Thursday, 2 June 2016

Children’s reading motivation and reading attainment: Gender and ability differences

I’ve written before about children’s motivation to read and their attitudes to reading and the extent to which these relate with their reading attainment.  Indeed, there is considerable evidence that children who report more positive attitudes to reading, confidence in their reading skills and greater motivation to read typically have higher levels of reading attainment (e.g., Baker & Wigfield 1999; Chapman & Tunmer 1997; McGeown et al., 2012; Morgan & Fuchs, 2007; Wang & Guthrie 2004).  However, it is likely that there is a reciprocal relationship between children’s reading affect (i.e., attitudes, confidence, motivation) and reading attainment – i.e., affect influences attainment but also attainment influences affect.

This post is concerned with considering individual differences within this relationship.  For example, is there any evidence that the relationship between reading affect (attitudes, motivation, confidence) and reading attainment is closer among boys compared to girls?  What about comparisons of good vs poor readers?  If group differences do exist, what are the implications of these?

I’ll consider gender differences initially.  Research by Oakhill and Petrides (2007) using reading comprehension SATs scores and children’s reported interested in the content of the SAT’s found that boys reading comprehension performance was more closely related to their level of interest in the topic.  Similarly, Ainley, Hillman, and Hidi (2002) found that girls were more likely than boys to persist with a text that was of lower topic interest. Indeed, Williams, Burden, and Lanvers (2002) found that both boys and girls felt that girls are more inclined to put effort into work even if it is tedious, while boys need to find enjoyment in it in order to work hard.  This suggests that for boys in particular, being interested is important in terms of the influence this has on their behaviours and effort (and potentially attainment).

Based on the results of these studies, I expected that boys’ attitudes towards reading (Logan and Johnston, 2009), confidence in reading (Logan & Medford, 2011) and motivation to read (Logan & Medford, 2011) would be more closely associated with their levels of reading attainment, compared to girls, as these affective factors would have a greater influence on behaviours conducive to good reading attainment.  Indeed, this was what was found (Logan & Johnston, 2009; Logan & Medford, 2011).  However, given that this relationship is likely reciprocal, it may be that boys’ affect (attitudes, confidence and motivation) plays a more significant role in the effort they put into reading. This suggests a greater discrepancy between competence and performance in boys if they are unmotivated, have poor attitudes or do not feel confident in their abilities.  Additionally however, it could be that boys, to a greater extent than girls, need to be successful at reading in order to have positive affect for reading.  Therefore, boys with low levels of attainment may be more likely than girls to become disengaged or de-motivated as a result of their negative experiences.

This therefore has implications for how to support boys in their reading; it may be particularly important to encourage and promote positive reading affect among boys if the aim is to enhance reading attainment; encouraging positive reading affect among girls, while worthwhile, may be less likely to impact on their reading behaviours and reading attainment.

And what about ability differences?  In a different research project (Logan et al., 2011), my colleagues and I examined the extent to which children’s motivation to read predicted their reading comprehension (after taking into account language and decoding skills) and also the extent to which it predicted growth in reading comprehension (after taking into account previous reading comprehension attainment).  In both analyses, motivation to read was particularly important for poor readers compared to good readers.  Therefore reading motivation may contribute more to the reading performance of poor readers compared to good readers.  Why would this be? 

It could be that poor readers, when faced with the same reading task as good readers, have a slower and more frustrating process ahead of them; those poor readers with high motivation may be more inclined to persevere with the difficult reading material, thus developing their reading skills and resulting in higher reading attainment levels. Poor readers who lack motivation however, may be more inclined to become disengaged and frustrated with the whole process, leading to poorer performance.   On the other hand, for the good readers, reading motivation is less important, as the reading task presented to them is not as challenging, therefore their motivation plays a less important role.

We know that poor readers typically have lower levels of reading motivation (Lau & Chan, 2003; McGeown et al., 2012) compared to good readers; and this research suggests that interventions aimed at increasing reading motivation of poor readers may be particularly important for developing their reading skills.



Ainley, M., Hillman, K., & Hidi, S. (2002). Gender and interest processes in response
to literary texts: Situational and individual interest. Learning and Instruction 12, 411–428.

Baker, L., & Wigfield, A. (1999). Dimensions of children’s motivation for reading and
their relations to reading activity and reading achievement. Reading Research Quarterly 34, 452–477.

Chapman, J. W. & Tunmer, W. E. (1997). A longitudinal study of beginning reading  achievement and reading self-concept. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 67, 27-291.

Lau, K., & Chan, D. W. (2003). Reading strategy use and motivation among Chinese good and poor readers in Hong Kong. Journal of Research in Reading, 26 ,177−190.

Logan, S., & Johnston, R.  (2009). Gender differences in reading ability and attitudes: examining where these differences lie.  Journal of Research in Reading, 32, 199-214.

Logan, S., & Medford, E.  (2011). Gender differences in the strength of association between motivation, competency beliefs and reading skill. Educational Research, 53, 85-94.

Logan, S., Medford, E., & Hughes, N.  (2011). The importance of intrinsic motivation for high and low ability readers' reading comprehension performance.  Learning and Individual Differences, 21, 124-128.

McGeown, S. P, Norgate, R., & Warhurst, A.  (2012). Exploring intrinsic and extrinsic reading motivation among very good and very poor readers. Educational Research, 54, 309-322.

Morgan, P.L., & Fuchs, D. (2007). Is there a bidirectional relationship between children’s
reading skills and reading motivation? Exceptional Children 73, 166–183.

Oakhill, J.V., & Petrides, A. (2007). Sex differences in the effects of interest on boys’ and girls’ reading comprehension. British Journal of Educational Psychology 98, 223–235.

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.

Williams, M., Burden, R., & Lanvers, U. (2002). ‘French is the language of love and stuff’:
Student perceptions of issues related to motivation in learning a foreign language. British
Educational Research Journal 28, 503–528.


Friday, 4 March 2016

Hands-on Learning? It's all in the hand

If you teach in the early years, the odds are your classroom is full of physical learning materials. From plastic letters to wooden blocks, these materials provide children with the hands-on experience that is so important for their learning. But why is hands-on experience important for learning? It seems obvious, but this is a question that researchers have spent many decades trying to understand. This question becomes even more troublesome when considering subjects such as Maths. Why should learning something as abstract as fractions or tens and units, be supported by manipulating objects like blocks or tiles?

Froebel’s gifts c1820s. That different from what we use 200 years later?

Frobel, Montessori, Dienes. There are just a few of the many educational pioneers who have advocated the importance of physical materials in early learning. In the 1960s, Jean Piaget provided a theoretical rationale by describing how children progressed from concrete to abstract forms of thinking. This ‘concrete to abstract’ development is echoed in practice today – with children progressing from physical materials in the early years to more symbolic forms of representations (e.g. numerals on a page) as they advance through the years. It’s not surprising that many children start to associate physical materials with their younger, or less able, peers.

Piaget’s work inspired many others to better understand how children’s thinking develops. It also provided a starting point for researchers to examine how using physical materials influences children’s thinking and learning. Unfortunately, this wealth of research[e.g. 1] has failed to provide us with any clear understanding of if and how physical materials benefit children, and importantly, how and when teachers should use them in the classroom.

In the last couple of decades there has been a renewed interest in physical materials and hands-on learning for two main reasons. Firstly, new digital learning materials raise pertinent questions. Does moving blocks on a screen using a mouse or touchscreen still constitute hands-on learning? Are there any unique benefits of manipulating materials physically as opposed to through a device? Is there anything to be gained from new technologies that can capture and respond a wide range of physical actions (e.g. Nintendo wii/ Kinect)? The second reason for renewed interest in physical materials reflects some major new thinking about the relationship between our bodies and minds.

The mind-body split articulated by Descartes dominates how we think about the relationship between our everyday physical actions and the ideas we learn. Hands-on experience may be important, but ultimately distinct from the concepts children develop in their brains. This position is being challenged. The last couple of decades a new theoretical paradigm, entitled Embodied Cognition, has emerged that argues that several cognitive processes are best understood when they are seen as grounded in (inseparably linked to) our body’s interaction with the world. There are several claims made under the umbrella term Embodied Cognition[2]. Many of these talk about the way we all use the environment to support our everyday thinking: children’s using their fingers to reduce the demands of adding, or their parents using phones to reduce the task of remembering friends’ phone numbers, for example. However, a more radical claim of Embodied Cognition refers to the nature of our thinking even when not using such ‘task-relevant’ tools – our ‘offline cognition’, for example, solving a maths problem ‘in our heads’, or working out the way across town when you haven’t a map.

We are finding increasing evidence that our ‘offline’ thinking is still body-based – we still activate systems that are concerned with sensing and moving in the world. This can sound confusing, and perhaps more confusing is how we can possibly know what is going on in people’s heads when they are thinking. Here we have several exciting new research methods that are building our understanding. One method is brain scans – looking at what parts of the brain light up when asked to think about different ideas. Another method is gesture research. This is my research area.

When we explain our ideas to people we often gesture. People have studied gestures since the time of the Greeks. Gestures are a communication tool – just look at the way our politicians use them. So why then do we gesture on the phone when the listener can’t hear us? Why does a baby born blind still gesture to another child also born blind[3]? In the last twenty years there has been increasing evidence that the main function of gesture is not to support the listener (although they do) so much as the speaker[4]. Our gestures help us think. This is because gestures help us express the nature of how we are thinking. And for this reason, gestures provide a rich window into the nature of thought itself. Examining children’s gestures is a way to examine what images and actions are inseparably linked in the concepts they hold.



Gesturing when solving a maths problem

Look at the video linked to image above[5]. This child is solving a maths problem. Without reading the text, could you guess what they are doing with their fingers? The child trained to solve complex numerical sums using an abacus. Their gestures show how they are simulating this abacus to solve the problem ‘in their head’. By examining children’s (and adults’) gestures we are starting to build a picture of what type of sensory and movement experiences provide the foundations for thinking in different areas. My research has sought to examine what type of hands-on experience ground children’s concepts of number.

Why does 1+8 make the same as 2+7?

This question was designed to tap into how children conceptualise numbers. There are many ways to explain this numerical relationship, with one way (often used by adults) is to talk in terms of how 7 is one less than 8 and 2 is one more than 1. Often children’s language reveals much about how they are thinking about numbers, often it does not. Another window is how they gesture when they explain this relationship.

In one study[6] with 104 children, 62% of children gestured when explaining this relationship. By watching video clips over (and over…) again, it has been possible to code the types of gestures children use. Gestures generally fell into two types – those that looked like children were manipulating imaginary objects, and those where children seemed to be indicating points along an imaginary line running left to right.  This is significant, because these gestures relate to interaction with two different types of maths materials – physical materials, and number lines. Traditional theory might suggest that the less able children’s gestures simulated actions with objects and more able children’s gestures simulated actions with a ‘less-concrete’ number line. This was not the case. Indeed, our research is examining how the opposite may be true for this particular problem.



Gesturing when explaining maths

As a researcher, I love to take a small study and generate a major theory that goes well beyond the evidence. In journals, I get caught out, so here I have a chance. I believe my research supports theoretical work in cognitive science saying that all numerical concepts are grounded upon two major ‘metaphors’ – that we conceptualise numbers as ‘collections of objects’ or as ‘points along a path’. But I also believe that we draw differently upon these metaphors depending on the problem at hand. Want to add numbers? It’s maybe better to think of them as being along a line, which you can ‘count up’ or ‘count down’. Want to solve a fraction problem? Then you may find it easier to think of numbers as collections you can ‘break’ into smaller collections.

If, as I believe, we draw upon these two metaphors in different ways for all number concepts – from counting to calculus – that would suggest we need to think carefully about the materials we provide throughout children’s development. It would contend the traditional move away from ‘concrete’ objects.

So where was I? Oh, what is the importance of hands-on learning? It is possible that our hands-on experiences of moving objects into collections or walking in steps along a path (then linked to tracing arcs along a number line) are internalised into our very concepts of number. Consequently, when explaining our thinking about numbers we often simulate these experiences – observable in our gestures.

I hope I haven’t confused in this blog. Take away points?

·         Think critically about what materials children are using and how that relates to the way you can talk about different number ideas.

·         Encourage children to increasingly imagine these materials in their heads

·         Don’t let children (or adults) stigmatise physical materials as being for the less able

·         Look at how children gesture. Teachers don’t have video cameras and hours to analyse gestures but even in real time, they can provide an interesting window into children’s thinking

·         Look at how you gesture to children. Research tells us that teachers very often gesture and naturally change their gestures according to children’s understanding. Yet when’s the last time you had gesture training?

·         Think critically about technology. How do they change children’s physical actions? Do you think that matters?


The main message however is we now have a way to examine and understand questions that have been in education for decades. There are implications for classrooms, but no definitive solutions yet. What we do know is that once we are able to see how children gesture to express their thinking in a classroom each day, we are in a strong position to contribute to our understanding of the importance of hands-on learning; and the relationship between our minds and bodies.




Dr Andrew Manches is a Chancellor’s Fellow in the School of Education, University of Edinburgh.  He has 20 years experience working with children, first as a teacher, then as an academic. His research focuses on the role of interaction in thinking, and the implications this has for early learning and new forms of technology.  He was awarded a Future Research Leader grant by the Economic Social Research Council to conduct his research. 




1          McNeil, N. M., & Jarvin, L. (2007). When theories don't add up: disentangling the manipulatives debate. Theory into Practice, 46(4), 309-316.

2          Wilson, M. (2002). Six views of embodied cognition. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 9(4), 625-636.

3          Iverson, J. M., & GoldinMeadow, S. (1997). What's communication got to do with it? Gesture in children blind from birth. Developmental Psychology, 33(3), 453-467.

4          Goldin-Meadow, S. (2000). Beyond words: The importance of gesture to researchers and learners. Child Development, 71(1), 231-239.

5          Brooks, N., Barner, D., Frank, M., & Goldin-Meadow, S. (2012). Gesture in Mental Abacus Calculation. SILC Showcase. from

6          Manches, A., & Dragomir, M. (2015). Gesture as a means to examine the role of physical interaction in early numerical development. Paper presented at the Paper presented at the 2015 annual meeting of the AERA, Chicago, US.


Tuesday, 12 January 2016

Cognitive flexibility and reading

Cognitive flexibility is an important executive function skill that prevents us from becoming stuck in a rigid approach to solving a problem. Having cognitive flexibility allows us to switch strategies to find the correct solution or to consider alternative perspectives on a complicated situation (Diamond, 2013). Perhaps unsurprisingly flexibility has been linked to school performance (Yeniad et al., 2013), but little is known about the exact nature of this relationship.
Our research focuses on reading development and so we have examined whether cognitive flexibility has any role to play in early reading. As reading is a complex cognitive task that demands the use of visual symbols relating to both sound and meaning, it seems possible that cognitive flexibility may be required to coordinate all of this information efficiently (Berninger & Nagy, 2008).
Children begin to develop cognitive flexibility prior to learning to read around the ages of 3-5 years. Researchers measure this using card sorting games where the sorting rules change and children’s ability to adapt to the new rule reflects their flexibility. By 7-9 years of age, children show an increasing capacity to deal with complex sorting rules including sorting according to several dimensions at one time in matrix classification tasks.
Children with good cognitive flexibility seem to be better at pre-reading skills like letter recognition and letter-sound knowledge (Blair & Razza, 2007; Bierman et al., 2008), however, the evidence in relation to reading itself is more mixed. Nevertheless, an interesting line of research has been established by Cartwright (2002), who argues that cognitive flexibility is particularly important for reading comprehension because of the need to simultaneously decode the words and understand the meaning of text.
Cartwright presented evidence for this view by measuring the cognitive flexibility of English-speaking children between 2nd and 4th grade using a matrix classification task and relating this to reading comprehension. In the first task, children had to sort pictures of objects into a 2x2 matrix on the basis of visual features (i.e. colour) or meaning (i.e.  object category). In the second task, written words rather than pictures had to be sorted and the sorting criteria were more reading specific as they involved sound (i.e. initial sound) and meaning (i.e. object category). Results showed that both matrix classification tasks predicted reading comprehension over and above the usual predictors like age and decoding skills. However, the reading-specific matrix classification task involving written words was the stronger predictor of reading comprehension.
Although these results seemed very promising, we felt that there was a need to explore the findings further, given that several other studies had failed to find a relation between cognitive flexibility and reading. We also wanted to modify the matrix classification task to keep the sorting criteria constant (i.e. sound and meaning) and to compare general flexibility in sorting pictures versus reading-specific flexibility in sorting written words (Fig. 1). We also wanted to investigate how these two types of flexibility relate not only to reading comprehension but also to single word reading.
 Fig 1. Correct classification for the general and reading-specific matrix classification tasks (adapted from Cartwright (2012)) 

French children in second grade who were 7½ years old took part. This was a strong test of the relationship between cognitive flexibility and reading. The initial phase of learning to read in French is slightly easier than in English since French has a more consistent relation between word spellings and sound; in other words, the regular spellings of French may mean that less cognitive flexibility is needed for learning to read in French than in English.
As it turned out, cognitive flexibility was related to reading in French. Cognitive flexibility as measured by having to sort simultaneously by sound and meaning predicted reading comprehension over and above traditional predictors (e.g. decoding, word reading). Moreover, cognitive flexibility also predicted single word reading over and above other predictors such as decoding skill. In both cases, reading-specific flexibility in sorting written words was more strongly related to reading than flexibility in sorting pictures.
Finally, while more research is still needed, the implications of our findings are that games and activities aimed at improving cognitive flexibility may show benefits for early reading progress. Practice at switching between key components of written words like sound and meaning may improve children’s flexibility in relation to this information and enhance reading comprehension. The benefits of these activities may not be restricted to reading just as cognitive flexibility developed in other areas of the curriculum may also feedback to reading.
Berninger, V. W., and Nagy, W. E. (2008). “Flexibility in word reading: Multiple levels of representations, complex mappings, partial similarities and cross-modal connections,” in Literacy Processes: Cognitive Flexibility in Learning and Teaching, ed. K. B. Cartwright (New York: The Guilford Press).
Bierman, K. L., Nix, R. L., Greenberg, M. T., Blair, C., and Domitrovich, C. E. (2008). Executive functions and school readiness intervention: impact, moderation, and mediation in the Head Start REDI program. Dev. Psychopathol. 20, 821–843. doi: 10.1017/S0954579408000394
Blair, C., and Razza, R. P. (2007). Relating effortful control, executive function, and false belief understanding to emerging math and literacy ability in kindergarten. Child Dev. 78, 647–663. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-8624.2007.01019.x
Cartwright, K. B. (2002). Cognitive development and reading: the relation of reading-specific multiple classification skill to reading comprehension in elementary school children. J. Educ. Psychol. 94, 56–63. doi: 10.1037//0022-0663.94.1.56
Cartwright K. B. (2012). Insights from cognitive neuroscience: the importance of executive function for early reading development and education. Early Educ. Dev. 23 24–36 10.1080/10409289.2011.615025
Diamond, A. (2013). Executive functions. Annu. Rev. Psychol. 64, 135–168. doi: 10.1146/annurev-psych-113011-143750
Yeniad, N., Malda, M., Mesman, J., van IJzendoorn, M. H., and Pieper, S. (2013). Shifting ability predicts math and reading performance in children: a meta-analytical study. Learn. Individ. Differ. 23, 1–9. doi: 10.1016/j.lindif.2012.10.004
Academic Bio
Dr Lynne Duncan is a senior lecturer in Psychology at the University of Dundee.
Her research focuses on language and reading development. Bilingual language and literacy is a particular interest, as are developmental language disorders. This work has entailed cross-linguistic and cross-cultural studies of children and adults in collaboration with colleagues in other European countries.
The research presented here was carried out jointly with:
Professor Pascale Colé and Professor Agnès Blaye
Laboratoire de Psychologie Cognitive, UMR-7290, Aix-Marseille University, Marseille, France