Motivating Low Performing Adolescent Readers.
by Collins, Norma Decker
The focus of this Digest will be on motivating the low performing adolescent
in a remedial reading or subject area classroom. The premise is that students
who are disengaged from their own learning processes are not likely to
perform well in school.
REMEDIAL READERS AT THE SECONDARY LEVEL
Remedial readers at the secondary level are often caught in a cycle
of failure. They have frequently been involved in a heavy skills instruction
program, and when "it" did not work, they were given more of the same.
Thus, many disabled readers never saw reading as a language operation.
They never saw reading as something they could do--it was something to
Readers who have negative experiences with reading generally view reading
as a process of getting the word right rather than an act of making sense
of the material. They do not hear a voice on the page; they do not know
they can skip words; they do not know that they must do different things
with different kinds of materials.
Secondary teachers must help the low achieving or low performing student
break the cycle of failure. Low performing students need the opportunity
to revalue themselves. They need experiences with texts that are relevant.
They need to acquire strategies that will result in comprehension. Building
confidence is essential to improving the performance of secondary readers.
Assisting and motivating low performing students is a requisite to improved
Ammann and Mittelsteadt (1987) recount how the failure cycle was broken
for one group of high school students. By using newspapers instead of traditional
reading skills material for classroom reading and writing activities, students
who had failed for years as language users experienced success as readers.
Through an intervention on the part of the teacher/researcher, students
were provided strategies for reading. And for the rest of us, it shows
how a teacher can make a difference in the secondary classroom.
In order for any student to become a lifelong learner, he or she must
be able to handle print--environmental print, recreational print, and vocational
Unfortunately, the disabled reader has often been so removed from reading
as a tool for living and learning, that he or she has given up. By helping
students find personal reasons to engage in print, you help them realize
the ultimate goal of reading--that of constructing personal meaning. Fuchs
(1987) suggests, as a first step, that teachers select books for young
people that reflect the actual interests of adolescents. It is also important
for teachers to have suggestions available for parents who want to help
their children become active readers. By understanding why some teenagers
dislike reading, parents and teachers can embark on the difficult task
of encouraging students to read in developmentally appropriate ways.
ARE READING PROBLEMS NECESSARILY READING-SPECIFIC?
Language scholars Moffett and Wagner, in the book Student-Centered Language
Arts and Reading K-13 (1983), contend that problems in reading are not
necessarily reading-specific and that reading comprehension is not distinct
from general comprehension. The skills required for comprehending texts,
like identifying the main idea, recalling details, relating facts, drawing
conclusions, and predicting outcomes, are operations that apply to activities
in life. It is understandable that these skills have wound up as reading
skills because they are demonstrated when a student reads. However, Moffett
and Wagner feel that reading comprehension is merely comprehension.
Based on this definition of comprehension, we must look outside of reading
as well as toward reading for instructional strategies. We must look at
all low performing students--not just those who have been identified as
reading disabled. We will begin by looking at 3 major causes of incomprehension:
poor motivation, lack of experience, and egocentricity. Any one of these
or any combination is likely to be manifested in the reading of low achieving
or low performing students. Frequently, students who are not successful
in the classroom have not had experiences with language in meaningful,
social situations. By listening to oral and recorded reading, asking questions,
dictating stories, and working in small groups, students experience the
communicative nature of language (Carr, 1995; Wallace, 1995). According
to Moffett and Wagner, only widespread involvement in language can solve
the problem of poor motivation.
Because students at the secondary level are required to use textbooks,
it is important for them to see what reading informational books has to
offer. By browsing a variety of books and scanning them for something they
want to know about, readers see the usefulness of reading. It is the job
of teachers to construct situations where students can find personal reasons
to make the effort to comprehend books. By doing this, reading is reinforced
as a useful language operation--not seen by the student as a testing ground
for self worth.
Another "reading problem" for the low performing student is lack of
experiential background. When a text refers to things or concepts with
which the reader has no familiarity, he or she will not comprehend the
material. Films and television can help enlarge experience and supply vocabulary
(Greenwood, 1989; Aiex, 1988). If these options can be used to strengthen
the basic competencies which students are expected to develop through reading,
they will play a valuable instructional role.
Students also struggle with texts because of subjectivity. Certain words
or phrases may trigger irrelevant associations for readers which interfere
with an accurate reading. Irrelevant associations cause readers to ignore
portions of a text or pay an inordinate amount of attention to others,
so that relationships among statements are distorted and meaning is misconstrued.
The learner needs to hear other viewpoints about a text and compare these
to his or her own thinking.
Small group discussions are important in this regard. When a reader
finds out that others read a text differently, the reader may be helped
to realize that his or her interpretation was limited by a subjective view.
Decreasing egocentricity is necessary for improving student performance
NECESSITY OF A WIDE VARIETY OF TEACHING MATERIALS
There are many reasons for students lacking motivation in reading. However,
a wide variety of teaching materials and teaching techniques help provide
for differences in students' ability to learn. Supplementary materials
like newspapers, magazines, games, films, and audio and video tapes offer
additional ways for students to acquire information. Any medium which stimulates
students' interests and involvement is worthy of consideration.
By asking students to complete projects at the end of their reading
assignments, students may see a reason for reading. For example, developing
a mural, making a diorama, or constructing a model encourages students
to read a text for practical purposes. This is particularly successful
when students are exploring subjects that are of interest to them. Projects
or oral presentations also provide a chance for students to collaborate
with others. Group work may reduce the apprehension poor readers frequently
experience and motivate them to use language socially and purposefully.
Students who are not performing at grade level may not be doing their
part in the learning process. This is frustrating for teachers who wonder
if motivation lies entirely within their domain. It is a "Catch-22" situation.
Some students have developed an indifferent attitude towards learning.
By the time they get to the secondary school, that negativism or indifference
is pretty well embedded (Kos, 1991). Yet, to help the low performing student
succeed in school, you must dismantle the behaviors (defense mechanisms?)
that surround the act of reading.
Because teachers want students to achieve in the classroom, they must
continue to create contexts which promote success. It takes patience and
forbearance to establish an atmosphere of trust that will encourage risk-taking
on the part of the low performing student. Allowing students to choose
some of the instructional materials they use, some of the topics to explore,
and some of the assignments to complete enhances the likelihood that students
will respond to the subject matter.
Another step that you may take involves making reading assignments more
accessible. By writing a brief introduction to explain how the assigned
reading fits into the rest of the chapter, the unit, or the short story,
you may improve the efficiency of students' reading. The following suggestions
may do the same: providing an abstract to highlight important ideas; providing
an outline or list of headings to identify major concepts; supplying a
list of definitions for vocabulary development; and applying a directed
The only way to improve reading skills is to read. As educators, we
must continue our efforts to motivate low performing students. Whether
we make available appropriate reading material at the appropriate time,
supplement students' reading processes with varied print and nonprint experiences,
and/or individualize instruction in whatever way is realistic, the goal
is to whet the low performing or low achieving student's appetite and foster
an interest in reading that will contribute to the student's ability to
lead a full, productive life.
Aiex, Nola Kortner (1988). "Using Film, Video, and TV in the Classroom."
ERIC Digest. Bloomington, IN: ERIC Clearinghouse on Reading and Communication
Skills. [ED 300 848]
Ammann, Richard, and Suzanne Mittelsteadt (1987). "Turning on Turned
off Students." Journal of Reading, 30(8), 708-15. [EJ 350 581]
Carr, Dorothy (1995). "Improving Student Reading Motivation through
the Use of Oral Reading Strategies." [ED 386 687]
Fuchs, Lucy (1987). Teaching Reading in the Secondary School. Fastback
251. Bloomington, IN: Phi Delta Kappa Educational Foundation. [ED 281 165]
Greenwood, Scott C. (1989). "Summarize, Compare, Contrast, and Critique:
Encouraging Active Reading through the Use of Cinema." Exercise Exchange,
35(1), 22-24. [EJ 394 965]
Kos, Raylene (1991). "Persistence of Reading Disabilities: The Voices
of Four Middle School Students." American Educational Research Journal,
28(4), 875-95. [EJ 438 615]
Moffett, James, and Betty Jane Wagner (1983). Student-Centered Language
Arts and Reading K-13: A Handbook for Teachers. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
Wallace, James (1995). "Improving the Reading Skills of Poor Achieving
Students." Reading Improvement, 32(2), 102-04. [EJ 506 434]
Norma Decker Collins is an Assistant Professor of Language Arts at the
University of Wyoming at Laramie.