We all know reading is the foundation stone of learning; without it, accessing the curriculum becomes incredibly difficult. We also know that getting kids to read at home as well as at school can make a huge difference to how quickly they pick up reading, and how well they are able to comprehend it. But what is less clear is how best to persuade reluctant readers to pick up a book.
Reading-reward charts, World Book Day, reading challenges, Drop Everything and Read (DEAR), huge campaigns and well-stocked libraries all seem to help, but not as much as we would like. So could the psychology of motivation tell us more about how to instil a love of the written word in children? It would certainly help us to understand what might work, says Sarah McGeown, developmental psychologist at the University of Edinburgh.
What we do know, she says, is that intrinsic motivation is more important than extrinsic motivation. In a 2012 study1, McGeown examined intrinsic and extrinsic reading motivation among “very good” and “very poor” readers. Intrinsic reading motivation reflects an internal desire to want to read; curiosity to learn about a subject; or a desire to immerse oneself in a story. Meanwhile, extrinsic reading motivation is all about the reward – praise and recognition from parents or teachers – to achieve a good grade in reading.
In the study of 1,811 children aged 7-13, poor readers reported significantly lower levels of intrinsic reading motivation than good readers. But there was no significant difference in extrinsic reading motivation between good and poor readers. This aligned with many of the existing inquiries in this area.
“Research has consistently shown that intrinsic reading motivation is much more important for children’s reading engagement and attainment than extrinsic reading motivation,” she explains.
Yet, intrinsic motivation is a lot trickier to control than extrinsic motivation. It’s a lot easier to set up a reading raffle (where everyone who hits a target for minutes of reading per week gets a chance at a prize), than to instil a genuine love of reading in a six-year-old who is really struggling with the process. And, unfortunately, there is a lack of evidence to suggest ideas to teachers about how the latter may be done, says McGeown.
“There is very little research looking at intrinsic reading-motivation interventions and whether they lead to measurable gains in a child’s reading motivation, engagement or attainment,” says McGeown.
While she has applied for funding to investigate this area further, she says, there are general principles that teachers can apply during lessons.
“Choice is crucial,” explains McGeown. “Ensuring children have access to interesting and enjoyable texts – ideally books, but comics and magazines, too – is important. Children need to find reading rewarding and draw meaning from what they read. Relevance is important. It can be helpful for children to make connections between texts and their own lives, for example, by recognising the thoughts or feelings of a character in their book.”
Where she is more wary is about classroom initiatives such as Everybody Reading in Class (ERIC) and DEAR. McGeown would like to see a stronger evidence base to support such activities. “The idea behind ERIC and DEAR is that children aren’t going to be tested on what they’re reading – it’s purely about giving children time to read for pleasure during class,” she says.
“While it’s a good idea, there’s no research evidence to demonstrate that it leads to more positive reading motivation or attainment, or that it encourages children to read more outside of class. We really need to understand what effect, if any, and for who, approaches such as these are having on children’s motivation, engagement and attainment so that we can advise teachers appropriately.”
What she is more certain about is the teacher’s ability to predict who is more likely to be motivated to read; this is an area in which McGeown has done a lot of research.
In a 2012 study with the University of Manchester, she examined the relationship between children’s personality traits and their reading motivation2. In the study, 295 children, aged 10-11, completed questionnaires measuring their intrinsic reading motivation, reading confidence, reading attainment and personality characteristics (conscientiousness, openness to experiences and agreeableness).
“We found that children’s general personality traits were as strong a predictor of their motivation to read as their reading skills and reading confidence combined,” she says.
Interestingly, of the personality traits, “openness to experience” had the strongest correlation with reading motivation. “This trait reflects imagination, intellectual curiosity and an openness to feelings and other values,” adds McGeown.
The findings were a surprise. “I had expected children’s reading skills and confidence to be a much stronger predictor of their reading motivation than their personality,” she continues. “I had also thought that conscientiousness – which reflects sensibleness, organisation, achievement-striving, self-discipline and carefulness – would be a stronger predictor of reading motivation, as it is more closely related to achievement-striving and a conscious effort to work harder. However, openness to experiences was by far the strongest predictor. I think this can be explained by what reading offers children. Those children who are intellectually curious, like to use their imagination and are open to new experiences are rewarded when they read – reading offers them these things.”
McGeown’s research also focuses on gender differences, as it is widely recognised that girls, on average, achieve higher scores than boys in reading assessments, and report higher levels of reading motivation and engagement. So what does McGeown’s research contribute to the gender literacy gap? “In my recent studies I’ve been interested in gaining a more nuanced understanding of sex differences, so I’ve been exploring children’s gender identity – that is, how much children, regardless of their sex, identify with stereotypical masculine and feminine traits3,4,” she says. “Studying children’s gender identity is about recognising that not all boys are the same and not all girls are the same – children vary in the extent to which they identify with stereotypical masculine and feminine traits.”
McGeown has found that children who identify more with stereotypical feminine traits – eg, kind or caring – say they are more motivated to read than children who identify with more stereotypical masculine traits, such as competitiveness or decisiveness.
In a follow-up research study, she found that girls were more likely to transcend gender boundaries in their reading activities – in other words, girls were more likely to read books aimed at boys than vice versa. Even tomes considered “gender neutral” were more likely to be read by children who identified with feminine traits than masculine ones.
“We need to be sure that children have access to texts that appeal to them – involving students in book purchases, whenever possible, can help with this,” says McGeown.
All this may suggest that reading is gendered, but she urges caution here. “I think reading is still perceived by children as a more feminine activity,” she says. “But we need to be careful when we study and discuss sex or gender differences. Even just using the term creates an unhelpful dichotomy between boys and girls.”
Instead, McGeown notes that we “should consider moving away from focusing on sex differences and instead consider the beliefs, attitudes, experiences and environments that are conducive to developing children’s motivation to read”.
So how reliable is this work, and what of the criticisms of motivation theory? McGeown acknowledges that there are difficulties in asking young people about their reading motivation. “It requires children to self-report and there are issues with this,” she says. “Children need to be able to accurately reflect on their reasons for reading and they may not have considered these before. Furthermore, children may provide the answers that they think you want to hear. Ensuring language is clear, developmentally appropriate and, whenever possible, allowing anonymity can be helpful to get around these issues.”
McGeown’s next step is to embark on a project, “Growing up a Reader”, in collaboration with the Scottish Book Trust and supported by Edinburgh’s Museum of Childhood. She and her team want to understand what attracts young people to different text types and what it means to them to be a reader. As part of that, they are recruiting primary and secondary students to become researchers, interviewing their peers about what they read and why.
Christina Quaine is a freelance journalist
Meet the academic
Dr Sarah McGeown is senior lecturer in developmental psychology at the School of Education, University of Edinburgh. Her research includes reading development and, more specifically, how early reading acquisition and development predict later reading outcomes; she also explores how to foster reading motivation and engagement in the classroom. McGeown is associate editor of the Journal of Research in Reading, and her research has twice been shortlisted for the United Kingdom Literacy Association/Wiley-Blackwell Research in Literacy Education Award.
 McGeown, SP, Norgate, R and Warhurst, A (2012) “Exploring intrinsic and extrinsic reading motivation among very good and very poor readers”, Educational Research, 3/54: 309-322
 Medford, E and McGeown, SP (2012) “The influence of personality characteristics on children’s intrinsic reading motivation”, Learning and Individual Differences, 6/22: 786-791
 McGeown, S, Goodwin, H, Henderson, N et al (2012) “Gender differences in reading motivation: does sex or gender identity provide a better account?”, Journal of Research in Reading, 3/35: 328-336
 McGeown, SP (2012) “Sex or gender identity? Understanding children’s reading choices and motivation”, Journal of Research in Reading, 1/38: 35-46
* McGeown, SP (2013) Reading Motivation and Engagement in the Primary School Classroom: Theory, research and practice (UKLA)
* Clark, C and Teravainen, A (2017) Children’s and Young People’s Reading in 2016: Findings from our annual literacy survey (National Literacy Trust)