Motivating and Engaging Readers in Literacy Practices in the Classroom

By: Dr. Leslie D. Roberts, Assistant Professor of Reading at Georgia Southern University

Helping students develop a love for reading is a contentious and often enigmatic topic for both educators and researchers. The thought process of “this technique helped motivate me to read in school, so it should motivate my students to read” is often flawed. As educators, we learn that practices that are effective for increasing the reading motivation for one group of students, may not be helpful for another group of students; furthermore, the same practices that were once successful with a group, may not continue to work for them as they matriculate through school. In this sense, reading motivation is a fluid construct that educators are constantly striving to achieve with their students.

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Perhaps my favorite book about reading motivation is No More Reading for Junk: Best Practices for Motivating Readers (2016) by Barbara Marinak and Linda Gambrell. In this text, Marinak and Gambrell remind us that it’s not enough to teach a student to read, but we need to instill an intrinsic love of reading. They also reiterate that motivating students to read should not involve rewarding them with prizes, pizza parties, points, or other public forms of display like keeping track of books read by individual students or comparing classroom reading progress. These types of systems often perpetuate a sense of competition, which may be helpful to motivate some students extrinsically, while simultaneously disengaging others who worry about their status in competition. And, for all of us who’ve experienced a reading program in school that awarded us free pizzas for reading books, we can attest that these incentives do not last into adulthood.

Motivating readers requires more than giving rewards for completing books, encouraging competitions to see who can read the most books, or asking them to read a number of texts in an allotted amount of time. The key is to ensure our students experience an authentic and intrinsic love of reading while in our classrooms, but how do we accomplish this when there are so many ‘gimmicks’ out there claiming to promote good reading habits? In order to encourage students’ intrinsic reading motivation and support them on their journey to becoming life-long readers, research suggests the need to look at students’ value of reading and their expectations for success with reading.

Ways to support life-long reading habits with students:

1) Allow Students to Make their Own Reading Choices

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Researchers agree that choice of reading is a motivating factor for readers of all ages (Fisher & Frey, 2012; Ivey, 1999; Wigfield & Eccles, 2000). When empowered to choose a text about a topic or genre of interest, students will likely place a higher value on reading. Considering that books act as mirrors and windows (Bishop, 1990), allowing students to view themselves (mirrors) and to learn about others (windows) in the books they read, encouraging choice of text plays an integral part in creating insightful, reflective, and motivated readers. 

2) Ensuring Students Have Access

Ensuring students have access to texts will likely increase their value of reading. Access may include varied exposure to books by taking trips to the library, providing a brief overview of a book through book talks, and being able to suggest books to students. Access to reading also refers to providing a space and time for reading occur during the school day (Gambrell 2009; Krashen, 2011). However, it is important to note, that this time should be intentionally carved into the school day, not just when students finish work early. It is crucial the time spent reading is substantial to allow students time to “get into a book.” Rather than allotting a few minutes every day for reading time, it is better to devote longer periods of time for reading every few days.

3) Reconsider What Counts as Reading

Reconsidering what counts as reading can also prove helpful for reluctant readers who prefer other forms of reading than the traditional book. Blog posts, graphic novels, comic books, and books with integrated technology represent some of the various alternatives to traditional texts that can engage unengaged readers and increase their expectations for success with reading. 

4) Create Authentic Reading Experiences

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We should strive to create authentic reading experiences for our students. When we consider the question, “how do I motivate myself to read?” we typically think of having a book that regularly engages us and makes us want to return to it again and again, until we’ve finished it. The same principle goes for our students. Reading shouldn’t be seen as a chore, and just because the initial part of a book was engaging, doesn’t mean it will hold students’ interest until completion. Students should be allowed to test and try books until they’ve found a “good fit book” they want to return to again and again. 

Furthermore, after we’ve finished a great book, we generally don’t think of immediately creating a diorama of a scene from the book we’ve read, taking a test, or creating a book report to prove we’ve read this book, so we shouldn’t expect our students to be entirely motivated to do these things either. To ensure an authentic reading experience and still hold students accountable for reading, consider having them produce a book review. This could be on a teacher-made website or allowing students to create their own goodreads accounts. With this, students are able to find more books that may be of interest and participate in a community of readers and reviewers.  

Creating Life-long Learners

Life-long readers are created through positive experiences with books in varied environments and teaching practices. Allowing students to see value in their reading experiences, as well as feel successful in their reading endeavors, are the keys to promoting intrinsic reading motivation. A one-size-fits-all approach, or a reading system built on rewards and prizes for reading, is rarely effective to instilling intrinsic reading motivation. Perseverance, patience, and flexibility are of utmost importance in fostering reading motivation with students. While this at times may seem exhausting and overwhelming, cultivating students who are life-long readers is the best reward a student and teacher could receive.   


Bishop, R. S. (1990). Mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors. Perspectives, 6(3), ix-xi.

Fisher, D. & Frey, N. (2012).  Motivating boys to read: Inquiry, modeling, and choice matter.  Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 55(7), 587-596.

Gambrell, L. B. (2009).  Creating opportunities to read more so that students read better.  Reading More, Reading Better, 257-258.

Ivey, G. (1999).  A multicase study in the middle school: Complexities among young adolescent readers.  Reading Research Quarterly, 34(2), 172-192.

Krashen, S. (2011).  Free voluntary reading.  Libraries Unlimited. 

Marinak, B. A., & Gambrell, L. B. (2016). No more reading for junk: Best practices for motivating readers.

Heinemann.Wigfield, A., & Eccles, J. S. (2000).  Expectancy–value theory of achievement motivation.  Contemporary educational psychology25(1), 68-81.

About the Author

Dr. Leslie D. Roberts is an assistant professor of reading at Georgia Southern University. Having been a middle school ELA teacher for five years, she realized how important intrinsic motivation was for her students’ success in reading. Her research focuses on reading motivation for students across grade levels, content areas, and ability levels.


Which Came First – Motivation or Engagement?

By: Charlene Aldrich, retired literacy instructor

To be or not to be.

Which came first – the chicken or the egg?

Do motivated students engage in learning more often and/or at higher levels?


Does active engagement result in highly motivated students?

Rhetorical questions? Maybe not! Because it’s every teacher’s desire to instruct highly engaged and motivated students, let’s look at how to achieve this outcome!

Engagement and Motivation

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Human engagement begins at birth. Motivation to survive is instinctual; crying demands engagement. Survival is assured. John Bowbly writes that a newborn’s “need for attachment” motivates the demand for engagement. Engagement/attachment is achieved through proximity which fosters personal security. Similarly, Abraham Maslow theorizes that physiological and safety needs must be met prior to love and belonging needs. These are prerequisite for esteem and self-actualization to develop. Innate needs motivate engagement prior to high order needs.

If you have disengaged students, are they missing attachment, sustenance, safety, love, and belonging? And is it possible that Erik Erikson implies that instructional engagement as a result of motivation to learn stems from trust and autonomy needs being met?

Motivational factors: survival, protection, love, belonging – all before esteem and self actualization resulting from education

Engagement strategies: tears, proximity, physical contact – these preface acting out, poor academic performance, and feigned illness behaviors in students.

I’ve not told you anything that you haven’t already studied as educators; it’s just that the silo you live in has been built around the here and now. You may have lost access to vital background knowledge that enables you to discern students’ missing needs that stifle motivation and interfere with engagement. But it’s never too late to adopt new instructional practices and classroom language!

Dr. Timothy Shanahan says that challenging texts are motivating! Struggling students may be struggling readers who lack motivation as a result of “baby text” assignments that require no effort. Audio-visual instruction is passive learning; audio books are not a substitute for individual, independent, active reading. Students must be actively engaged in reading and writing to learn, retain, and apply content. Reading and writing processes require active engagement; changing groups every ten minutes is not active engagement.

Challenging, complex texts demand grit. Teachers who engage students with literacy process practices empower them to accept challenges, persevere, and experience success! Angela Duckworth says grit is the best indicator of future earnings and happiness – factors connected with success and a satisfying life. Accomplishments as the result of hard work are motivating! Participation ribbons are not. Carol Dweck says that the word ‘yet’ is amazing to motivate continued engagement in learning. When teachers believe that more is possible, striving students believe it as well!

The Impact of Open-Ended Questions

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My personal favorite way to engage students in challenging reading and writing assignments is with open-ended questions. Every answer has value as a way to shape discussion where the teacher wants it to go. There are no wrong answers! Teachers adapt, reframe, and ask additional leading questions. Each student can experience a place of belonging in an atmosphere that builds corporate knowledge.

“What do you know about…?” opens the discussion on a new topic or introduces a complex text.

“What do you recognize in this word…?” enables students to use visual clues to construct meaning from unfamiliar words.

“What did you read about?” paves the way for main ideas, details, and outlines.

“What happened?” is the foundation for summaries.

And when we follow-up with HOW and WHY questions, we lead students onto the path of critical thinking. “Prove it” is like a double-dare to students. “I don’t know; find out and tell us.” shows our humanness and need to continue OUR education as well. You will probably have to throw in bonus points as tangible reinforcement on the way to inherent satisfaction from learning.

Listen to yourself asking questions. I think you’ll find that “Does anyone know……” is the phrase of choice. This is not an open-ended question; it is binary. That begs a yes or no answer. Striving students and striving readers disengage from the lesson because their head voice says “no.”

Open-ended quick-writes such as bell-ringers and exit tickets allow students to become agents of their own learning:

  • “What was interesting to you about our topic today?”
  • “What was confusing?”
  • “How does today’s topic connect to our lessons earlier in the week?”
  • “What is something good about today?” “How did you spend your weekend?” “What are you looking forward to this weekend?”
  • “How does this relate to your career plans?”
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Questions don’t always have to be about content! But they DO need to be thought-provoking, sincere, and unpredictable.

You see at the end of the day, ‘correct’ answers and written responses are not as valuable as an answer that a student can support from reading and then, communicate freely in a written response. Correct answers can be found online; students’ answers are found in their brains as a result of active engagement in learning, motivated by successful prior experiences.

And when all else fails, offer chocolate…..

References (in order)
Duckworth, A. Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, 2016, Simon & Schuster
Dweck, C. Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, updated edition 12/26/2007, Ballentine Books

About the Author

After 20 years of growing literacy in under-prepared college students, Charlene retired to focus on state-wide literacy initiatives such as LiD, 6-12 and her R2S approved literacy courses at College of Charleston.  She lets her life speak by empowering teachers to have the confidence and competence to implement a literacy model of instruction in any content area and at every grade level. Her best Covid-19 memory is teaching her grandson Algebra 1 via phone calls, Zoom, text messaging, and FaceTime.  It was online instruction at its best – synchronously and interactively.