Educator Resources

Challenging Texts and Motivation

Q&A #1 for the Feb 6, 2013 webinar Text Complexity and English Learners - Building Vocabulary (Part 1).

What role does motivation play when reading complex text, even for students who may not have all the vocabulary to tackle the text?

The idea that students' motivation will make up for a lack of knowledge of critical words in a text is suggested by Common Core writers in Appendix A where they state, "Students deeply interested in a given topic, for example, may engage with texts on that subject across a range of complexity" (p. 9). The few studies that support the idea of interest compensating for difficulty involved students reading short texts for short periods of time. And, yes, there are anecdotal reports of interested readers persisting with hard texts, often coming from our own experiences or those of children in our acquaintance. But there are numerous questions about what challenging text means in day-to-day school settings:


1.)  What is the discrepancy between readers' proficiency and text complexity?

If readers are proficient with the core vocabulary—that is, 90% of the words in most texts—they will be able to navigate many texts. For these students, reading a text where 10% of the vocabulary is unknown may be tedious but, with sufficient interest and background knowledge, they have a greater likelihood of comprehending at least some of the text than students who don't have a solid foundation in the core vocabulary.

2.)  What is the duration of the challenge?

It may be entirely possible for students to persist in reading a short text which is challenging but their engagement may wane with longer texts, especially ones that are book-length.

3.) What is the frequency of the challenge?

If almost all of students' school time is spent with text that they can't read facilely, they are less likely to respond with interest to challenging text than when such text consumes only part of their reading experiences. The frequency of the challenge brings up the issue of students' history with reading in school. If students have a long history of being given only challenging texts in schools—and there is evidence that that has been the case for many children of poverty—the engagement that they showed as primary-level students will likely wane by middle school. As John Guthrie has shown, consistent diets of particular school tasks, including the degree of challenge in texts, can sustain engagement or lead to disinterest. The challenge for educators in Common Core classrooms is to create a diet of varied texts that support students' development as readers, all the while involving them with compelling content that fosters an interest in learning.