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Motivating students to read – a look at the theory

Written By: Julie Smith
12 min read
An exploration of studies and perspectives on motivation

With the aim of fostering student motivation, systems of rewards and sanctions are prevalent in schools. These are often based on behaviourist principles for changing patterns of behaviour (Brophy, 1981). Payne (2015) proposes that a behaviourist approach can be appealing for educators as it suggests that by rewarding desirable patterns of behaviour, undesirable ones will be eradicated, as according to the behaviourist theory of operant conditioning, rewards and punishments shape future behaviour (Brophy, 1981).

In this way, education systems make assumptions about human nature and how it develops, presupposing how it can be changed. Specifically, behaviourism sees human beings as fundamentally passive, and “determined by the laws of stimulus and response” (Daniels, Lauder and Porter, 2007, p.4). Daniels, Lauder and Porter (2007) remind us that in the work of the behaviourist Skinner (1953) for example, human beings are assumed to have no free will. The value implication here is that students should be treated in a paternalistic way, in which their environment for learning is highly structured. However, from this perspective, the concept of passivity of the student is central. Furthermore, it fails to explore further motivators.

Motivation theory has been examined extensively through lenses other than the behaviourist perspective, one of the most extensively cited and most acknowledged being self-determination theory (Deci and Ryan, 1985). This theory acknowledges the controlling nature of institutionalised schooling, and simultaneously proposes to use strategies to promote intrinsic motivation through the satisfaction of human needs for competence, autonomy and relatedness, referring to the experience of behaviour as volitional and reflectively self-endorsed.

The correlation between self-determination theory and social constructivism

Reward systems rely on assumptions about the nature of motivation. From a social constructivist perspective, students who are encouraged to think about rewards are less inclined to explore ideas, think creatively or take chances. Additionally, people who are offered a reward generally choose the easiest possible task (Kohn, 1993). Social constructivist learning theories define learning as an interactive process, sharing the fundamental assumption that knowledge is created by individuals or groups, and claiming that learning occurs when the learner internalises the social experience of interacting with others (Vygotsky, 1978). These constructivist ideas are consistent with self-determination theories of the importance of relatedness to learning. This can be defined by the provision of a “sense of belongingness and connectedness to the persons, group, or culture disseminating a goal”, or specifically in classrooms, that students need to feel valued by their teacher (Ryan and Deci, 2000, p.64).

Through both lenses, learning is a process where relatedness is a resource for learning achievement and a need to be satisfied. According to Vygotsky’s (1978) concept of the zone of proximal development, optimal learning occurs when the learner is actively engaged in the cognitive process; knowledge is created in the process of social interaction with knowledgeable others. From the perspective of behaviourism, individuals are viewed as playing passive roles in learning and development. This is inconsistent with the constructivist approach of developmental psychology, which tends to view individuals as active, and recognising that human behaviour is determined by ongoing and complex interactions (Bear, 2013).

Extrinsic and intrinsic motivation: differing perspectives

Ryan and Deci (2000) refer to the least autonomous forms of extrinsic motivation as external regulation: behaviours are performed to obtain an externally imposed reward. They suggest this is the only kind of motivation recognized by operant theorists such as Skinner (1953). Extrinsic motivation can also take the form of integrated regulation: this is more autonomous. Behaviour is done for its presumed instrumental value, but it is “volitional and valued by the self” (Ryan and Deci, 2000, p.62). Unlike operant theorists, the authors distinguish between different types of motivation: extrinsic motivation refers to doing something because it leads to a separable outcome, but intrinsic motivation refers to doing something because it is inherently enjoyable (Ryan and Deci, 2000).

Motivation can be thought of as a continuum, ranging from “amotivation or unwillingness, to passive compliance, to active personal commitment” (Deci and Ryan, 1985, p.60). It is possible to move along the continuum; exposure to an activity through an external regulation might result in an orientation shift, or value in an activity might be lost (Ryan and Deci, 2000). According to Bear (2013), researchers with a social constructivist orientation argue that tangible rewards may be detrimental to intrinsic motivation. However, researchers with an operant behavioural orientation disagree that tangible rewards are likely to harm intrinsic motivation. Akin-Little and Little (2009) for example, refer to Cameron’s (2001) meta-analysis, which finds that rewards do not decrease intrinsic motivation. Akin-Little and Little (2009) assert that this finding has important implications for schools as many students do not find academic tasks initially appealing. To counter any detrimental effects of the use of extrinsic reinforcement, the authors recommend that rewards should not be given for a task “without regard for completion or quality” (Akin-Little and Little, 2009, p.86). Similarly, Hattie and Timperley (2007) find that effective teachers use rewards strategically, in ways that help create a positive classroom climate.

Further motivators: competence, autonomy and goal theory

Covington (2000) finds that when students receive a good grade, their intrinsic engagement increases, and suggests that this could be attributed to an increase in feelings of pride, a reduction in concern about failure, or perhaps that success leads students to study more and become more interested in the material. The need to feel competent has to be fulfilled for students to be successful in learning (Sun and Chen, 2012). From the perspective of self-determination theory, feelings of competence can enhance intrinsic motivation because they allow satisfaction of the basic psychological need for competence, although competence needs to be accompanied by a sense of autonomy (Ryan and Deci, 2000). When extrinsic motivation entails personal endorsement and a feeling of choice, it is associated with greater engagement, higher quality learning and greater psychological well-being (Ryan and Deci, 2000). This concept is explored further through goal theory, as briefly outlined below.

The difference between performance and mastery goals

Brophy (2010) suggests that when students approach activities with performance goals, they see these goals as tests of their ability to perform rather than opportunities to learn. To meet task demands and avoid failure, they may rely on surface-level learning strategies, avoid challenges and give up easily. In contrast, learning or mastery goals involve using “deep processing study strategies, having higher self-efficacy perceptions and more positive attitudes towards school” (Brophy, 2010, p.92). However, Covington (2000) finds that striving for good grades and caring for learning are not necessarily incompatible; they can be influenced by pursuing personal interests. Nevertheless, students are more likely to value what they are learning when they are not learning for performance goals.

Hruska (2011) reminds us that goal orientations can predict certain educational outcomes, and can explain the values students have about learning. Students can be motivated by mastery goals in particular as they emphasise the challenge of learning and understanding, with a goal of continuous improvement despite how many mistakes might be made. Rubie-Davies et al. (2015) similarly find that the setting of mastery goals is motivating, and in addition, claim that goal-setting can promote student autonomy if teachers enable students to choose the focus of the learning goals based on teacher feedback. Hruska (2011) suggests that in contrast, performance goals motivate competitive students to outperform others and to demonstrate competence, and motivate non-competitive students to avoid failure. One of the main differences between these types of goals is their approach to mistakes; students should be taught to analyse the causes of success and failure in constructive ways, in which they can value their hard work and effort as a source of personal worth (Covington, 1998).

Furthermore, Yeagar and Dweck (2012) find that approach to adversity is directly linked to student outcomes. The authors propose that students’ theories about intelligence vary. Students can perceive intellectual ability as something of which people have a fixed, unchangeable amount, or they see intellectual ability as something which can be developed over time. Their research suggests that these mindsets can be changed, and that in doing so resilience can be promoted. One intervention suggested by the authors is to change a student’s perceptions of failure, thus changing perceptions of intelligence from implicit to incremental.

Setting goals in a supportive environment

Brophy (2004) proposes that teachers should minimise elements of competition and social comparison, while encouraging students to adopt mastery goals, and providing the instructional scaffolding and personal support needed to enable them to attain these goals successfully. Similarly to the concept of relatedness conveyed through Ryan and Deci’s (1985) self-determination theory, the importance of creating a supportive, collaborative learning environment that enables students to feel comfortable in accepting challenges is key to building confidence; this includes avoiding practices that make students feel isolated or threatened in their efforts to meet the teacher’s expectations (Brophy, 2004). Covington (2000) recommends that students are provided with well-defined standards of performance. Thus, when failure occurs, it implies “falling short of a goal, not falling short as a person” (Covington, 2000, p.25).

One trend in goal theory builds on the generalisation that mastery goals are productive, and that performance goals are not by formulating a multiple goals perspective, depicting performance approach goals as complementary to mastery goals for some people in some achievement situations. If learners value content, and are taught deep-processing strategies and a focus on mastery, they can pursue multiple goals efficiently. However, these strategies are time-consuming, and the advantages of using them may not be necessary if material is not meaningful, or needed in the long term (Brophy, 2010). Similarly, offering students rewards can increase learning, according to student perception of their learning content (Covington, 2000). A reconciliation of these approaches can be found in Covington’s (2000) suggestion that offering students tangible rewards sometimes increases learning, dependant on whether the student perceives the tasks as inherently interesting.

Bear (2013) similarly proposes that rewards can increase the frequency of desired behaviours while decreasing the frequency of undesired behaviours; rewards can improve the behaviour of unmotivated students, although these effects tend only to be in the short term. It would appear therefore that school-wide use of rewards regardless of what motivates individual students is potentially problematic.

Behavourism exemplified by the Accelerated Reader programme

One example of a reward system used in schools with the intention of changing student behaviour is Renaissance Learning’s Accelerated Reader programme. The programme is well-known and used by 40,000 schools in 60 countries worldwide, and in 4,500 schools across the UK (Education Endowment Fund, 2015).

The Accelerated Reader programme is a computer-based reading programme, with the aim of fostering the habit of independent reading, in which software screens students according to reading levels, and suggests books to match reading age (Accelerated Reader, 2015). The programme provides students and teachers with immediate diagnostic feedback on reading practice through short quizzes (Education Endowment Fund, 2015); students can earn points on quizzes, which can be exchanged for prizes (Accelerated Reader, 2015).

Huang’s (2012) overview of the research literature written on the programme reveals that most published studies have applied experimental research designs to compare differences between groups using ‘Accelerated Reader’, and those in control groups not using it. Many of these studies have been undertaken or published by Renaissance Learning (Biggers, 2001), such as Topping’s (2016) study. Renaissance Learning reports on its website that 155 studies conducted on the ‘Accelerated Reader’ program support the effectiveness of the programme, of which 129 were conducted independently, and 20 were published in peer reviewed publications. However, Smith and Westberg (2011) suggest that it is unclear how independent these studies are, and claim that the studies are varied in terms of methodology and purposes.

In addition to the programme’s intention to use rewards to change student behaviour, there are further aspects of the program that can be viewed from a behaviourist perspective. It could be suggested that the programme’s emphasis on numbers and efficiency through test scores encourages a positivist and behaviourist way of reading (Schmidt, 2008). Ways in which books are labelled and organised in the library are behaviourist in nature: they are marked with levels and displayed prominently, privileging Accelerated Reader books as more desirable than non-Accelerated Reader books, which remain unmarked and therefore invisible to students choosing new books to read (Schmidt, 2008). For those students and teachers using the programme, the emphasis on assessment is on test scores and measurable outcomes that are behaviourally observable (Groce and Groce, 2005).

Nurturing motivation to read: possible advantages to a behaviourist approach

Some findings show positive results from the implementation of the program, in terms of a statistically significant increase in reading scores, or time spent reading, perhaps because students who have more access to books read more (Peak and Dewalt, 1993; Goodman, 1999; Vollands, Topping and Ryka, 1999; Accelerated Reader, 2015). Additionally, students who are provided with more time to undertake recreational reading show better gains in reading achievement than comparison students (Krashen, 2003).

Krashen (2003) also proposes that students who take part in sustained, silent reading programs show better gains in reading achievement than comparison students. In addition, Stahl (2004) argues that the more time students spend with “eyes on text,” the better readers they will become (Stahl, 2004, p. 190). Ladbrook (2014) similarly finds that providing time and support for leisure reading in school can increase literacy success, and suggests that this in turn can have a positive impact on students’ views of themselves as readers. In terms of the ‘Accelerated Reader’ programme itself, the EEF (2015) recommends that ‘Accelerated Reader’ is particularly effective as a catch-up intervention at the start of secondary school.

It is important to note that most schools are actively involved in sponsoring extrinsic motivation programmes as one way to encourage reading engagement, identifying the primary goal of their reading incentive programmes to encourage positive attitudes towards reading (Fawson and Moore, 1999). Niemiec and Ryan (2009) remind us that teaching practices do not occur in a vacuum, and suggest that one reason teachers use controlling rather than autonomy-supportive strategies is that external pressures are placed on them. As Ball (2015) suggests, accountability policies produce new and distorted possibilities for action.

Nurturing motivation to read: possible disadvantages to a behaviourist approach

Krashen (2003) suggests that access to books and time devoted to reading are the only aspects of the Accelerated Reader program linked to better reading supported by research; use of incentives do not support additional reading in the long term. Furthermore, some independent research studies indicate that students have unfavourable views about the program and that the Accelerated Reader program does not increase achievement or self-efficacy about reading (Smith and Westberg, 2015).

From the perspective of self-determination theory, in order for students to be motivated to read, intrinsic motivation can be facilitated through feelings of competence and a sense of autonomy, as well as choice and the opportunity for self-direction (Ryan and Deci, 2000). In contrast, Persinger (2001) and Brisco (2003) question if the ‘Accelerated Reader’ programme intrinsically motivates students to read, or if it motivates them to earn points and prizes. Persinger (2001) concludes that rewarding children in this way has the potential to undermine their motivation to read; students benefit more greatly from being in a state of engaged reading, which can be defined as total absorption or flow (Csikszentmihayl, 1991), and is strongly associated with reading achievement (Cipielewski and Stanvich, 1992; Campbell, Voelkl and Donahue, 1997). Engaged readers can overcome obstacles to achievement, and they become “agents of their own reading growth” (Pearson et al., 1984, p.405).

In summary, from an operant behavourial perspective, by rewarding desirable patterns of behaviour, undesirable patterns will be eradicated. From a social constructivist perspective, motivation is more complex, and the concept of passivity is refuted. Motivation is dependent on the task, the individual’s attitude towards the task and their belief in their own abilities to complete it, in addition to the learning environment they are working in and their interactions with others. From a social constructivist perspective, the effects of rewards on motivation tend to be short term (Bear, 2013).

To encourage intrinsic motivation in this context, I believe that students need to be given opportunities to read, but need to be exposed to a wide variety of reading experiences to enable them to comprehend texts better; students need to be able to respond to texts in a variety of ways, in a way that enables teachers to incorporate choice into the curriculum, and students should be able to engage in social interaction if they want to (Schmidt, 2008). The awareness of the students’ own views may allow us to focus more closely on developing independent, successful and intrinsically motivated readers, rather than relying on extrinsic motivators which may not foster a life-long love of reading.

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