Curator: Liz Kent; Additional contributors: Laura Golaszewski and Beth Kerns
Special thanks to Dr. Carol Tilley for her instruction, support, and recommendations of further resources on this topic.

What is Reading Engagement?

"Engaged reading is a merger of motivation and thoughtfulness. Engaged readers seek to understand; they enjoy learning and they believe in their reading abilities." --John T. Guthrie, "Contexts for Engagement and Motivation in Reading"

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Engaged readers:

  • are intrinsically motivated
  • read to reach personal goals
  • enjoy reading for its own sake
  • read for pleasure
  • read for knowledge
  • achieve "flow"
  • are enthusiastic about reading
  • are confident in their reading abilities
  • use multiple comprehension strategies
  • actively use prior knowledge to understand a new text
  • interact socially in their approach to literacy

Engagement is strongly related to reading achievement. Not only does engagement lead to achievement, but achievement reinforces the child's desire to be an engaged reader.

Engagement can compensate for other reading disadvantages, including physical disabilities such as dyslexia, or social factors such as low family income and educational background.

A child does not start out as an engaged reader, but grows in his confidence, enthusiasm, and enjoyment of reading over time. Librarians and teachers should encourage positive feelings about reading; as the child progresses he begins to love reading and to think of himself as a reader.

Key terms


"Flow tends to occur when a person's skills are fully involved in overcoming a challenge that is just about manageable. … When goals are clear, feedback relevant, and challenges and skills are in balance, attention becomes ordered and fully invested. Because of the total demand on psychic energy, a person in flow is completely focused." (Csikszentmihalyi)


A child cannot become an engaged reader without first being motivated to read. The key to helping children become engaged readers centers around creating experiences that foster intrinsic motivation.

Self-perceived competence

A child who considers himself a capable reader is likely to continue working on a challenging text, therefore progressing in his reading abilities. Praise from a teacher or librarian that is sincere and specifically recognizes the child's achievement helps to increase his self-perceived competence and intrinsic motivation. A successful reading teacher helps the child to think of himself as a reader from the very beginning.

Motivating readers

Each person finds some types of motivation more compelling than others. However, intrinsic motivation--such as curiosity, feelings of competence, or enjoyment--is more likely to result in long-term reading engagement than extrinsic motivation--including compliance, external recognition, or good grades.

Intrinsic motivation

  • Task-mastery oriented readers
These readers are eager to improve their skills and take on new challenges. They want to learn flexible skills for reading comprehension and seek to understand content.
  • Self-efficacy
Readers with high self-efficacy are confident in their ability to comprehend a text. These readers enjoy the challenge of a difficult reading task and will work hard to master it. Teachers and librarians that stress learning goals and understanding a text over simply answering questions correctly help students believe in their ability to do difficult work.
  • Social motivation
These readers like to share books with peers and participate in book groups or other learning communities.They are intrinsically motivated to read so as to be able to engage in the social activities surrounding the reading of a text.

Extrinsic motivation

  • Performance (ego) oriented readers
These readers want to maximize favorable external feedback. They are motivated to complete a task, rather than understand or enjoy what they are reading. Students are less engaged in learning when they are required to simply perform a series of steps, or are encouraged to outperform others. Performance motivation can impede reading engagement by causing the reader to fear failure.

How can librarians and teachers help children become intrinsically motivated to read?

Here are various ways librarians and teachers can foster intrinsic motivation in children. The following categories are meant to be combined; employing multiple strategies simultaneously improves their efficacy.

State reading goals

Teachers and librarians can help a child determine individually-appropriate reading goals. These may include gaining knowledge, reading fluency, or simply pleasure. A child will be intrinsically motivated to continue reading when he is working toward an explicitly stated, self-chosen goal.


Readers are motivated by choice; children want to feel control over their environment instead of always being manipulated by adults. Librarians and teachers should allow children to choose which subtopics to study, what type of materials to use, and the reading or learning strategies that are most effective for that individual child. A child is motivated by deciding what, when, and how to read. However, the child does not need to have complete autonomy; the librarian or teacher should provide support by displaying various options and helping the child choose which are best for him, and by explicitly teaching reading strategies to help the child succeed.


Children whose lives include an involved librarian or teacher are likely to be engaged in their learning environment, leading to engagement in reading. Children want librarians and teachers to be interested in their reading progress and to provide support when making reading choices. A child needs the assistance of a mentor in order to progress in his reading skills; Csikszentmihalyi's idea of flow centers on a task that is "just about manageable;" the child needs support to accomplish his reading goals and increase his self-perceived competence. However, it is important to also allow autonomy; the best support is available only when needed. The teacher or librarian can expect a reader to require support as he moves up in incremental challenges and begins to learn a new skill.

Librarians and teachers can also utilize computer-based reading programs and CDs to support young readers. By providing recorded speech, sequential text highlighting, background knowledge, and vocabulary, these resources can help a reader understand a text at a higher level then he would be able to do alone.

Reading strategy instruction

Self-perceived competence is necessary for intrinsic motivation, which leads to reading engagement. To gain reading competence, a child needs a mentor such as a teacher or librarian to explicitly teach him strategies for understanding and acquiring knowledge from text. A librarian or teacher can:
  • give a tour of an information book: show how to use the table of contents, captions, diagrams, side-bars, index, and other end matter;
  • show how to determine the main idea and summarize a paragraph: demonstrate locating topic sentences vs. supporting information;
  • help a child understand which books might be at his appropriate reading level: peruse the size of font, number of pages, and frequency of illustrations.

Challenge the reader

Meyer and Rose's chapter on developing reading engagement highlights motivational techniques that can be adopted from computer game culture. Of key importance is the idea of an appropriate level of challenge. Children need new challenges to stay motivated, but if the challenge is too difficult they will give up in frustration. Computer games routinely employ the idea of variable levels of challenge, with the difference between each level being a small, motivating increase in difficulty. Librarians and teachers who help readers to select materials to mimic this ever slightly increasing level of challenge will help readers to continue to be motivated. They can also utilize online reading programs, software, and CDs in addition to print resources; the flexibility of computers is perfect for tailoring the right level of challenge to a particular reader.

Along with providing materials that are just beyond the reader's current skill level, it is also important to provide the necessary support to help the reader succeed in this new challenge. In addition to support from a librarian or teacher, a reader can conquer a challenging new text by relying on background knowledge of a favorite topic; the reader should be encouraged to choose materials that are of personal interest.

Provide ongoing feedback

Another idea that can be adopted from computer games is that of ongoing feedback. Games continually inform the player of whether he is succeeding or failing at the given task. Readers similarly want to know if they are correctly comprehending a text. Contextual cues, accompanying illustrations, and self-perceived competence can all give internal feedback to the reader; however, even the most self-reliant reader can benefit from external feedback as well. Teachers and librarians can:
  • confirm readers' self-perceived competence through sincere praise;
  • give useful criticism to help readers improve specific skills;
  • publish children's own book reviews in a local binder or library/school website so children can feel that others are interested in their work;
  • encourage social interaction such as book groups, where readers receive feedback from peers;
  • recommend computer-based reading programs that give relevant feedback during the reading process.

Interesting texts

Teachers and librarians should strive to provide a wide variety of reading materials of various styles, reading levels, and types of illustration, both in print materials and online so that each child can choose reading material that is best for him. What makes a text interesting to a reader?
  • familiar characters or format (e.g. series books);
  • vivid prose and/or illustrations;
  • appropriate reading level;
  • relevant information;
  • new information;
  • information that is important or valued by the reader.

Real-world connections

Children are naturally attentive and inquisitive when examining a live animal, watching a display of a chemical reaction, or visiting an historical re-enactment site. Reading instruction within such an intrinsically motivating real-world context can translate into reading engagement. Librarians and teachers that combine these real-world experiences with reading create an atmosphere in which intrinsic motivation and reading engagement can blossom. Children are also excited to utilize reading and writing skills online: communicating with international pen pals or interacting on a blog are motivating activities that engage children in reading.

Create an environment for risk-taking

Some libraries have implemented programs that encourage young readers by bringing in animals, usually dogs, for kids to read to or with. The decreased pressure of reading to or with an animal encourages young readers to take risks with their reading, and also gets them excited to get reading. Dogs can be comforting to some children, as they know that they cannot be made fun of or chastised for not knowing, stumbling over, or struggling with words and reading. According to the Library Dogs website, trained therapy dogs "can result in children who feel comfortable reading out loud, read more often, attempt more difficult books, and actually look forward to reading". Programs like this have quantitative results, such was the case in one school in Minnesota: "In 2006 several dogs and their handlers in a suburban Minnesota town participated in a pilot project called PAWSitive Readers. After reading to the dogs just once a week for seven weeks, 10 of the 14 children improved their reading scores at least one grade level. Three of the others were learning English, while another was already reading at grade level." Sometimes, thinking outside the box with a program such as this is just what is needed to motivate young readers to love reading. (Laube, Library Dogs)

Encourage social interaction

Social interaction helps readers to discover various perspectives and gain new knowledge and insight from a shared reading experience. Library patrons frequently enjoy book groups, author visits, and blogs and other online collaboration. Younger children enjoy the social aspect of story time.

Students working on a school assignment can gain broad understanding of a topic through dividing research of subtopics among a group of peers, and then bringing the new information together to form a greater understanding of the topic as a whole. Social interaction dovetails well with students' autonomy, in letting students choose a study group and how to divide tasks within that group.

How are libraries addressing reading engagement? Motivation in action!

Librarians are in a key role when it comes to reading engagement, as they can be tools for motivation and encouragement for young readers of all types. Several examples exist in the literature for how libraries are addressing reading engagement in libraries today, of which we will make note of here. They range from simply acquiring what kids want to read, to negotiating issues of access and classroom collections.
Sticking close to home, Carol L. Tilley's article "Reading Motivation and Engagement" lists several ways for school librarians to inspire motivation for reading in young people. She recommends:
  • creating a welcoming and inviting environment;
  • making all kinds of materials available to children for their use (including audiobooks, big books, puppets, etc.);
  • embracing classroom collections for their proximity to young readers; instead of viewing them as competition, help teachers select outstanding materials for those collections;
  • rethinking policies and procedures to ensure that children and their families have access to materials and services throughout the school year, especially in areas not adequately served by public libraries, even if it means allowing summer checkouts or opening the library for a few hours each week in the evenings and summers.
The article goes on to provide specific examples of how librarians can address reading engagement on a more one-on-one level, which is worth reading. The author also provides an in-depth bibliography the provides many sources on reading engagement and motivation.
Another article of note also mentioned in Tilley's article is Julia Robert's piece, "Building a Community of High School Readers". This article discusses how the author was able to engage her high school students to read in a very simplistic, yet effective way. Basically, Roberts did research into what her high school patrons wanted to read, acquired those materials, and then gave those students time to read those materials. She provides a measurable positive outcome by providing the outcomes of her state's reading achievement test.

In addition to live librarians providing support for reading engagement, many libraries utilize computer-based reading software and CDs. Meyer and Rose recommend qualities of software to look for when purchasing reading programs for library computers. Seek out software that:
  • provides variable challenges and adjustable supports;
  • has engaging multimedia features and rewards that are germane to reading processes and the meanings of texts;
  • respects and emphasizes the pleasures of reading;
  • provides tools that children can use to create and publish their own works;
  • provides a broad and varied real-life context for authentic communication;
  • invites readers to set their own challenges and levels of support;
  • contains or is open to a great variety of texts.
(adapted from Meyer and Rose)

There are many positive examples in the library literature of teachers and librarians working to motivate their students to read, using many of the techniques listed here. Some of these examples include:
  • "It's All About the Book: Motivating Teens to Read" (Lapp & Fisher): An English class for high-school juniors was redesigned around topics (injustice, racial profiling, bullying, etc.) that would be relevant to the learners, a group of culturally diverse teens who all read below grade level. The design of the class also allowed students to self-select reading materials that touched on the course's themes. In addition to offering relevant choices for individual reading, the instructors also motivated students to engage with texts by having them take turns moderating the class book club. The redesign was certainly successful--students indicated they wanted to read more books by certain authors and that they wanted to be alerted to future unit themes, so they could have a chance to offer their own reading suggestions (Lapp & Fisher, 2009).

  • "Recentering the Middle School Classroom As a Vibrant Learning Community: Students, Literacy, and Technology Intesect" (Grisham & Wolsey): Wolsey, a teacher, had previously used the literature circles method to motivate students to engage in texts, but found the discussions among his students were mostly superficial. Wolsey decided to organize his class' discussion around books using a different method; he asked his students to begin posting their responses to books they read as a class to an online discussion forum. He noticed that as his students engaged more deeply with the text, their posts became longer and more frequent. He also noticed a difference between the quality of their paper response journals and their online posts. In the paper journals, students typically stuck to plot summarizing, but in their online posts, students made inferences, connections to their own lives, and analyses of the authors' literary styles (Grisham & Wolsey, 2006). Why did the students engage more deeply in reading and discussion online? Sharing their responses to what they read with peers was one reason. Another reason was the level of instructor involvement and feedback; Wolsey frequently made comments to student posts, praised their work, shared his own thoughts, and modeled the appropriate style for discussion posts.

  • "BOOKMATCH: Scaffolding book selection for independent reading" (Wutz & Wedwick): Wutz developed BOOKMATCH for use with her 6-, 7-, and 8-year old students. BOOKMATCH is a method for helping students to select "just right" books, books that students are capable of and interested in reading (Wutz & Wedwick, 2005). Engaged reading can't take place if students continually abandon books because they are too difficult or uninteresting to the reader. Each time Wutz introduced a criterion from the BOOKMATCH method, she also modeled for her students how she applied that criterion when selecting the books she was going to read aloud to the class. After her demonstration of a criterion, she allowed students to self-select books for silent reading based on that session's criterion. The children were encouraged to share what worked with the technique and what didn't after silent reading time. Following her demonstrations of the BOOKMATCH method, students showed greater competency in picking out "just right" books (Wutz & Wedwick, 2005).

Theoretical concerns or problems

Here are a few things for librarians and teachers to watch out for in relation to motivating and engaging readers:

  • Reading motivation decreases as children go through school
    • Some children begin to think of themselves as less capable than others.
    • Librarians or teachers that foster too much competition between children can lead children to only seek extrinsic motivation and performance goals.
    • Librarians or teachers that ignore an individual child's interests and competencies can undermine his intrinsic motivation.

  • Insincere praise or rewards
    • Children desire a feeling of autonomy and control over their environment. If a child interprets praise as being manipulative, it can weaken his motivation.
    • Similarly, focusing on extrinsic rewards can diminish a child's motivation by contradicting the intrinsic reward of reading for its own sake.

  • Entertaining but irrelevant details
    • Entertaining software that is meant to educate readers can actually distract them from learning if the entertainment portion is irrelevant to the subject itself.
    • Pictures (print or online) that are superfluous and not related to reading comprehension can likewise be distracting.
    • The stimulation of games or graphics can be short-lived if they do not directly reinforce the main reading task itself.

  • Discouraging good behavior
    • Beware of computer-based reading programs that discourage the use of important learning strategies such as re-reading text before answering a question.

For further information...

Brozo, William G., Gerry Shiel, and Keith Topping, "Engagement in reading: Lessons learned from three PISA countries," Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, Vol. 51, No. 4, pp. 304-315, December 2007/January 2008, DOI:10.1598/JAAL.51.4.2

Concept-Oriented Reading Instruction (CORI) Reading Engagement Project

Edmunds, Kathryn M. and Kathryn L. Bauserman, "What Teachers Can Learn about Reading Motivation through Conversations with Children," The Reading Teacher, Vol. 59, No. 5, February 2006, pp. 414-424.

Gambrell, L.B. (2011). Seven rules of engagement: What's most important to know about motivation to read. The Reading Teacher, Vol. 65, No. 3, pp. 172-178.

Gordon, Carol, "Meeting Readers Where They Are: Mapping the intersection of research and practice." School Library Journal, November 1, 2010.

Guthrie, John T. and Kathleen E. Cox, "Classroom Conditions for Motivation and Engagement in Reading," Educational Psychology Review, Vol. 13, No. 3, 2001.

Harvey, Stephanie and Anne Goudvis, Strategies That Work: Teaching Comprehension for Understanding and Engagement, Second Edition, Portland, ME: Stenhouse Publishers, 2007.

Jones, Troy and Carol Brown, "Reading Engagement: A Comparison Between Ebooks and Traditional Print Books in an Elementary Classroom," International Journal of Instruction, July 2011, Vol.4, No.2.

Kelley, M. J., & Clausen-Grace, N. (2009). Facilitating engagement by differentiating independent reading. The Reading Teacher, Vol. 63, No. 4, pp. 313-318.

Kirsch, et. al., "Reading for Change: Performance and Engagement Across Countries," Results from PISA 2000, Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development 2002.

Lapp, Diane and Douglas Fisher, "It's All About the Book: Motivating Teens to Read," Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, Vol. 52, No. 7, April 2009, pp. 556-561, DOI:10.1598/JAAL.52.7.1

Rueda, et. al., "Engaged Reading: A Multilevel Approach to Considering Sociocultural Factors With Diverse Learners," CIERA Report #1-012, August 13, 2001.

Trudel, Heidi, "Making Data-Driven Decisions: Silent Reading," The Reading Teacher, Vol. 61, No. 4, December 2007/January 2008, pp. 308-315, DOI:10.1598/RT.61.4.3

Wigfield, et. al., "Role of reading engagement in mediating effects of reading comprehension instruction on reading outcomes," Psychology in the Schools, Vol. 45, No. 5, 2008, pp. 432-445, DOI:10.1002/pits.20307


Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly, Finding flow: The psychology of engagement with everyday life. New York: BasicBooks. 1998.

Grisham, Dana L. and Thomas D. Wolsey, "Recentering the middle school classroom as a vibrant learning community: Students, literacy and technology intersect." Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy, Vol. 49, No. 8, 2006, pp. 648-660.

Guthrie, John T. "Contexts for Engagement and Motivation in Reading." From the Handbook of Reading Research: Volume III (Kamil, Mosenthal, Pearson, & Barr, 2000).

Lapp, Diane and Douglas Fisher, "It’s all about the book: Motivating teens to read." Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, Vol. 52, No. 7, April 2009, pp. 556-561.

Laube, Gloria, 2008. Welcome to the Library Dogs Web Site! Web access November 26, 2011.

Meyer, Anne and David H. Rose. Learning to Read in the Computer Age, chapter 4. Brookline Books/Lumen Editions, May 1999.

Roberts, Julia. "Building a Community of High School Readers." Knowledge Quest, Vol. 35 No. 1, Sept/Oct 2006, pp. 24-29.

Tilley, Carol L. "Reading Motivation and Engagement." School Library Monthly, Vol. 26, No. 4, December 2009, pp. 39-42.

Wutz, Jessica Ann and Linda Wedwick, "BOOKMATCH: Scaffolding book selection for independent reading." The Reading Teacher, Vol. 59, No. 1, 2005, pp. 16-32.