What motivates children to read?

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Reading opens doors to the world – it gives us new information and different perspectives. Across schools, teachers work hard to help children develop a lifelong love for reading so they can enjoy these benefits. But what motivates children to pick up and read a book? And how can educators encourage lifelong engagement with books?

First, children need literacy skills. Children who are good at reading are more likely to seek out book-based activities. Before a love for reading can develop, children need support to experience reading success.

Fostering motivation and engagement with reading

The Nuffield Foundation’s Love to Read programme, co-designed with teachers in Scotland and England, describes research-informed ways to increase children’s motivation and engagement. These include giving children access to books and setting aside dedicated time for reading that isn’t cancelled when other things come up. The programme also highlights the importance of giving children choices and guiding them in making their own decisions (recommending the next book, for example). Another key message is that children are more motivated to read and more engaged if books are relevant to them, mirroring their lives and experiences. Finally, according to the Love to Read programme, giving children opportunities to share, recommend and discuss books with one another and with their teachers is helpful, too.

“Success in reading doesn’t have to mean just advancing to the next text difficulty level.”

When readers struggle, it is especially important to give them books they can enjoy, and to let them exchange one book for another if they are not enjoying the first one. Success in reading doesn’t have to mean just advancing to the next text difficulty level. It is important to celebrate other kinds of success as well, such as discovering a new author, trying a new genre, or contributing to a discussion about books.

While these recommendations are based on the best available evidence, there’s an issue with how researchers typically measure reading motivation – namely by asking children how much they enjoy reading. Just as asking people whether they enjoy being healthy tells us little about whether they make healthy choices in their day-to-day life, asking about reading enjoyment doesn’t necessarily reveal whether people actually read. Proficient readers who report enjoying reading may be reporting their reading success, rather than their reading regularity. With my research group, I am trying to develop better ways of measuring reading motivation in children and adults.

“Asking about reading enjoyment doesn’t necessarily reveal whether people actually read.”

New ways to measure reading motivation

When people are motivated to read, they will accept the ‘cost’ of doing so – the effort of walking to the library, for example, or the money needed to buy a book. We are measuring reading motivation by assessing whether people are willing to take on such costs. For now our research is focusing on adults, but we believe the lessons we learn will be useful for gaining a better understanding of children’s reading, too.

In our recent study, we gave people book synopses to read. If they wanted to see the book cover to find out more about the book, they had to take on a cost, which consisted of waiting between three and six seconds. This was a bit like patiently waiting for an advert to end to watch an interesting YouTube video. We thought this would be a good measure of whether people actually wanted to read the book. In addition, we asked them how much they enjoyed the synopsis. The more they enjoyed a book synopsis, the more willing they were to wait to see the cover of the book and obtain the information they needed to borrow or buy that book. Interestingly, the number of times people waited was unrelated to whether they thought of themselves as motivated readers. This shows that ratings of reading motivation are not always associated with motivation to find out more about a book.

We believe that reading motivation might also influence reading comprehension. People pay more attention to text they are enjoying, which might result in better comprehension. In our study, those who particularly enjoyed a synopsis were more likely to answer a question about it correctly. This was the case even when we accounted for reading ability. In other words, the fact that certain people did not enjoy a particular synopsis could not just be attributed to the fact that they were poorer readers. This is an interesting link to be explored further, and reinforces the idea that intrinsic motivation and rewards can have an important effect on learning.

We are now using our new way of measuring reading motivation to test each of the factors researchers think influence motivation. We can address nuanced research questions about the kinds of choices that might enhance motivation – genre, degree of difficulty, and so on. This could lead to insights into how best to offer choices in classrooms and school libraries. We can also learn more about who influences reading choices – friends, teachers or perhaps children who serve as role models – and how these influences change with age.

“We hope this work will fill an important gap, allowing us to compare what people say about reading with what they actually do.”

We hope this work will fill an important gap, allowing us to compare what people say about reading with what they actually do. This, in turn, will make it easier to embed motivation into classroom reading programmes so that all children can learn to love reading.

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