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Increasing Student Motivation & Engagement in Structured Literacy

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For several years I have been providing explicit, structured literacy instruction to intermediate, striving readers. I have had many successes and just as many failures. I then made one change that has made all the difference. It wasn’t a costly program or fancy resources. Do you want to know what made the most impact? It was simply telling students about the science of reading and their own data-driven instruction! Yes, by sharing the why and how of what we were doing and their progress, students suddenly “bought in”, and we saw tremendous growth!

I begin by giving each student diagnostic assessments. Then, I shared that information with them. It sounded something like this, “Reading is complex. And, for a LOT of people it takes really careful training to teach the brain this unnatural thing humans have recently done called reading. Your brain has a lot going for you. You are really good at ___ and ___. After looking at your data, I know what might be making reading more difficult for you. The good news is that I know just what to do to make it easier. It’s going to take some hard work, but I am positive that we can figure this out.

In fact, did you know that about 1 out of every 5 people’s brains work similarly to yours? It just takes a different kind of teaching and practice to make reading work for your brain. And, we can do that this year!! You are going to be amazed at how much you’ll grow as a reader! I’ll show you exactly how much our work is paying off as we go. You know how doctors measure your physical growth each year? Let’s do that with your reading! You’re going to grow off the charts and reading will start feeling easier and more fun. Are you ready?

”Then, I explain what the five components of reading are, why they are important, how we test them, and what our game plan will be. Students are involved in all of it! I work with 3rd- 5th grade, below-grade level readers, but this could be adapted for younger or older students. It could benefit every learner. These are a few examples of how I’ve created motivation through transparency and celebration.

Challenges and Fun

I start by explaining that language is made up of words and words are made up of sounds. I explain Phonological Awareness (P.A.) in a kid-friendly way by relating it to the baby shark song. You can learn more about that here. I explain why phonological awareness is SO important to reading and spelling. Then, I show them their Kilpatrick PAST (found in diagnostic resource tab) results. I celebrate their strengths, and I show them where they need work. We make a plan (these are our learning objectives and goals), but we relate it to video games; of course we do!

I tell them that each P.A. skill is a level. So, like in video games, our objective is to “Level Up.” Students have their own personal scorecard that’s kept in their Everything Reading Notebook. The rule is that we don’t share our level. We are only competing against ourselves. As a whole group, we work on a phonological and phonemic skills. One-on-one and in small group, we work on personal skills yet to be mastered. The kids are in it.

I’m an interventionist teaching intermediate students. As I walk down the hall, I have kids yell to me, “Mrs. Luna, can you pull me today so I can level up?” That did not happen five years ago when I had their PAST hidden away in my filing cabinet waiting to test kids at the end of our six-week assessment cycle! It’s made all the difference. You can get the PA Level Up Bulletin and Student Tracker here for free in our Free Resource Library.

Tracking Progress

Next, I go into great detail about how written language is like a code that we must crack. I share why matching sounds to letters (phonics) is so important, and that with each new phonetic pattern learned, we can accurately read and spell more words. Using the diagnostic assessments, I show them the phonemes and phonetic patterns they’ve mastered and the ones they have not. Then, we set to work. Every single week, we know exactly what we are learning and why.

We track our progress by filling our brains with all the code-cracking knowledge we’ve mastered. These phoneme-grapheme brains are a visual way for kids to see their learning targets and track progress. (Of course this is NOT where these phonemes-graphings are mapped in the brain; make sure kids know this is just a fun way to track progress!) My students keep them in their Everything Reading Notebook and color in their own progress as we go. By the end of the year, our brains are full! These can be found in three varying levels. The first is for the 44 phonemes and graphemes (sounds and letters) of the English language. The second is basic phonetic and spelling patterns, and the third covers advanced concepts as well. All three can be found in the Free Resource Library.

Honest Insight

I also am honest and give students insight into exactly what is causing difficulty in their reading. I may need to tell them that they have been taught some bad habits in previous years, and it isn’t even their fault! It’s just teachers didn’t know all the science of reading. Now that we know better, we have to break these bad reading habits. If a student is guessing based on the first letter(s) of an unknown word, we play a game called the Wrong Answer Game to break that habit. This builds trust, common language around the issue, and is really fun! Students become motivated when they understand how they can gain success.

Lastly, be transparent about all student objectives and goals. My students know where we are and where we are going. We struggle and celebrate. I share accuracy and fluency goals. I share vocabulary and comprehension targets. These are the “I can” statements we’ve done for so long, but the difference is that students need to understand the why and build intrinsic motivation by feeling and seeing success. The biggest impact can be made when our instruction is based in science and data-driven, and our students are informed and inspired.

We just added a Reading Rev Members Group where we can share ideas, problem solve, and chat about all things literacy! I’d love to have you join! You can also just see what’s happening on Facebook and Instagram. Our YouTube channel has instructional videos and many other ideas to support your structured literacy journey. Teachers, I know how dedicated you are and how much work and love this profession requires. Thank you for all you do to inform and inspire every day!


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