Why Mia, Why Now: A Research-Based Path to Self-Motivated and Purposeful Reading
Mia cultivates self-motivated and purposeful readers by supporting choice, ownership, and metacognition
Dr. Darren Cambridge, CEO, Mia Learning
Ensuring reading proficiency is a primary focus of the standardized testing and accountability systems that have dramatically shaped schools across the United States over the last twenty years. Making sure children are learning reading skills and strategies is a national priority. Thousands of software products and instructional programs are now available to ensure that children can measure up on such tests.
However, focusing solely on tested skills and strategies neglects much of what is so powerful about reading. Reading can help children understand themselves, explore their worlds, and shape the future. To realize this potential, children don’t just need to be able to read. They need to want to read. They need to read not because they’re told to, but because they find the experience satisfying and empowering.
Mia Learning was founded to support this broader view of what’s important in reading development, to help children become self-motivated, purposeful readers. Such readers are not only prepared for future coursework and job responsibilities: they have a deeper understanding of who they are, where they want to go, and how to get there. They are ready to create change in their lives and in the world.
Self-Motivated Readers through Choice and Ownership
Extensive research demonstrates that children who become more motivated to read increase how often and how much they read (e.g. Morgan & Fuchs, 2007; Wigfield, Metsala & Cox, 1999; Lewis & Samuels, 2005). Not surprisingly, children who become more motivated to read and read more become more skillful readers. Reading motivation is therefore both an end in itself and a means to the end of learning to read.
However, to realize these benefits, the motivation to read must be intrinsic. That is, children need to be motivated by what they get out of the experience of reading itself, not because they were bribed with points, virtual gold stars, or pizza parties (Gambrell, 1996; Gambrell, 2011; Marinak & Gambrell, 2016). They aren’t just motivated readers; they are self-motivated readers.
One of the two most powerful ways to build intrinsic motivation to read is through giving children more choice. Extensive research shows that children who make their own choices about what, when, how, and why they read are more motivated to read, read more, and grow more rapidly as readers (Gambrell, 2011; Guthrie & Humenick, 2004). In addition, choice boosts motivation and performance in learning across subject areas and gives children the autonomy they need to grow as self-directed learners (Patall, Cooper & Robinson, 2008; Deci, et. al., 1991; Jang, Ryan, & Deci, 2010).
Providing the full benefit of choice requires more than just turning young readers loose in the bookstore or library, however. Choosing books that are likely to be satisfying to read and support growth is a learned skill, not something kids automatically know how to do well. Like any other skill, children get better through having experts model the process and practicing it for themselves.
Research shows that giving children a choice of books and time to read them is dramatically more effective when it includes personalized support, such as through instruction on how to choose books and weekly student-teacher conferences about reading experiences (Manning & Manning, 1984; Kim, 2006; Kim & White, 2008; White, et. al., 2014). In one landmark study, supported independent reading increased reading comprehension over the course of a school year the equivalent of nearly two years of classroom instruction (Reutzel, Fawson & Smith, 2008).
The benefits of choice also depend on the available selection of books. It’s not as simple as offering up books likely to be not too easy or too hard by matching them to a child’s tested “reading level.” Not only are leveling systems inconsistent, but they also don’t take into account the many factors that determine whether a book is right for a particular reader and particular time (Benjamin, 2012). For example, if a child had strong interest in a topic, already has significant related content knowledge, is motivated by challenge, or is quite familiar with a particular type of book, they are likely to be able to read a more complex book successfully. We are very proud that Mia takes these multiple considerations into account when she makes personalized book recommendations.
A complex set of additional factors contributes to how well a book is matched to a child’s needs, including cultural experiences, attitudes about reading, purposes for reading, and preferences about such book characteristics as genre, length, characters, writing style, and illustrations (Williams, 2008; Mohr, 2006; Schraw, Bruning, & Svobada, 1995; Ivy & Broaddus, 2001; Gurthrie, 2004; Schraw & Dennison, 1994; Topping, Samuels & Paul, 2008; Bell & Clark, 1998). In order to accommodate individual differences between children, choices need to be drawn from at least several hundred books (Allington, et. al., 2010). Mia selects from tens of thousands.
Conversely, research also shows that too many choices can overwhelm children and sap their motivation (Patall, Cooper & Robinson, 2008). Mia’s personalized recommendations reflect this complex set of considerations, reducing each child’s options from thousands of books to a manageable set from which to choose. When Mia presents her recommended books, she explains why she believes the child will like them. In this way, she models applying the criteria expert readers use in choosing what to read.
The second most powerful way to boost motivation is to give children the opportunity to own their own books. While access to books is essential, access alone does little to boost motivation. In contrast, research shows that increasing print book ownership substantially boosts motivation to read (Lindsay, 2010). The lasting nature of adding a book to one’s personal library also heightens satisfaction about the choice (Hafner, White, & Handley, 2012).
Unfortunately, ownership opportunities are highly inequitable. In low-income neighborhoods in the U.S., the ratio of kids to developmentally-appropriate books for sale is over 300:1 (Nueman & Celano, 2001; Neuman & Moland, 2016). Mia Learning is partnering with literacy non-profits such as Book Trust to expand ownership for children in low-income communities. Mia Learning’s book subscription program also makes it easier for all parents to ensure that the money they are investing in books for their children is well spent.
Purposeful Readers through Metacognition and Interest
The most motivated and engaged readers know why they read. The deepest satisfaction comes through reading with clear purpose, understanding what reading can do: provide entertainment, build expertise, question assumptions, cultivate relationships; deciding which of those purposes is most important, and making choices about what and how one reads to advance them.
Purposeful readers define what they want to accomplish through their reading, determine how well their reading has advanced these goals, and adjust future choices about reading accordingly. These metacognitive processes of goal setting and self-assessment have a large causal effect on reading motivation (Guthrie & Humenick, 2004) and a large effect on academic achievement across subject areas (Ellis, et. al., 2014). Not just older learners, but elementary-school-age children as well, realize these gains in motivation and achievement from metacognitive support (Dignath, Buettner, & Langfelt, 2008).
Mia provides this support for goal setting and self-reflection. She asks children to share their purposes before reading and to examine how the choices they made—what, how, where, and with whom they read—helped to advance those purposes. She invites them to reflect on key choices, attitudes, and beliefs that may have contributed to those results and offers personalized, research-based suggestions on how to improve them.
Both choice and attention to purpose strengthen the connection between reading and students’ interests. Research shows interest strongly influences reading comprehension. Students with strong and focused interests do better in school, and awareness of expanding interests is key to developing career identity and contributes to psychological well-being (Naceur & Sciefele, 2005; Schiefele, 1991; Deci, 1993; Tracey & Caulum, 2015; Hunter & Csikszentmihalyi. 2003; Dotterer, McHale & Crouter, 2009). Mia’s recommendations capitalize on what she has learned about a child’s interests, both what they’ve told her and what she’s figured out through tracking which books they’ve chosen and their experiences reading.
It is not enough, though, to merely reflect back a child’s current understanding of their own interests. Mia also helps to both broaden and deepen them. When recommending books, Mia seeks not just to match what children say they want and have liked in the past, but also encourages them to try new topics and genres. She explains the ways in which novel books connect to preferences and experiences, but also why their differences actually make them more engaging. In a similar fashion, Mia not only invites students to reflect on how well their reading choices advanced their stated purposes, but also to explore additional purposes they may wish to pursue.
The best readers read passionately and joyously with clear purposes in mind. They know not only how to read, but what they enjoy, what they’re comfortable with, and what they want to accomplish. They seek out variety as well as familiarity and embrace challenge along the way. A narrow focus on tested reading skills neglects much of this broader understanding of what it means to be a powerful reader. Mia is here to fill that gap.
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