Motivating children to pick up a book and read might seem like a challenge for some parents and teachers. Sometimes, in desperation, we resort to providing some kind of extrinsic motivation, a reward for the behavior of reading. But it’s been my experience, backed up by years of research, that extrinsic motivation doesn’t make children avid readers.
My research for the Department of Curriculum and Instruction at UMN CEHD, and the research of many others, has found that when children are intrinsically motivated to read, they love nothing more than to be “inhaled by a book” as a student once described – in other words being completely immersed in a book. When reading stories, this may mean relating to characters and creating the story world as readers make their own meaning from the text. This approach to reading creates an enjoyable experience that makes children want to read more – to be inhaled by a story again. When reading nonfiction children are engaged in a different way, avidly collecting facts and ideas about something they are interested in like frogs, space exploration, farms and anything else that piques their interest.
A child connects with a book by being an active reader and engaging with a text. Active reading involves creating meaning from text and is influenced by a child’s knowledge, experience, personality and beliefs. A book has different meanings for everyone, as each reader will bring their own background into their interpretation of the text. This process is a two way street, a transaction between the reader and the text, in which a reader uses the words in a text to create meaning while also being guided by those words in that creation. This notion, called the transactional theory of reading, was developed over fifty years ago by Louise Rosenblatt, researcher and professor of teaching literature.
When reading is approached from a transactional theory perspective, children are more likely to engage in reading. Many students are turned off by books because they’ve often been taught that there is one right answer to questions about a book, or they’re being asked questions that don’t require them to think in-depth. For example, a question like “Who is the main character of the book?” will not engage a young reader. However, open-ended questions such as “What did you think about the relationship between these two characters?” encourages a young reader to actively think about and develop their own meaning to create their own particular story.
Transactional theory opens up a world of possibilities for reading in schools as well as at home. While children have less life experiences to bring to what they read compared with adults, they make up for it with the depth of their imagination, their willingness to consider what the story could mean. This is often something that most adults wouldn’t even think of. For instance, when asked what the big ideas are in the children’s book, Charlotte’s Web, most adults will name friendship or the cycle of life. When children are asked the same question, the most common answer is “growing up,” as they can relate to the growing up of Wilbur. Such differences in interpretation reinforces that there is not a right or wrong answer to the individual meaning we attribute to a story, but is actually influenced by the reader of the story.
Developing a child’s intrinsic motivation to read is important. Check back next week for simple ways parents and teachers can apply the transactional theory of reading to motivate children to read.
Subscribe to our blog for the latest in education and human development research.