How I Use Data To Motivate Students To Become Better Readers

contributed by Kelley Spencer Adcock

I have a lot in common with my struggling readers.

I don’t have trouble reading, but I do know a thing or two about trying to succeed at something that does not come naturally. Throughout my childhood and school years, I was not athletic in any sense of the word, and I was cut from every team I ever made.

But somehow, as an adult I became a runner. I run several 5Ks, obstacle runs and sprint triathlons a year.  I am not as regimented or disciplined as other runners, but running has become an enjoyable, integral part of my life. How did I get here? It was the realization that I don’t need to compare myself to anyone else. I set my goals and my own race schedule to do what’s right for me.

The same mentality can be applied to student learning as well. Every student starts as a beginner, but many quit before becoming experts. Equipping them with the right tools and providing them with the proper support can set struggling readers up for success.

Here’s how I apply this approach to my classroom.

See also: 15 Of The Best Educational Apps For Improved Reading Comprehension

Step 1: Find a consistent, easy way to measure progress.

The cool thing about running is that it’s easy to measure. All you really need is a stopwatch. Reading is a much more complex task, but modern technology offers us a variety of easy measuring tools. We use a tool called Star Assessments which allows us to treat assessments more like a 5K than a marathon.  It only takes 20 minutes for a student to take a quiz that gathers valuable data about their reading skills and comprehension throughout the year.

Step 2: Share data with students.

There are countless apps I can use to track my finish times, but if I never looked at these times I wouldn’t get better. The same goes for students – how often are we sharing data with students? In our classroom, we show students their reports and talk about what the numbers mean for them and their individual reading progress.

Step 3: Help them set meaningful goals.

For my first 5K, my only goal was to run the whole race without dropping to a walk. Alternatively, a friend’s goal was to break 20 minutes. We clearly run for different reasons. The same goes for students – no two students have the same goal. In our classroom, we help students set attainable goals that allow them to grow and succeed.

Step 4: Work with students to establish a “training routine.”

Outside demands on my life determine my running schedule; the same is true for our students’ study habits. Many don’t have the time or quiet spaces in their lives to read outside of school. Some don’t like long stories. Others struggle with ADD, ADHD, or TSAL (too soon after lunch).

In our classroom, we speak honestly about our limitations and habits. We provide students with half of their required reading time in the classroom and offer them the option to complete the other half in a variety of ways (homework, tutoring, free choice time) so that they can personalize a routine that works for them.

Step 5: Hold students accountable for their progress.

I pay to run in races, so I have a vested interest in showing up. The same should be true for students. Their progress is related directly to the performance expectations in our classroom. Every student is required to demonstrate that they are 1) reading at grade level and showing progress or 2) showing significant progress toward reading on grade level.

They also are responsible for documenting effective reading practice through points and/or completed reading logs and projects.

Step 6: Evaluate the effectiveness of their training routine.

If I run a race at a much slower time, or end up with an injury, I review my training regimen to see what I need to adjust. The same should be true for students. We teach our students to look at data which compares their growth to others across the country of similar age and ability.

If a student is not growing, or not growing at an acceptable rate, what roadblocks are the student is facing? Are they not practicing frequently enough? Do they need additional support? These are all questions we consider.

And when they make progress, celebrate it! This can start with the quantification of that progress (improvements reflected in data), but should extend as well to the utility of that improvement in their literacy skills, and what it might mean for them throughout their life.

Step 7: Select new and improved tools when they are needed.

In the same way that a snazzy new pair of running tights can motivate me out of a slump, changing up the reading task can reinvigorate student progress. We use technology that helps students choose books that they love, so they stay motivated. We also have regular literature circles that allow students to talk about different ideas and learn from others.

We also teach our students how to use websites like,, and ReadWorks Digital. When they want to read a book that is longer or at a higher reading level than they are used to, we help them access an e-reader, an audiobook or MP3 players from our public library. Giving them a variety of resources and texts allows them to stay motivated and keep progressing.

When they want to read a book that is longer or at a higher reading level than they are used to, we help them access an eReader, an audiobook, or MP3 players from our public library. Giving them a variety of resources and texts allows them to stay motivated and keep progressing.

Every time I finish a race, I feel good about myself for many reasons: I finished something that doesn’t come easy to me. I’m taking better care of myself. I’m being a good role model for my children and students. As much as possible, we try to create this same experience for the students in our classroom.

They don’t have to finish first, they just have to run believing they can.

Kelley Spencer Adcock, NBCT, is a Reading Specialist and English teacher at Ripley High School in Jackson County, West Virginia.