I have a piano. I bought it about 10 years
ago. It is sitting in the room right next to my office.
It's not actually a piano -- it's one of those fancy electric
keyboards. It sounds just like a piano, but you can plug in
headphones and play without bothering other people. It was
shockingly expensive -- much more expensive than a piano -- but when I
bought it, I thought was a good idea to be able to play with headphones
on because I really don't know how to play.
Motivation and Learning to Read
Sebastian Wren, Ph.D.
I always wanted to learn when I was a kid, but my family was fairly
poor, and piano lessons were a luxury that were hard to justify.
So about 10 years ago, as an adult in graduate school, I decided I
would buy a piano and realize my life-long desire to learn how to
play. I stuck with it for a while, and I was learning -- I really
was -- but things came up, life happened, and I stopped practicing
regularly. Eventually, I started stacking things on the
piano. And now, it is buried under papers and various detritus
and rubble, and it is actually behind the exercise bike I bought to get
in better shape (which I also don't use). So I don't play it.
I won't tell you how much that thing cost me, but I will tell you this
-- it was a foolish waste of more money than I could afford in graduate
school. In much the same way that people spend a lot of money to
join a gym, thinking that the expense will motivate them to actually
use the facilities, I believed that spending money on a high-quality
keyboard would encourage me to actually use it. I got the delux
model. It didn't help.
I was lamenting about my piano-related sloth and lack of discipline to
one of my musician friends recently, and she said that you have to learn to play
musical instruments when you are a child. She claimed that adults
really can't learn to play all that well -- something about a critical
period for developing an "ear" for music. I think that's
hogwash. I think it is much more straightforward than that.
When I was practicing, I was learning, but when I stopped practicing, I
stopped learning. It has nothing to do with the development of my
"ear" for music -- it has to do with the fact that I have lived nearly
40 years without this skill. I have a life that does not include
the piano -- it is a full, rich life, and there are many demands for my
time. Being disciplined and developing a new skill that I have
learned to live without is just not easy at this point in my life.
Oh, fine, maybe my friend has a point -- no matter how much I practice, there may be some subtleties
that will be lost on me because I did not learn this skill as a very
young child. But for the most part, I don't think there is
anything stopping me from learning to play the piano reasonably well except for my own
inertia. Almost every day for nearly 40 years I have not played
the piano -- why should today be any different? If I were
disciplined and motivated to learn to play, then I would learn to
play. But I'm not. When I was a child, I had more free time
and fewer habits -- incorporating piano practice into my life every day
would have been relatively easy. But as an adult, I am stuck in a
rut that does not have a piano in it.
This is basically the way it works with learning to read. A
person can actually learn to read at any age. There is nothing
especially magical about learning to read in the first few years of
school. But the fact is, if a child does not learn to read by 3rd
grade, odds are that child will never learn to read. Why is that?
If a 12-year-old or a 20-year-old or a 50-year-old wants to learn to
read, the challenges are basically the same as they are for the
6-year-old. The wanna-be reader needs to connect oral language
printed text. She needs to develop phoneme awareness, appreciate
the alphabetic principle, learn to decode words fluently, and develop
sophisticated comprehension skills. The cognitive building blocks
of literacy are the same at any age. So what happens in 2nd and
3rd grade that separates the good readers who will read throughout
their whole lives from the struggling readers who will probably
struggle throughout their whole lives?
Motivation. The building blocks are the same, and the process of
learning is the same, but the motivation to learn changes.
Starting in 2nd grade, some students begin to realize that they do not
read as well as their peers. This becomes cemented in 3rd grade,
and the struggling reader usually develops avoidance behaviors well
before 4th grade. As Michael Pressley so eloquently described it
in his wonderful book, Reading Instruction that Works,
in the black-and-white world of the 8-year-old mind, reading ability is
related to intelligence. In kindergarten and 1st grade, students
believe that they will learn to read if they try hard. But
starting in 2nd grade, students begin to believe that intelligent
students are good readers, and that poor readers are unintelligent.
Put simply, students in 3rd grade who are still struggling with reading
start to see themselves as stupid. They see their peers reading
so effortlessly and fluently, and they begin to think that their peers
are good readers because their peers are smarter than they are.
But they don't want other people to think of them as stupid, so they
try to hide the fact that they can not read as well as their
peers. This leads to avoidance behaviors -- they avoid reading --
some of them avoid it at any cost, going to extremes to avoid letting
people know that they really can't read well. Some students would
rather be punished and sent out of the room than have to embarrass
themselves trying to read. They act out, they argue, they sulk -- when
they take reading tests, they deliberately and blatantly miss all of
questions because they would rather be seen as a problem child
who is just not trying than a stupid child who just can't read.
Teaching a 3rd grader to read is just like teaching a 1st grader to
read, but with one very important difference -- the 3rd grader is not
as motivated. In fact, a lot of struggling readers in 3rd and 4th
grade will fight you every step of the way. By 5th or 6th grade,
the situation is very grave because the student is so far behind her
peers, she doesn't believe she will ever catch up.
And in some respects, she's right. She probably never will catch up. The Matthew Effect
is so powerful, students who learn to read as adolescents or adults
never do read quite as well as their peers who mastered reading at an
early age. Joe Torgesen, the hardest working reading researcher
in the world (get a glimpse of his life here),
has been doing highly effective interventions with older struggling
readers in his reading clinic at Florida State University for
years. He and his colleagues have developed extremely effective,
intensive, and explicit interventions for adolescent struggling readers
that dramatically accelerate their reading skill development.
On every metric, students who go through this intervention improve
significantly. But on most metrics they still do not catch up
with their peers. The struggling readers' fluency and sight-word
vocabulary increase steadily after intervention, but so too do the
talented readers' fluency and sight-word vocabulary. After
effective intervention, the struggling readers are no longer falling
behind their peers, but they are not catching up, either. Their
peers have a head start in this horse race -- it is as simple as that.
But as I so eloquently pointed out to Torgesen at one of his presentations -- Yeah? So
what? So what if they never "catch up?" The point of reading
is not to be as good as your peers -- it is to be able to read well
enough to get information and enjoyment from text.
If there is some way to intervene with adolescent students who are
still struggling with reading, overcome their lack of motivation to
try, and actually get them to practice their skills, develop fluency,
build their vocabulary, and develop comprehension strategies, then
those students will eventually reach a criterion that we describe as
"proficient" or "literate." So what if their peers read more
fluently than them? They will read fluently enough. So what if their
peers have a larger vocabulary? Their vocabulary is large
enough. So what if other students are "better" readers?
Past a point, it just doesn't matter that much.
The trick with the older struggling reader is to overcome that
motivation hurdle -- to break through the walls the student has
created, and instill new literacy habits that become ingrained into
that student's daily life. When students make a habit of using
text as a tool every day, the rest will largely take care of itself.
The interventions that Torgesen and his colleagues have developed are
extremely intensive and explicit and individualized. They require
a very knowledgeable and talented teacher who can spend a lot of time
with the struggling reader, providing explicit instruction, monitoring
progress, and practicing skills. The goal of the intervention is
to rapidly accelerate the development of literacy skills, so the
student is saturated with high-quality instruction and intensive
practice every day.
Sadly, in most real classrooms, struggling readers are actually given
fewer opportunities to learn and practice skills. According to
classroom-observation research conducted by people like Richard
Allington and Andy Biemiller, struggling readers are typically
relegated to a corner of the classroom where they can work on
worksheets and other busy work that really don't do much to enhance
their reading skills (See V is for Volume).
Or they are pulled from the regular classroom altogether and put in
resource rooms or special education classes where expectations for
success are lower, and opportunities for developing reading skills are
usually even more meager than in the mainstream classroom.
It is no wonder that the typical struggling reader in 3rd grade will
probably struggle her whole life -- she has reached the point of
frustration, lacks intrinsic motivation, and the school she attends
provides less and less external motivation and opportunities to
I was talking to Marilyn Adams recently about this issue of motivation,
and she told me something that gave me a great deal of hope for the
future. We were talking about a product that she is helping to
develop called Reading Assistant.
In a nutshell, Reading Assistant is a computer-based program that
understands human speech. Thus, Reading Assistant can present
text on the computer screen for a student, and "listen" to that student read the text
aloud. Reading Assistant monitors oral reading accuracy and fluency, and provides helpful
prompts when the student needs a little help. With this software, students can sit and
practice reading passages of text over and over and over for an
attentive "audience" who never gets tired or bored, and -- this is the important
part -- never judges the student.
Adams told me that she had noticed that older struggling readers who are normally very reluctant to read seem
to be more willing to sit with Reading Assistant and practice reading for longer
periods of time. She had not yet formally examined this question
when I was talking to her, but her impression in observing students was
that self-conscious, struggling readers seemed to be less embarrassed to
read aloud for the computer than for a human audience, and thus seemed to be more motivated to
practice. And for older struggling readers, that motivation to
practice is key -- anything that unlocks that key (so to speak) is worth looking at
I wonder if I can get something like that for my piano.
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Last Updated 4-14-06