Six Effective Strategies to Motivate the K–3 Reader

by Gerard Buteau

As teachers, our days are filled with numerous opportunities to enhance and support student development. Ask almost any teacher and she or he will tell you that although incredibly challenging and highly complex, practicing the craft of teaching is highly rewarding and, if done right and well, never boring.

Elementary school teachers are expected to know and understand curriculum, pedagogy, and assessment across disciplines in order to support the intellectual and dispositional development of their students, and although teachers are required to know and understand a variety of concepts and ideas across disciplines, as Reutzel and Cooter (2014) state, “Reading is the skill that makes virtually all other learning possible” (p. 5). If we believe this to be true, then it is imperative that teachers know and understand how to teach children to read.

Since the release of the Common Core State Standards in 2010, many states have worked diligently to implement the standards in a variety of K–12 settings. Furthermore, the Common Core State Standards ask students to read stories and literature as well as more complex tests.

While the standards set grade-level specific goals, they do not define how the standards should be taught. When contemplating effective pedagogical practice, it is imperative that teachers ask themselves, “How might I help students achieve the curriculum goals in an engaging and motivating manner?”

In this article, I will explore why good reading instruction is important and what beginning teachers can do to help students become independent, engaged, and motivated readers.

Why Good Reading Instruction Is Important

The inability to read has been listed as a health risk by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), an agency of the federal government. Further, Fielding, Kerr, and Rosier (1998) illustrate the impact of reading failure:

The most expensive burden we place on society is those students we have failed to teach to read well. The silent army of low readers who move through schools, siphoning off the lion’s share of administrative resources, emerge into society as adults lacking the single perquisite for managing their lives and acquiring additional training. They are chronically unemployed, underemployed, or unemployable. They form the single largest identifiable group of those we incarcerate, and to whom we provide assistance, housing, medical care, and other social services. They perpetuate and enlarge this problem by creating another generation of poor readers. (pp. 6–7)

While there are no simple answers or quick fixes when it comes to teaching children to read, we do have an extensive research base to help educators make sound curriculum, instructional, and assessment decisions. In 2000, the National Reading Panel issued a report that reflected an intensive review of research in reading instruction that focused on kindergarten through 3rd grade.

The panel reviewed more than 100,000 studies and, as a result, provided a report that analyzed and discussed five areas of reading instruction: phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and text comprehension. According to Susan Neumann, although our understanding of “what works in reading is dynamic and fluid, these five aspects of reading instruction provide a basis for teachers to explore research and open their minds to changes in their instructional practice, and take up the challenge of helping all children become successful readers” (Armbruster, Lehr, & Osborn, 2001, page iii).

Motivation to Read

While the five areas of reading instruction noted above have provided much evidence-based research to help teachers think more deeply and thoroughly about reading instruction, Gambrell and Marinak (2009) have argued that motivation is a “key pillar” (p. 15) of effective reading instruction not addressed in the National Reading Panel report. Moreover, Reutzel and Cooter (2014) remind us that “[i]n a 2004 study reported by Guthrie and Humenick, motivation accounted for 17 to 40-plus percentile points on standardized achievement tests of students’ reading abilities” (p. 19).

In 2000, the International Reading Association published a position statement that listed “the development and maintenance of a motivation to read” as one of the key prerequisites for deriving meaning from print (International Reading Association, 2000). Furthermore, Baker and Wigfield (1999), Guthrie and Wigfield (2000),  and Taboada, Tonks, Wigfield, and Guthrie (2009) identify reading motivation as important predictors of reading literacy. Reading literacy is defined as the ability “to understand, use and reflect on written texts in order to achieve one’s goals, to develop one’s knowledge and potential, and to participate effectively in society” (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, 2001, p. 21).

Strategies to Motivate the K–3 Reader

Reader’s Theatre

One of the most successful reading strategies in terms of research (Griffith & Rasinski, 2004; National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, 2000; Sloyer, 1982) is reader’s theatre, which is an interactive play-reading activity with elements of reading aloud, drama, and theatre.

In a study by Martinez, Roser, and Strecker (1999), teachers integrated 30 minutes of reader’s theatre over a 10-week period. In this exercise, 2nd graders practiced and performed reader’s theatre scripts. As a result of this intervention, 2nd graders’ oral reading fluency increased, largely because readers theatre “offers a reason for children to read repeatedly in appropriate materials and provides a vehicle for direct explanation, feedback, and effective modeling” (p. 334).

The typical reader’s theatre experience begins with either developing or using an already existing script from a picture storybook, poem information book, or other genres of literature. Once the script has been chosen or developed, the teacher does a “first” reading with the students. This gives students and the teacher an opportunity to look at the text structure and language and begin to examine the various meanings of the script.

Teachers and students then negotiate which parts they will read and why. More hesitant readers may be permitted to opt for smaller parts, but everyone is required to participate. As time passes and the script is read multiple times, students are asked to make thoughtful comments as to how best to read and perform their parts. More practice time is allowed, and the teacher provides helpful feedback to students. Feedback from teachers and students may include, but is not limited to, the following: Think about how you might use your voice and nonverbal language to enhance your reading. What, if any, words might you want to say more slowly or more quickly? Where do you want to pause and why? What parts do you want special emphasis on?

It is important to note that teachers should model appropriate constructive comments as well as the tone in which they are delivered. As is often the case, students think more about the words they are saying and how they are being said. Moreover, with more practice come more feeling and passion, which enhance the overall performance.

Teacher as Reader

Many teachers know that the most popular book in the classroom is the one he or she just read aloud. Given this, the books we choose to read aloud should represent both high interest and a variety of genres (picture storybooks, poetry, realistic fiction, folktales, fairytales, and information books). If we read to students fluently, with enthusiasm, and in an authentic voice, the level of student interest and engagement is likely to increase.

In addition to reading aloud to students for 20–30 minutes per day, teachers should always have exhibited on their desks or workstations books they are currently reading for pleasure or information. Moreover, teachers should actively engage their students in conversations about what they, as well as their students, are reading. In other words, there should be a continual sharing of the love of the printed word amongst students and teachers. By sharing their reading lives, their favorite authors, how they select books, what library they attend, and what bookstores they visit, teachers model the very traits they want to nurture in their students. These are all important steps in helping support the development of students as readers Routman, (2009).

Text Sets

A text set is composed of a collection of various resources from different genres and media. Sets typically are organized to meet the needs and interests of a wide range of readers. The text set can focus on one concept and can include multiple genres, such as books, charts and maps, informational pamphlets, poetry and songs, photographs, nonfiction books, almanacs, or encyclopedias. It is important to note that text sets may have some or all of the reading materials as digital or hard copies.

Text sets can be organized in a small crate or container so that students have easy access to the materials. It is important to note that once you have begun to organize text sets based on curriculum standards and/or interest and as students become more familiar with the concept, students themselves can begin organizing reading selections into text sets with the help of peers and/or the teacher. It is important that the books are accessible to all learners. Therefore, with English learners the teacher will want to consider including choices with rich visuals as well as selections that contain the English learners’ first language or perhaps the students’ first language as well as English.

A sample text set that addresses the theme of bullying might include the following:

Willy the Wimp – Anthony Browne

Willy the Champ – Anthony Browne

Tyrone the Horrible – Hans Wilhelm

Tyrone the Dirty Rotten Cheat – Hans Wilhelm

Tyrone and the Swamp Gang – Hans Wilhelm

Trouble with the Tucker Twins – Rose Impey and Maureen Gavani

Chrysanthemum – Kevin Henkes

Bully – David Hughes

Three Cheers for Errol – Babette Cole

Hurrah for Ethelyn – Babette Cole

Frog and the Stranger – Max Velthuijs

The teacher could also include pamphlets, short essays, and perhaps some digital literacy resources (talking books, video clips) in this text set to increase interest and motivation.

Author Studies

Many adult readers select books to read by favorite authors. Some salivate in anticipation over the latest novel by Daniel Silva, while others are devoted fans of Jennifer Weiner, constantly checking her website to be first in line (or online) in pursuit of her next interesting interpretation of the human condition. If this is what happens in the real world, shouldn’t we be using this information as a means of guiding our support of the development of young readers?

Author studies provide students with the opportunity to get to know authors and their work by reading many, if not all, of their books. Which authors’ work to study is initially determined by the teacher, with input from the students. Student input is very important given that the students will be spending a significant amount of time with the authors over the next few weeks. Books by a featured author are collected. It is important to note that digital books and talking books also may be used as a means of differentiating and enhancing the learning experience.

Independent Reading Time

When teachers ask students what they should do to get students more interested and excited about reading, the students often reply, “Teachers should let us read more.” “Let us read more—about 10 more minutes every day.” “Do not let DEAR [Drop Everything and Read] time end too soon” (Gambrell, 1996, p. 14). These responses serve to remind teachers that opportunity is crucial to motivation and engagement. However, students won’t grow as readers if they are simply given time; they need to be engaged during that time with reading goals in mind (Guthrie & Wigfield, 2000). In a 2014 article, Jennifer Serravallo suggests that in order for students to get the most out of independent reading time or make the juice worth the squeeze, teachers should consider the following: assessment, cooperative goal setting, support, and feedback.

Teachers can utilize various strategies to determine what students are actually getting out of independent reading time. For example, they may ask students to create written responses to reading, either by strategically placing sticky notes that contain questions about the text or asking students to respond to their reading in their reading response journals, or they may observe students as they read. (Just because students are quiet, does not necessarily mean they are reading.)

Serravallo (2014) goes on to suggest that once the teacher has assessed students’ level of engagement during independent reading time, it is now time to help them set independent reading goals. For some students, increasing stamina may be a goal; for others, staying focused and selecting the “just right” book might be what they decide to be their goal. The teacher and student work collaboratively to establish these goals, which the teacher jots down. This goals-setting conference takes approximately 5–10 minutes. Included in this goals-setting conference are strategies to accomplish the goal.

For example, a goal might be to find more high-interest books that match the student’s comprehension level. The teacher helps the student locate an appropriate book, they look at it together, and the teacher may ask questions, such as, “What do you think the book will be about? What are some of the big ideas contained in the text? Can you read a section of the book and we can then discuss what you got out of the reading? Are there some words that you think are going to be difficult, and what will you do to decode and comprehend these words? What are some of the text features of the book?” (Serravallo, 2014, p. 57).

Once students have been guided in their book selection, they can then read with more purpose and focus, which will increase the likelihood of the student staying engaged with the book. Furthermore, by checking in occasionally with the students through periodic conferences, asking them to respond to comprehension questions either orally or through written response, and teaching them how to select the “just right book,” the student is more likely to gain much more out of the all-important independent reading time.

We know that independent reading is valuable if it is well organized, meaningful, and focused. However, in order to ensure that students are developing into engaged and active readers, it is imperative that they have teacher support through collaborative goals setting, periodic assessment, and, if needed, redevelopment of these goals, as well as meaningful conversations between student and teacher.

Book-Rich Classroom Environments

Gambrell (1996) reports that when students are asked about an interesting book they recently read, they overwhelmingly report that it is one they selected from their classroom library. Classroom libraries that have high-quality books for students not only contribute to students reading more in school but also taking these books home to share with their families. As Reutzel and Cooter (2014) suggest, “Classroom libraries, like good restaurants, offer staple foods—a core book collection—along with exciting new recipes in the form of rotating books that come and go” (p. 473).

Many schools have a school librarian or library media specialist. This person is most often an expert in children’s literature and keeps current on newly published children’s books. At least once a month teachers should meet with the school librarian so that they may learn more about what types of books would best suit the students in their class based on students’ interests and curriculum connections. Furthermore, teachers are encouraged to keep up with recently published children’s literature by reading such professional journals as The Horn Book Magazine, Children’s Literature in Education, Journal of Children’s Literature, Language Arts, and Bookbird.


The question of what teachers can do to motivate students to read is an important question and one that must be revisited constantly. Students enter our classrooms with a wide variety of abilities, interests, and motivation, and it is our job to always be looking for ways to engage our students in reading. Therefore, we can best motivate students by reading about, reflecting upon, and talking about strategies we can utilize to motivate students to read. There is no one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to motivating students to read. By constantly exploring, thinking about, and experimenting with motivational strategies, such as those discussed here, teachers increase their chances of reaching and teaching all students.

Gerard Buteau is a professor in the Department of Elementary Education and Childhood Studies at Plymouth State University.


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