Harry Potter and the Goblet of Motivation

By McPherson, Keith | Teacher Librarian, April 2007 | Go to article overview

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Motivation


McPherson, Keith, Teacher Librarian


Late one evening last year, I was walking past my 7-year-old daughter's bedroom when I noticed that she had left a flashlight on under her bed. Getting down on my hands and knees, I saw that the light was not coming from a flashlight. Light was filtering down from the covers above. Standing up, I said, "Sweetheart, please turn off the flashlight, put the book away, and go to sleep. It is 11 o'clock, and tomorrow your teacher would appreciate you being awake in class."

From under the covers came a muffled and surprised, "How did you know?" I explained that I, too, had spent my fair share of late nights conducting my own underground reading. She then pulled back her covers and revealed her partner in crime, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (Rowling, 1998).

Reflecting on this incident, I realized that I was not surprised at my daughter's late-night reading habit (she is, after all, a night owl like her father). I was surprised, though, at the tenacity with which she was reading the Harry Potter series, especially when considering that the books registered an average readability of at least three grade levels above her own. Moreover, I wondered how we as teacher-librarians could foster such reading motivation in our own students. This column surveys some of the key research on reading motivation and suggests instructional approaches aimed at fostering strong reading motivation in students.

RESEARCH ON READING MOTIVATION

Current research into reading motivation finds strong relationships between engaged reading and achievement. For example, children who read frequently and actively exhibit higher comprehension rates (Cipielewski & Stanovich, 1992; Wang & Guthrie, 2004) and attain higher achievement scores than children who do not read as such (Perie, Moran, & Lutkus, 2005). Similarly, children who read more make more rapid gains in their reading abilities than do children who read less (Stanovich, 1986). Furthermore, as reading competencies increase, so does the motivation to read, creating an upward spiral of achievement (Guthrie, Wigfield, Metsala, & Cox, 1999).

Current research also suggests that motivated readers hold positive beliefs about themselves as learners (Guthrie & Wigfield, 1997; Valentine, DuBois, & Cooper, 2004). Schunk and Zimmerman (1997) found that children who doubt their ability to learn (in this case, learning to read) give up quickly when faced with challenges. Such students often assume that they are responsible for their learning inabilities, instead of recognizing that it may be due to a faulty or unknown learning strategy or approach. In a research review of reading motivation, Cunningham and Cunningham (2002) suggest that students must view reading as a pleasurable activity because "children who dislike something may avoid it or give only partial attention to learning it, although they have the self-confidence to learn lessons and attempt assigned tasks" (p. 90).

FOSTERING READING MOTIVATION

The most probable obstacle facing many unmotivated readers is a lack of self-confidence. Whether told by others that they are not as good a reader as their older siblings or whether they have developed the attitude from peers that reading is not cool, many young readers have come to believe that they are poor readers or cannot read altogether. Although reading specialists suggest a variety of approaches aimed at reversing these attitudes (Guthrie & Wigfield, 2000), one of the most powerful is to tell students again and again, individually and as a group, that they are capable of reading and that they will learn to read.

Wlodkowski (1985) suggests that such praise must be sincere, specific, and based on the teacher's or teacher-librarian's genuine conviction in his or her students' learning abilities and potentials. Otherwise, students will ignore the praise and interpret it as being manipulative. However, genuine praise may be one of only a few voices (the teacher-librarian's and the classroom teacher's) combating years of negative reinforcement underlying students' poor reading self-confidence.

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