Internal Motivation: Helping Children Develop a Thirst for Knowledge

I was working with a little guy the other day — a kindergarten student. He was hard at work hunched over a piece of paper with a crayon in his hand. I peeked over his shoulder and said, “Hey! You wrote Happy Birthday!”

His little eyes looked up at me and he broke into the biggest grin I’d ever seen. He started to bounce up and down with delight. “I did it? I really did it? You can read that? It’s right?” he exclaimed.


“Yes,” I said, “I can read what you wrote.”


You would think that I had just given him a million dollars. The excitement on his face was so contagious, I couldn’t help but to give him a hug and break out into a huge grin myself!


What was so great about this interaction? Well, first of all, he didn’t even spell “HAPPY BIRTHDAY” right. If I remember correctly, he had just wished is friend a “Hapy BirT dey”, but that’s not the point. What was most magical about this interaction was how internally motivated this student was to participate in the world of written language. It wasn’t about writing because he was told to (it was free drawing time), or because he’d earn something tangible if he did. Instead, the joy of being able to participate in a “grown-up” activity like writing, and to have the message he wished to communicate be understood and validated by an adult, was more than enough of a reward.


Learning to listen, talk, read, and write can sometimes be difficult, thankless tasks. It’s very tempting to sweeten the deal by offering some external system of incentives or rewards, or to become a master bargainer as we bribe children with, “Just one more time and you’ll get…” Sure, this main foster compliance, but does it foster JOY?  Think about your own motivations for communication — you don’t tell your child you love him because he’ll give you a gold star or an extra piece of bubblegum — you say it because you feel it deeply and you want to put it out there in the world. What’s the reward of this communication? Knowing that your message was communicated, and that it had an effect (hopefully the one you intended) on another human being. Successful communicative attempts lead to increased self-worth and confidence in one’s own communicative abilities.


It’s a self-propelled process. I attempt to communicate ? I’m understood ?I get what I want/need?Hey, this works! It’s great! I’m going to try this again!


How can we build this internal motivation in our children?

  • We have to scaffold their communicative attempts.  Literally, think of a scaffold on a building.  It doesn’t hold the building up, but it helps — it provides a framework.  When the construction is finished, the scaffold is peeled away little by little until the finished structure can function independently.  We must think the same way about building and refining langauge, speech, and listening skills in our children.



  • We have to be good listeners, and good responders.  When we make an effort to understand the INTENT of the child’s message (and not nit-pick about grammar or speech issues — instead correcting them naturally with repetition, recasting, and acoustic highlighting), and respond to what the want to say, they have experienced communicative success — a very rewarding experience, especially for children who, due to late-identification/amplification, additional challenges, or a variety of other factors, may be struggling with spoken language.


  • Encourage a fearless attitude.  Make your own mistakes (intentionally, if you have to), and laugh them off.  Model good repair strategies (“Oops, Daddy didn’t understand what I said.  I said the fan is running, but he though I said the van is running!  I have to say it again!”), and show children that it’s okay to try again.


  • Celebrate inventive spelling — English is a tricky language, and the fact that child is including most, if not all, of the phonemes (sounds) in a work is encouraging.  It shows that the child is thinking about what she hears and translating sounds (phonemes) into letters (graphemes).


  • We must be good role models ourselves — if children see us engaging in reading and writing activities on a daily basis, and if we point out to them how reading and writing help us accomplish grown-up tasks, listeracy and communication become associated the the allure of grown-up-hood!  Much of this requires some of our unconscious though processes come to life, “thinking out loud” to make things that seem so simple to us apparent to our children.  “See, I know that the bus will come at 2:15, because I read it here on the timetable.  Can you find the red A — that’s our bus.  See, if we look across this line, it says it comes at 2:15.  Let’s see if it comes on time” — a few extra seconds, sure, but if children can see tangible, real-life, natural consequences for communication and literacy skills, that’s a whole lot more rewarding that an unrelated reward, like candy or a sticker, that reinforces compliance, but not necessarily the skills or behaviors themselves.

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