Working with young people in an educational setting can be an enlightening experience, and one can quickly discover that most young students will do almost anything possible to please their teacher. This can be especially true in the elementary grades, but oftentimes the enthusiasm shown by these youngsters begins to wane by the time they reach the middle school groups.
Teachers of middle school students are therefore faced with instructing students who may or may not be motivated to be instructed, and this can be a very difficult situation, specifically when regarding a basic skill such as reading. Experts agree that "reading is a fundamental and necessary skill in order to successfully participate in society, yet employers lament that high school graduates lack the necessary literacy skills to be productive employees" (Kelley, Decker, 2009, p. 467). Many times the lack of reading skills can be traced directly to the lack of motivation by students in the middle school grades regarding the skill of reading.
Students at the middle school age are going through some interesting changes in their lives; they are more social, more apt to face peer pressure, are oftentimes feeling much more independence from families and responsibilities, and are also facing physical and psychological changes to their bodies in the guise of puberty. Faced with these type of changes, oftentimes the student's priorities change. Not only do their priorities change but their confidence levels and competence to face challenges is often times questioned as well. One expert wrote that a "number of current theories suggest that self-perceived competence and task value are major determinants of motivation and task engagement" (Gambrell, Palmer, Codling, Mazzoni, 1996, p. 534).
If that is true, then students in middle school face lowered confidence at the same time as facing higher expectations; this can be a double whammy for the student who may not even enjoy reading in the first place. Another study determined that "when some students judge reading and literacy activities to be unrewarding, too difficult, or not worth the effort because they are peripheral to their interests and needs, they can become nonreaders" (Pitcher, Albright, DeLaney, Walker, Seunarinesingh, Mogge, Headley, Ridgeway, Peck, Hunt, Dunston, 2007).
The key to success in teaching reading, especially at the middle school age level, is to determine how to motivate the students to want to read. Motivating students has always been the key to successful learning and it is equally the key when approaching something that middle school students should already have the skills to accomplish. After all, most experts agree that students who have obtained a sixth-grade reading level are competent enough to continue reading improvement without a lot of reading instruction.
Many of the studies regarding the ability to read as practiced by middle school aged students focuses on the student's lack of motivation to even do so. The experts talk about how teachers can address this lack of motivation by either encouraging extrinsic or intrinsic motivation. Extrinsic motivation addresses the use of various rewards and reward systems to increase the level of motivation, while intrinsic motivation is described as the individual student not having to be motivated by prizes or rewards for accomplishing what should be accomplished.
One recent national survey found that "65% of students did not have reading as a favorite acitivity...73% of students did not read frequently for enjoyment, and 59% of students stated that they did not believe that they learned very much when reading books" (Guthrie, Mcrae, Klauda, 2007, p. 238).
Overcoming those types of numbers as a teacher is a formidable task. It would seem that those students who answered the survey in such a manner have no intrinsic motivation at all. A successful teacher will need to have in his or her repertoire methods of instruction that will necessarily be very effective in increasing that level of motivation to one much higher plane.
One method of increasing intrinsic motivation is by ensuring that reading is an enjoyable pastime. This can be accomplished by finding books that will catch the student's interest. Finding books that middle school aged students will like is a relatively simple task. One method is to ask them what they would like to learn about, what they would find exciting in a book, or what would grab their interest. Once the teacher has garnered that information then an additional step would be to share those books in class. Reading books in class with each student participating may be a method that would work, but the teacher would have to ensure that the books chosen are of sufficient interest level as well as containing a simple enough reading level that everyone can get through it. A method used successfully for some teachers is to have the students read "in character" or by playing the role of the characters in the book.
For some students, playing the character's role(s) in the book will make it enjoyable, while other students may find it quite cumbersome and uncomfortable, especially in front of the class.
For those students is very important that they be engaged in the reading or that the book includes a story they will be interested in. As one expert wrote "the child is able to perform tasks based upon his or her internal interests, needs, or curiosities" (Fawson & Moore, 1999, p. 325). In other words, the student's intrinsic motivation helps them to successfully navigate a sea of words. Or as Fawson and Moore discovered "behavior motivated internally exercises power to perform tasks even in the absence of conspicuous rewards" (p. 325)
Other experts believe that the extrinsic model of motivation should be employed in educational surroundings. Some of these experts have found that reading levels improve significantly when the students are positively motivated to read and are rewarded for doing so. One early study showed that "positive beliefs about reading translate directly into higher levels of motivation and better understanding" (Schraw, Bruning, 1999, p. 281). For those students who are motivated by extrinsic values there is little disagreement about how to motivate them effectively; reward them with something they will like. Many times a reward for middle school age students can be something as inexpensive as a piece of candy, especially if it is given to them in front of the class with some words of praise. Fawson and Moore found that "the reward or incentive may be food, money, recognition, or any number of prizes attractive to the recipient. Under this condition, performance of the task has much more to do with receiving the reward than it does with any inherent interest in the task" (p. 325).
Whether the motivation is extrinsic or intrinsic, the teacher must still be able to instruct the students accordingly.
Experts believe that "reading motivation is multifaceted including goals for reading, intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, self-efficacy, and social motivation for reading" (Aarnouste & Schellings, 2003, p. 387). The teacher will need to know instructional practices that will assist the student(s) in not only motivating styles but learning styles as well. As stated above, the middle school student is likely facing a number of changes in his/her life and their belief system can easily be effected or changed.
As one expert wrote "perceived self-efficacy refers to beliefs in one's capabilities to organize and execute the courses of action required to manage a prospective situation" (Horner, Shwery, 2002, p. 102). One can imagine that a middle school aged student may not have the self-efficacy to manage reading in front of the class if that student did not have the support and encouragement coming from the teacher. The teacher would therefore have to know and understand his or her students in order to also know what instructional strategy would likely work best for that particular student. Such knowledge usually comes from interaction with that student or as one expert put it "a teacher must have some understanding of the needs of middle school students when making decisions about instructional practices" (Hammon, Hess, 2004, p. 5).
Teachers who are engaging in the process of learning and understanding are also inherently assisting the students in becoming engaged. The process of learning can be enhanced just by engaging in conversations about the learning. So also is this true about reading. it's interesting to note that one expert found that "teachers want students to be able to read critically, but they seldom allow them to initiate conversations about books" (Ivey, Broaddus, 2001, p. 350).
This seems rather ludicrous on its face, that teachers would not want their students to converse about the very subject they are attempting to teach them is a very self-defeating proposal. Teachers who are enthusiastic about their subject influence the students in a positive manner. If the teachers aren't enthusiastic, then the students likely won't be as well.
Instructional methods, motivation techniques, building confidence in students and helping those students to comprehend the reasons for enhanced reading skills can all be laid on the teacher's responsibilities, but that would be…