Fostering Intrinsic Motivation Among Struggling Readers

Jun 18, 2018

For the last nine years, colleagues and I have directed a remedial summer literacy program for elementary-aged struggling readers, many of whom are dyslexic. The children, enrolled by their parents, approached the experience with mix of optimism, trepidation, and dread. Some skip through the door, eager to build skills, but many are...reluctant. I certainly can appreciate their position as they have just been told that the skill that presents them with the most difficulty all year long is going to be their sole focus for the month of July.

 For a period of time, our program relied on tangible incentives such as, elaborate sticker charts, parties, and prize boxes to entice the students to work hard. It was an effective tool in the short-term, but in the long-term it lead us down a slippery slope. Students were frequently bargaining for bigger and better prizes, and there was significant task avoidance once incentives were removed.

Struggling for solutions, we decided to conduct a randomized research study comparing the outcomes of students who received high-quality specialized reading instruction with tangible incentives versus students who received the same reading curricula paired with strategies designed to improve intrinsic motivation (i.e. internally regulated behavior). We found that within three weeks, the group who received the strategies made better gains in their reading abilities than the group who received the incentives (Orkin, Pott, Wolf, May & Brand).

So what did our intrinsic motivational strategies look like? They were based on a framework from the field of social psychology called Self-Determination Theory (Deci & Ryan), which seeks to differentiate between various types of motivation. Self-Determination Theory has shown that intrinsic motivation is activated when 4 essential "needs" are addressed within a learning environment, these needs include: Autonomy, Belonging, Competence and Meaning. We call them the ABCM strategies for short.

Autonomy refers to maximizing students' voice and choice in the classrooms. Beyond the opportunity to choose the texts they want to read, we provided students with options for practicing their skills and demonstrating their knowledge. The process followed the structure of an Academic Choice activity from the Responsive Classroom program.

During Academic Choice, the teacher establishes the goal of the lesson and provides students with choices as to how they can demonstrate their knowledge. The students plan out their selection, manage their time, work independently, and engage in a reflection in which they share their learning experience with classmates. The emphasis is on helping students make sense of their concrete experiences, and teachers can use guiding questions to help develop their metacognitive thinking, such as “What went well?” and “What can you do next time to make it go even better?”

The cycle of planning, working, and reflecting is designed to foster feelings of competence and autonomy that are essential to autonomous motivation and learning goals. When these moments of freedom are built into a curriculum, students develop a sense of ownership over their learning experiences and better retain content and strategies.

Belonging. Group instruction can be a powerful tool, especially when teachers create a collaborative learning community. In our summer program, students work together with the teacher to construct a class constitution, engage in team-building exercises, practice individual self-reflection, and exchange peer compliments. All of these instructional practices develop a community in which every student feels connected, valued, and important.

Competence. The competence strategies utilized during our program were created to complement the specialized instruction (i.e. the RAVE-O and Wilson curricula) and to extend existing techniques by offering a platform for engaging in challenges and coping with failure. In order to transform students’ understanding of healthy learning tasks, several strategies were used, including offering concrete metaphors for the importance of challenges and mistakes; and substituting person-based with process-based feedback which notices and names specific behaviors (i.e. I noticed you corrected your mistakes) instead of focusing on traits (i.e. You are such a good reader).

Meaning. During our summer program, 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.

We continue to revise and rethink our strategies, as each year brings new challenges and insights. However, we have yet to return to using extrinsic rewards as we feel the intrinsic approach provides the cognitive, behavioral, and emotional tools necessary to help all students meet their potential.

To read more about the specific strategies, you can access our article here.


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