Margin Notes

Atomic (Reading) Habits Part 3


This is the third post in a series of reflections on what Atomic Habits: An Easy and Proven Way to Build Good Habits and Break Bad Ones by James Clear tells us about creating Atomic Habitsenvironments where students develop lifelong reading habits. You can read the previous posts here and here.

According to Clear there are four laws of behavior change. The first three laws—make it obvious, make it attractive, make it easy—increase the odds that we will perform a behavior. The fourth law—make it satisfying—increases the odds that we will perform that habit again and again:

“We are more likely to increase a behavior when the experience is satisfying. This is entirely logical. Feelings of pleasure—even minor ones like washing your hands with soap that smells nice and lathers well—are signals that tell the brain: ‘This feels good. Do this again, next time.’ Pleasure teaches your brain that a behavior is worth remembering and repeating.”

“…The Cardinal Rule of Change: What is rewarded is repeated. What is punished is avoided. You learn what to do in the future based on what you were rewarded for doing (or punished for doing) in the past. Positive emotions cultivate habits. Negative emotions destroy them.”

“The vital thing in getting a habit to stick is to feel successful—even if it’s in a small way. The feeling of success is a signal that your habit paid off and that the work was worth the effort.”

“…the identity itself becomes the reinforcer. You do it because it’s who you are and it feels good to be you. The more the habit becomes part of your life, the less you need outside encouragement to follow through.”

“The most effective form of motivation is progress. When we get a signal that we are moving forward, we become more motivated to continue down that path.”

In our efforts to support students in developing lifelong reading habits, we have to ask ourselves how we can create the conditions for students to find intrinsic motivation to continue growing as readers?

Here’s what we know doesn’t work when it comes to motivating students to read: extrinsic rewards and accountability measures such as reading logs.

In No More Reading for Junk Barbara A. Marinak and Linda B. Gambrell highlight the perils of offering extrinsic rewards in an effort to motivate students to read:

The work that is perhaps the most informative on this issue is a study by Deci and his colleagues that suggests that if you reward a student who enjoys reading with an extrinsic reward (such as points, food, or money), the students may choose to read less frequently once the incentive is discontinued (Deci et al. 1991). The concern then is that extrinsic rewards may have a detrimental effect on the intrinsic motivation to read, particularly for those students who are already intrinsically motivated to read.

Interesting evidence also suggests that individuals are motivated by the reward itself (Deci 1975). For example, if we are paid to do a task such as reading, it may result in a decrease in our desire to read; however, being paid may be very effective in motivating an individual to make money. In other words, we tend to view the “reward” as desirable and valuable. Therefore, if we want to develop the intrinsic desire to read, books and extra time to read are probably the most effective rewards.

…research indicates that classroom environments that provide access to a variety of reading materials, reading activities that are relevant, and opportunities for student choice are more likely to nurture reading engagement and achievement (Anderman and Midgley 1992; Gambrell 2011; Guthrie, Wigfield, and VonSecker 2000).

Marinak and Gambrell refer to the classroom practices that nurture and sustain the development of motivation to read as the ARC of motivation:

  • afford access to a wide variety of print,
  • invite children into relevant reading experiences, and
  • afford as much choice as possible.

In “Can Reading Logs Ruin Reading for Kids,” journalist Erica Reicher acknowledges that reading logs are often used with the best of intentions—to encourage students to read: “The goal of these logs is to promote the habit of recreational reading, or at least to create the appearance of it. The basic idea seems to be this: If kids who read regularly gain significant benefits, then it should be mandated that all students read regularly so they, too, can enjoy those benefits.” Unfortunately, as the research on the negative impact of extrinsic rewards and punishments on motivation reveals, this strategy often has the opposite effect: “This research would suggest that reading logs have a similar effect on children’s reading habits, especially their desire to read for fun, making reading less of a pleasure and more of a chore. Imagine telling your child that she must draw pictures for at least 20 minutes daily—and also record how much time she spent drawing and how many different colors she used.”

According to Pernille Ripp, “We’re constantly asking kids to do something with their reading, and then wondering why they’re choosing to leave us and never picking up another book. They can’t wait to get out of school so that they don’t have to read.”

Teri S. Lesesne, author of Reading Ladders: Leading Students from Where They Are to Where We Want Them to Be, reminds us that motivating students to read is only a job half-done: “Once we connect students to books, we cannot abandon them. We need to provide them with some guidance to help them continue to develop as readers.” Lesesne suggests using reading ladders as a strategy for scaffolding students toward more challenging, independent reading:

Simply, a reading ladder is a series or set of books that are related in some way (e.g., thematically) and that demonstrate a slow, gradual development from simple to more complex. Ideally, the first rung of the reading ladder is a book that already has found a connection to the student. The second rung is a book that is almost identical to the first, thereby making it likely that the student will read it. At each successive rung, the books will be reminiscent of the ones that preceded them but are increasingly complex. Sometimes the books move from genre to genre; occasionally, the books remain within a genre. There are no hard-and-fast rules here. The intent is to move readers from their comfort zone to books that represent more diversity.

The reality, though, is that the only way to be this kind of book matchmaker for students, motivating them to incrementally challenge themselves to read texts of more complexity, is to know the readers in our classes and to have a wide familiarity with titles to recommend to them.

It’s important to note, however, that not all reading has to be hard for students. If we are motivated by things that bring us pleasure, it stands to reason that if reading is not a satisfying experience, it will not become habitual. That’s not to say reading must be easy, but it must bring a feeling of accomplishment to readers. As Kylene Beers has said on many occasions:


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