Motivation and Reading

How do you measure success and what motivates you to achieve your goals? Learner motivation theories have been a significant part of teacher training throught recent years and many theories  have evolved on this topic. However, one thing remains certain. A motivated learner and reader will get better results and achieve their results more easily than an unmotivated one. How can we help our students find and define what motivates us and how can we help them turn these ideas into goals and action?

Illustration from The Kingdom of the Snow Leopard, written by Elspeth Rawstron and illustrated by Cristiano Lissoni. © Helbling Languages

Illustration from The Kingdom of the Snow Leopard, written by Elspeth Rawstron and illustrated by Cristiano Lissoni. © Helbling Languages

To be successful in what we do we need to set goals, but in order to reach those goals we need to be motivated. Reading and reading education is no different. But before we can expect our students to achieve reading success let’s ask ourselves what motivated us to start reading in English or in any foreign language.

Start by thinking of a list of books that you read as a teenager, and then think about what made you pick and read those books. Here are some factors that motivated us to start reading.

  1. Everybody else in the class was reading the book.
  2. We really liked the film adaptation of the book.
  3. The book cover looked interesting.
  4. It was about a topic we liked.
  5. A good friend or a teacher recommended it.
  6. The characters in the book looked like people we could be friends with.
  7. No one wanted us to read that book.
  8. It was on a compulsory or recommended reading list.

Thinking about motivational factors you soon realise that they are either connected to something you would like to achieve based on your interests or preferences, or they are based on expectations from your environment (family, school, society). These two groups (things we would like to achieve and things we should achieve) closely resemble the classification of motivational factors described in Zoltán Dörnyei’s theory of ‘L2 Motivational Self System’. First, let’s have a look at his theory of possible selves in relation to reading before moving on to a set of discussion points you can use to help your students reflect on their own position.


Here is a short description of the three constituents of Zoltán Dörnyei’s Possible Selves Theory:

  1. Ideal L2 Self, which concerns the L2-specific facet of one’s ideal self: if the person we would like to become speaks an L2 (e.g., the person we would like to become is associated with travelling or doing business internationally), the ideal L2 self is a powerful motivator to learn the L2 because we would like to reduce the discrepancy between our actual and ideal selves.
  2. Ought-to L2 Self, which concerns the attributes that individuals believe they ought to possess in order to avoid possible negative outcomes; such as perceived duties, external expectations, and obligations may therefore bear little resemblance to the individual’s own desires or wishes.
  3. L2 Learning Experience, which concerns situation-specific motives related to the immediate learning environment and experience (e.g., the positive impact of success or the enjoyable quality of a language course).

Thus, the L2 Motivational Self System suggests that there are three primary sources of  motivation when we are learning a second language: (a) the learners’ internal desire to become an effective L2 user, (b) social pressures coming from the learner’s environment to master the L2, and (c) the actual experience of being engaged in the L2 learning process.

(Extract from Motivation and Vision: An Analysis of Future L2 Self Images, Sensory Styles, and Imagery Capacity Across Two Target Languages by Zoltán Dörnyei and Letty Chan. In: Language Learning 63:3, September 2013, pp. 437–462 437. 2013 Language Learning Research Club, University of Michigan.)


So how does all this relate to reading? Simple! Reading brings together a number of desires and aspirations. We are constantly being bombarded by lists of books we should read before we are 20, 30, 40, 50… books we should read about travel, about love, about life, books that will help us be better people, get better jobs, be better learners, friends, lovers. Then add the books we choose to read because a friend or teacher has recommended them, those we read in order to learn something new, those we read for our jobs, those we read out of interest. And let’s not forget the books we choose to read for fun. In short, reading is one of the ways we use to achieve our ‘future possible selves’. So if reading becomes our motivational process, what goals should we expect our students to set themselves?


In order to help us set our goals let’s take a tip from people who have achieved success in their chosen field: visualize what you would like to achieve and think about how and why you want to achieve it. Without defining their reading goals (even if it is ‘reading for fun because I need a good laugh’), it is difficult for your students to take action. Ask them to think about what they would like to read and why, getting them to imagine how they will feel after they read it.

Here are some sentences that you can use in the reading class to help your students identify and achieve their reading goals.



  • I should read …
  • I would like to read …
  • I must read …
  • I need to read … if …
  • If I don’t read this, I won’t be able to …
  • I can read … now
  • I would like to read that now …
  • Why can’t I read … now?
    • Is it because of time? (Or the lack of it?)
    • Is it because of language?
    • Is it because I simply cannot access the books I’d like to read?

Then, continue this line of thinking and answer the questions:

  • Which group can I belong to if I read … books?
  • Who will I be able to talk to if I read … books?
  • Which books really interest me?


  • Complete a reading planner for the term. Choose genres and titles. → Download the Reading Planner from our Book Club Starter Kit.Reading planner
  • Set goals. Does everyone need to read all the books? How many books should one student read? Is there going to be a set text for the whole group?
  • How often do I need to read?
  • Remember to check progress and to remind your students to divide bigger tasks into smaller ones.
    • This week I would like to read …
    • When I finish reading this chapter, I will give a presentation / have a discussion / write a review.


When we establish an Ideal Self or Ought To Self (these two should be in harmony in an ideal world), we are inspired by role models. These role models can be our teachers, family members, friends, and even famous people. Try to set role models and also become one for your students. Some of the most successful techniques of  a good role model are simple, especially if you would like to become a reading role model. Talk about your own reading, and ask your students for book recommendations, make sure they see you reading. Share interesting titles with them, and remember that between the book and a teenage reader usually we find an enthusiastic person who makes that book available for that student.

How do you motivate your students to read? What techniques work best? Do they motivate each other? Share your experiences with us!

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