The Four Keys to Motivating Struggling Readers

by Angie Barnett | Jan 23, 2013

The Four Keys to Motivating Struggling Readers

During a recent ‘organization spree’, my mom unearthed a pile of report cards from my elementary through high school years from the depths of the basement. On my first-grade report card, my teacher had written, “Stacy can do anything that she puts her mind to.” I am sure that as a first grader, I took that as a compliment. As a teacher, I now understand that motivation was an issue. This supposition was supported by a comment written on one of my high school report cards, “Stacy is capable of more. Prod her a bit.” I am pointing out the obvious here, but all of us would probably agree that whatever is required of us is more enjoyable (and more likely to be completed) when we are motivated.

Recently, efforts to improve student achievement have been focused on providing our schools with a better reading curriculum and instructional materials, more highly qualified teachers, and standards that clearly define what students are expected to learn. Even IF all of these things are in place, gains in student achievement will be difficult to show if students are not motivated to learn. Motivation can make the difference between learning something temporarily and being able to ‘own’ and apply what they have learned permanently. One study showed that students who are motivated to read spend 300% more time reading than students who are not motivated to read (Tweet!) (Wigfield & Guthrie, 1997). Student motivation is not only linked to higher levels of achievement, but it is also linked to satisfaction with school, positive self-esteem, social adjustment, and lower dropout rates.

Motivation to read is only one piece of the reading puzzle, but it is a necessary piece. Especially if we, as parents and/or teachers, want students to develop a habit of reading that will benefit them throughout their lives. There are various aspects of motivation, but researchers agree four factors are critical for motivating students: competence, autonomy/control, interest/value, and relatedness (Tweet!) (Bandura, 1996; Dweck, 2010; Pintrich, 2003; Ryan & Deci, 2000; Seifert, 2004).

Here is a brief description of each and how it relates to reading:

Four Factors of Motivation


Students need to feel that they are capable of accomplishing what is being required of them. We have all seen students whose motivation takes a nosedive when a book is too hard, or they haven’t been taught the necessary strategies to become skilled at reading. If we, as teachers, fail to balance competence and motivation in reading, we will see students who are too discouraged to read or students who can read but have no interest.

What To Do to Improve Competence What NOT To Do
Differentiate instruction for all learners. Use only whole-class instruction and stick to the schedule even if students aren’t showing signs of understanding.
Use explicit and appropriately sequenced phonics instruction to help students decode words. Teach students to guess at a word, skip it, look at the picture, or ask a friend when they come to a word they don’t know.
Effectively teach all aspects of reading (vocabularyfluencycomprehension). Use the majority of reading time copying words and their meanings from the dictionary.
Give students adequate time to practice and apply reading strategies at school. Use instructional time to lecture. Students can read at home.
Provide appropriate levels of text, including decodable text. Give students text that is too hard or too easy. Read the text to them first so they know what the words will say.
Provide feedback and encouragement based on the process of reading. Teach to the test.



Choice is an important aspect in improving reading ability. If students are given a choice of what to read, at least during some point of the school day, they will be more motivated to read. Remember college? How much fun was it to spend large amounts of time reading things that you were required to read? Answer: no fun at all.

It is also important for students to see a correlation between effort and outcome. Students who put a lot of effort into reading and don’t see improvement will lose motivation pretty quickly. If achievable goals are set, students are more likely to see this correlation.

What To Do to Facilitate Autonomy/Control What NOT To Do
Provide a variety of books for students to choose from. Use only stories/books that come with the program you are using.
Communicate with students to set achievable goals. Require the same level of mastery, at the same time, for all students.
Use a menu option for book reports. Require all students to write a book report following the same format each time they read a book.
Allow students adequate time to choose books in the school library. Shorten or eliminate library time.



When we are interested in a task or see the value in completing it, motivation is high. How much more fun was it to spend time reading books on a subject that you were interested in? Answer: way more fun.

Most suburban 16-year-olds, regardless of their reading ability, are more interested in studying to get a driver’s license than in studying for… well, most anything else, simply because they see the value of a driver’s license. As teachers, we can help students to see the value of being literate. Many students who don’t struggle with reading are becoming aliterate; that is, they can read, but they choose not to because they do not value reading or they are more interested in other pursuits such as video games and TV.

What To Do to Increase Interest/Value What NOT To Do
Continue to develop your own passion for reading and show students that you are enthusiastic about reading. As a teacher, do not read for leisure. When reading aloud to the class, do not spend time responding to the text or discussing it as you read.
Encourage students to interact with the text in order to live through the experience of others or to acquire and retrieve information about a subject that interests them. Focus only on reading accuracy and fluency and doing well on the test.
Help students make connections between what they are reading and their lives (for example there ARE books and other texts that teach students ‘cheats’ for video games). Only teach students to memorize facts about a story.
Use a variety of genres in your literacy instruction. Only use fiction.
Encourage the appropriate amount of extrinsic motivators. Always facilitate intrinsic motivation. Example: Give books as a reward for reading. Always reward students for reading with candy or toys.
Get to know what your students are interested in. Help them find books that are related to their interests, even if it is something that you are not interested in. Assign the same list of books to each student. Only give students books that you would choose to read for yourself.



Relatedness is the need to feel a part of a group and to act appropriately when interacting with that group. There are major social rewards with this factor of motivation. My little brother, who was a struggling reader, was motivated to read the first Harry Potter book because all of his friends were talking about it and he wanted to be a part of the conversation. Sadly, when the movies were released, the books lost value to him because he could still be part of the discussion without reading the books. I imagine that is one reason Round Robin Reading is less than effective; students who can’t read as well as their peers lose that sense of relatedness to the students who can read well.

What To Do to Foster Relatedness What NOT To Do
Facilitate discussion among readers about what they are reading. Never allow students to talk during reading time.
Provide opportunities for students to share what they have learned from their reading. Portray reading as an academic task. It is only necessary to read to do well on tests.
If you have struggling readers read in front of the class, give them enough time to practice. Isolate students who do not read well. Never let them read in front of others. Let the person sitting next to them read it for them.
Create a class blog or newspaper that each student contributes to. Let only the best students write the class newspaper.
Encourage students to appropriately use social media to talk about and share books with other students. Believe that social media does not have a place in literacy instruction.
Arrange for older students to read to or tutor younger students. Do not allow older students to leave the classroom to read with younger students.


Most teachers recognize what is not reflected in school reform efforts; student motivation is vital to the learning process. The good news is that teachers who are motivated to motivate students will have more success and fulfillment in their teaching careers than teachers who don’t believe that motivating students is part of their job. It seems to me that most students can be motivated by any teacher who cares about them as an individual.

I know I learned more from teachers who motivated me. One look at my high school report card will quickly identify which teachers motivated me and which teachers did not. My high school AP English teacher, Mrs. Earl, motivated me to read books that I normally wouldn’t choose to read because she taught me the value in expanding my horizons and learning new things even if I didn’t want to initially (a skill that was very useful in college, as you can imagine). Did you have a teacher that was particularly motivating to you? What have you learned about motivating students to learn? What other factors do you believe are involved in motivation?


Bandura, A. (1996). Social cognitive theory of human development. In T. Husen &T.N. Postlewaite (Eds.), International Encyclopedia of Education, 2nd ed. (pp5513-5518). Oxford: Pergamon Press.

Dweck, C.S. (2010). Mindsets and equitable education. Principal Leadership, 10 (5), 26-29.

Guthrie, J.T., Wigfield, A., Humenick, N.M, Perencevich, K.C., Taboada, A., & Barbosa, P. (2006). Influences of stimulating tasks on reading motivation and comprehension. Journal of Educational Research, 99 (4), 232-245.

Pintrich, P.R. (2003). A motivational science perspective on the role of student motivation in learning and teaching contexts. Journal of Educational Psychology, 95 (4), 667-686.

Ryan, R.M., & Deci, E. L. (2000). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. American Psychologist, 55 (1), 68-78.

Seifert, T.L. (2004). Understanding student motivation. Educational Research (46)2, 137-149.

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