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V.1 #2 Reading - Keys to Motivation

Liam struggles with reading. He's far below grade level. In class, he won't attend to anything. He fidgets, he makes lots of noise, he disrupts everyone. He rarely opens his books. When he does, he doesn't look at what we're reading. He complains incessantly: "I hate reading." And he does. So, what do I do?—Mrs. Megan, Liam's 3rd grade teacher.

It's unlikely that Liam, a composite of many struggling readers, will become a proficient reader unless he develops a strong desire to succeed in reading, and a strong belief that he can. This belief—if I try I can succeed—is often called positive self-efficacy. As much research shows, it's a key to motivation.

If struggling readers do not believe that moderate effort will produce success, they're unlikely to attend to what's taught, think about what's taught, or make the effort needed to learn what's taught. From their point of view, disengagement is perfectly rational: "No sense trying if my efforts will only lead to failure and embarrassment."

So, to answer Mrs. Megan's question, "what do I do," let's examine how to change Liam's belief's from "I'll never succeed" to "I can succeed if I make a moderate effort." The good news is that the research on self-efficacy suggests many principles for strengthening self-efficacy and thus motivation. Here are three:

Principle 1: Stress Challenging Work That Struggling Readers Can Complete Successfully Without Excessive, Laborious Effort

In reading, this means sticking to materials that match struggling readers' instructional and independent levels. For materials to be at their instructional reading level, Sandra McCormick recommends that they should quickly and accurately read aloud 90 percent to 95 percent of words in context and understand 70 percent to 89 percent of the text, before they receive instruction on the materials. Instructional level assumes that teachers will work with them, teaching vocabulary, skills, and strategies; guiding and monitoring practice; and structuring independent practice. For independent level materials, which struggling readers should find easier than instructional level materials, they should quickly and accurately read aloud 96 percent or more of the words in context and understand 90 percent or more of the text. Whenever struggling readers work alone, in class or at home, materials should be at their independent level. If the materials are more difficult, they're likely to become frustrated.

These figures are minimal. Liam gets frustrated when he can quickly and accurately read only 95 percent of words in context. For him to succeed, to develop the belief that he can succeed with moderate effort, instructional level materials must be easier. To feel comfortable and benefit from instruction, to strengthen his self-efficacy, he needs to quickly and accurately recognize 97 percent of words in context. In other words, for many struggling readers, instructional and independent level guidelines need to be adjusted to make tasks easier.

Principle 2: Design Assignments to Match the Struggling Reader's Self-Regulatory Abilities

Many struggling readers have difficulties with the self-regulatory processes essential to completing their schoolwork. They may, for example, have difficulty recording homework assignments, understanding task requirements, establishing task-related goals, assessing personal abilities, identifying appropriate task-relevant strategies, planning how to achieve task-related goals, enacting relevant strategies, monitoring and evaluating progress, adapting strategies, persevering to overcome difficulties, preventing and overcoming distractions.

If Liam has such self-regulatory difficulties, his success will depend on two factors.

  • The degree to which his teacher matches tasks to Liam's self-regulatory abilities.

  • The frequency and skill with which she teaches him needed self-regulatory skills and strategies.

For example, if he has slight-to-moderate difficulty with authentic reading tasks that require him to follow Ellis' three-step RAP strategy (Read, Ask, Put), his teacher might follow this instructional sequence.

  • Discuss each step with him.

  • Demonstrate each step to him while orally describing her thoughts about how to accomplish each step (a think-aloud).

  • Ask him to show and explain to her how to accomplish each step.

  • Closely monitor his progress and intervene only when he has difficulty.

Unfortunately, this third step—asking him to show and explain—is often ignored. As Gerald Duffy asserts, this is a mistake. The goal is not only to have him succeed on the immediate task, but to help him gain metacognitive control:

We want to put students in metacognitive control of their own thinking as they read. They are in control when they can describe the thinking they use during genuine reading activity. (p. 12)

Principle 3: Teach Struggling Readers to Attribute Success to Controllable Behaviors

Students who believe that they can succeed on specific tasks and who attribute their successes to controllable factors (e.g., effort and the correct use of learning strategies) are more likely to persist in the face of difficulty than students who believe they lack the ability to succeed. The bad news is that many struggling readers attribute failure to a lack of ability ("I'm dumb") and success to uncontrollable external factors ("It was dumb luck")—this breeds pessimism and low self-efficacy. The good news is that positive, facilitative attributions—attributions that improve motivation—can be taught. Here's how.

Focus on the task. Focus on what struggling readers can control.

When giving feedback to struggling readers, it's critical to stress how their effort, persistence, and correct use of strategies engendered success. "Liam, you worked on this for 20 minutes. That's how long it should take. Rereading to make sure your answers made sense was a good decision. Your effort and rereading earned you an 'A.' Great job!" This feedback attributes success to Liam's effort and persistence and to his correct use of a monitoring and rereading strategy—factors he can control. It implies that he has important, controllable abilities—to persist and to use correct strategies. By naming these factors and helping Liam attribute his success to them, his teacher helps him make the connections needed to strengthen his self-efficacy for reading. Attributing success to effort, however, can backfire if struggling readers' think the task requires their peers to make little effort, but requires them to make great effort. To prevent this problem, teachers' should assign tasks that require struggling readers to make moderate effort. This creates opportunities for teachers to make attributions about effort that are modest and specific.


For more information about self-efficacy and motivation, you might want to read the articles and books on which this column is based.

Duffy, G. G. (2003). Explaining reading. NY: The Guilford Press.

Margolis, H., & McCabe, P. P. (2006). Motivating struggling readers in an era of mandated instructional practices. Reading Psychology, 27(5), 435-455.

Margolis, H., & McCabe, P. P. (2004). Resolving struggling readers' homework difficulties: A social cognitive perspective. Reading Psychology, 25(4), 225-260.

Margolis, H., & McCabe, P. P. (2004). Self-efficacy: A key to improving the motivation of struggling learners. The Clearing House, 77(6), 241-249.

McCormick, S. (2003). Instructing students who have literacy problems (4th ed.). Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Merrill.

Howard Margolis, Ed.D. is Professor Emeritus of Reading and Special Education at Queens College of the City University of New York. He is former editor of the Journal of Psychological and Educational Consultation and for the last 17 years has edited the Reading & Writing Quarterly: Overcoming Learning Difficulties. He and Dr. Gary G. Brannigan, a Chancellor's Scholar at the State University of New York-Plattsburgh, present a far more detailed discussion of this topic in their forthcoming book, Reading Disabilities: Beating the Odds.

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