Friday, 9 October 2015

What motivates children to read?

Researchers interested in studying children’s reading motivation often focus on the multidimensional nature of it – that is, the many different reasons that children choose to read or not read.  In a previous blog post “Speaking up for reading motivation” I highlighted the importance of understanding children’s affective responses towards reading (e.g., their motivations for reading, confidence in reading and attitudes towards reading), as a way of identifying ways to improve their reading skills, but also to promote greater independent reading and positive reading experiences.

In the research literature, there are a number of different theoretical frameworks used to examine children’s reading motivation; however the intrinsic-extrinsic framework is one of the better known.  This theory focuses on the distinction between intrinsic (i.e., internal) and extrinsic (i.e., external) reasons for reading (e.g., see McGeown, Norgate & Warhurst, 2012; Wigfield & Guthrie, 1997).  For example, a child may be motivated to read because they are curious to learn more about a specific topic, or because they enjoy the experience of getting ‘involved’ in fictional stories and ‘getting to know’ these fictional characters.  These reasons would be regarded as intrinsic motivators.  On the other hand, a child may be motivated to read to obtain good reading grades, or to receive praise from the parents/teachers for their reading skills/effort.  Both of these would be regarded as extrinsic motivators.

Of course, children are motivated to read for a variety of reasons (both intrinsic and extrinsic), at different times and in different contexts.  Nevertheless, researchers have found that intrinsic reading motivation tends to be more closely and consistently related to reading attainment than extrinsic reading motivation (e.g., Becker, McElvany & Krotenbruck, 2010; McGeown et al., 2012; Wang & Guthrie, 2004); suggesting that efforts made to foster motivation should focus on intrinsic motivators (if the aim is to improve reading skills).

I think it is important that teachers are aware of the multi-dimensional nature of reading motivation – that is, the many reasons that children choose to read, as this provides knowledge and increased awareness of opportunities to better support students.  For example, by better understanding children’s specific motivations, teachers may be better placed to direct children towards specific book types that meet their needs/desires.  Indeed, children’s reading motivation has implications for their reading choices.  For example, in a recent research project (McGeown et al., in press), we found that children’s reading motivations predicted their reading choices.  In a study with 791 pupils, we found that those reporting higher levels of motivation to read in order to learn, reported reading more factual books, those motivated out of a desire to become involved in stories/characters, reported more fiction book reading, while those motivated out of a desire to achieve good grades reported more school book reading.


Becker, M., McElvany, N., & Kortenbruck, M. (2010) Intrinsic and extrinsic motivation as predictors of reading literacy: A longitudinal study. Journal of Educational Psychology, 102, 773-785.

McGeown, S. P, Norgate, R., & Warhurst, A.  (2012) Exploring intrinsic and extrinsic reading motivation among very good and very poor readers. Educational Research, 54, 209-322.

McGeown, S. P., Osborne, C., Warhurst, A., Norgate, R., & Duncan, L. G.  (in press).  Understanding children’s reading activities: Reading motivation, skill and child characteristics as predictors, Journal of Research in Reading.

Wang, J.H., & Guthrie, J. T. (2004) Modelling the effects of intrinsic motivation, extrinsic motivation, amount of reading, and past reading achievement on text comprehension
between U.S and Chinese students. Reading Research Quarterly 39, 162–186.

Wigfield, A., & Guthrie, J. T. (1997). Relations of children’s motivation for reading to the amount and breadth of their reading. Journal of Educational Psychology 89, 420–32

Wednesday, 2 September 2015

Can a smart phone game really make kids more active at school?

Physical inactivity is a global pandemic, the most pressing public health challenge of the 21st century[1].  A key goal of recent guidelines issued by the Chief Medical Officers of the United Kingdom is to increase the amount of regular physical activity undertaken by children[2]. Currently, the target of one hour of moderate to vigorous physical activity per day is often not achieved; for example, a recent study found that only 51% of English children aged between 7 and 8 meet this target[3]. We as educators can play a part in solving the problem by providing children with fun ways to be active at school, and reducing the time we expect them to sit still. If schools re-organised the structure of the day to include 60 minutes of fun physical activity for the children (including breaking up bouts of sitting through the day) it would reduce health inequalities, improve mental and physical health, and improve attainment[4]. This post is about a project I ran recently where we explored how technology might help.

On the face of it, technology might look as if it is part of the problem, not the solution. You might argue that children spend enough time slumped in front of screens playing games. But what if the games required the player to be physically active? A new class of serious games – exergames – are built on this concept. The most commonly known games are for console platforms such as Kinect or Wii Fit, but it is also possible to use smart phones to play location-based games. Here the game uses the phone’s GPS information to update where the player’s character is in the game world. In our game, FitQuest, kids run round the playground collecting invisible coins, or escaping from virtual wolves. Game objects such as wolves and coins appear only on the phone screen in the game world. The user’s movements in real space map to the game world; if the user moves over a game world location where a coin is stored, they get a reward. FitQuest was originally developed as part of Andrew Macvean’s PhD research at Heriot-Watt University.


We have tried FitQuest in six primary schools and two secondary schools now, usually in PE lessons. We now have a good understanding of how children respond to it, the sorts of goals they set for themselves, the social interactions which typically occur, and how teachers feel that the game fits with the classroom setting.

In terms of methodology, we have used a mixture of qualitative and quantitative research methods. In the early stages we did some learner centred technology design with the children so that they could give us feedback on initial design. Andrew then ran two in-depth pilot studies which he analysed as a series of case studies which helped us refine the next version of the software. They also shed some light on how children with different levels of self-efficacy (their confidence in their ability to exercise) responded to the games.

We wanted to follow up our initial findings with a more robust study design, so we conducted a cluster randomised controlled trial. Our hypotheses were that the motivational factor of games, along with the goal setting features would have a positive impact on the children’s self-efficacy (confidence to take part in physical activity) and their physical activity habits in the playground. In the intervention group the primary 7 class of 5 schools used FitQuest for an hour a week for 5 weeks. By contrast, the 5 control group schools took part in their normal PE class. In the weeks immediately before and after the intervention, each child filled in a self-efficacy questionnaire, and wore an accelerometer to count their steps during school time. This objective data enabled us to run a multi-level analysis to find out whether using FitQuest would have an impact on the outcome variables (self-efficacy and step count) once the pre-test results were factored in. As we were using a realist approach in our trial[5], we did not merely want to know whether FitQuest worked or not, but why, and for whom. We gathered this additional contextual information from observations and interviews with children and teachers.

It turned out that by the objective measures, FitQuest did not have an impact on self-efficacy or step count. The contextual data goes some way to explaining this result, which is just as well because it is highly frustrating! For a start, the children only had an opportunity to play the game for around 35% of the time we recommended: it’s as if they were only given the “wee half” of an aspirin tablet instead of the full dose. Anyone familiar with schools can guess the endless reasons why sessions were cancelled: rain, play rehearsals, sports competitions, school trips, teacher absence. It is hard to draw conclusions about what might have happened if they had used it for closer to the recommended time, but based on the qualitative work here’s my best guess. Children able to set appropriate goals to improve their own performance probably would have benefited most, and this would be most likely to occur in schools where the teacher played an active interest in the children’s scores and related the game to goal setting in the PE curriculum. The game by itself appears to have a novelty effect – if the initial fun factor wears off and it is not replaced by a purpose such as improving scores, the player will lose interest. Social interactions were very important to the children, so a multi-player version of the game is on our to-do list. For some children, competition can be off putting. Those who feel self-conscious while running, or those who have fixed mind-sets and poor performance relative to their peers might feel alienated by the competitive aspect of the leader-board.

As is often the case in research, even relatively robust methods reveal more questions rather than definitive answers. I believe that exergames and technology in general can play a part in promoting health behaviour change, such as increasing physical activity. It can potentially motivate users through intrinsic enjoyment of play, and through personalised detailed feedback. But we need to learn how to get better at designing it first.

Of course, you don’t need technology to increase physical activity in your class, fun as it may be. Technology would only ever be part of a solution. Walking is free – why not take your class outside for a 20 minute walk today?

Judy Robertson is Professor of Digital Learning at University of Edinburgh. She designs and evaluates children’s technology in schools. She is particularly interested in serious games for learning or for health.


[1] Blair, S. N. (2009). Physical inactivity: the biggest public health problem of the 21st century. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 43(1), 1–2.
[2] Department of Health Physical Activity and Health Improvement. (2011). Start Active , Stay Active: A report on physical activity for health from the four home countries’ Chief Medical Officers. London. Retrieved from
[3] Griffiths, L. J., Cortina-Borja, M., Sera, F., Pouliou, T., Geraci, M., Rich, C., … Dezateux, C. (2013). How active are our children? Findings from the Millennium Cohort Study. BMJ Open, 3, e002893. doi:10.1136/bmjopen-2013-002893
[4] A. Singh, L. Uijtdewilligen, J. W. R. Twisk, W. van Mechelen, M. J. M. Chinapaw.Physical Activity and Performance at School: A Systematic Review of the Literature Including a Methodological Quality AssessmentArchives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, 2012; 166 (1): 49 DOI:10.1001/archpediatrics.2011.716
[5] Bonell, C., Fletcher, A., & Morton, M. (2012). Realist randomised controlled trials: a new approach to evaluating complex public health interventions. Social Science & …, 75, 2299–2306. Retrieved from

Saturday, 1 August 2015

Network Autism: Technology and Autism

Autistic adults and children alike are often enthusiastic consumers and users of technology. This can be an area where the abilities associated with autism – like good visuo-spatial learning, and rapid comprehension of rule-based systems – are put to good use.  Using technology in classroom learning and for homework can play to an autistic child’s strengths and preferences. Playing video games or apps for fun is also beneficial, giving children and teenagers with autism a chance to shine, and something to talk about in the playground.  

However, encouraging autistic people to use technology for education and in their free time is controversial. In particular, official guidelines from organisations such as the Royal College of Pediatrics and Child Health suggest that young children especially should not have too much ‘screentime, with some individuals recommending a total ban for under-3s. This seems to eliminate technology from the range of potential methods for delivering so-called “early intervention”, which aims to help pre-schoolers with autism learn key developmental skills.  

There are also autism-specific worries about technology. Autistic individuals behave in a way which seems obsessive and hard to manage, and there is concern that the appeal of devices like iPads could be a focus of obsession. Perhaps most powerfully of all, given that autism is defined by a difficulty forming social relationships, the sense that technology is anti-social makes it seem uniquely inappropriate.   

So we have a conflict here, between the positive aspects of technology – ubiquity, fun, motivation, play-to-strengths – and the negative – bad for children, focus of obsession, anti-social.  

This is where research can really make a difference. Researchers in the field have a responsibility to probe the claims being made and to find ways to direct the power of technology to have a positive influence. I’ve employed a number of different methods in an attempt to build an autism-specific evidence base for the use of technology with this populationOur studies have included 

From this work we have created guidelines for parentsguidelines for schools and a series of app reviews which are all free to download from the DART (development / autism / research / technology) website. I’d say the findings can be distilled into about three core messages.  
  1. Technology is neither a solution nor a problem. It is how technology is used that makes a difference between a positive and a negative outcome. 
  1. Just because people really like technology that doesn’t automatically mean that it is bad for them.  Technology is not the same as sweets. We don’t need to limit quantity, instead we need to focus on quality.  
  1. Often it is the spin-off benefits from using technology which make the biggest difference.  Yes, a child might learn to spell from an app, but for an autistic child the chance to learn independently, at their own pace, and to use a gadget which impresses their peers, might be even more important.  

I strongly believe in the power of technology to provide transformative, effective, accessible supports to the autism community. To have the greatest benefit these need to be grounded in research evidence, properly evaluated. I hope that researchers can work towards a properly founded understanding of how, when and why to use technology for the greatest benefit  

Sue is a Chancellor's Fellow based at the Patrick Wild Centre for research into autism, Fragile X Syndrome and intellectual disability. She is a developmental psychologist with an interest in the application of psychological research methods to questions with clinical, educational and societal impact. She is interested in how children develop and learn, and in particular in cases where this follows an unusual trajectory, especially autism.  

For more information: 

Monday, 6 July 2015

Using computerised assessments in schools: Advantages and disadvantages

As a psychologist who has been involved in the development of computerised educational assessments for many years, I am an advocate of using this test format... but what are the advantages (and disadvantages) of computerised assessment in screening for special educational needs?

There are several advantages to computerised educational tests. They are labour-saving in terms of test administration and scoring, and can be used by less highly trained personnel. The delivery of test items is more standardised and controlled (i.e. precise timing and delivery of instructions) than with human delivery and the use of a computerised test eliminates scoring errors, both of which make the test more reliable. Computerised tests are more interactive and children generally prefer them, especially pupils with SEN. Furthermore, they allow for a range of input and output devices (touch screens, Braille keyboards, joystick, mouse, speech recognition etc), making them more accessible to disabled pupils. Computers can effectively record additional data, such as response times and pattern of responses. Also, the provision of feedback is immediate and, for some tests, includes automated reports for parents which can be edited if required. It is also much easier and efficient to store computerised test records than paper-based ones. Probably the major advantage of computerised tests is that they allow for adaptive testing, where the level is adapted to suit the ability of the pupil being tested. This makes the test more efficient as pupils are not spending time on items that are too easy or too difficult for them. Finally, computerised tests MAY be less affected by sex differences. In my own research, I have found that sex differences evident on conventional literacy tests, with girls outperforming boys, were not apparent on equivalent computerised tests. The reason for this is unclear – it could be that the computerised tests are more objective and less susceptible to gender bias; however it may be due to the interaction with the computer enhancing the motivation of boys more than girls.

LASS 8-11 Report

Many of the criticisms of computerised assessment apply equally, or more so, to conventional assessment (e.g. security issues in storing test data, cost, potential misuse of tests or results etc.) or are no longer relevant criticisms (e.g. pupils not being used to using computers, lack of equivalence with paper versions of the tests etc.).  However, one disadvantage of computerised tests is that they may not pick up on certain aspects of the testing process, such as any disruptions to the test session or whether the child is anxious, distracted or rushing. Certainly some of these issues may be clear from the test results; for example a child who is rushing through a test will have fast completion rate (although not all tests provide this information) but a low score. It is, therefore, important that a tester oversees the testing process.

The advantages of computerised testing appear to outweigh the disadvantages. Computerised testing, using networked computer suites, allows for the efficient screening of all pupils in a year group. The outcome of this is that children with difficulties are less likely to slip through the net and SEN is identified at a younger age. Early identification allows for early intervention and reduces the frustration experienced by a child with unidentified learning needs.

Finally, whichever test format you choose, source tests with good evidence of their technical qualities (e.g. representative, adequately sized, appropriate UK norm groups; sufficient internal consistency; good test-retest reliability; high construct validity etc) - but that may be for a future blog...

Further reading
Horne, J. (2007). Gender differences in computerised and conventional educational tests. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, 23, 47-55.
Singleton, C., Horne, J. & Simmons, F. (2009). Computerised screening for dyslexia in adults. Journal of Research in Reading, 32, 137-152.
Singleton, C., Thomas, K. & Horne, J. (2000). Computer-based cognitive assessment and the development of reading. Journal of Research in Reading, 23, 158-180.

Academic Bio
Dr Jo Horne is a lecturer in psychology at the University of Hull. She has been involved in the development of eight computerised assessment systems, which are now being used in schools, colleges and universities around the UK and internationally. Jo is also an editor of the British Psychological Society’s Psychological Testing Centre Test Reviews.

Saturday, 6 June 2015

How to develop children’s emotion understanding

Children’s emotion understanding is central to their development. Emotions allow children to communicate their likes and dislikes. In addition, children’s emotion understanding predicts their later academic achievement (Izard, Fine, Schultz, Mostow, Ackerman, & Youngstrom, 2001) and their peer acceptance and popularity (Cassidy, Parke, Butkovsky, & Braungart, 1992). For these reasons, it is very important to understand the development of children’s emotion understanding and how parents and teachers can contribute to this understanding.

We will start with an explanation of children’s emotion understanding and then discuss work we and others have conducted on parent-child talk about emotions and ways to increase children’s emotion understanding. Children’s emotion understanding can be divided into three main components (Pons, Harris, & de Rosnay, 2004). When children are between 3 and 5 years, children understand external emotions. What they mean is that children can recognise simple emotions (e.g., happy, sad) from faces, understand simple cause and effect (e.g., if someone’s pet dies, the person will feel sad), and that remembering a previous experience will call up that emotion (e.g., if you remember when your dog died, you will feel sad again). The next group of emotions are termed mentalistic emotions. Children tend to understand these emotions between 5 and 7 years of age. They include understanding that two people may like different things, that depending on people’s beliefs they might feel a certain way, and that we can hide our emotions (e.g., if someone teases you, you can pretend not to let it bother you). The final group of emotions, reflective emotions, are acquired between 7 and 9 years of age. These include emotions such as knowing how to regulate emotions (e.g., thinking about something else as a method of soothing), ambivalent emotions, and the emotions induced by a moral situation. All of these different components can be assessed by a measure called the Test of Emotion Comprehension (Pons, Harris, & de Rosnay, 2004). to which we will refer later on.

Our work has focussed on looking at how parents talk to children while telling stories. We asked parents and their 4- and 6-year-old children to tell a story together that involved four different events designed to elicit emotion: (i) the parents leave their children to go on an overnight trip, (ii) the child falls down and hurts himself, (iii) the dog runs away, and (iv) the parents return home. We then transcribed the conversations and identified instances of emotion talk, such as happy, sad, etc. We also gave them the Test of Emotion Comprehension then and again six months later. We found that scores of the test were related to each other at the two time points. More interestingly, we found that the more mothers used emotion labels with children, the better children did on the Test of Emotion Comprehension even after controlling for their performance on the first administration of the test. Thus, mothers’ talk is related to how well children understand emotions (Aznar & Tenenbaum, 2013). However, it is difficult to know if mothers who used more emotion words with their children because their children were more interested in emotion. For this reason, we conducted an experimental study where we assigned children to interact with an experimenter who engaged them in different types of conversations.

The experimental study makes us even more certain that children can learn emotion from conversations. These children (aged 5 to 8) were given the Test of Emotion Comprehension. One month later, we returned to read them eight stories about children who felt either ambivalent or hidden emotions. After reading the stories, children either 1) were asked to explain why the story character felt the way s/he did, 2) an experimenter explained the emotion to the child, or 3) the child was asked questions about the content of the story that were not related to emotions (e.g., where is the door?). We then re-administered the Test of Emotion Comprehension. Children who explained and children who were explained to, learned more about emotions than children who simply answered stories that were not related to emotion (Tenenbaum, Alfieri, Brooks, & Dunne, 2008).

What do these findings suggest for parents and teachers? Our studies suggest that children can learn emotions in everyday conversations. Parents and teachers should be encouraged discuss emotions with children. The good news is that whether parents prefer to explain or have the child explain is less important than simply discussing emotions. Thus, parents can engage children in these conversations however they wish.


Aznar, A., & Tenenbaum, H. R. (2013). Spanish parent-child emotion talk and their children’s understanding of emotion. Frontiers in Psychology, 4, 670. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00670

Cassidy, J., Parke, R.D., Butkovsky, L., & Braungart, J.M. (1992). Family-peer connections: the roles of emotional expressiveness within the family and children’s understanding of emotion. Child Development, 63, 603-618.
Izard, C., Fine, S., Schultz, D., Mostow, A., Ackerman, B., & Youngstrom, E. (2001). Emotion knowledge as a predictor of social behaviour and academic competence in children at risk. Psychological Science, 12, 18-23.
Pons, F., Harris, P.L., & de Rosnay, M. (2004). Emotion comprehension between 3 and 11 years: Developmental periods and hierarchical organizations. European Journal of Developmental Psychology, 1, 127-152.

Tenenbaum, H. R., Alfieri, L., Brooks, P. J., & Dunne, G. (2008). The effects of explanatory conversations on children's emotion understanding. British Journal of Developmental Psychology, 26, 249-263.

Dr Ana Aznar is a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Surrey. She is interested in how children learn from everyday interactions with significant adults in their lives, such as parents, teachers, and peers. She is currently working on a project lead by Dr Harriet Tenenbaum examining children’s understanding of peer rejection based on status.

Dr. Harriet Tenenbaum is a Reader at the University of Surrey. She is interested in children’s understanding of emotions, science, and discrimination in the context of important relationships. She is the editor of the British Journal of Educational Psychology.