Motivating Children to “Show up to Reading”

 //  Jul 20, 2021

Motivating Children to “Show up to Reading”

Dr. Elliott Hedman researches the emotions of reading and is the founder of mPath and Wonder Stories. Here, he shares the key elements to get kids to mentally “show up” to reading.

Eight untouched books are still sitting in plastic wrap at the Denver Boys & Girls Club where I teach. The teen coordinator told me that none of the students wanted to read them. While most of Denver Public Schools closed down due to the COVID-19 pandemic, our club opened up early. Hundreds of new books with a diverse range of characters and stories were donated to the Boys & Girls Club (many donated by me), but those books were never read either.

When I signed up to be a literary specialist at the Boys & Girls Club, “reading sucks” were the first words one of the kids named Emmanuel told me. Typically, I am a researcher-in-residence, co-creating with students what the future of reading should look like, but with limited staff, I signed up to foster the literacy program. I was quickly floored by how much students fought having to read.

For the last year, teachers everywhere have had the monumental task of motivating children to show up on Zoom. But my work at the Boys & Girls Club has revealed a new upcoming challenge: even when they are physically back in their seats, how do we motivate children to mentally show up?

One day in the club, I pulled up a story called The Bedroom Egg onto the projector. The 3rd grade student Adonis was not having it. He spoke up and told his class he does not want to read, and quickly others echoed his sentiment. A social worker eventually came into the room to help settle down the class.

As a researcher, I treated this “showing up” problem as a design challenge. I prototyped with students like Emmanuel and Adonis to invent a reading experience that would work for them. The positive experience we designed together had two key features:

1. Critical Thinking Everywhere

One of the hardest challenges with reading is that students do not feel cognitively challenged. Unlike math, there are often no problems to solve while reading. And when children are not stimulated with a challenge, they get bored. To remedy this, I gave readers clear questions and purposes with their reading: “How do we fix the spaceship?” or “Will the dinosaur bus driver eat me?” We have lively discussions about what we think the answer will be before each question. By being able to cognitively participate in a story, students are more engaged with the reading.

2. Tap into Social Competition

As I started introducing questions to reading (we averaged about a question every minute), I needed a way for all students to participate more, so I incorporated game-based learning, where students competed with one another to earn the highest score for each book. Students’ engagement with texts doubled with the added scoreboard. Readers started asking their peers and me for help. Reading plus games added what I call “weight” to our guided reading questions—now it really mattered if students got the answer right.

I have also come to believe that children who are behind in reading often use ranking against their peers to build an identity as a successful reader. In the beginning, Malachi refused to read any of the text and was falling behind. Telling Malachi I was impressed with his reading had little effect. But when Malachi earned 3rd place in our game, his attitude flipped; I now have to tell Malachi to give other students a chance to read as well.

My lessons are not perfect, but after adding question-focused reading and social competitions, students have been able to mentally show up again at the club. Students in the hall ask me when we are going to play our reading game again. Others ask if they can read another book after I leave. On three separate occasions, readers who used to struggle with their literacy skills have told their parents to wait outside until after they finish their reading game.

Educators, my reminder to you is this: Some kids may have not read a book for over a year as they come into your classroom this fall. They are going to be unengaged and resistant to diving back in to reading. I believe if we change the learning environment and what reading looks like, we can meet these students where they are and help them all fall in love with reading again.

For a free list of all the readings Elliott did at the club, you can visit or read them on Kahoot! under the user name “Wonderstory.”

Photo courtesy of Dr. Elliott Hedman, taken by Garrett Hedman