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V.2 #2 Reading - Motivating the Unmotivated

In a previous column, I discussed whether to pass struggling readers who work hard to succeed, but fail their tests. This group gets far more sympathy from teachers than struggling readers who appear unmotivated to learn.

For struggling readers who fail—despite working hard—my general recommendation is to pass them and provide supports. But for struggling readers who have given up—who no longer try to learn to read and pass their subjects, or who come to school to waste time and disrupt instruction—my answer is different. For such readers, there’s a far more important question: How can we redesign their programs so they’ll try to succeed?

Motivating the Unmotivated

Historically, we have failed to educate struggling readers who appear unmotivated to learn, especially in middle and high school. These struggling readers, who I’ll call unmotivated readers, often create grief for their teachers and nightmares for their parents. Nevertheless, for the sake of motivated students, for the sake of society, and for the sake of the unmotivated readers, we have to motivate them. Not doing so will create disruptive classes, adults unprepared to succeed in a competitive world, and a society that suffers from too many undereducated people.

In developing programs to motivate unmotivated readers, program developers need to ensure that their curriculum and program emphasize these seven principles.

  • Principle 1: Involve unmotivated readers in curriculum and programs that, if they make a moderate effort, produces success they value highly.

  • Principle 2: Involve unmotivated readers in curriculum and programs that are, from the start, clearly aligned with what motivates them.

  • Principle 3: Involve unmotivated readers in curriculum and programs that clearly represent their values and that of society.

  • Principle 4: Make intensive, ongoing, systematic attempts to involve the students’ families and communities in their programs and in before- and after-school activities these unmotivated readers value.

  • Principle 5: Help them develop a few short and long-terms goals aligned with their curriculum and programs, and which, with moderate effort, they can achieve.

  • Principle 6: Provide unmotivated readers with frequent feedback on goal-achievement and help them develop solutions to overcoming obstacles to achievement.

  • Principle 7: Provide whatever supports these unmotivated readers need, when it’s needed, both in and out of school.

Programs that emphasize these principles will probably look vastly different than the public’s idea of “school.” These programs may not even take place in school buildings. They may look as if “the powers that be” seriously considered Mark Twain’s quip: “I have never let schooling interfere with my education.” But if we want to stop failing these students and we want to stop filling the prisons with these children, we must do something different—now.

Of course, even if we start now, it will take years to design and perfect such programs. This doesn’t help teachers who today have few, if any rewards these students value and who must teach a mandated curriculum to students who may despise it, care little about it, or who have been so beaten down by failure that they don’t even try. Short-term, these teachers and students can be helped by schools committed to and skilled at implementing programs of mentoring, positive behavioral supports, and before-and after-school activities.


The Check & Connect program makes extensive use of mentors. It was designed, in part, to “promote engagement among youth placed at high risk for school failure” (Christenson & Havsy, 2004, pp. 69). Unmotivated readers fit this description; they’re “high risk for school failure.”

As part of Check & Connect, adult mentors are assigned to fuel students’ “motivation and foster the development of life skills needed to persevere in the face of obstacles.” To accomplish this, mentors work to “build relationships with students and their families and … address student issues of autonomy, belonging, and competence.” They, as the students they mentor, are never to give up. An evaluation of Check & Connect showed that it worked: It positively influenced student engagement in school and reduced the dropout rate (Christenson & Havsy, 2004, pp. 69). In other words, it helped to motivate students to learn, to succeed, to persevere.

If mentoring programs are well planned and supervised, and if mentors are carefully selected and trained, mentoring programs have the potential to motivate unmotivated readers. The importance of motivation cannot be overestimated:

Motivation is perhaps the indispensable element needed for school success. Without it, the student never even tries to learn. (Sternberg, 1998, p. 17)

Positive Behavioral Supports (PBS)

Natalie Rathvon (2008) describes positive behavioral supports as an approach “to assist students with challenging behaviors in developing and using prosocial behavior…. PBS models focus on modifying not only student behavior but also environmental variables such as the physical setting, task demands, curriculum, instructional pace, and reinforcement systems.” What’s most encouraging is that PBS tends to work: It decreases discipline problems and improves school climate and academic performance (p. 354). In a sense, well-designed and well-implemented PBS programs “stack the deck for success.”

Take the story of Ryan, a composite of many unmotivated readers I’ve worked with. The universal measures that his school used with all students—discussing school rules, complimenting students for following them, using classwide peer tutoring, and holding class meeting to discuss how to improve the program—didn’t work with him. He needed a more personalized and intensive program that moved his seat closer to the teacher; paired him with a study-buddy he admired, who was task oriented; gave him a two minute work break every 15 minutes; had him read easy but non-stigmatizing materials on the topics his class was studying; reduced the number of concepts he had to master; had him meet three times weekly with a mentor from a local college who reviewed his work, reinforced him for using the right instructional strategies, and played chess with him. In addition, the school’s reading specialist worked with Ryan four times weekly and met with his teachers and his parents to monitor progress and plan next week’s lessons.

Was Ryan’s program ideal? Yes. Was it more than most unmotivated readers get? Yes. Was it more than most schools offer? Yes. Was it necessary? Yes.

Before-and After-School Activities

Many politicians ridicule before-and after-school activities, like “midnight basketball.” They lampoon their names, mischaracterize them, and sadly, refuse to fund them. Not surprisingly, science says they’re wrong.

Recently, Joseph A. Durlak and Roger P. Weissberg published the results of a study that analyzed the findings of many studies. Based on their meta-analysis, they concluded:

Youth who participate in after-school programs improve significantly in three major areas: feelings and attitudes, indicators of behavioral adjustment, and school performance. More specifically, after-school programs succeeded in improving youths’ feelings of self-confidence and self-esteem, school bonding (positive feelings and attitudes toward school), positive social behaviors, school grades and achievement test scores. They also reduced problem behaviors (e.g., aggression, noncompliance and conduct problems) and drug use. In sum, after-school programs produced multiple benefits that pertain to youths’ personal, social and academic life. (Durlak & Weissberg, 2007, p. 7)

Students and Teachers Need More

But often, mentoring, positive behavioral supports, and before-and-after school activities are not enough. We need to institute programs that incorporate the seven principles listed above. If we don’t start now, many unmotivated readers will drop out of school or disrupt the learning of other students. They’ll drive their teachers crazy. And unfortunately, many of these teachers—often outstanding people—will quit. Just as bad, or perhaps worse, they’ll stay, demoralized and depressed, teaching to get through the day.

Taking the Initiative

Teachers and schools cannot depend on politicians to create the policies and budgets that unmotivated readers and disruptive students need. Few politicians will support increased taxes, and few know much about education, educational research, or the historical effects of policies that sounded good, but proved horrible. Thus, to improve the lives of all learners, not just unmotivated readers, teachers (and parents) must take the lead. They must educate the public and must influence politicians and policy. Although this will take years of toil, lots of study, and require a thick skin to minimize the damage of hostile criticism, to do less is to tacitly support a system that often punishes rather than helps unmotivated readers.


Christenson, S. L., & Havsy, L. H. (2004). Family-School-Peer Relationships: Significance for social, emotional, and academic learning. In Zins, J. E., Weissberg, R. P., Wang, M. C., & Walberg, H. J. (Eds). Building Academic Success on Social and Emotional Learning: What Does the Research Say? (pp. 59-75). NY: Teachers College Press.

Durlak, J. A., & Weissberg, R. P. (2007). The Impact of After-School Programs That PromotePersonal and Social Skills. Chicago, IL: Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning.

Rathvon, N. (2008). Effective School Interventions: Evidence-Based Strategies for Improving Student Outcomes (2nd ed.). NY: Guilford.

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, discuss this and related topics in their forthcoming book, Reading Disabilities: Beating the Odds.

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