The benefits of reading proficiency are arduously enumerated, researched, cataloged, weighed, argued about … but never questioned. Reading is good for children, it’s a fact. Which is why teaching children how to read is the overarching goal of most early childhood and elementary teachers.
But that’s not all. Reading is good for grownups too, and that’s one reason it’s good for children: A child who reads will continue to reap the benefits throughout his or her life.
Making Children Want to Read
In addition to teaching children to read, the teacher’s second—and more challenging—role is to teach children to want to read. Not just to do the assigned reading, but to make of reading a self-propelled impulse, so that children choose to read for both information and pleasure so that they continue to do so into their adulthood.
Such a noble goal is so difficult that teachers achieving any degree of success are the heroes of society.
Lack of Reading Motivation
Except for children with special learning difficulties, there is basically one reason why that goal can be so excruciatingly difficult: lack of motivation. Children are wildly different in their approach to reading. Research has shown they differ according to gender, and according to social status, and according to ethnic group.
Still, those differences are insignificant compared to plain individual differences in motivation and for many, the motivation is low. For example, one survey found that one in four Americans hadn’t read a book in the previous year.
The motivation question has kept researchers busy for decades, and rightly so. Motivation is a very complex psychological phenomenon, but a little less so when restricted to just reading.
Intrinsic Reading Motivation
There are degrees and types of motivation. A coarse distinction that fueled heated controversies is intrinsic vs extrinsic motivation. There should be no controversy about which is better: intrinsic, obviously. Intrinsic motivation is what ignites the desire to read, not just now, but later as well.
But not always: it depends on the type of reading the child is motivated by. In her book “The Reader, the Text, the Poem: The Transactional Theory of the Literary Work“, Louise M. Rosenblatt made an interesting and fruitful distinction between two approaches to reading: aesthetic and efferent.
Aesthetic reading is reading for the pleasure of reading, like reading a story you’re captivated by. It engages you in a relationship with the content and the pleasure derives directly from the act of reading, whether or not you get anything from it after the reading—which, paradoxically, you most assuredly do.
Efferent reading is reading with a purpose, a purpose external to the act of reading. A child might read about dinosaurs because he’s interested in dinosaurs, not because he likes reading. That’s the next best thing to aesthetic reading.
Extrinsic Reading Motivation
And what of extrinsic reading motivation? Much maligned, extrinsic reinforcement is blamed for inciting children to read for the wrong reason.
Sure, a teacher would prefer a child to read for a better reason than the ice cream he was promised—like reading because he wants to know how his toy car works; or better still, because she likes reading, period.
But what if curiosity is not enough to overcome the effort of reading? Every teacher has children like that in her class. For such children, extrinsic motivation can be a valuable tool. A tool to be chosen carefully and used creatively. That’s the subject of another post.
Over to You
We’d love to know about your experience with motivating the reluctant readers in your life to read. Have you used extrinsic motivation? Do you have any tips to share? We look forward to hearing from you in the comments.