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  • Writer's pictureAaron Daffern

Student motivation and reading comprehension

Photo by Henry Be on Unsplash

I have a philosophical question for you.

If I totally nerd out in an activity that is already inherently nerdy, what's the relationship between the two?

Do the two nerd experiences merely double? Do they multiply by each other? Or is there a possibility that nerding out in a nerdy activity creates an exponential relationship?

Maybe the nerdy problem is more internal...

This afternoon I was working through Module 10 (Comprehension) of the Texas Reading Academies as a part of my duties as a Manager in the Early Learning Department of Dallas ISD. The Reading Academies teach the science of teaching reading and this entire year I've been up to my eyeballs in diphthongs, phonemic awareness, syllabication, and graphemes.

Nerdy but needed for our K-3 teachers and administrators.

There I was, clicking through some slides on helping students generate higher interest in reading and I saw some words almost flash across the page.

Motivation. Engagement.

Those two terms, different but sometimes used interchangeably, have a special meaning for me. My first two books (Solving Student Engagement and Don't Quit Your Day Job), written almost four years ago, recorded my own personal journey with understanding student motivation and how teachers can design instruction that motivates every student.


Here's a short summary of the five facets of student motivation detailed in my books.

1) Competence - Some students are highly motivated by competence. When they feel like they are able to accomplish a task, they feel engaged and ready to learn. They love building their proficiency through sequential learning. Most importantly, these students need to have an expectancy of success. If they feel like the task is too difficult or out of their reach, they will quickly lose interest.

2) Relationships - Other students get much more out of the classroom when they have built positive relationships with others. Usually with the teacher, though sometimes with peers, these students need the connection of other human beings. They thrive on cooperative learning and working in a group. They best process information by talking things out with a friend and they love to connect their learning to their own lives. Relational learners also thrive in the dramatic arts and literature, exploring the human condition and reveling in the stories of others.

3) Autonomy - For some, the key question is not, “What are we learning?” but, “Do I have to?” A sense of control can make all the difference to some students. After being told what to do, what to learn, where to sit, and how to answer questions for their whole life, some students have a desperate need to break free. A lot of passive-aggressive behavior in the classroom is a result of teachers trying to exert too much control over these students. For every instructor that makes it his/her mission to keep order in the classroom, there are several students willing to accept that challenge head-on.

4) Value - If you’ve ever been asked, “Will this be on the test?” or “How will this help me in the real world?”, you’re getting signals that you are instructing a predominantly value-motivated student. For these students, relevancy is everything. If what they are learning somehow connects to them, then they learn eagerly. If it seems pointless or useless, however, engagement is elusive. Some students value learning for its own sake while others value learning to accomplish a goal. The goal might be getting a good grade, accomplishing a larger aim like getting into college, or getting a good job. Either way, these learners evaluate learning tasks through the filter of value.

5) Emotions - Finally, some students’ emotions serve as their primary motivational facet. If the classroom is fun, or an activity is game-like, than they are all-in. If it’s a more sterile, factory-like atmosphere, however, they will find it hard to muster enough energy to participate. A key emotion to cultivate in these learners is interest. When their curiosity is piqued, their natural inclination will be to explore and engage. If these students suffer emotional distress, either in or out of the classroom, it will greatly affect their academic behavior.

Thus, when I see those terms written in an educational context, my eyes light up a bit. I want to see what others say about a topic that is near and dear to my heart.

Motivation and the Reading Academy

And then I kept reading. And my nerd factor went into overdrive.

According to the Reading Academy, there are at least four evidence-based research practices that educators can use to motivate students to read and increase comprehension:

- Help students discover the purpose and benefits of reading

- Create opportunities for students to see themselves as successful readers

- Give students reading choices

- Give students the opportunity to learn by collaborating with their peers

What's the big deal?

Well, if you had lived and breathed student motivation over the past 4 years to the degree I had, you might have noticed an alignment. Read them again and then think about how they align with the five facets of student motivation.

- Help students discover the purpose and benefits of reading (Value)

- Create opportunities for students to see themselves as successful readers (Competence)

- Give students reading choices (Autonomy)

- Give students the opportunity to learn by collaborating with their peers (Relationships)

The four suggestions given in the Reading Academy by TEA, that every K-3 educator in Texas will have to complete within the next two years (and in perpetuity), completely align with my model of student motivation!

Nerd alert!!

To complete the set, I'd want to add a fifth strategy:

-Make reading enjoyable (rather than a chore), associating positive feelings with reading practice (Emotions)

Thus, my opening quandary. I completely nerded out today but need your help deciding upon the magnitude of my nerd streams crossing. Additive? Multiplicative? Exponential?

If you'd like to learn more about student motivation, I'm hosting a free webinar series starting March 23, 2020. You can learn more and sign up at

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