Spark a passion for reading: 15 ways to motivate daily reading practice

A little bit of reading goes a long way. By reading around 15 minutes per day between grades 1 and 12, a student will have read more than 5 million words by the time they graduate high school. Increase reading time to more than a half-hour per day, and that number jumps to over 13 million words by graduation.1

Sadly, more than half of students read less than 15 minutes per day. They’ll encounter only 1.5 million words during the course of their schooling—the equivalent of just two novels per year. How can we help all students, especially our most reluctant readers, to increase their daily reading practice?

Boost motivation, and you’ll boost reading. Motivation increases reading frequency; it’s a better predictor of current and future amount and breadth of reading than past reading history.2 This blog offers 15 tips for motivating students at all stages of their reading journey:

  • 5 tips to motivate as students learn how to read

  • 5 tips to motivate as students read longer, more complex texts

  • 5 tips to motivate as students become college- and career-ready readers

Discover the joy of reading

The human brain is not built to read. If you look at a diagram of the brain, there’s no “reading lobe.” Instead, many different parts of the brain all have to work together. As students read, they create new neural connections. These pathways are progressively strengthened through repeated reading practice until word recognition becomes automatic and instant.3 However, this is tough work—in the beginning, so much of a child’s brainpower is focused on the act of reading, they might miss the enjoyment of reading. Here are tips to keep students motivated as they work towards automaticity.

Read aloud.
When you read aloud, your students can give their hardworking brains a rest. Instead of concentrating all of their energy on decoding the words on the page, they can pay attention to the more pleasurable parts of reading: engaging characters, exciting plots, witty dialogues, interesting new facts, big discoveries, and dramatic moments. Students can start falling in love with reading even before they can read independently. Get more read-aloud tips here.

Increase text variety.
The more types of books and articles that students are exposed to—and the more diverse those titles are—the more likely students are to discover a new favorite author or genre that keeps them motivated even through the toughest decoding challenges. Put up a bookstore-style display, create a book review bulletin board, host a show-and-tell day where kids bring their favorite books, or mix up your read-aloud choices. Be sure to download What Kids Are Reading for helpful lists of kid-approved books and articles by grade.

Make time for reading.
Highly successful companies like Google, Apple, and Yahoo have a “genius hour” where employees can work on any project they want; create your own “genius time” where students can read any book or article they want. Reserve at least 15 minutes each day for reading. Have children read independently or in pairs as their skill level allows. Ensure the environment is conducive to reading by setting an expectation for quiet or turning on soft, instrumental music. If possible, make alternative seating available so kids can get really comfortable—consider bean bag chairs, DIY inner tube reading chairs, or other flexible seating options.

Dispel the “good reader” myth.
Some students—especially those that struggle to read—may assume that there are two kinds of readers: those who read well and those who do not. These students do not realize that everyone needs to practice reading. They may even assume that, because they struggle with reading now, they will always struggle. Explain that no one is born with a reading brain and everyone has to practice reading in order to become a strong reader. For more about “innate” versus “learned” talent, pick up a copy of Unlocking Student Talent.

Believe every child will read.
School and district leaders, classroom teachers, and other educators—both real and fictional—are forever inspiring others. Review your own assumptions about your students, their current reading abilities, and their potential for future success. Consciously let go of the ones that limit students or put them in inflexible categories. Your wholehearted belief that each and every student can become a great reader is one of the most powerful motivators in the world.

Overcome reading challenges

The hard work doesn’t end once students’ decoding skills solidify and they can reliably get words off the page. Now they need to think about literal, inferential, and evaluative comprehension; authorial intent and reader response; academic and content-area vocabulary; analyzing, synthesizing, and evaluating; and so much more. There will be struggles and failures; there will also be spectacular successes. Keep students motivated through their toughest reading challenges with these tips.

Keep reading aloud.
Did you know that more than half of middle schoolers say having their teacher read aloud is one of their favorite reading activities?4 Don’t stop reading aloud just because students are older and have the skills to read independently. Reading aloud is a great way to expose students to new genres and authors, as well as model comprehension strategies such as visualizing, making predictions, previewing, questioning, clarifying, and summarizing. Read nonfiction aloud to introduce new academic vocabulary, explore text features, and investigate new concepts as a group, giving students regular opportunities to ask questions.

Provide the just-right level of challenge.
If we are not pushed or stretched, we do not grow. If we are pushed too much, we become overly frustrated and motivation withers. But if we are pushed at an ideal level—just beyond our reach—we grow optimally. This “just-right” level of challenge is the zone of proximal development (ZPD), sometimes called a student’s “instructional level” or “independent reading level” when it comes to reading. Encourage students to read materials that fall within their ZPD; they should be reading at, slightly below, or slightly above their current reading level.

Set personalized goals.
Success may look different for every student. Grade-level goals may not be appropriate for a student who is currently reading two or three grade levels lower—or a student who is already mastering above-grade-level materials. Personalized goals give students realistic, achievable targets to aim for as they practice, which in turn increases motivation. Set personalized goals around the factors proven to increase achievement gains: time spent reading, average book level (within a child’s ZPD), and average comprehension level.

Give continual feedback.
Meaningful positive feedback is one of the crucial factors in maintaining motivation. As you monitor students’ reading progress, be sure to provide encouragement with positive, actionable feedback. For example, if a student has high reading time but low comprehension, you could compliment his reading stamina and suggest a comprehension strategy to use next time he reads. When students know they’re getting closer to their goals—and the steps they need to take to get even better—they will be continually motivated to succeed.

Make it fun.
Your students may be hard at work with their reading practice—but don’t let them forget that reading is fun, too! Sprinkle lessons with occasional treats like reading joke books, watching movies based on books, playing relay team games, sharing favorite books and authors during show-and-tell, or drawing, painting, or sculpting popular characters or scenes. Don’t use fun activities as rewards or limit them for only your “best” readers—make sure all students, especially struggling readers, get a chance to experience how fun reading can be.

Become a lifelong reader

School ends. Reading never does. Throughout college, career, and beyond, reading is an essential daily task for people of all ages and walks of life. As students graduate and become independent adults, they will need to transition from reading for school to reading for themselves—for their own enjoyment, for self-improvement, for professional development, for communication with customers and colleagues, and for participation in our democracy. Use these tips to help students build the deep, intrinsic motivation that will help them become lifelong readers.

Never stop reading aloud.
Think your students are too old for read alouds? Think again. Audiobooks and author readings are just two of the many ways adults enjoy read alouds throughout their lives. In fact, audiobooks are the fastest-growing segment in the digital publishing industry.5 Read aloud to your students on a regular basis. Play audiobooks in your classroom and discuss the narrator’s choices around tone, rhythm, and speed. Take a fieldtrip to listen to an author reading or invite an author to read at your school. Have your students read aloud too—and let them choose the books or articles.

Facilitate book club discussions.
Book clubs are another way people of all ages enjoy reading. An estimated five million Americans belong to a book club, and even more belong to online reading groups, with some sites boasting 40 million members.6 By starting a class, grade, or school book club, you may help your students discover a new favorite hobby—and perhaps some new friends along the way. The discussions, questions, and learning tasks you facilitate can help students understand the power of their own voice and how evidence from reading can further strengthen that voice.

Ask for long-term commitments.
Students who make long-term commitments are often more successful.7 Ask students for commitments that stretch over time, even if the commitment itself is small. Challenge students to read five more minutes a day for a month. Read one more newspaper or magazine article per week for a quarter or semester. The impact these small changes have can sometimes be enormous, providing motivation for students to continue them. Reading habits will be built through repetition and familiarity that become their own motivation.

Connect reading with college and career goals.
There are many different types of student effort. One type, however—commitment—has a stronger relationship with achievement than the others. This describes a student’s commitment to their education: taking an interest in their schoolwork, trying to stay on task in class, working hard to achieve good grades, and understanding the role of education in post-school success (i.e., getting a job).8 Help students see how reading connects with their long-term goals. For example, did you need construction workers need a Lexile® measure of 1130L to be successful in their jobs?9 Explain why reading is so crucial for college and career readiness.

Involve family and community.
Parents and other adult family members are children’s #1 source of encouragement to read books for fun. This is true of all age groups, from six-year-olds just entering first grade to 17-year-olds preparing to graduate high school.10 When reading becomes a family habit, students may be more likely to continue reading after graduation—and perhaps even pass the habit on to their own children someday. Write a newsletter, share insights about the importance of reading, and encourage family reading. Here are more great ideas for involving families from fellow educators.

We hope these tips help you get all your students on the path to reading success in school and in life. For more insights about reading practice, reading growth, and the factors that matter most for student reading success, be sure to read the Education Leader’s Guide to Reading Growth on the Renaissance blog or download the complete guide to save and share with colleagues.

1 Renaissance Learning. (2016). What kids are reading: And how they grow. Wisconsin Rapids, WI: Author.
2 Wigfield, A., & Guthrie, J. T. (1997). Relations of children’s motivation for reading to the amount and breadth or their reading. Journal of Educational Psychology, 89(3), 420-432.
3 Hempenstall, K. (2006). What brain research can tell us about reading instruction. Learning Difficulties Australia Bulletin, 38(1), 15-16.
4 Ivey, G., & Broaddus, K. (2001). “Just plain reading”: A survey of what makes students want to read in middle school classrooms. Reading Research Quarterly, 36(4), 350-377.
5 Kozlowski, M. (2017). Global audiobook trends and statistics for 2018. Good e-Reader. Retrieved from https://goodereader.com/blog/audiobooks/global-audiobook-trends-and-statistics-for-2018
6 Burger, P. (2015). Women’s groups and the rise of the book club. Jstor Daily. Retrieved from https://daily.jstor.org/feature-book-club/
7 Fogarty, R. J., Kerns, G. M., & Peter, B. M. (2018). Unlocking student talent: The new science of developing expertise. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.
8 Steward, E. B. (2008). School structural characteristics, student effort, peer associations, and parental involvement: The influence of school- and individual-level factors on academic achievement. Education and Urban Society, 179(2), 179-204.
9 MetaMetrics. (2015). The Lexile career database. Retrieved from https://metametricsinc.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/07/MetaMetrics-Consulting-Development.pdf
LEXILE®, LEXILE FRAMEWORK®, and the LEXILE® logo are trademarks of MetaMetrics, Inc.
10 Scholastic. (2017). Kids & family reading report. Retrieved from http://www.scholastic.com/readingreport/files/Scholastic-KFRR-6ed-2017.pdf

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