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The Power of the Value-Expectancy Model in Growing Readers

Recently I interviewed for a job I would have loved

TD/LR - I didn't get it. Ouch.

Moving on, I have thought about the reasons why I was not chosen and I have analyzed my answers to the interview questions. I probably need some practice interviewing because it has been a long time. It's a good thing I love my current job because I would have been more upset than pragmatic about the whole thing.

During my reflection, I thought about an answer I gave to a question about early literacy. It was a vague question and to be honest, I cannot even remember how it was framed. I mentioned phonemic awareness and phonics, but my answer focused more on a little-discussed area of growing readers rather than the specific stages of early literacy.

Now, I know early literacy and key stages of reading like the back of my hand, but I talked more about something different (likely not what was anticipated): the value-expectancy model in relation to reading.

I described it as a teaching technique I call "Blessing the Books" (more on that later.) Only one person nodded his head. The rest looked at me like I was growing two heads. That's a shame, because what I described is one of the most important factors in teaching children how to read, yet it is rarely discussed in depth.



What Is Value-Expectancy?

The value-expectancy model was developed by Martin Fishbein and it centers on how people approach achievement tasks through belief, value and expectations. Value-expectancy helps explain and predict attitudes towards objects and actions. Value has to do with the reasons why a person would want to engage in a task. Expectancy is a concept that says most people will not want to do a task they do not value or will not succeed at.

  • People develop a belief about a task.
  • Value is assigned to that belief.
  • An expectation is created or changed based on beliefs and values.

We know that one of the best predictive measures of success in reading is the background knowledge students enter the classroom with (Campbell, 2009). Students who enter with a robust vocabulary and have been read to are more likely to succeed and have positive attitudes towards reading. These students already have positive beliefs and values associated with reading.

The question then is what do we do with that knowledge in regards to students who are struggling or enter school with lower skill sets.

On the surface, it would seem that increasing instruction, doubling down on interventions, and spending more time breaking the reading process into bite-size pieces would be laudable activities to engage in. While in some cases they are absolutely necessary, these strategies only focus on the skill of reading, not the will.

Lindsey Seitz (2010) conducted a study on student attitudes towards reading. She wrote that students who experience failure to succeed and have poor self-concept issues about their abilities need reading instruction that focuses on rebuilding damaged self-concepts. They need the skills, but they also desperately need the will.

Value-expectancy focuses on the will. All of the intensive interventions and instruction that remove students from experiences that build background and create pleasure in reading can kill the will, or at the least do not build value-expectancy (note I said "can" - there has to be a balance).


How Can We Increase the Will?

To increase the will, teachers must build positive beliefs and create a sense of value about reading, in addition to targeting specific skills children need to be successful. If done correctly, this will increase expectancy (the student will expect to be successful).

In his new book, The Reading Mind: A Cognitive Approach to How the Mind Reads, Daniel Willingham, Ph.D. shares some concrete ways teachers can harness the power of value-expectancy. He suggests making choices easy, providing easy access, and changing other choices that could divert interest away from reading.

Don't count on rewards. Rewards are poor motivators for increasing sustaining, intrinsic motivation. Offer rewards without expectations that they will increase instrinsic motivation. Kids love rewards, as do adults, but the effects are short term due to a phenomena called the Oversufficient Justification Effect. Go read the classic magic marker experiment then come back here.


Blessing the Books 

I realized when reading Daniel Willingham's work that this is what I have been doing all these years with Blessing the Books. It is an incredibly effective strategy that builds the will to read, particularly for students who lack background knowledge and experiences.

  • Carefully choose a variety of books at different reading levels, maybe even around a common theme for your content area (this also helps reduce the problematic issue of paralyzing choice by giving too many choices - how many times have you watched a student shuffling through the book bins or library and not being able to make a decision?)
  • Present the books in such a way that the students believe they will be interesting (read the cover, show pictures, read a few pages or a chapter - be fascinating!) I will often take 20 minutes or more to present a set of books to my class. I am not done until they are shouting out that they want particular books.
  • While interest is high, offer books to the students one at a time. Teachers know the reading levels of their students, but remember that interest can often lead to a student believing they can read higher level texts. Let them.
  • Keep a list of students who want a book they did not get at that time. They know it will be coming their way. This builds anticipation, and I can't tell you how many times a student has gone ahead and found the book in school library, brought it from home after going to the library, or had a parent put it on an e-reader for them...they just couldn't wait to read it!).

Blessing the Books really is a deliberate strategy of giving easy access to books and making the choice of reading very appealing, thus increasing value-expectancy.



Please don't think this is diminishing the importance of strategic targeted interventions, guided reading groups and other research-based strategies. Value-expectancy is one model that is too often over-looked and it has the research behind it to back it up.

Everything has its place, and increasing the intrinsic will to read is absolutely one of the best things you can do for growing readers.  It just wasn't what the interview team wanted to hear. 

Ah well.  Can't win them all, can we?



Campbell, L., & Campbell, B. (2009). Mindful learning: 101 proven strategies for student and teacher success. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Setiz, Lindsey. (2010). Student attitudes toward reading: a case study. Journal of Inquiry & Action in Education, 3(2).


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