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How Can Instruction Help Adolescent Students with Motivation?

Teachers have an important role to play in influencing and supporting students’ motivation for learning. This article highlights four classroom strategies that educators can use to engage students with texts.

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Despite many teachers’ beliefs that they have little influence on student motivation, teachers can influence and support student motivation by setting clear goals and expectations (setting a purpose) for reading and writing assignments, focusing students on their own improvement, providing a variety of reading materials, allowing students to choose reading materials, and providing opportunities for students to discuss reading and writing tasks with one another.


Set clear goals and expectations for performance

Adolescents’ understanding of a task and the work necessary to complete it successfully influence their motivation. If a teacher assigns a chapter to read for homework without letting the students know that they are expected to discuss the major developments in the chapter the next day, then students do not understand the “real” assignment, nor do they know how to complete it successfully. Goals and expectations for reading and writing assignments should be clear and specific. For example, in assigning a textbook chapter for reading, the teacher should be clear about why the reading is assigned and what students are expected to do as a result of reading it. Provide guidance by giving examples of strategies that students can use in reading the chapter and relate that to successful participation in the discussion to enhance motivation for performing the reading activity.

Teachers may feel reluctant to implement the following strategies because of concerns over the relevance of materials that are not directly tied to the curriculum or to high stakes tests. However, if selected in a thoughtful and informed manner, the use of additional materials can provide more students with access to the curriculum and with opportunities to improve their literacy skills. Because high stakes tests are written exams, students must be able to read and write well to succeed. Providing students with activities and materials that can motivate them to improve their content knowledge and their literacy skills has the potential to facilitate struggling adolescents’ performance on high stakes tests.

Guide students to focus on their own improvement

Adolescents’ tendencies to compare themselves with their peers, which is exacerbated by grading and tracking practices at the secondary level, negatively influence their motivation for reading and writing in school. Helping students to set goals for their literacy and content learning and then guiding them to focus on their progress toward attaining these goals is one way to improve motivation. In this era of standards-based learning and high stakes testing, teachers must also ensure that individual learning goals address content and performance standards.

Together, the reading specialist, the special education teacher, the school librarian, and content-area teachers can collect and organize a pool of reading materials that address standards-based content and are written at different reading levels. Specialists can also assist the content-area teachers by providing diagnostic assessment information and helping them use that information to match texts to students and to determine reading strategies and skills students need to learn. Teachers can then use these resources and information to guide students to set learning goals individualized to their reading abilities and content learning needs and track their progress in meeting these goals. Teachers can teach students to keep track of their progress through reading logs and progress checklists, which the student then shares with the teacher on a regular basis.

Provide variety and choice in reading materials

The textbooks used in many secondary level classrooms often do not hold students’ interests. Teachers can provide students with other reading materials that interest them and that pertain to the subjects that they teach. Teachers can start by conducting online searches for high interest, matched-to-reading-level materials. Books, magazines, and newspaper articles that adolescents consider interesting help them view reading as a way to learn more about topics that are attractive to them.

Self-determination is critical to motivation. Allowing students to select some of their own reading materials gives students control over their learning. Teachers need to structure and guide student choices so that struggling readers select materials that are appropriate for their reading level and that address the content they are learning.

Provide opportunities for students to interact through reading

To provide students with opportunities for interaction, teachers can:

  • Create opportunities for small groups of students to discuss their reading,
  • Structure groups carefully so that students with differing abilities are able to talk about a common topic, and
  • Offer different viewpoints or information on that topic.

For example, if students are reading different materials at different reading levels on the writing of the U.S. Constitution, students who have read different selections can form a group to talk about what they learned from the different texts.

What do we still need to know?

Additional research is needed on the types of cognitive and developmental processes students experience to motivate them to read and learn. Teachers need a better understanding of the characteristics that they should possess to motivate students at higher levels. It may also be important to gain greater insight into what motivating factors must be recognized and taken into account in attempting to measure literacy skills for linguistically or culturally diverse students. These research areas can shed more light on the link between motivation and adolescent literacy levels.

Publication Date:

National Institute for Literacy. (2007). Adapted from What Content-Area Teachers Should Know About Adolescent Literacy