There is widespread agreement that strong reading skills are critical for a student’s long-term academic success. A lot of research has been done – and continues to be done – on the science of teaching kids how to read. But, once a student develops the basic reading skills, how do we motivate them to continue reading to further develop their skills and reap all the rewards that books can provide? How do we help students build a lifelong love of reading for pleasure that expands their view of the world, provides a needed escape, and strengthens social-emotional skills?
One way is to harness the power of social motivation through digital tools like Bookopolis, a social network designed especially for elementary and middle school students. In Bookopolis, students can create virtual bookshelves, write and share reviews, and recommend books to classmates.
Is there evidence that digital tools motivate students?
Dr. Cindy Lam studied students using Bookopolis as part of her doctoral dissertation at the Stanford Graduate School of Education. In Examining How Social Digital Tools Foster Reading Engagement: A Mixed-Methods Case Study Of Bookopolis, she built upon prior research that showed social interaction and motivation are key components of reading engagement, as “social engagement leads to more reading, more effort, and greater levels of achievement in reading” (Gambrell, 1996; Wigfield, 1997; Wigfield, Gladstone, & Turci, 2016, p. 192).
Across her three unique studies including qualitative interviews with 43 students across 4 elementary classrooms, she found that “most students who used Bookopolis were very motivated to engage around reading, and this is explained by previous studies on how to promote reading engagement in classrooms.” She cites research including a study by Gambrell that emphasized that “students are more motivated to read when they have opportunities to socially interact with others about the text they are reading” (Gambrell, 2011, p. 175).
Her research showed that students were “motivated to socially engage with peers and their broader classroom community in novel, innovative ways using the unique digital capabilities of Bookopolis.” (Lam, 2021, p.159-160).
Here are four key motivations for social engagement around reading that she observed with students who used Bookopolis:
- Helping peers
- Recommending books for peers to discover
- Curating books for peers
- Using social digital affordances
- Displaying interests with digital bookshelves and recommendations
- Communicating about books with reviews and recommendations
- Using points, leaderboard, and reading progress as friendly gameplay
- Sharing interests
- Discussing books of existing common interests
- Discussing books of new common interests
The Power of Peer Recommendations
“So it’s basically like, someone reads a book, they like it, so they can recommend it to someone. And we kind of become like a class family, so we can get to know each other better throughout books and what type of books we like to read. So it’s kind of like … so we should know each other so we can communicate to each other better.” (Penny, age 10)
The research revealed that the ability for students to give and receive recommendations in Bookopolis was a particularly powerful feature to create an engaged community of readers in a classroom. Students used reviews to help their peers discover a new book to read that fit their specific interests. From Dr. Lam’s first study which used quantitative methods to analyze student’s activities in Bookopolis:
Students reported motivations to use the peer-to-peer recommendation systems to curate books of interest for others, engage around books of shared interest, or send books to manifest a new shared interest. Students also leveraged the digital bookshelf feature, which was visible within the classroom community, to both display their interests and learn about peers’ interests to inform curated recommendations. (Lam, 2021, pg. 7)
This was confirmed with findings from her third study which focused on qualitative, artifact-based interviews with students.
Students interviewed in this study expressed motivations to give their peers positive reading experiences by sharing reading recommendations that those peers might like, including recommendations curated to those peers’ specific interests. This theme was the most dominant in the qualitative analysis, as the desire to help others discover new books emerged in 91% of student interviews (39 of 43). Further, many of those students expressed specifically curating their recommendations to align with their peer’s interests, so that their peers were more likely to enjoy that book (67%, or 29 of 43 interviews). (Lam, 2021, pg. 158)
Students* in Dr. Lam’s research study were able to articulate why they liked sending and receiving recommendations. According to Helen (age 9), “I really like the recommendation part because you can really see what other people are reading… and I see if I like some of them. I really like looking at other people’s bookshelves because I can see what they’re reading like right now, I can see what they’ve already read, and I can see books that they really liked, because you can give it ratings with stars.” While Ella (age 8) said, “I like sending recommendations because people get stuck, and then you could give them a couple of ideas if anyone ever gets stuck.”
“I really like the recommendation part because you can really see what other people are reading… and I see if I like some of them. I really like looking at other people’s bookshelves because I can see what they’re reading like right now, I can see what they’ve already read, and I can see books that they really liked, because you can give it ratings with stars.” (Helen, age 9)
Students’ desire to help their peers have positive reading experiences is also reflected in mentions of “joy” and “happiness.” For example, when asked to elaborate why she liked sending recommendations, Ishana (age 11) responded: “So, you can actually share the joy of the book. Not only you, but other people can also have the joy.” Another student, Sofia (age 11) described her own happiness in response to a friend enjoying a recommendation she shared: “It makes me feel happy that I was able to recommend a friend a book that they might like.”
Dr. Lam also found that students were motivated to engage with each other on Bookopolis in ways that were unique from how they might communicate with a classmate in-person about a book. As Aleah (age 10) shared, “I think my favorite thing about Bookopolis is… recommending [books] to people…Like, sometimes you can’t really explain it when you talk to them in person. But when you recommend it, and you can write a review about it, so they see what you think about it. Then that’s good… they can see what you felt about the book to see if it would fit their personality of the book too.”
“I think my favorite thing about Bookopolis is… recommending [books] to people…Like, sometimes you can’t really explain it when you talk to them in person. But when you recommend it, and you can write a review about it, so they see what you think about it. Then that’s good… they can see what you felt about the book to see if it would fit their personality of the book too.” (Aleah, age 10)
And, critically, Bookopolis helped foster a sense of community or a ‘class family’ by allowing students to see each other’s reading preferences and activities. As Penny (age 10) shares, “So it’s basically like, someone reads a book, they like it, so they can recommend it to someone. And we kind of become like a class family, so we can get to know each other better throughout books and what type of books we like to read. So it’s kind of like … so we should know each other so we can communicate to each other better.”
As educators know, there is no magic bullet to motivate kids to spend more time reading. This research study and prior work done on student engagement show that digital platforms such as Bookopolis that allow students to share their reading lives through digital bookshelves, reviews, and recommendations with peers can help motivate young readers.
*All student names mentioned in this post are pseudonyms to protect students’ privacy.
Lam, C. K. (2021). Examining How Social Digital Tools Foster Reading Engagement: a Mixed-Methods Case Study of Bookopolis. [Doctoral dissertation, Stanford University]. Stanford Libraries.
Gambrell, L. B. (1996). Creating classroom cultures that foster reading motivation. Reading Teacher, 50(1), 14–25.
Gambrell, L. B., Mazzoni, S. A., & Almasi, J. F. (2000). Promoting collaboration, social interaction, and engagement with text. In L. Baker, M. J. Dreher, & J. T. Guthrie (Eds.), Engaging Young Reader: Promoting Achievement and Motivation (pp. 119–139). New York, NY: The Guilford Press.
Gambrell, L. B. (2011). Seven rules of engagement: What’s most important to know about motivation to read. Reading Teacher, 65(3), 172–178. https://doi.org/10.1002/TRTR.01024
Wigfield, A. (1997). Reading motivation: A domain-specific approach to motivation. Educational Psychologist, 32(2), 59–68. https://doi.org/10.1207/s15326985ep3202_1
Wigfield, A., Gladstone, J. R., & Turci, L. (2016). Beyond Cognition: Reading Motivation and Reading Comprehension. Child Development Perspectives, 10(3), 190–195. https://doi.org/10.1111/cdep.12184