Reading with Purpose: What Do Kids Really Want to Get Out of Their Reading?
Children read not just for information or fun, but also with social-emotional purposes
By Diana Black and Darren Cambridge
Our goal at Mia Learning is to help grow motivated and purposeful readers. To get better at it, over the last few months we have been trying to better understand the purposes for which children read. We’ve worked with our Literacy Experts Taskforce—generating a list of 20 key purposes—and immersed ourselves in the relevant research literature. Most recently, Diana interviewed 13 children, ages 7-13, about their purposes for reading.
20 Reasons Children Read
- Immersion: lose themselves in new worlds, etc.
- Get smarter
- Make parents proud
- Teachers/parents force them to
- Explore questions that intrigue them
- Find new interests
- To talk about the book with others
- Learn new things
- Develop new skills
- Understand themselves better
- For problem solving purposes
- Have fun
- Deepen expertise
- Expand on existing interests
- Understand others better
- For inspiration of some sort
- Get a good laugh
- Entertainment more generally
- Sense of belonging/to fit in
- Achieve a desired mood (scared, uplifted, etc.).
One of the most thorough scholarly examinations of the role of purpose in reading is Literacy Beyond Text Comprehension: A Theory of Purposeful Reading (2017), by Anne M. Britt, Jean-François Rouet, and Amanda Durik. Reading, they argue, is a form of problem solving. Readers decide what, when, how, and how much to read based on what they believe will be the most effective solution to their given problem and its context. The contexts that receive the most attention in this particular book are schools and workplaces, wherein readers are assigned tasks that reading can help them complete. It is therefore unsurprising that the problem readers set out to solve is most typically a lack of information.
And it’s true that several of children we interviewed said they read to gain information, although their focus was on information-seeking related to their individual interests rather than assigned tasks. Sara, age 8, had a deep desire to understand the lives of others, making her a voracious reader of biographies. Reading deeply enough to understand not just isolated facts, but full life stories, and widely enough to experience a variety of such narratives make it possible for Sara to say that “books teach me a lot,” in a way that “is actually very fun.”
Aspiring fiction writer August, age 11, on the other hand, often reads for the practical purpose of improving his craft. Solving his problem requires focusing not just on the content of the text, but also on how it is written. He not only enjoys well-written books for their own sake; he also observes their characteristics closely, trying to decipher how the authors accomplish what they do so that he can emulate them.
However, our interviews suggest a more multifaceted understanding of the problems children read to solve when they read on their own initiative. In many cases, young readers were more focused on solving problems of identity and relationships they were on seeking information. Their challenges are social and emotional.
In Every Kid A Super Reader (2015), Ernest Morrell and Pam Allyn propose seven social-emotional “strengths,” valuable both in reading and throughout life. (See box.) The strengths have a recursive relationship with reading: cultivating them helps make more powerful readers, and reading is a powerful means for cultivating them. Children we interviewed talked about several of these strengths.
Maggie, who recently turned 13, discussed reading for bravery and belonging. She favors realistic fiction with protagonists close to her age because she’s seeking inspiration. She wants to read about characters not terribly unlike herself who exhibit bravery and stand up for what’s right, battling tirelessly against all sorts of injustices. Much of her reading shares a theme of liberation, and the characters she gravitates to model the fiercely righteous behavior she’d like to echo, giving her scripts and schemas for what to do and say in similar situations. Books help her to navigate not only the murky social waters of her early teens, but also a national climate rife with hostility and frightening headlines.
Maggie also reads, like so many adults do, for a kind of emotional reassurance – “to feel like I’m not the only one feeling certain things,” as she eloquently put it. Reading fosters a feeling of belonging, reminding us that despite the loneliness of our private consciousness, we are not alone. We can feel more connected to other human beings reading with such a purpose in mind.
At times, children read to build and strengthen relationships not just to humanity writ large, but to particular individuals. They read for friendship. Sara, daughter of two music/theater professionals, reads about those fields and related topics not so much to expand her knowledge as to feel closer to her family. Sara has taken it upon herself to read about the performing arts and enjoys using poetry and Shakespeare books to improve her own acting chops as part of her trusting relationship with her parents. (Similarly, in her #secretcodebook video, Dr. Susan Brown talks about the role a book played in strengthening her childhood relationship with her cousin.)
(from Morrell and Allyn)Belonging: Identifying as a valued, represented member of a larger community
Curiosity: Fostering a willingness to explore new territory and test new theories
Friendship: Having close, trusting relationships and personal connections to others—learning to interact in positive, productive ways
Kindness: Being compassionate toward others, expressing tenderness that has an impact, near and far
Confidence: Thinking independently and
expressing ideas with assurance
Courage: Having the strength to do something that you hope is right, even though it may be difficult
Hope: Thinking optimistically and believing that today’s efforts will produce good things in the future for yourself and the world
Children also read to build hope. Maggie describes re-reading books “to cheer up,” to give herself hope, when she feels defeated. Ella, 10, notes that a certain book can almost guarantee such a desired emotional outcome or mood. The richly developed narrative in such books provide the resources to consistently solve the problem of a lack of hope. August likes to re-read graphic novels because there are always “details to appreciate I might have missed the first time.” The high level of detail makes reading the book valuable even as the context creating emotional needs changes over time. Achieving the same results would be difficult through the strategic, shallow reading of collections of shorter texts—often well suited to meeting needs for information—is much more difficult.
As with any framework, the information-seeking model that Literacy Beyond Text Comprehension prioritizes is limited, and does not always match with children’s purposes for reading. However, we find their problem-solving prism valuable because it helps us get beyond surface explanations of intentions to examine the underlying value. It invites us to ask not just, “what is this child trying to do here?” but also, “What problem are they doing it to solve?”
For example, in interviews, several children mentioned selecting certain books with the express aim of obtaining “new, higher reading levels” in school. But what problem does reaching higher reading levels solve? We want Mia to offer quite different coaching when the underlying problem is, “My teacher doesn’t believe I’m a good reader” than when it is “I want to be able to read the harder books on a topic in which I’m deeply interested.”
We (including Mia) would need a deeper understanding of the context in which each child reads—such as about their intentions, interests, attitudes, and relationships—to distinguish between the two underlying problems. One of the key challenges for Mia Learning going forward is helping children reflect on their reading in context and helping Mia learn from those conversations to offer better recommendations and coaching.
Britt, M.A., Rouet, J., & Durik, A.M. (2017). Literacy beyond text comprehension: A theory of purposeful reading. New York: Routledge.
Morrell, E. & Allyn, P. (2015). Every child a super reader: 7 strengths to open a world of possible. New York: Scholastic.