How to increase student motivation and engagement in literacy learning

From Improving Adolescent Literacy: Effective Classroom and Intervention Practices

1. Establish meaningful and engaging content learning goals around the essential ideas of a discipline as well as the specific learning processes students use to access those ideas. Monitor students’ progress over time as they read for comprehension and develop more control over their thinking processes relevant to the discipline. Provide explicit feedback to students about their progress. When teachers set goals to reach a certain standard, students are likely to sustain their efforts until they achieve that standard. Learning goals may be set by the teacher or the student. However, if students set their own goals, they are more apt to be fully engaged in the activities required to achieve them.

2. Provide a positive learning environment that promotes students’ autonomy in learning.
Allowing students some choice of complementary books and types of reading and writing activities has a positive impact on students’ engagement and reading comprehension. 81 Empowering students to make decisions about topics, forms of communication, and selections of materials encourages them to assume greater ownership and responsibility for their engagement in learning.82

3. Make literacy experiences more relevant to students’ interests, everyday life, or important current events.83
Look for opportunities to bridge the activities outside and inside the classroom. Tune into the lives of students to find out what they think is relevant and why, and then use this information to design instruction and learning opportunities that will be more relevant to students.84 Consider constructing an integrated approach to instruction that ties a rich conceptual theme to a real-world application. For example, use a science topic in the news or one that students are currently studying, such as adolescent health issues, to build students’ reading, writing, and discourse skills.

4. Build in certain instructional conditions, such as student goal setting, self-directed learning, and collaborative learning, to increase reading engagement and conceptual learning for students.85
This type of implementation has several common themes:
Connections between disciplines, such as science and language arts, taught through conceptual themes.
Connections among strategies for learning, such as searching, comprehending, interpreting, composing, and teaching content knowledge.
Connections among classroom activities that support motivation and social and cognitive development.

77. Graham and Golan (1991).
78. Ryan (1982).
79. Henderlong and Lepper (2002); Schunk and Rice (1992).
80. Schunk and Rice (1992).
81. Guthrie et al. (1999).
82. Guthrie and McCann (1997).
83. Guthrie et al. (2000).
84. Biancarosa and Snow (2004).
85. Guthrie et al. (1999); Guthrie et al. (2000).


Kamil, M. L., Borman, G. D., Dole, J., Kral, C. C., Salinger, T., and Torgesen, J. (2008). Improving adolescent literacy: Effective classroom and intervention practices: A Practice Guide (NCEE #2008-4027). Washington, DC: National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education. Retrieved from http://ies.ed.gov/ncee/wwc.
See the original document for complete references on the research annotations.