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Motivating Struggling Adolescent Readers: Try Relevance & Success

Updated on
Modified on June 2, 2023
  • Education Technology
  • Literacy
  • Struggling Readers

Editor's note: Looking to help your struggling readers in middle and high school overcome discouragement and the apathy that surrounds their inability to catch up to their peers? Dr. Louisa Moats, renown literacy expert, discussed this challenge--and ways it can be overcome--in this blog, originally published here in August 2015. The points made by Dr. Moats' still ring true today.

In the Tech & Learning-hosted webinar called "Motivating Struggling Adolescent Readers: Try Relevance and Success," Dr. Moats shares more of what she presents in this blog. You'll leave the webinar with new ideas for how to use relevance and success as strategies to motivate unengaged struggling adolescent readers.  View Webinar below.

Motivation, according to a recent textbook on adolescent literacy*, is “a feeling of interest or enthusiasm that makes a student want to complete a task or improve his or her skills.” Teachers of adolescent poor readers, however, often find that their students are willing to do anything BUT read and write. Getting students to believe that they can make meaningful progress—when all prior experience suggests they will not—and to work at something that has never been rewarding is a major challenge.

Adolescent struggling readers have experienced years of both intrinsic and extrinsic punishments for their inability to succeed at fundamental literacy tasks. After falling behind early, usually in kindergarten or first grade, they have endured low test scores, retention, public shame and embarrassment, and the chronic, debilitating certainty that they would never make meaning out of print the way other people do. Some act out; some withdraw; some get frustrated, depressed, or angry; some go to great lengths to cover up their inability to read.

Our work with middle and high school students who read very poorly has shown us that substantial progress is possible—not only on normative tests, but in the functional skills that underlie successful academic learning—and that motivating these students is not so difficult. In a nutshell, we’ve observed and demonstrated that the keys to motivating adolescent struggling readers are relevance and success.


Relevance pertains first to the psychological and social context in which learning takes place. Psychologically, adolescents are striving for autonomy, self-regulation, and self-definition. Socially, adolescents place high value on peer relationships. To address these needs, we found that it was important to offer the following in our blended literacy intervention called LANGUAGE!® Live:

  • Choice of activity in online word study, within clear expectations for overall unit completion
  • Allowances for an individual’s pace of learning, so faster learners are not held back and slower learners are not punished
  • Privacy and protection from embarrassment as students interact with the computer to relearn or review foundational skills
  • Choice of reading material in the online library
  • Structured discussions with peers, in which students pose and respond to questions addressed to one another
  • Structured tasks requiring peer collaboration
  • Opportunities for nonacademic social exchanges within and between classrooms sharing a program-specific website

These program features respect the sensitivities of vulnerable students while meeting important psycho-social needs. In the supportive context created by the program’s design, students can drop maladaptive defensive habits, lessen their anxiety, and focus on learning.

Relevance also describes the most important feature of the topics, texts, and written responses that are the meat and potatoes of daily learning. If students are going to labor through several readings of a text, its themes should be engaging and compelling. Selections should prompt discussion, expression of points of view, and questioning. Readings should stand up to repeated, close examination—not just to build fluency, but because the richness of the ideas and the significance of the topics are by nature engaging.

In choosing the text selections for LANGUAGE! Live, we landed on themes that were somewhat edgy. We included age-appropriate material, such as a play based on Anne Frank’s diary, a speech by Nelson Mandela, and a graphic novel depicting Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, even though the students in the program are usually reading and writing at levels far below grade level. We believed that students could handle text somewhat above their comfortable reading level if the process was highly scaffolded and if we emphasized meaning-making from start to finish. This approach has worked; often for the first time, our students are mentally and emotionally invested in understanding the larger themes that the units address.


The second major principle for motivating these poor readers—of equal importance to relevance—is success. Our students need and respond to multiple sources of feedback on their performance. They are expected to achieve a high accuracy rate on decoding, encoding, and oral reading tasks as they progress through each step of the online program. They must pass gateway exams to exit each unit. The structure of the program, however, allows for incremental learning in which students receive feedback on each item in each exercise and are able to immediately correct incorrect responses. Point systems, virtual trophies, charts of timed quizzes, and concrete rewards are threaded throughout. Students always know where they stand and can see every small step of progress represented visually.

The result of using  relevance and success to motivate adolescent poor readers? Students who express hope, confidence, and enthusiasm they haven’t felt for years, and who are making gains at an unprecedented rate.

*Denton, C.A., Vaughn, S., Wexler, J., Bryan, D., & Reed, D. (2012). Effective instruction for middle school students with reading difficulties: The reading teacher’s sourcebook. Baltimore: Brookes Publishing.

View the Tech & Learning-hosted webinar called "Motivating Struggling Adolescent Readers: Try Relevance and Success," by Dr. Moats.

View Webinar

About the Author
Dr. Louisa Moats
Author of LANGUAGE! Live®

Dr. Louisa Moats has been a teacher, psychologist, researcher, graduate school faculty member, and author of many influential scientific journal articles, books, and policy papers on the topics of reading, spelling, language, and teacher preparation. Dr. Moats is the author of LANGUAGE! Live®, a blended reading intervention program for grades 5–12, and the lead author of LETRS® professional development and the textbook, Speech to Print: Language Essentials for Teachers. Dr. Moats is also co-author of Spellography, a structured language word study program. Dr. Moats’ awards include the prestigious Samuel T. and June L. Orton award from the International Dyslexia Association® for outstanding contributions to the field; the Eminent Researcher Award from Learning Disabilities Australia; and the Benita Blachman award from The Reading League.

Learn more about Dr. Louisa Moats