From Carrots to Caring: Motivating Students to Read

Dr. Natalie Saaris
May 2, 2016

Over the years, there have been many programs that relied on extrinsic motivators to get students to read: the Book It! Program has, for the last three decades, rewarded students who read with individual pan pizzas. Some popular online reading platforms use points and badges to get students to read on their own.

These reward programs entice the desired behavior but fail to produce the desired attitudes toward reading. Studies have shown that using rewards to motivate students does not produce long-term results: students stop showing interest in the activity once the reward is removed (Kazdin, 1982; O'Leary and Drabman, 1971). Rewards can even decrease intrinsic motivation for tasks that students initially enjoyed.

The holy grail of reading motivation is, of course, intrinsic motivation: we want students to read because they see value in it and enjoy it. There aren’t many programs that target intrinsic motivation because the goal seems so challenging, particularly in an era when students are increasingly averse to reading. It takes more than badges, points, and pizza to turn a student who hardly ever reads into a lifelong reader.

Here at Actively Learn, we’ve taken on the challenge of helping students build the intrinsic motivation to read. We don’t want to give students short-term incentives to read: we want them to love reading and continue to do it long after they’ve graduated. We also want them to get as much as they can from their reading; studies suggest that students who are intrinsically motivated read at a deeper level, whereas students who are extrinsically motivated tend to read at a surface level (Kellaghan, Madaus & Raczek, 1996).

Here is what we’ve learned from the research and how it informs the way we think about motivating reading.

Cognitive Involvement

Cognitive involvement, or deep engagement with the text, is one of the keys to intrinsic motivation. We often correlate cognitive involvement with academic success—readers who are deeply engaged with the text are better readers than those who only read at the surface level—but cognitive involvement is also a key factor in our enjoyment of reading.

There are several reasons why involvement is so important to motivating reading. One theory is based on Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of flow, or complete absorption in an activity. Involved readers are not looking at the clock or thinking about Facebook—they are fully immersed in the activity of reading. Time passes by without their conscious awareness and their attention is focused entirely on the text. The experience of flow leads us to enjoy an activity and to find it rewarding. Thus a student who is immersed in a text will find reading to be a more pleasurable activity than a student who is only partly engaged in the task.

Another reason that cognitive involvement matters to motivation is that the engaged reader simply gets more out of the activity of reading. Deep readers process the text at an altogether different level than surface readers. They ask questions, make connections, and extract more of the ideas than a passive reader who is only superficially engaged in the task. The deep reader leaves the text having constructed meaning; the superficial reader leaves the text having merely been exposed to the author’s words.

A student who is immersed in a text will find reading to be a more pleasurable activity than a student who is only partly engaged in the task.

How do students make the leap from superficial reading to deep cognitive involvement? Csikszentmihalyi points to the importance of matching the reader’s skills to the challenge of the task. We experience flow when the task is at an optimal level of difficulty: if the task if too easy, we become bored, and if the task is too hard, we become frustrated. One approach to creating this ideal balance is leveling, or adjusting the difficulty of the text to the student’s reading level. There are several drawbacks to this approach, including the limitations it imposes on text choice, the imprecise determination of both the student’s reading level and the difficulty of the text, and the detrimental effects of reduced expectations for the student.  A more effective way of achieving the balance between difficulty of the task and skill level is by scaffolding the text to provide the additional supports that students need. In this scenario, students are able to read texts that are meaningful to them while avoiding the frustration of being lost in the reading.

Another way to increase cognitive involvement is by practicing focus, a skill that is increasingly endangered in a digital environment. Students need to have regular check-ins for understanding as they read, whether by embedding comprehension questions in the text or even creating a simple pop-up that asks them to self-assess their own understanding of their reading. This is a skill that comes naturally to expert readers who are accustomed to assessing their comprehension as they read; it is, however, a skill that many students do not practice, resulting in superficial reading where the student’s eyes scan the page but the meaning of the text is lost.   


While it may seem that the social environment is an external rather than an internal motivator, research suggests that the interactions between the student and his or her teacher and class are important to developing intrinsic motivation. Collaboration during the reading process can prevent students from feeling lost as they read and create a sense of shared purpose around reading.

The teacher promotes the right classroom environment by providing feedback to students and helping to develop their self-concept as readers. In order for students to look forward to a task, they need to sense the potential for success. Imagine that you are a struggling student with a history of performing poorly on reading comprehension. A reading assignment is an invitation to showcase your deficit. You will likely plod through the text doubting your ability to understand what you’re reading and feel lousy about the entire endeavor. A teacher’s encouragement in the form of feedback can go a long way here in boosting the student’s sense of competence. Rather than rejecting a student’s answer as outright wrong, the teacher who can tease out some encouraging feedback (“I can see where you got this,” “You are almost there”) can help the student develop a greater feeling of self-efficacy. Learning that he or she is on the right track goes a long way in improving the student’s confidence and enjoyment of reading.

A teacher’s encouragement in the form of feedback can go a long way in boosting the student’s sense of competence.

Relatedness is also important in developing intrinsic motivation. Students who feel connected to and supported by their teacher and peers are motivated to perform at their highest level. Creating a spirit of teamwork and giving students the sense that they are working together with their peers toward a common goal can have a tremendous impact on student interest, persistence, and performance on a task.

Though it may seem like this is murky territory (how do you create the warm and fuzzy feelings of relatedness and teamwork, particularly in larger classes?), there are ways to position reading as a means of connecting students to their community of peers and teachers. Putting discussion and collaboration front and center in the reading process facilitates the feeling that students are not working on an isolated task but rather participating in the shared exploration of the text. Encouraging students to share their thoughts as they read and respond to their classmates’ comments in a constructive way also furthers this goal. 

It’s worthwhile to remember that collaboration is a motivator among adult readers as well. As Daniel T. Willingham writes in Raising Kids Who Read, “Part of the success of Oprah’s book club is the feeling of being part of a group—maybe I wouldn’t tackle A Tale of Two Citieon my own, but we’re all in this together. Teens are hypersocial, so reading ought to be social for them as well.” Teaching students to form communities around reading and engage in conversation about the text will hopefully lay the foundation for their future participation in these sorts of reading groups.


Giving students a choice in what they read increases motivation and effort. Students prefer to read texts they have selected themselves, and will push themselves to read challenging texts that interest them. Seeing reading as something that is not only a means to an end, i.e. an assignment that has to be done for class, is also integral in shaping students’ view that reading holds interest and value in its own right.

Support for independent reading has varied along with changing trends in education. Sustained Silent Reading was a staple of classrooms during the 1960s and 1970s. Over the last few decades, giving students the opportunity to read silently in class was deprioritized in favor of more explicit reading instruction. Experts advised that teaching students reading skills in a structured way was more effective in boosting reading comprehension than allowing them to read what they wanted, however they wanted. Some schools were relieved to no longer provide students an extensive (and expensive) library of engaging content to read for pleasure.

Students prefer to read texts they have selected themselves, and will push themselves to read challenging texts that interest them.

Recently, independent reading has seen a renaissance, thanks in part to digital reading software that makes high-interest articles available to schools for little to no cost. The ability of software to monitor student reading and track progress enables independent reading to be a more structured and fruitful activity. Holding students accountable for completing their independent reading also makes it possible for teachers to assign this for homework without sacrificing instruction time.

To promote the maximum benefit for students, teachers should not only assign independent reading to students but also integrate it into their instruction. Giving students a choice in what they read does not necessarily mean they need to be entirely on their own.  In Raising Kids Who Read, Daniel T. Willingham recommends that teachers play an active role in making independent reading worthwhile: “The teacher should be actively teaching during this time: fielding questions, helping students select books, and conferring with students. [...] Teachers teaching during reading time seems to be essential. Some of the most careful experiments indicate that without this feature, students don’t benefit from silent reading time in class.” Even independent reading can be positioned as a collaborative activity that allows students to voice their choice while also involving them in conversation.


Motivating students to read is not as elusive as it seems. We know the strategies that are proven to work and that drive students to be enthusiastic, effective readers. Unfortunately, there are no shortcuts or substitutions for the meaningful engagement of the student and his or her community in promoting this effort. Technology can be a useful tool in this endeavor, but only if it recognizes the essential components of reading motivation and facilitates the interactions that lead to meaningful, deep reading. These are the principles that power what we do at Actively Learn and that we strive to promote through our platform. Happy reading!



Kazdin, A.E. (1982). The token economy: A decade later. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 15, p. 431–445.

O'Leary, K.D. and Drabman, R. (1971). Token reinforcement programs in the classroom: A review. Psychological Bulletin, 75, p. 379–398.

Willingham, Daniel T. (2015). Raising Kids Who Read. Jossey-Bass.

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