How Can Teachers Get Teens To Put Forth Effort?

Motivating Teenagers

One of the hardest parts of teaching English in a high-poverty urban middle school is getting the lowest performing students to buy into the idea of reading.

This became crystal clear during the first weeks of my 7th grade Focus Reading class.

Each of the 10 to 15 students had failed the reading section of the Oklahoma Core Curriculum Test the previous year and required remediation under state law. I’d love to work with each of these students for a year, introducing them to books, giving them time to figure out who they are as readers, and letting the test take care of itself.

However, our school had to provide at least one nine weeks of remediation, and the district had subscribed to Achieve3000, an online provider of differentiated news articles. For two to three days each week, the kids would login to a class Mac laptop and read an article I’d assigned, or choose one based on their own interests. Each news story in the program had been written on multiple Lexile levels, and the program would serve the proper level to each student based on a Level-set test taken in September.

After reading the article, students were assessed on their comprehension and vocabulary skills via a series of questions. Each student would have the opportunity to refer to the article, eliminate answers, and review any questions missed. As students’ scores improved over time, their reading levels would be increased; students would earn points and badges based on how well they did on the assessments. At least, that’s the idea, right?

My kids weren’t interested. They complained about having to read. They insisted all the articles were boring, stating that they’d rather read the short plays in Scope magazine. Or play Cool Math, Fun Brain, or HoodaWord. Or talk, Or nap. Or complain loudly. Or stare into space.

I quickly realized that the points and badges weren’t enough. Choosing their own reading (within the program) wasn’t enough. I was going to have to bring in some external motivation.

Yes, I bribed them. With chocolate.

Of course, I realized that not everyone is a chocolate fiend like me, so I bought a $10 bag of Hershey’s minatures, a tub of bubble gum and a huge bag of DumDums.

I told the kids that if they scored a 100 percent on the first try on their Achieve3000 test, they could choose “chocolate, gum or a DumDum.” I kept the chocolate in my refrigerator, so it stayed cold. The rest of the candy (plus a few other trinkets like fun erasers and brightly colored pencils for students who couldn’t, or chose not to, have candy) I stored in a plastic bucket behind my desk.

Whenever a student scored a 100 percent, I asked to see their score, so I could congratulate them, listen them tell me what they did differently on that article, give them a high-five, and offer the prizes. Soon, several kids were working hard to make a 100 percent.

Still, there were some students for whom candy wasn’t enough of a motivation.

So I created the One Hundred Club. Members of the One Hundred Club received the distinction of their choice of candy (or non candy) prize, the honor of writing their name on the board in the One Hundred Club box, and a celebrity interview during the last five minutes of class.

That was my favorite part.

During those last five minutes, I’d call my One Hundred Club members to the front, admonish the crowd to listen respectfully during the celebrity interviews, grab my nearest microphone stand-in (pencil, eraser, stapler, rolled up paper…) and using my best talk show host voice, ask, “So, Michael, what is your secret to Achieve success?”

Students, some with shyness, some with pride, would say things like:

Read the article carefully.

Refer back to the article.

Check your answer before submitting it.

Eliminate wrong answers.

Now, here’s the kicker: As soon as the bell rang, the One Hundred Club got to leave immediately.

Everyone else had to wait until I released their row, as normal.

The kids LOVED the One Hundred Club. Those students who became frequent fliers in my One Hundred Club also showed significant gains in their reading over time. Even those who struggled with making the 100 percent brought their scores up from 30s and 60s to 75s and 88s. I encouraged them, as well, and they showed growth over time.

I have intended to share this story with you for months, but never quite got around to it until I saw the article “Turning Around the Teen Brain By Building Effort” by Laura Varlas on the blog.

As I read through the article, which Josh Flores, Director of Language Arts for the Oklahoma State Department of Education, linked to on Twitter under #elaok, I realized that my One Hundred Club used several of the powerful teen effort builders mentioned in the article. I built relationships through encouraging, helping, and listening to each child. I set a common goal (100 percent)  but provided reading and assessments suited for each child’s reading level. I challenged the students to strive for that 100 percent, instead of settling for an 88, or a 75, which is the lowest score I’d accept as part of the two articles I required them to work on that day.

I made the rewards worth the risk (which I mitigated by sitting down and working with those students who consistently struggled with the questions) and I helped build the status of those who did well. Some of the best students end up being the ones who were among the worst behaved (and performing) at the beginning of the class.

I would have preferred to spend time building lifelong learners; however, under the constraints of the system, I was at least able to make reading more pleasant, and help students read better. In the long run, that should help them at least a little bit.

Do you have any stories of how you used a motivational tool to turn around a class, or even one student? I’d love to hear your stories. Just reply below.



About the author 

Michelle Boyd Waters, M.Ed.

I am a secondary English Language Arts teacher, a University of Oklahoma student working on my doctorate in Instructional Leadership and Academic Curriculum with an concentration in English Education and co-Editor of the Oklahoma English Journal. I am constantly seeking ways to amplify students' voices and choices.

  1. For many years, our district used the Accelerated Reader program. We had little training and it was left to each teacher to use how they wished. I instituted a system with charts for each section listing the students. When students successfully completed a book and test, they received a sticker for the chart and a treat for passing the test. I had competitions within classes for most tests passed, most points earned, etc. and also between classes. At midterm and the end of the nine weeks, I handed out overall awards and top classes had “parties” where they provided the snacks. Students who never read or were marginal readers began to find success in reading books within their levels. They might not earn the most points, but they could read the most books. Others read because they wanted a sucker. One student had never passed the reading test. As he gained confidence, he began to read small short books voraciously. At the end of the year, he had read the most books of anyone and passed the reading test. He and I both cried. Another student struggled, but finally began to read on her level to get stickers and quit attempting to read “popular” books that were too difficult which she then gave up on.. By the end of the year she had jumped three grades in proficiency. Several years later she worked with my daughters and told them if it hadn’t have been for me, she would never have learned to read. I had fantastic success with this program integrated with my classroom instruction which was heavy on projects with topics that got kids excited about learning. One former student recently visited our school with a traveling motivational program that he is the DJ for. He is also a songwriter and muscian with an album out. He asked the principal to bring him to my classroom afterword and told me that my class not only made him read, but that projects we did like analyzing Weird Al’s parodies and creating and performing their own parodies started him on the path his life has taken. Unfortunately some teachers didn’t like the work involved in administering it and NCLB forced us to devote class to “Instructional time” and cut in-class reading and many projects. A few years ago our district decided to get rid of AR because of cost and some people who campaigned against it. I have found no way to replace it because kids simply cheat and parents sign that they read books and rent the movie so they can write about it. Since we don’t read in class, I can’t monitor that they actually do and with them being allowed to read on phones now, they just tab the book and text and switch if they see me nearby on the few occasions we do use class time to read. I am struggling to find a way to actually make them read without having a good system of accountability. It is so frustrating when I had a system that worked miracles before. People don’t realize the difficulty of monitoring reading when you deal with 150 kids per day, let alone knowing if they are actually reading, what they are struggling with, etc. when you don’t have technology to track it individually. The key is individualizing their experience so they can succeed and requiring them to meet a standard to get what they want so they know they did the work and feel the pride. Pride is as addictive as prizes, but you have to have the carrot to get them going.

    1. Cheryl,

      Thank you for sharing your story! The school I taught at last year had discontinued the program several years ago, but I know the current librarian is campaigning to get it back. My new school has the program, and I’m looking forward to incorporating it into my classes this year. I hope your school brings back the AR program. Keep up the good work!

  2. One of the concerns is that AR’s use of extrinsic rewards raises temporary reading rates, but over the long term, students who have been involved in AR schools are less likely to choose reading when the reward system is removed. The goal is to develop a sustainable, lifelong habit of reading and the data for AR show that it doesn’t do that.

    1. Hi Becca!

      I agree with what you’re saying. However, some kids have such an aversion to reading that they need an external motivator just to get them to crack open a book. Once the kids are reading, then the teachers and parents must help them discover their reading identities. We have to start where the kids are and provide what they need to start their journey as readers.

      1. I have used AR in special education classrooms in the past, and I can think of some examples of students who really took off in reading because of the program, too. I just question expenditure on a program that is likely to turn as many kids off reading as it turns on – especially in the long-term.

        1. Sorry it took so long for this comment to appear on my site. I’ve been out of town all week, and WordPress dumped your comment into spam. I can’t imagine why, since you already have one approved post.

          Anyway, I see what you’re saying. What I’d really like to see is for schools to invest in reading programs that would encourage students to develop their reading identities. My son’s 7th grade reading teacher did this, and he head all 40 books. Most of them were of his choosing, but their were some class novels, some small group novels, and must discussion/reflection on the reading. That’s what I’d really like to try.

          Also, Claudia Swisher, a retired Reading for Pleasure teacher from Norman, has some very sage advice on this topic.

          Failing this though, AR can be an incentive for some students. I think there needs to be an alternative though for those students who are discouraged by AR. Any ideas?

  3. My name is Nozima Mirkhujayeva.I have read an amazing article by Michelle Waters. The article is about how to motivate students to read articles with enthusiasm. The author found a great solution engage students to read academic texts by creating One Hundred Club. I also liked this idea and think it will useful to create a similar activity . I agree with the author ,she used a right way to engage students – a right to choose a prize and creating game atmosphere. Students usually get bored by doing routine things all time like reading boring academic texts. Feeling that they are participating in a show motivates them to study a subject harder , to read carefully that leads to increasing of academic progress.

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