Successful Teachers Share Advice for Motivating Reluctant Adolescents
Sheri R. Parris
“What we do as teachers is intimately connected to why we are here on earth. We become teachers because we believe each child is special—each child—and deserves the best academic, social, and emotional support we adults can offer. It really is that simple.”
—Justin Smith, recipient of 2007–2008 Princeton University Distinguished Secondary School Teaching Award
In an ideal world, secondary classrooms would be filled with students excited about their assignments and eager to learn more. Although some classrooms come close to realizing this ideal, it unfortunately is not the reality that many teachers face. According to the National Council of Teachers of English (2006), fewer than 75% of students in the United States graduate from high school. Although factors influencing this high drop-out rate are certainly complex, one factor that plays a pivotal role is related to students' experiences in school.
What motivates some students to remain in school and to excel at academic tasks while others languish or give up completely? As Turner and Paris (1995) note, “Motivation does not reside solely in the child; rather it is in the interaction between students and their literacy environments” (p. 672).
The purpose of this chapter is to identify instructional routines that have proven to be effective in helping to motivate reluctant adolescent readers. To help us determine what those practices are, we interviewed award-winning secondary teachers from across the United States. Following are the most common practices that they cited as being helpful in their classrooms.
Select Texts on the Basis of Students' Interests and Needs
To engage the reluctant adolescent reader, teachers need to align materials and assignments to students' interests and needs. Researchers have noted that a mismatch often exists between what students want to learn and what they are required to learn in school, and this mismatch is further evidenced by discrepancies between many students' in-school literacy activities and their out-of-school literacy activities (Ivey & Broaddus, 2001; Newkirk, 2002; Smith & Wilhelm, 2002). In other words, students often have skills that schools and teachers ignore. Mary Schlieder, 2008 Nebraska Teacher of the Year, reminds us, “You have to find a way to help [students] find their strengths and know they are capable. Everyone is good at something, even if it's not an area we teach and test during the school day.”
To motivate reluctant readers, teachers should begin by recognizing and working with students' strengths and then scaffold instruction to include a wider range of literacy activities. John Kline Jr., 2008 New Jersey Teacher of the Year, describes the way he uses this approach in his classroom:
For adolescents with reading difficulties, start with something they're good at and enjoy. For example, a football player who's having difficulty reading—give him a Sports Illustrated and find articles that he enjoys reading…. After a few months of Sports Illustrated, move up to a New York Times sports page.
To select materials and activities based on students' interests and needs, teachers need to know what those interests and needs are. They need to build relationships with their students. According to the teachers we interviewed, the best way to create these relationships is to take a personal interest in each student in the classroom. Adolescents know when their teachers care about them and when they don't, and students are more likely to work for teachers who show an interest in them as individuals (Smith & Wilhelm, 2002). Student-teacher relationships can be fostered in myriad ways: teachers can greet their students at the door before they enter the classroom; attend their students' extracurricular activities, including sports games, drama performances, musical recitals, and academic competitions; and talk to students about their interests.
In their qualitative study of adolescent boys throughout the United States, Smith and Wilhelm (2002) found that many boys alluded to an implicit social contract that exists between students and their teachers. This social contract includes the following features:
A teacher should try to get to know me personally.
A teacher should care about me as an individual.
A teacher should attend to my interests in some way.
A teacher should help me learn and work to make sure that I have learned.
A teacher should be passionate, committed, work hard, and know his or her stuff. (p. 99)
Taliaferro, C., & Parris, S.R. (2009).
Successful Teachers Share Advice for Motivating Reluctant Adolescents.
In S.R. Parris, D. Fisher, & K. Headley (Eds.), Adolescent Literacy, Field Tested (pp. 157-167). Newark, DE: International Reading Association.