Motivating middle-school students to read

Schoolkids in classroom. Girl reading task aloud at lesson.This study focused on sixth-grade students’ perspectives of their language arts classes. Researchers Gay Ivey and Karen Broaddus, James Madison University, Harrisonburg, Virginia, surveyed 1,765 students in 23 schools in the Northeast and the mid-Atlantic states.

Students were given short-answer and open-ended questions to identify motivating features of instruction. Follow-up interviews were conducted with 31 students in 3 classrooms that exhibited high levels of student engagement in reading activities. Ivey and Broaddus suggest that by understanding students’ perspectives, teachers will be able to make effective instructional decisions.

Both researchers have taught middle-school students, including struggling readers, and currently work in teacher training. They believe reading materials and teaching methods have a significant impact on students’ motivation to read, regardless of students’ reading ability. This study differs from previous research because it looked at a larger, more diverse sample of students from a wider and more varied range of language arts classrooms. A total of 109 classrooms and 74 teachers were involved in the study.

Survey questions asked students to identify preferred reading activities and the specific kinds of books they read. Two open-ended questions — “What makes you want to read in this class?” and “What do you like most about the time you spend in this class?” — were also asked.

The surveys were anonymous but were collected by classroom teachers. Ivey and Broaddus were interested in learning about instructional practices that contribute to students’ motivation. They wanted to know if there were some general, underlying features of instruction that seemed to work for many different kinds of students regardless of the curriculum used in their classrooms.


Students reported that they greatly preferred silent reading time and teacher read-alouds over other activities. A majority also enjoyed whole-class oral reading of poetry and plays. In addition, students indicated that the materials available may be the biggest factor in motivating them to read. However, students rarely reported that their classrooms had a good supply of reading materials. In fact, these students overwhelmingly reported that they read much more diverse materials outside of school. In language arts classrooms, reading was mostly limited to awardwinning fiction and textbooks.

Outside of school students reported reading more nonfiction, informational magazines, historical fiction, mysteries, series books, classics and reference books. The difference between school reading and home reading was startling. Students’ worst experiences in reading in school were directly related to assigned reading. Students complained of boredom and difficulties with comprehension.

Students seek input on what they read in school

In summary, these students were in agreement about the importance of time to read in school. They sent a strong message about the need to read personally interesting materials and about having some control over what they read in school. These students favored teacher read-alouds as an important part of class time. They reported that this helped them understand the material and to become interested in new things.

Silent reading was seen as helping them concentrate, comprehend and reflect on what they were reading without being interrupted. Group reading and discussions, with the exception of poetry and plays, were not engaging for the majority of these students. Having a rich supply of texts and many opportunities for independent reading and listening to the teacher read aloud stood out as universal needs for these middle- school students.


From the students’ perspectives, time set aside for reading and listening improves their comprehension. If having time to read and listen helps students to make more sense of what they read and to think more critically about it, these researchers suggest schools need to find more time for these activities. The fact that so many middle-school students are interested in nonfiction is important for their content-area teachers to know. Students report they are motivated by having a wide variety of books available. Having some choice of topics appears to be highly motivating to middle-school students as well.

These researchers do not suggest that students’ judgment replace teachers’ judgment, but rather that understanding that students are motivated by the availability of a wide variety of reading materials can help teachers make effective instructional decisions. Time for independent silent reading, time to listen to teachers read and access to personally interesting materials appear to be the keys to motivating middle-school students to read.

“Just Plain Reading: A Survey of What Makes Students Want to Read in Middle-School Classrooms” , Reading Research Quarterly, Volume 36, Number 4, December 2001 ,pp. 350-377.

Published in ERN, December 2001/January 2002, Volume 15, Number 1.

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