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Student Motivation and Engagement in Literacy Learning

U.S. Depertment of Education
Teachers can help students build confidence in their ability to comprehend content-area texts, by providing a supportive environment and offering information on how reading strategies can be modified to fit various tasks. Teachers should also make literacy experiences more relevant to students’ interests, everyday life, or important current events.

Increasing motivation and engagement

  1. Establish meaningful and engaging content learning goals around the essential ideas of a discipline as well as the specific learning processes students use to access those ideas.

    Monitor students’ progress over time as they read for comprehension and develop more control over their thinking processes relevant to the discipline. Provide explicit feedback to students about their progress. When teachers set goals to reach a certain standard, students are likely to sustain their efforts until they achieve that standard. Learning goals may be set by the teacher or the student. However, if students set their own goals, they are more apt to be fully engaged in the activities required to achieve them.

  2. Provide a positive learning environment that promotes students’ autonomy in learning.

    Allowing students some choice of complementary books and types of reading and writing activities has a positive impact on students’ engagement and reading comprehension.1 Empowering students to make decisions about topics, forms of communication, and selections of materials encourages them to assume greater ownership and responsibility for their engagement in learning.2

  3. Make literacy experiences more relevant to students’ interests, everyday life, or important current events.3

    Look for opportunities to bridge the activities outside and inside the classroom. Tune into the lives of students to find out what they think is relevant and why, and then use this information to design instruction and learning opportunities that will be more relevant to students.4

    Consider constructing an integrated approach to instruction that ties a rich conceptual theme to a real-world application. For example, use a science topic in the news or one that students are currently studying, such as adolescent health issues, to build students’ reading, writing, and discourse skills.

  4. Build in certain instructional conditions, such as student goal setting, self-directed learning, and collaborative learning, to increase reading engagement and conceptual learning for students.5
  5. This type of implementation has several common themes:

  • Connections between disciplines, such as science and language arts, taught through conceptual themes.
  • Connections among strategies for learning, such as searching, comprehending, interpreting, composing, and teaching content knowledge.
  • Connections among classroom activities that support motivation and social and cognitive development.

Potential roadblocks and solutions

  1. Some teachers think that motivational activities must entertain students and therefore create fun activities that are not necessarily focused on learning.

    Rewarding students through contests, competitions, and points might entice them to do homework, complete tasks, and participate in class. Though meaningful goals, these might not result in meaningful learning. Teachers are often exhausted from running contests to get students to read, and the external motivation of such activities often makes students dependent on the teacher or activity to benefit from reading.6

    Teachers should help students become more internally motivated. They should closely connect instructional practice and student performance to learning goals. Teachers should set the bar high and provide informational feedback for depth of learning, complex thinking, risk taking, and teamwork.

    Students should be encouraged to reflect on how they learn, what they do well, and what they need to improve on. The more students know themselves as learners, the more confident they will become and the better able they will be to set their own goals for learning.

  2. Some students may think that textbooks are boring and beyond their ability to understand.

    Many high school texts do not have enough supplementary explanation that fleshes out disconnected information, which might contribute to difficulty in comprehension. If students cannot comprehend the text that they read and the textbook is the basis of curriculum, their sense of failure grows larger.

    Complementary materials should be available to students, including a set of reading materials on the same topic that range from very easy to very challenging or supplemental trade materials, to provide resources on various content topics to help students develop deeper background knowledge relevant to course content.

  3. Many content-area teachers do not realize the importance of teaching the reading strategies and thinking processes that skilled readers use in different academic disciplines and do not recognize the beneficial effects of such instruction on students’ ability to engage with their learning.

    Too few content- area teachers know how to emphasize the reading and writing practices specific to their disciplines, so students are not encouraged to read and write and reason like historians, scientists, and mathematicians.

    Literacy coaches should emphasize the role of content-area teachers, especially in secondary schools in promoting literacy skills, and the role of reading skills in promoting performance in various content areas such as history, science and social sciences. This can be accomplished through a coordinated schoolwide approach that provides professional development in content literacy.

    Many resources available on the Internet provide information about strategic reading in content areas. Content-area teachers should also develop formative assessments that allow students to make their thinking visible and that provide evidence of the problem-solving and critical-thinking strategies students use to comprehend and construct meaning. Teachers can use these assessments to make informed decisions about lesson planning, instructional practices and materials, and activities that will be more appropriate and engaging for students.

  4. Adolescent students who struggle in reading do not expect to do well in class.
  5. As these students progress through school, most teachers do not expect them to do well either and often remark that they should have learned the material in earlier grades. Many adolescents do not express confidence in their own ability—they do not trust or value their own thinking. The strengths of students can be identified through interest surveys, interviews, and discussions, and through learning about and understanding students’ reading histories. These activities will help teachers get to know their students.

    For many students, having a personal connection with at least one teacher can make a difference in their response to school. Knowing students’ interests makes it easier for teachers to choose materials that will hook students and motivate them to engage in their own learning. Teachers should provide multiple learning opportunities in which students can experience success and can begin to build confidence in their ability to read, write, and think at high levels.

Publication Date:
Kamil, M. L., Borman, G. D., Dole, J., Kral, C. C., Salinger, T., and Torgesen, J. (2008). Improving adolescent literacy: Effective classroom and intervention practices: A Practice Guide (NCEE #2008-4027). Washington, DC: National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education. Retrieved from