Girl absorbedly reading open book

Threats and quizzes won’t motivate students to invest in reading, but showing them how it contributes to a meaningful life just might make it click. 

By Lauren Porosoff

I have an embarrassing confession: I’m a middle school English teacher, but when I was in middle school, I didn’t read a single assigned book. Not one.

I read only a few of the assigned books in high school, and in college, I actually majored in English without doing much of the reading. I still got high grades because I took careful notes in class and wrote papers that artfully parroted back what the teacher had said.

As a teacher, I like to think that I can sniff out a kid who hasn’t done the assigned reading (takes one to know one), but it isn’t always easy to do, so I’ve tried various systems, to hold students “accountable.” For instance, I’ve given participation points, figuring that only kids who read would be able to contribute to discussions (though I certainly contributed to discussions of books I hadn’t read). I’ve used quizzes to identify students who did the reading and given low grades to those who didn’t (though doing well on quizzes may have more to do with students’ memory for details than whether they did the reading). I’ve tried spot-checking for annotations, on the theory that you can only underline and make notes about important passages if you actually read the book (as if kids aren’t savvy enough to underline a few passages just before class).

In more desperate moments, I’ve tried giving speeches about how reading is necessary for understanding the book, developing skills, and getting a good grade on the essay. None of this stuff works.

I’ve also tried replacing books that seemed dated with ones that seemed more relevant — our book list now balances classics with contemporary texts and includes a diverse range of authors. And I’ve created discussion prompts and writing projects that tap into kids’ experiences. Students are definitely more engaged and psychologically present now than they were several years ago.

But still, there are always kids who don’t read. Or don’t participate in discussions. Or who rush through activities. Or put little thought into their writing. Or don’t proofread. “Work” in my class takes many forms, and the average kid will opt out of at least some of it.

The problem with my failed attempts to get kids to read is that they all framed the work as being a condition for something — an if that has a then: If you do your work, then you’ll get good grades, stronger skills, and a happy teacher. If you don’t, then you’ll get bad grades, an unhappy teacher, and unhappy parents; plus, you won’t be able to get into a good college.

But the truth is that doing the work in English isn’t a necessary condition for any good things to happen, just as avoiding the work doesn’t necessarily lead to anything bad. Personally, I avoided all kinds of schoolwork, especially reading, and I never suffered as a result.

According to psychologists Villatte, Villatte, and Hayes (2015, p. 211), when we frame an action (like reading for English) as a condition for achieving a specific goal, we feel satisfaction only if and when we achieve that goal, not from doing the action itself. If a student knows she’ll have a reading quiz tomorrow, she might read tonight because reading is a necessary precondition for getting the grade she wants. And she might like the grade she gets, but that doesn’t mean she finds the act of reading any more satisfying, and she might not do her reading again unless there’s another quiz.

However, Villatte and his colleagues go on to explain, if we frame actions not as conditions for achieving a particular outcome but as components of meaningful lives, we can find satisfaction in the actions themselves. For me, a meaningful life includes discovering new things, creating my own ideas based on what I’ve learned, and sharing my thinking with the world. If I’d been able to see how reading The Odyssey, Beowulf, and Oedipus Rex could be part of a life of discovery, creativity, and sharing, I might actually have read them!

Teachers may be more successful in motivating students by helping them articulate what makes life meaningful for them. Then we can encourage each student to ask and answer, “How is reading this book a component of that kind of life?”

Schoolwork doesn’t have to be all about getting the grade, the test score, the college acceptance, the competitive job, the big money, or some other unguaranteed outcome that provides only temporary satisfaction. Schoolwork can also be about building patterns of behavior that will make students’ lives meaningful. What learning outcome matters more than that?

Reference

Villatte, M., Villatte, J.L., & Hayes, S.C. (2015). Mastering the clinical conversation: Language as intervention. New York, NY: Guilford.

This article is based in part on material included in Empower your students: Tools to inspire a meaningful school experience, grades 6-12 by Lauren Porosoff and Jonathan Weinstein (Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press, 2017).

LAUREN POROSOFF (lauren@empowerforwards.com, @LaurenPorosoff) teaches at Ethical Culture Fieldston School, Bronx, N.Y.

Originally published in October 2017 Phi Delta Kappan 99 (2), 80. © 2017 Phi Delta Kappa International. All rights reserved.