Blog Post

Reading with Purpose: What Do Kids Really Want to Get Out of Their Reading?

November 12, 2018

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

  1. Immersion: lose themselves in new worlds, etc.
  2. Get smarter
  3. Make parents proud
  4. Teachers/parents force them to
  5. Explore questions that intrigue them
  6. Find new interests
  7. To talk about the book with others
  8. Learn new things
  9. Develop new skills
  10. Understand themselves better
  11. For problem solving purposes
  12. Have fun
  13. Deepen expertise
  14. Expand on existing interests
  15. Understand others better
  16. For inspiration of some sort
  17. Get a good laugh
  18. Entertainment more generally
  19. Sense of belonging/to fit in
  20. 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.)

The Seven Strengths
(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.

References

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.

Blog Post

Mia Learns From the Masters: An Update on the Mia Learning Literacy Experts Taskforce

August 3, 2018

Mia Learns From the Masters: An Update on the Mia Learning Literacy Experts Taskforce

We’re nearing completion of a more powerful model for making recommendations and offering coaching to develop motivated and purposeful readers.

by Darren Cambridge 

Over the last six months, I’ve had the honor of collaborating with a group of diverse literacy experts—researchers, teachers, community literacy leaders, and librarians—as part of Mia Learning research and development work funded by the National Science Foundation. Together, this Literacy Experts Taskforce has built a deeper and more nuanced model of Mia’s learning objectives and how best to achieve them in conversation with children, including how she chooses books to recommend and provides reflective coaching. The model reflects both what we know from the latest research in education and psychology and hard-won knowledge of practice from educators currently working with children in classrooms, libraries, and after school programs.

Establishing Objectives and Outcomes

Mia Learning’s overarching goal are to help children have more satisfying reading experiences and to motivate them to read more and more often. The Literacy Expert Taskforce members believe Mia can advance this aim by helping children:

  • Expand their agency and metacognition – Taking ownership and control of their own reading
  • Increase their self-efficacy– Becoming more confident in their capacities and more engaged
  • Improve their book choices– Choosing books that are best suited to their purposes and preferences
  • Widen their interests and experiences – Getting out of a rut and trying books in unfamiliar genres, on new topics, and with characters of diverse backgrounds and experiences

The Literacy Experts Taskforce has specified a set of twenty learning outcomes that align with these four objectives. The outcomes represent reading attitudes, beliefs, skills, and understandings commonly held by motivated and purposeful lifelong readers. For example, such readers believe that they can grow in their interests and abilities. They also understand the range of books available and how those books’ characteristics align with different purposes for reading. Mia helps children develop such understanding through personalized recommendations that model how experts choose books and guided reflection on how well the children’s choices about reading have yielded satisfying reading experiences.

Defining Coaching Patterns

Mia guides reflection by initiating coaching when she identifies certain patterns in a child’s statements and behaviors. The Experts Taskforce is developing an expanded set of patterns that Mia monitors, each linked to a learning outcome. When Mia detects the pattern, she provides the corresponding, research-informed coaching. The Expert Taskforce has mapped out a library of coaching videos and reflective dialogues that the Mia Learning staff are hard at work adding to Mia. Videos often feature Mia’s “Anti-Boredom Squad,” composed of four fictional middle-school-age kids (played by real ones) who are junior secret agents and themselves growing readers.

For example, if a child reports a low level of confidence as a reader and has told Mia they were unsatisfied with two of the last four books about which they’ve talked, Mia might lead the child through a reflective dialogue about resilience. Through showing the child a series of “choose your own adventure”-style videos of Squad members encountering reading difficulties, asking what they ought to do next, and then sharing conclusions to the stories that model resilience and adaptability, Mia helps students see the value of these dispositions to powerful readers.

Mapping Recommendation Factors and Relationships

In addition to how Mia coaches readers, the Experts Taskforce is shaping the next generation of the Mia’s book recommendation system. Members have defined 17 factors—things Mia knows about the reader, the activity, and the books available to choose from at a particular type for a particular purpose—that are grouped in four dimensions:

  • Similarity – Does the book have commonalities with the readers’ interests, preferences, and purpose?
  • Accessibility – Is the likely level of difficulty for this reader in this context appropriate to their purpose? How hard will it be for the child to obtain a copy of the book?
  • Social connectedness – Do similar readers’ experiences with this book suggest this child’s experience will be positive? Does the book have the potential to deepen a relationship with peers or adults?
  • Variety – Will reading this book help the child experience new types of books, on less familiar subjects, from a broadened range of cultures and perspectives?

The Expert group has defined a detailed model of the weight to give each factor and dimension and how they influence one another. Mia takes these complex interactions into account when making recommendations.

For example, one factor that influences accessibility is how well the text complexity of the book matches with a child’s test scores: A strong match suggests the child will be able to read the book without frustration or boredom. More succinctly, how well do the book and the child’s reading levels match? However, the importance of this factor to accessibility is decreased if the child has a high level of interest in the topic (because they are motivated to take on a challenge and likely to have relevant background knowledge) or if they are planning to read the book along with an adult (because the adult can help). The importance of congruence between text difficulty and ability also increases if the child’s purpose for reading is to develop expertise (because that requires a higher level of reading comprehension than does reading for entertainment).

Setting the Stage for Machine Learning

The coaching and recommendation domain models developed by the Literacy Experts Taskforce endow Mia with the latest expert knowledge about reading development. However, that knowledge is just a beginning. Mia will refine the model based on children’s actual experiences as captured through conversations. The recommendation system will refine factor weights and interactions based on observed results, and the coaching system will prioritize reflective dialogues and videos that are proving most effective. Mia will discover new patterns that emerge from children’s collective conversations with Mia and add them to the model.

I think of Mia as being on the verge of completing her college coursework in reading education. She could hardly hope for a better faculty than the members of the Literacy Experts Taskforce! The next step in her training is practicum: Over the coming months, she’ll be challenged to put her newfound expertise to work in classrooms and homes, deepening that knowledge through direct and indispensable experience.

 

Picture of a sculpture of a brain lit many colors at night
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Literacy Experts Deepen Mia’s Knowledge About Reading

April 30, 2018

Literacy Experts Deepen Mia’s Knowledge About Reading

By Darren Cambridge 

From its inception, Mia Learning has been committed to combining the best understanding of how children read and the best ways to support them in their reading.

Our product reflects a rigorous analysis of educational and psychological research findings, as well as numerous interactions with teachers, librarians, researchers, and parents. Mia Learning’s Literacy Experts Taskforce is taking this commitment to the next level.

With funding from the National Science Foundation, Mia Learning has brought together experts who represent both the forefront of literacy research and a deep knowledge of practice. The group joins faculty from top research universities with teachers and librarians who help children grow as readers every day. Led by Dr. Peter Afflerbach, Professor of Reading at the University of Maryland, and Dr. Darren Cambridge, Mia Learning’s CEO, they are mapping the territory through which Secret Agent Mia guides young readers.

The Literacy Expert Taskforce is validating Mia’s existing AI domain model and creating the blueprint for its next generation. Mia’s domain model determines that she knows about readers, reading, and books. It guides what she asks kids about their reading, which books she recommends, when she asks them to reflect, and how she coaches them on making increasingly powerful choices.

Literacy Expert Taskforce Members

Peter Afflerbach
Professor of Reading,  Department of Curriculum and Instruction at the University of Maryland
Dr. Afflerbach investigates individual differences in reading development and is a member of the Standing Reading Committee of the National Assessment of Educational Progress and the International Reading Association’s Reading Hall of Fame.

Susan Brown
Associate Professor and Chair, Department of Language, Literacy, and Special Education, Rowan University
Dr. Brown is an expert on multicultural children’s literature, reader response, and urban education, as well as an award-winning poet and coordinator of the Children of the Sun Literary Club at Bushfire Theatre of Performing Arts.

Nell Duke
Professor in Literacy, Language, and Culture and in the combined program in education and psychology at the University of Michigan
A prolific author of award-winning research on early literacy development, especially of children in poverty, Dr. Duke has been named one of the most influential education scholars in the U.S. by Education Week.

Merna Fam
Teacher, Teacher, Kensington Parkwood Elementary
Drawing on her graduate training as a reading specialist, Ms. Fam teaches kindergarten in a diverse school that integrates the arts throughout the curriculum.

Leslie Garcia
Teacher, Cooper Lane Elementary School
Ms. Garcia teaches reading, writing, and social studies in an overwhelmingly low income and minority school where many students are English Language Learners.

Jennifer Graff
Associate Professor, Department of Language and Literacy Education, University of Georgia
Winner of the 2009 Dissertation of the Year Award from the International Reading Association for research concerning young girls’ book choices, Dr. Graff is chair of the NCTE Children’s Literature Assembly.

Christopher Hils
Program Director, Tree House Books
Before become a leader in after school programming serving the North Philadelphia community, Hils has taught at and helped found multiple elementary schools with a focus on improving early literacy education.

Kathryn Mitchell Pierce
Assistant Professor, Educational Studies, Saint Louis University
Now a faculty member focusing on classroom talk, children’s literature and collaborative assessment, Dr. Pierce spent a decade teaching at the elementary school level and another decade teaching literacy at the middle school level.

Genelle Schuler
Program and Partnership Librarian, Arlington Public Library
Now building partnerships between the Arlington Public Library system and community organizations, Schuler has served young readers for two decades in the Alexandria and Fairfax County public library systems and as an elementary school librarian.

Rachel Vecloth
Lead Teacher, Creative Minds International Public Charter School
A Center for Inspired Teaching Fellow and former lawyer, Vecloth teaches second grade and piloted the Mia Learning platform with her class in Spring 2017.

Spring 2017 Literacy Experts Taskforce 
The current version of Mia was informed by an earlier experts taskforce that was instrumental to our Spring 2017 pilot. It consisted of Ms. Schuler, Emily Utigard (Estes Park Elementary), Sarah Sweetman (Centreville Elementary), and Allison Sauveur (Deer Park Elementary).