Sunday / May 19

The Case Against Goal-Driven Literacy: Three Ways to Help Students Identify Personal Purposes for Reading and Writing  

“As I began research for this book, I realized this over-emphasis on strategy instead of purpose was not only affecting students’ ability to write meaningful pieces, it was also affecting their ability to infer and interpret the stories they read. When students see no meaning behind the moves they make as writers, it is difficult for them to imagine that the moves the authors of the books they are reading might have significance.”


From Writers Read Better: Nonfiction (Cruz, 2018)

Not too long ago I had a meeting with one of my mentors to go about setting up SMART goals for the year ahead. I asked for advice because I could not think of a single goal I wanted to work toward. She started listing things she knew I did regularly, perhaps as a way to not add extra work to my plate. “What about mentoring others?” she asked.

“I definitely don’t want to do that. I love informally taking people out for coffee or staying late to plan together, but if it becomes a goal, then it becomes something I have to do, not something I want to do. I’ll become so focused on getting it done that I’ll lose the purpose behind it.”

As I said it, I realized, all at once, that I was not the only person who might be turned off of to the work they are doing or trying to do by attaching goals to it. Other educators might feel this way too. Students as well. It got me thinking, are goals as important as so many of us have believed when it comes to literacy practice?

The Goal-Setting Trend

If you’ve been an educator for longer than a few minutes, you have likely noticed the way that goal-based thinking and teaching has permeated so much of what we do. Schools are supposed to have goals. Teachers are supposed to have goals for each year, unit, lesson and student. And students too are encouraged and expected to have goals. These goals vary depending on the age of the students, but I have seen students expected to set goals for everything from how many books they’ll read in a year to how many pages they’ll write in a day to how many sight words they will have memorized. I’ve seen bulletin boards filled with personal literacy goals and goals taped to the corners of desks. I’ve watched teachers start and end every conference with a reminder about students’ goals.

All of these things can be very useful and motivating for many students. Some of my closest friends swear by goal-setting practices. The public discussion of and posting of goals can make something abstract feel more concrete and attainable. Schools, grades and classes can be united in the striving to reach a shared goal.

For many people, goals are the best trend to have ever hit education. And if you are one of those people, this post is not for you. It is instead for those of us who find goals off-putting at best, anxiety- and failure-inducing at worst, who struggle to make and keep and encourage kids to heed goals.

My proposal is a simple one: Shift your focus from goal to purpose.

Research tells us that one of the most motivating factors for people is purpose. For example, in Deci and Ryan’s 1985 study and again in their 2012 study, they found that students had more drive to learn when the learning had authenticity, was meaningful and had purpose. In Deci, Koestner and Ryan’s 1999 meta-analysis of 128 studies that focused on the relationship between extrinsic rewards and intrinsic motivation, the authors concluded that a tangible reward had negative effects of a students’ motivation, more so for children than for college students.

And the role of purpose stays with us, even as we move out of school and into the workforce. Grant’s 2013 research into whether giving employees purpose, as opposed to simply goals, showed that workers’ output was better when they had a higher purpose in mind. There is an entire field focused on intrinsic motivation called “self-determination research” that shows, again and again, that intrinsic motivation, including purpose-driven, has better outcomes.

In other words, when children and adults have a purpose to their work they find themselves not only working hard, but also often exceeding their own best efforts. So, instead of expecting a student to set a goal of “spelling most words correctly” in their writing or “read 25 books by the end of the school year” and expecting that to be all the motivation that learner needs, we might look for additional motivating factors.

Here are three possible ways to help connect purpose to literacy work and help increase motivation:

1. Identify an affinity

Most of us have passions in life. These can be hobbies we devote time to, ways we entertain ourselves, people or causes we care deeply for. Often, one of the most successful ways to get someone motivated is to link to their affinity. If the student cares deeply about saving stray dogs, discussing how spelling most words in a standard way will make it possible for more people to understand the message might be just the purpose the writer needs. Or helping the student build a stack of books and articles on saving stray animals so that the student can be as knowledgeable as possible.

2. Connect with an emotion

For others of us, our internal lives drive us more than the external world. We are angry at a certain situation or hopeful about another; confusion can be the predominant feeling in many other situations. Sometimes we, or our students, are driven by an emotion. Whether in order to end the emotion (such as frustration) or share it with others (like curiosity), by connecting our work with a strong emotion, we can help students think of ways their work can help increase or decrease that emotion. For instance, help them understand “By spelling most of the words in this piece correctly, my readers will feel less confused,” or “By reading more books on this topic, I will feel more confident.”

3. Consider mastery

Of course, even when there is not a concrete goal, there is still a desire for many of us to know whether we “nailed it.” By being clear with ourselves and our students what mastery might look like, and by sharing examples of that mastery, students can create their own clear vision of mastery. They can decide, “Mastery for me is making sure that all of the words about the content of my piece will be spelled correctly. I’m not going to worry about the others, yet.” Or they might say, “I will master this series by reading every book.” By choosing the perimeters of mastery and having a clear vision for it, learners will be the only deciders of whether something is mastered or not.

Of course, it should go without saying that behind every goal is likely a deeper purpose. And that a teacher could spend time helping students to find the purposes behind every goal. After all, I know from talking to my friends who run marathons (another thing I’d rather not do) that setting the goal to beat their personal best is not really about beating that time, but rather about becoming a stronger runner.
However, for many of us, and our students, that extra step to set a goal, which becomes a bigger driver than the purpose, often takes us off track. Instead of setting a hard number about how many times we can use a writing strategy in reading work, or setting a timer for how many minutes to read or write, we can instead focus on the ways that writing strategies make reading work easier or note that carefully choosing books to read and stories to write helps ensure we lose track of time.

By spending more time with students, learning their needs and motivations, and considering the purposes behind our teaching and our work, we will soon find we and they are surpassing goals we didn’t even know were there.


Deci,E.L., Koestner,R., & Ryan, R.M. (1999). A meta-analytic review of experiments examining the effects of extrinsic rewards on intrinsic motivation. Psychological Bulletin, 125(6), pp. 627-668.

Deci, E.L., & Ryan, R.M. (1985). Intrinsic Motivation and Self Determination in Human Behavior. New York: Springer.

Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (2012). Motivation, personality, and development within embedded social contexts: An overview of self-determination theory. In R. M. Ryan (Ed.), Oxford library of psychology. The Oxford handbook of human motivation (pp. 85-107). New York: Oxford University Press.

Grant, A. (2013, April 20). “In the Company of Givers and Takers.” Harvard Business Review. Retrieved 7/26/18 from

Written by

Colleen Cruz is the author of several titles for teachers, including Writers Read Better: Nonfiction and the upcoming Writers Read Better: Narrative, and The Unstoppable Writing Teacher, as well as the author of the young adult novel, Border Crossing, a Tomás Rivera Mexican American Children’s Book Award Finalist. She was a classroom teacher in general education and inclusive settings before joining the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project, where she shares her passion for accessibility, twenty-first century learning, and social justice as the Director of Innovation.

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