Faculty Spotlight Series: Kate Sullivan on Developing Students' Intrinsic Motivation to Read and Write

Jana Cook

The Windward School is a learning community that recognizes the profession of teaching is a craft that takes an incredible amount of study, practice, and reflection to perfect. Thus, it is part of the School's mission to develop a faculty that is expert in teaching children with language-based learning disabilities. In our Faculty Friday series, we will be highlighting Windward faculty members and their expertise on a variety of educational topics. 

How do you get students to want to revise their writing? 

As soon as students begin to learn how to write sentences, and eventually paragraphs, it is crucial to create a positive climate around writing. Being specific when giving praise about writing, in addition to having students share what they are proud of with regards to their own writing, sets the tone for students’ intrinsic motivation. Students respect and believe their teachers’ feedback when they know it is honest, and, eventually, they are able to use that feedback to critique their own work. When moving on to paragraphs, students begin to revise and edit with a teacher from a young age. Something as small as using a “teacher pen” to make edits and having one-on-one editing meetings with the teacher is motivating. The teacher can use this time to push students to expand their vocabulary choices, add an appositive, or change their sentence structure. At first, the teacher may do most of the heavy lifting, but with continued practice, the students will find joy in being able to look at his or her own work with a critical eye and make changes. Students will quickly move to a place where they are making most of the edits during the meetings with their teachers. I believe strongly that students are capable of much more than most adults give them credit for and that they rise to the challenge when faced with seemingly daunting tasks.  

We frequently share our work in the classroom, and the other students in the class give specific compliments to the writer on his or her piece. Specific compliments are something that the teacher models throughout the year and the students practice, so the feedback is genuine. Cultivating an environment where the students feel comfortable analyzing and being critical about their work, across all subject areas, from the first day of school, is central to developing learners who are eager to revise their own writing. 

What are ways to help students develop intrinsic motivation to read? 

I believe every child wants to be able to read – reading is a key that unlocks so many doors in our world and children want to be able to do that independently. I think students become more apprehensive about or even resistant to reading when it becomes difficult for them. For our students, who struggle to do the most basic step of decoding, reading becomes frustrating and a source of great distress for them. For our students to want to read, they need to have the tools to do it. This is where reading instruction comes in. If students are taught to read in a systematic, direct, multisensory way, they learn decoding skills earlier and are able to apply them independently much sooner. Programs like Orton Gillingham teach students sounds in context for spelling and reading and are critical in helping students develop an awareness of how words are put together. Once students can decode, they begin to feel pride in their independence with understanding words. 

I believe every child wants to be able to read – reading is a key that unlocks so many doors in our world and children want to be able to do that independently.

Students who struggle with reading comprehension face similar hurdles. If they are properly instructed with teacher questioning and summarization techniques from an early age, they may find more success with understanding stories and therefore find more joy in reading. The final piece of the motivation puzzle is direct and honest feedback from adults and being taught to analyze one’s own work. When students are given honest feedback, they begin to trust that the adult giving it to them is congratulating work that is genuinely praiseworthy, which helps the children to differentiate their own work and to self-correct. I have eliminated the phrase “good job” from my classroom. Instead, teachers and students remark on a chosen vocabulary word in a response, or a particularly in-depth assessment of a character interaction. Students can tell when they have gone above and beyond in their work, and they are looking for adults to acknowledge that, rather than the mundane. Children want to read. It is up to us to give them the tools and the independence they need to do it.