

Christodoulou, J.A., Cyr, A., Murtagh, J., Chang, P., Lin, J., Guarino, A.J., Hook, P., & Gabrieli, J.D.E. (2015). Impact of intensive summer reading intervention for early elementary school children with dyslexia. Journal of Learning Disabilities.

Fink, R. (1998). Literacy development in successful men and women with dyslexia. Annals of Dyslexia, 48, 311–346.

Kim, J.S. (2007). The Effects of a Voluntary Summer Reading Intervention on Reading Activities and Reading Achievement. Journal of Educational Psychology, 99, 505-515.

About the Author:

Joanna A. Christodoulou Joanna A. Christodoulou, Ed.D. is Assistant Professor in the Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders at the MGH Institute of Health Professions in Boston, MA.

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Tags:  dyslexia language-based learning disabilities LBLD learning disabilities reading struggling reader summer summer reading summer regression summer slide summer slump

Moving Beyond “Struggling Reader” Labels

Blog Type:  Learning Date Posted:  Wednesday, March 6, 2019

boy reading

By Katherine K. Frankel

In a recent interview with Education Week, author Jacqueline Woodson, the Library of Congress's 2018­–2019 National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, discussed her concerns about labels like “struggling reader.” She argued that these kinds of labels are harmful because they perpetuate the mistaken idea that a reader’s abilities are static rather than dynamic. Drawing on her own experiences, Woodson explained:

“I know if I was raised in this day and age, I would have been labeled a struggling reader. But what I know now is I was actually reading like a writer…What gets translated is ‘you are not as good,’ and that gets translated into our whole bodies. That’s where the danger lies” (Iasevoli, 2018, para. 5).

Woodson’s words of caution resonate with me on multiple levels. In elementary school, I too would have been labeled a “struggling reader” if the term had existed at the time. As a high school teacher, many of my students considered themselves to be “struggling readers” based on years of hearing this and similar terms applied to them. In my research, I have documented the negative impact of labels as experienced by adolescent readers. For example, I have seen how labels contribute to deficit thinking by focusing on what a reader cannot do. I have seen how labels locate reading difficulty as an individual problem that lies within the reader, rather than as an instructional- or societal-level problem that may be understood and addressed collectively by students, teachers, and parents working together. And, like Woodson, I have seen how labels oversimplify the act of reading by implying the existence of a static “good reader” / “poor reader” dichotomy that does not accurately reflect the complexity of reading.

Moving Beyond Labels 

As an alternative to labeling readers, we can instead engage in conversations and practices that reflect current understandings of reading as a dynamic process. Below, I offer three recommendations for how to do this, accompanied by guiding questions. My hope is that these questions will serve as starting points for students, parents, and teachers to engage in more robust conversations about reading that move beyond labels.

Focus on understanding the conditions under which readers are most successful.

  • What kinds of texts, broadly defined, do we read (for example: novels, graphic novels, magazines, song lyrics, maps, recipes, emails, text messages, social media posts)?
  • What kinds of texts do we most enjoy reading?
  • Why do we read these texts? What makes them so enjoyable?
  • What do we do when we encounter difficulties while reading them?

Be precise about when and why readers might require additional support with particular texts and tasks.  

  • What are the specific combinations of texts, tasks, and contexts that give rise to reading difficulties for particular readers? For example, the reading processes and challenges that a reader might encounter while comparing and contrasting multiple historical documents in preparation for writing a timed essay in school likely differ from those that same reader encounters while reading a young adult novel for pleasure at home and then texting or talking about it with friends.
  • What happens when these text/task/context combinations change? For example, does a reader gain more understanding of those same historical documents when she has opportunities to reread and discuss key concepts and vocabulary with her teacher and classmates? Does she communicate that understanding differently when she has opportunities to articulate and debate her arguments prior to writing an essay?

Emphasize that all readers experience reading challenges under certain conditions.

  • What text/task/context combinations give rise to reading difficulties for more experienced readers (for example: parents, teachers, siblings)?
  • What do experienced readers do when they encounter difficulties (for example: reread, look for key vocabulary, combine information from images and words, write down questions, talk with another reader, etc.)?

Finally, I urge students, parents, and teachers to advocate for policies and practices that take a more nuanced perspective on reading, a perspective that allows us to recognize and build from readers’ strengths and that reflects the complex and dynamic nature of reading.


Iasevoli, B. (2018, February 5). Stop using the label ‘struggling reader,’ author Jacqueline Woodson advises [Web log post]. Retrieved from


Thank you to the graduate student literacy educators enrolled in my Spring 2019 adolescent literacy course for their thoughtful feedback on an earlier draft of this post. For a more extended discussion of alternatives to labels and labelling, please see Frankel, K.K., & Brooks, M.D. (2018). Why the “struggling reader” label is harmful (and what educators can do about it). Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 62(1), 111-114.

About the Author

Katherine K. Frankel

Katherine K. Frankel, PhD, is an assistant professor of literacy education in the Boston University Wheelock College of Education & Human Development. Formerly a Landmark High School teacher, she now teaches graduate-level courses in reading/literacy and conducts research in classrooms and one-on-one tutoring contexts in partnership with middle and high school students and their teachers.

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Tags:  reading reading comprehension struggling reader

The Five Components of Reading: The Keys to Unlock Reading Proficiency

Blog Type:  Learning Date Posted:  Monday, February 25, 2019

girl reading at desk with teacher

By Meghan Sebens

Reading is an integral part of our culture and has been for many millennia. While our social and academic lives are constantly infused with reading, this ability does not develop innately. ​The ability to read is shaped by the material we engage with, by our own internal processes, and most importantly, by the instruction we’re given. When we tease apart the concept of reading, we’re left with five vastly expansive underlying components. Although these areas range from pre-literacy skills to deep understanding of complex texts, they do not necessarily fall on a sequential spectrum. In fact, solid instruction covers many of these areas within a single lesson.

Phonemic Awareness

Phonemic awareness is the ability to identify and manipulate the sounds (phonemes) within a spoken word. While this component of reading does not actually involve written text, it is fundamental to the skill of decoding. Some students may not need direct instruction in order to develop phonemic awareness. However, if phonemic awareness is not intact, difficulty will persist until it is remediated. Phonemic awareness instruction may consist of various wordplay activities. Can you show the number of sounds in gush (hint: it’s not four!)? Can you take out the /f/ sound in flip? Students build the ability to control sounds, and even syllables, within words. Without this capacity, phonics instruction will be incredibly challenging.


Phonics knowledge is the understanding that letters correspond to certain sounds. While in some languages, like Italian, a single spelling exists for each sound, in English, the 26 letters of the alphabet represent roughly 44 different sounds. Furthermore, English contains approximately 360 different combinations of letters to spell those sounds. The rules of phonics for English are more complex and varied than many alphabetic languages. Teaching phonics is incredibly important, especially for students who do not naturally synthesize the many rules of the English language. A systematic approach toward phonics helps students recognize expected patterns in English from the very basic to the more complex. First, students must apply these rules to reading and spelling tasks in isolation. Once patterns are reinforced, they are ready for varied practice and application in context.


The skill of reading fluency spans from words to connected text. At the word level, fluent readers are able to read words with automaticity, or accurate and fast word recognition. Within connected text, students can accurately and efficiently string words together to form phrases and passages with ease. Fluent reading should sound natural, like a conversation. Appropriate (not fast) pacing, accurate word recognition, and phrasing and expression that demonstrate an understanding of the text are all subgoals within fluent reading. Each individual student may need a different focus for instruction. Activities that build rate include repeated readings, listening to model readings, and chunking text into phrases. Accuracy can be addressed through error handling, word analysis and automaticity drills, and decoding practice. A student can increase prosody (phrasing and expression) with phrase-cued text, poetry, and reader’s theater. While one student may need to use repeated readings to establish appropriate pace, this may be counterproductive to students who approach reading too quickly. Relevant instruction and building self-awareness are important factors in addressing fluent reading.


Vocabulary is the understanding of word meanings. Although text is not the only place that children gain vocabulary, explicit instruction in vocabulary leads to consistent gains in reading. Teaching vocabulary can be accomplished by constructing word meanings and other associated information (e.g., synonyms, antonyms, examples), training students to use context clues, as well as familiarizing them with the morphological structure of words (prefixes, roots, suffixes). It is important to take into account the frequency and usefulness of terms selected for study. Words that cross a variety of domains (i.e., different classes or situations) can be practiced more and provide a higher benefit for the student’s knowledge base. Categorization helps students to connect like vocabulary terms and organize information more efficiently.


Comprehension is the ultimate goal of reading. It may begin with recall of stated facts from the text but generally stems far beyond this simplistic notion. Students should be able to engage with the text in order to draw inferences beyond the stated material, connect novel situations to their own lives or other readings, analyze broader themes, and more. In order to accomplish this, students need to be taught to independently use strategies that allow them to attack written material at a deeper level. Summarizing, visualizing, and questioning are just a few strategies that teachers may incorporate into comprehension instruction. Students must learn to identify comprehension gaps and use a variety of tools to reconstruct the author’s intended meanings. Some readers make the necessary connections from speech sounds to symbols almost imperceptibly, learning to manipulate phonemes, recognize words and phrases, acquire vocabulary, and extract meaning from passages with ease. For others, the sub-skills of fluent reading must be identified and explicitly taught. The degree of intervention and the recipe for effective instruction can be as individualized as the human brain, but research has shown that the five areas above, in combination with principles of effective teaching, are essential keys to reading proficiency.   For further information on the five components of reading and instructional strategies, I encourage you to review the National Reading Panel Report - Practical Advice for Teachers.


About the Author

Meghan Sebens

Meghan Sebens, M.S.Ed., is the reading supervisor, the testing coordinator, and an academic advisor at Landmark’s Elementary•Middle School.


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Tags:  reading stages of reading reading comprehension decoding vocabulary fluency phonics
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