Monday, June 23, 2014

Motivation - the overlooked sixth component of reading

Trina is an eighth grader trapped in her own prison.  She's the one whose seat you've had to move a dozen times in the last semester.  The one who pokes four different kids on her way to sharpen her pencil for the fifth time before you've gotten through the daily warm-up.  Yep, she's that kid.  That's the kid who, on the rare chance that she's absent (more likely suspended or in the dean's office), the class seems more . . . well . . . manageable.  And that kid is what prompted me to start really looking into what makes our "unmotivated" adolescents  . . . well . . . not tick.
 In a Stamford Advocate article entitled "The Disturbing Transformation of Kindergarten", columnist Wendy Lecker reports that kindergarten has changed drastically in the last fifteen years, shifting to reading instruction rather than discovery and creativity.   Anybody who knows a five-year-old is well aware that they have a natural curiosity that, if fostered, becomes a full-blown desire to learn.  In her March, 2014 IRC session, Stephanie Harvey said that when kindergartners come in to school, they are wide-eyed with curiosity and a desire to learn, but by fifth grade, our focus has become answers and not questions.  She quoted Albert Einstein who said, even in his time, “It is, in fact, nothing short of a miracle that the modern methods of instruction have not yet entirely strangled the holy curiosity of inquiry.”  Enter: the “unmotivated” adolescent. 

Reading instruction is commonly broken into five components: phonemic awareness (knowledge of sounds), phonics (the idea that sounds equal letters and those letters make words), fluency (pace and accuracy of reading), vocabulary, and comprehension.  When our kiddos are first learning to read, everything is new and exciting to them.  To some (probably our linguistic ones), reading comes naturally.  To others, not so much.  Well-meaninged educators identify those who struggle and give them more support, taking time away from other areas, and then during the process we begin to try to boost their confidence by showering them with praise and incentives when small successes are made.  Thus, the sixth component of reading – motivation.

But what of those kiddos who are now ten, eleven, twelve or older?  These are the ones who have heard the words of praise hundreds of times.  The ones who feel dumb because they have to miss art for reading.  They’re the ones who deflect their inability to function at the same level their peers are by throwing a pencil when the teacher isn’t looking or bullying others. Dr. Ross Greene, psychology professor at Harvard University, writes in his 2007 article, “Kids Do Well if they Can,” that all children would perform if each possessed the necessary skills to complete the task.
Kids are motivated to learn by three different factors: desire to learn, incentives, or fear of failure.  As they get older, desire to learn decreases, external and internal obstacles increase, and we find that they rely on incentives and/or fear of failure as their major motivating factor.  Most of the curiosity has been tested right out of them, and school becomes work.  JackCanfield, self-esteem expert and author of the Chicken Soup series, reports that in a self-esteem survey eighty percent of first graders reported high self-esteem, but by graduation this number had dropped to five percent.  Five percent of high school graduates reported high self-esteem.  That's staggering. 

But can this be reversed?  Can the motivation blockade be torn down?  The external factors such as family and neighborhood distractions sometimes cause internal factors to arise.  What starts as a hostile environment may cause a struggling eleven-year-old to develop low academic self-concept, and the downward spiral begins.  Often this happens much earlier than age eleven.  When the external factor of standardized testing provides feedback that spells intervention, our kids know, and their fragile sense-of-self takes a nose-dive.  

Certainly you aren't reading this blog for that bleak truth.  Your real question is Now what? 

Martha Farrell Erickson, PhD. (2003) of the University of Minnesota describes the Three C's as "critical ingredients for healthy child and youth development."   In my opinion, they are critical for educating any child, and most importantly, for reversing the earlier damage done to self-esteem, which can cause blocks in motivation.


Erickson says, "as children move into the school years, connections to teachers and other caring adults, and also to peers, become increasingly important, allowing children to feel a sense of belonging not only in the family, but in the larger community as well."  Shortly after I read this, I began to take inventory of the different ways teachers can make connections with their students, use the information to their advantage, and begin building back that battered self-esteem.  The idea is to get to know your kiddos so that you can best educate the entire child.  Brain research tells us that if negative emotions are present, internalization of information is unlikely.  When students feel happy, protected, and comfortable, they are more apt to take in and retain information.  Dr. Ross Greene (2007) says that if we can pinpoint and support students with skills they lack, they will begin to feel successful and want to succeed.  It is our job to get to know these kiddos inside and out.  Here's how.
·         Reader Self-Perception ScaleSome of our kiddos are completely disengaged with the reading process and have no reason to re-engage.  Others struggle, even though they want to do well.  With this information, you could determine which students need more encouragement and how to approach each one individually, which makes a huge difference in differentiating your instruction. 
·         Learning Styles Assessments - I use the VARK.  It can be done paper/pencil or online, and it comes in an adult and student version.  I ALWAYS take these assessments first because the epiphany that comes after learning something new about myself is mind-blowing.  Once you find out what YOUR learning style is, reflect on your teaching to see if your teaching style matches.  If it does (and it inevitably will), start to realize you will have to make some changes because teaching to one style leaves out three others.  And learning your students' styles and making them aware of them gives them power to learn and produce.  It's pretty amazing.
·         Multiple Intelligences Assessments - I can tell you that I've taken close to half a dozen from different websites, and they've all come out the same.  It doesn't matter which one you take or give.  But take one first, realize that there are reasons you do certain things in your teaching and life, and then give them to your students.  Allow them to reflect, gain power, and proceed carefully with this new knowledge of self.
·         Skill Deficit Inventories - Kids will perform if they possess the skills necessary, according to Dr. Ross Greene.  What better way to help these kiddos than to teach them those skills.  The problem usually lies in the fact that we never seem to dig deep enough.  My favorite question to ask about a student is, "Why?"  If, in a conversation with another teacher, the teacher mentions a student's misbehavior or refusal to participate, I always ask myself, "Why?"  What's missing?  The only way to find out is to assess (formally or informally) and observe, draw conclusions, and collaborate.  What skills are missing?
·         Interest Inventories - These are especially useful when looking for reading material for a resistant reader.  Here's my favorite, created by two of my colleagues (one whose blog you should definitely read!). Getting to know your students' interests allows you to match them up with good-fit reading material.  Pair this with a skill inventory, and you could quite possibly find a book that not only matches what a student is capable of managing but on a topic he enjoys!  You can't get any closer to getting a resistant reader to read.  I've done it dozens of times. is great for choosing great-fit books.  Simply type in an approximate lexile score from a reading inventory and check the boxes of interests. will narrow the millions of books available to adolescents to a much less intimidating list.  "There's nothing good to read in this library," may just become, "I never knew there were this many good books here!"
·         Types of Learners questionnaire – Dr. Valerie Rice and the US Army did a study on types of learners.  The gist of the study breaks learners into four different types, depending on their approach (or non-approach) to learning new material.  Imagine the power our students would have if they knew what type of learner they were and how his information could benefit them!

In the book Bridging Cultures Between Home and Schoolthe author team discusses collectivist cultures and what educators can do to honor this growing number of students.  Adolescents of immigrant families from all over the world grow up with a sense of collectivity, and parents emphasize working together and community instead of bringing attention to individual successes.  As educators, it is our job to support each student individually while maintaining that we have a large number of students who also need to feel like they are contributing.  

This is just as much an engagement philosophy as it is one of esteem-building.  Discussion activities can be as simple as a quick think-pair-share to a whole group activity or discussion model.  The more you use them, the more engaged your students become.  

Erickson's third C is the heart of intrinsic motivation.  The entire reason for the esteem breakdown in the first place lies solely with the fact that many of these kiddos have faced so much failure that success no longer seems attainable.  To build that back, we need to give our students a feeling of mastery, even on things that don't seem to matter.  For example, writing out a clear agenda and reviewing it at the beginning of each day allows our students to transition from activity to activity with greater confidence than they would without knowing what is coming next.  Over time, students begin to feel as if they "run the place" themselves, especially if daily routines are set and maintained early-on.

Providing specific and constructive feedback is another way to build competence in our struggling students.  Rick Wormeli, author and speaker in the field of education, told his audience last February that one of the worst things we can do for our students is assess without providing feedback.  Talk about an esteem breaker!  To assign a number or a letter grade to student work without providing any true feedback is meaningless, and yet we do it all the time.  Wormeli's idea is to empower our students.  To give them a true feeling of success, honor their work.  Observe.  Honor. Tell the student what the work does for you.  Then help them to set a goal to improve on it.  

"Trina, I noticed that when you read the first few chapters of your novel you wrote sticky notes that asked a lot of questions.  This shows me that you are really thinking about and wondering about your reading, and I'm wondering if you've found any answers to any of these questions.  As you read the next chapter, can we make a goal?"   At this time the discussion should move toward either writing questions that may have answers rooted in the near-future text or to look for some answers in the next chapter and record them somewhere. You can then check back with her in a day or so to see if she has met the goal, honor and re-adjust if necessary.  Help her make goals attainable so that she can begin to feel some success.  The more successes she feels, the more she will strive to succeed. 

And succeed, she will.  If even one of Trina's teachers meets her with the attitude that says, "I'm going to get to know you, kid.  I'm going to give you a chance to be a part of this community and to feel success," she will respond.  The biggest challenge is changing our mindset so that she can change hers.  There are no kids who are "just not motivated".  They do not exist.  Each one of them has a story.  It's our job to read it, learn it, and help them to use it as power, not as a prison.