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Religious Youths’ Motivations for Reading Complex, Religious Texts

by Eric D. Rackley - 2016

Background/Context: Research confirms that religion is a significant part of the lives of American youths, that religious texts are an essential part of their experiences in the world, and that as part of their everyday cultural practices, religious youths demonstrate strong commitments to reading religious texts. Currently, however, the field of literacy has yet to develop a body of research that examines the motivations that drive young people to engage with the religious texts that appear to mean so much to them.

Focus of Study and Research Questions: Situated within social and cultural perspectives of literacy and motivation, the purpose of this study is to examine religious youths’ personal motivations for reading complex, religious texts such as the Bible and the Book of Mormon by looking closely at the connections among their literacy practices, religious ideologies, and the expression of their religious identities. Two questions operationalize this purpose: 1. What are the similarities and differences among Latter-day Saint and Methodist youths’ personal motivations to engage with religious texts? 2. In what ways are these motivations influenced by the youths’ religiocultural traditions, ideologies, practices, and commitments?

Research Design: Qualitative methods were used to examine youths’ motivations for religious literacies. Nine months of ethnographic observations in multiple contexts and 59 in-depth, semi-structured interviews conducted over two years were transcribed and analyzed to address the purpose of the study. Analytic procedures were informed by grounded theory.

Findings: The findings revealed a broad-level framework that explained the youths’ personal motivations for reading religious texts that transcended religious affiliation. Youths in both congregations were motivated to engage with complex, religious texts because they providing them with (a) knowledge about their religious traditions, (b) tools for applying religious knowledge to the lives, (c) strength to endure life’s challenges, (d) comfort during stressful times, and (e) a connection to God.

Conclusions/Recommendations: As a space to explore the interactions among religion, literacy, and motivation, this study contributes to a more robust understand about the manner in which young people engage with complex, religious texts. This research also has implications for conceptualizing motivated literacy, engaging students with complex, academic texts, and studying motivation for literacy as social practice.

The ability to comprehend complex texts plays a critical role in students academic and workplace success (National Governors Association Center for Best Practices & Council of Chief State School Officers [NGA Center & CCSSO], 2010) and may be the clearest indicator of students postsecondary achievement (ACT, 2006). Yet some students have exceedingly negative attitudes about complex texts that can cause them to engage in avoidant reading behaviors (Guthrie, Wigfield, & Klauda, 2012) such as looking for easier texts that do not require as much thinking, putting forth limited effort when reading, devaluing texts, and trying to get out of reading altogether (Guthrie, Mason-Singh, & Coddington, 2012). Motivation may be one way to address this issue. Guthrie and McPeake (2013) argue that motivation may be the missing link for helping students overcome their distaste of complex texts and meet ambitious literacy standards, in part, because motivation can mediate literacy instruction and students academic achievement (Guthrie & Wigfield, 2000). If they are to succeed, todays students not only need the skills to read complex texts (ACT, 2006), they have to want to unlock the deeper meanings contained within them (Guthrie & McPeake, 2013, p. 162), and that means motivation.

Currently, however, there is a gap in the motivation for literacy research that may be leaving educators blind to the motivations that may drive a sizable population of the young people in the United States (Smith & Denton, 2005) to engage with linguistically and conceptually complex texts.1 As part of their everyday cultural practices, religious youths demonstrate strong social and cultural commitments to navigating complex, religious texts (Eakle, 2007; Rackley, 2010, 2014; Sarroub, 2002). Recent research confirms that religion is a significant presence in the lives of American teenagers (Pearce & Denton, 2011, p. 6) and that religious texts are an essential part of their experiences in the world. Nonetheless, the field of literacy has yet to develop a body of research about the motivations that drive young people to engage with the religious texts that mean so much to them. The purpose of the present study is to explore religious youths personal motivations for reading complex, religious texts by looking closely at the connections among their literacy practices, religious ideologies, and the expression of their religious identities.

Drawing on two years of interviews and nine months of observations, I compare nine Latter-day Saint youths with seven Methodist youths motivations for reading the Bible and the Book of Mormon. I operationalize this focus with the following questions:


What are the similarities and differences among Latter-day Saint and Methodist youths personal motivations to engage with religious texts?


In what ways are these motivations influenced by the youths religiocultural traditions, ideologies, practices, and commitments?

As a comparative study, I selected these two groups of youths because they demonstrate similar levels of religiosity (Smith & Denton, 2005), use similar religious texts, and routinely negotiated the same community space, yet they were bound by different religiocultural traditions. Given these similarities and differences, this study provides unique insight into the manner in which social and cultural forces influence youths motivations for religious literacies within a single community context. This study also advances critical understanding of youths situated motivations for engaging with complex texts as part of their out-of-school experiences, which attends to Moje, Stockdill, Kim, and Kims (2011) recent observation that few studies have looked closely at the nature and complexity of the texts that young people use outside of school (p. 475). Potentially, this research can provide literacy researchers and educators with more informed conceptualizations of students literate lives and motivations, broaden and deepen our understanding of youths engagement with complex texts inside and outside of school, and afford us the means for developing tools to motivate a greater variety of students to engage with conceptually dense academic texts that persistently elude them in schools and places of employment (ACT, 2006; Carnegie Council on Advancing Adolescent Literacy, 2010; NGA Center & CCSSO, 2010; National Center for Educational Statistics, 2013).   

To address the research questions I use relevant literature to outline the theoretical framework and key constructs guiding this study. Then, I discuss the methods I used to gather and analyze the data, followed by the presentation of the religioculturally situated motivations that informed these youths religious literacies. Finally, I provide some implications for literacy research, theory, and instruction.



I conceptualize literacy in this study from social and cultural perspectives. Social and cultural theorists argue that people interact with their environments through signs, tools, and other mediating devices in order to construct knowledge (Luria, 1981; Vygotsky, 1978, 1981; Wertsch, 1995). Drawing attention to this individual-social connection, Luria (1981) explained the importance of exploring the processes of social life, in the social and historical forms of human existence (p. 25). From this perspective, individuals are not passive recipients of knowledge; they are intentional agents who interact with and adapt to the world around them. This interactive collision of the organism and the environment (Vygotsky, 1981, p. 152) through such tools as language and literacy not only constructs knowledge, it can also transform our thoughts and experiences (Vygotsky, 1978). Insofar as human activity occurs in social and cultural contexts and these contexts inform the manner in which we construct knowledge, literacy researchers, theorists, and practitioners must attend to these contexts as an important means of understanding the processes of learning and literacy (Vygotsky, 1978, 1981).  

Traditional notions of literacy claim that it is a decontextualized, neutral, and technical skill that can be explained primarily by an individuals ability to master a discrete set of reading skills (Street, 1984). Sociocultural perspectives challenge these views, arguing that it is young peoples ways with words that matter (Heath, 1983), specifically how they use language and how that language coheres across cultural spaces. From this perspective, literacy is a tool for meaning-making for particular people, in particular places, for particular purposes. As such, literacy is always local, situated, and culturally informed social practice that draws upon and informs young peoples lived experiences (Barton & Hamilton, 1998, 2000; Gee, 2012; Street, 1984, 1995). Currently, there is a large body of empirical work that situates literacy as social practice (Finders, 1996, 1997; Guzzetti & Gamboa, 2004; Heath, 1983; Knobel & Lankshear, 2007; Lewis & Fabos, 2005; Moje, 2000; Moje, Overby, Tysvaer, & Morris, 2008). Individually, this work demonstrates that literacy can offer young people voices in their lives that help them take hold of and find a place in the world (Moje, 2000), provide them with tools for negotiating different and often competing social spaces (Moje et al., 2008), and help them construct and communicate meaning (Guzzetti & Gamboa, 2004). Collectively, this body of sociocultural research has broadened and deepened our view of literacy, youths experiences with literacy, and what literacy can do in their lives.

But what of religious youths and their literate practice? We simply do not have a comparable body of research that attends to the place of literacy in the lived experiences of religious youths despite the ubiquity of religion worldwide and the powerful influence it can exert on people, politics, popular culture, and education (Moore, 2003; Pearce & Denton, 2011; Prothero, 2007; Sharlet, 2008). This limited attention to religious literacies has opened up an empirical (discussed below) and theoretical gap in the literacy research that scholars are beginning to fill. In this article, I draw from a sociocultural view of literacy to conceptualize religious literacies as a particular cultural manifestation of meaning making. Specifically, I view religious literacies as the socially situated textual practices used to construct meaning as informed by religiocultural beliefs, values, experiences, and traditions (Kapitzke, 1995; Rackley, 2014). In this conceptualization of religious literacies, what it means to construct knowledge is situated within individuals lived experiences, the history of ones faith, the local community context, and so forth. Making meaning from the Bible, for example, involves more than saying the printed words. Ones purpose for reading, the social value of reading biblical texts, the tenets of ones faith, and the social and political orientation of ones faith community all inform not only the manner in which one reads the Bible, but what one gets out of it, and what one decides to do with what one learns. The plethora of faiths and biblical exegesis suggest the variety of ways for drawing meaning from the Bible and other religious texts. In a word, religious literacies attend to how and why individuals and social groups develop religiously situated knowledge, skills, and practices, within specific religiocultural contexts. To date, very little of the literacy research informed by a sociocultural perspective has explored youths religious literacies or the motivations that drive them.


Motivation is an essential construct in the development of young peoples literacy learning (Biancarosa & Snow, 2004; Guthrie, Wigfield, Metsala, & Cox, 1999; Jang, 2008; Unrau & Schlackman, 2006). Historically, research on motivation grew out of psychological researchers exploration of individuals cognitive states to explain their engagement (Eccles et al., 1983). Informed by this historical work, much of the recent motivation for literacy research draws from goal theories (Ames, 1992), self-efficacy theories (Bandura, 1997), intrinsic motivation theories (Csikszentmihalyi, 1988; Deci & Ryan, 1985), interest theories (Hidi, 1990, 2006; Alexander, Kulikowich, & Jetton, 1994), and achievement motivation theories (Atkinson, 1964; Eccles et al., 1983; Wigfield & Eccles, 2000), which largely attend to the individual. However, from a sociocultural perspective the individual is not the entire source of motivation for literacy. To account for what drives young peoples motivation for engaging with religious texts, I conceptualize motivation for literacy in this study as the result of the dynamic processes by which readers interact with texts through various activities within specific contexts, (Moje, 2006; Ruddell & Unrau, 2013; see Figure 1), any of which may be religious in nature.

Figure 1. Motivation for Literacy Model


Reprinted and adapted with permission. Copyright © 2013 by International Reading Association.

Readers refer to the young people and what they bring to the motivation processes. These include cognitive, affective, and linguistic knowledge and social experiences as well as interests, preferences, and attitudes toward reading (Pitcher et al., 2007; Strommen & Mates, 2004; Taboada, Tonks, Wigfield, & Guthrie, 2013). Readers also bring their vocabulary knowledge, strategic abilities for negotiating texts, purposes for reading, and knowledge and experiences with varying types of texts. Readers also carry views of themselves as readers, D/discourses (Gee, 2012), schemata, and a lifetime of experiences with texts into the motivation processes. These and other reader factors vary within and across individual readers. Texts refer to the nature of the material that the readers negotiate to make meaning. Texts influence motivation for literacy in terms of their features, discourse patterns, and genre (conventions); as well as their particular uses of language, styles, and registers. In her seminal work on considerate texts, Armbruster (1984, 1996) and her college (Armbruster & Anderson, 1981) described texts in terms of their structures, coherence, unity, and audience appropriateness. The nature of texts differs within and across content areas (Moje et al., 2011) and can influence motivation as readers interact with them in particular contexts.

Contexts in this model are multiple and varied. At one level, contexts represent the instructional spaces in which learning activities take place (Turner, 1995; Turner & Paris, 1995). Alvermann and Moje (2013) call this local-level setting activities in contexts (p. 1090) to represent the more immediate contextualization of literacy teaching and learning. At this level, contexts include local environments, uses of instructional activities, academic areas of study, and cultural norms in classrooms and peer groups. Activities in contexts also include social relationships, instructional purposes, and the arrangement of physical spaces. More broadly, contexts represent larger social, cultural, and historical spaces in which readers, texts, and activities in contexts interact to influence motivation for literacy. These broader contexts include institutional policies and practices, larger cultural models and expectations, politics and political dynamics, and broad-level economic climates.

This reader-text-activity-context theoretical model suggests that young people are not simply motivated or not motivated for literacy. As Moje (2006) argues, motivated literacy is less a static and singular feature of . . . an individual, and more a feature of the texts and contexts  . . . experienced in and out of school (p. 13). In practice, these elements overlap, coalesce, and multiply as numerous young people, texts, activities, and contexts influence one another for motivated literacy. Conceptually, it may be more appropriate to lift the model (see Figure 1) off of the page and visualize each element as a number of spheres continuously orbiting, shifting, and joining with one another as youths are motivated and demotivated for literacy throughout a text, a lesson, a school year, or the various literacy experiences over the course of their lives.


A report by ACT (2006) identified a set of complex text criteria that attends to authorial style and use of language, context-dependent vocabulary, the nature of character relationships, the richness of text information, authorial purpose, and the sophistication of text structures. As primarily qualitative measures, these six criteria offer important insight into the characteristics of complex texts. Building upon these measures, the Common Core State Standards (2010) determine a texts complexity using a three-part assessment model that includes qualitative (e.g., clarity, language conventionality, and levels of meaning), quantitative (e.g., word length and frequency, sentence length, and text cohesion), and reader-task components (e.g., reader variables such as knowledge, motivation, and experience; task variables such as purpose, questions, and task complexity). In this study, I draw from these notions of text complexity to situate the Bible and the Book of Mormon as complex texts.

For many young people, the Bible and the Book of Mormon are complex in part because they include sophisticated textual structures, intricate and context-dependent relationships, and elaborate and often perplexing uses of literacy devices such as analogies, metaphors, allegories, and symbolism (Halley, 1965; Rust, 1997; Rust & Parry, 1992) that can problematize Fleschs (1946) conception of the Bible as very easy prose (p. 43). The Book of Isaiah in the Bible, for example, may baffle todays young readers as it weaves multiple and overlapping plots, prophecies, and chronologies using poetic language that is situated in Isaiahs local, and by modern standards, highly anachronistic, culture. Moreover, the Book of Mormon has been described by one scholar as a densely compact and rapidly moving story that interweaves dozens of plots with an inexhaustible fertility of invention (as cited in Rust & Parry, 1992, p. 182). As a spiritual and political record of ancient Israelites who inhabited the Americas between 600 B.C. and 420 A.D., to understand the content and context of the Book of Mormon one must be knowledgeable about the historical, cultural, economic, and spiritual practices of ancient Israel and Native American cultures (Nyman & Hawkins, 1992). Historically, religious texts such as the Bible and the Book of Mormon are often millennia removed from contemporary teenage life, which, in a variety of ways, can limit young readers access to these important texts.  

Yet, a developing body of research suggests that young people read religious texts (Heath, 1983; Smith & Denton, 2005), often with great skill and interest (Eakle, 2007; Rackley, 2014; Skerrett, 2013), and that these religious texts can have profound influences on their lives, including how they see, form opinions about, and take action in the world (Rackley, 2010; Sarroub, 2002). In a recent review of American evangelicals literate practices, for example, Juzwik (2014) argues that making meaning of the Bible is a highly social and dialogically mediated practice of justifying actions in the world through the attribution of beliefs to biblical texts (p.10). As Juzwik indicates, literate practice can be intertwined with religious ideology, particularly justifying ones actions based on guiding beliefs found in religious texts. Years early, in her now classic work, Ways with Words, Heath (1983) demonstrated the importance of the Bible and religious ideology in individual and community life and intergenerational socialization. Specifically, Heath showed how adults used the Bible to raise their children, justify their parenting practices, and keep social connections strong.

More recent research demonstrates that for some religious youths, religious print and oral discourses influence the way they read, write, and talk for academic purposes (Poveda, Cano, & Palomares-Valera, 2005; Skerrett, 2013). For other young people, religion, religious literacies, and religious ideology influence the way they develop their religious and historical identities and navigate social and cultural spaces (Baquedano-López, 2000; Reyes, 2009). In a 26-month study, Sarroub (2002) identified how Muslim young women negotiated their places in and out of school by organizing their behaviors and speech into categories derived from the Quran. For these young women, this practice of acting in accordance to religious beliefs as found in scripture endowed [them with] a state of spiritual grace (p. 145).

Critical to the discussion of young peoples engagement with religious and other types of texts is the nature and influence of their identities. Although there are important and nuanced ways of conceptualizing identity (Anzaldúa, 1999; Erikson, 1994; Gee, 2001; Holland & Leander, 2004; Mishler, 2004; Sen, 2000; Sfard & Prusak, 2005), one key feature of identity in literacy and identity research is that it is no longer understood as a fixed, individual phenomenon that adheres to a linear development over the course of ones life (Moje & Luke, 2009). Instead, the notion of identities (plural), suggests that individuals often enact a variety of socially situated selves, for a variety of purposes, across time and place. In this study, I conceptualize the religious youths identities as socially and culturally constructed enactments of the self. This social construct view of identities draws upon Meads (1934) work, which argued that the self is a social structure, and it arises in social experiences (p. 140). This suggests that who we are, or claim to be, can be influenced by the company we keep, the places we go, where we come from culturally and historically, the socially situated reasons we engage with others, and even the texts that we read, how we read them, and why.

This socially situated view of identities also suggests that one cannot simply take on a particular identity, but that one must be recognized as doing so in appropriate ways (Gee, 2012). Gee argues that being recognized by others as a certain type of reader or having certain motivations for reading, for example, is a necessary component of one taking on that particular motivated reader identity, which is bound up in the way one talks, thinks, acts, and interacts with others in particular contexts. Moreover, being recognized as a certain type of motivated reader depends, in part, upon the readers knowledge of the elements necessary for that identity and how it will be recognized by others within a particular setting. In this way, identity can mediate such things as literacy and motivation for literacy, and literacy and motivation for literacy can inform the identities young people enact (Ferdman, 1990; McCarthey & Moje, 2002; Moje, 2008). In this study, youths socially situated identities informed their motivations for religious literacies as they interacted with religious texts within the contexts of their respective religiocultural histories, ideologies, and experiences.

Clearly, religion, religious texts, and socially situated identities are important forces in young peoples lives. Dowson (2005) argued that the motivational influence of religion on individuals, groups, and even whole societies is beyond doubt and that religion embodies some of the most salient of human beliefs (p. 19), yet our current knowledge about the motivations that drive youths engagement with religious texts has been derived primarily from anecdotes and drawing inferences from research related to but not theoretically or methodologically focused on motivations for religious literacies. We can address this gap and develop greater empirical knowledge about youths motivations for religious literacies by studying them directly. Given that 85% of the youths in the United States self-identify with a specific religious tradition (Smith & Denton, 2005) it behooves literacy educators who aim to meet the literacy needs of an increasingly diverse population of students to know more about their students, including their motivations for religious literacies.


Researchers have important responsibilities in social scientific research that go beyond collecting, analyzing, and reporting data. Strauss and others have argued that the researcher can and should care very deeply about [his] work (Strauss, 1987, p. 9), and be unafraid to draw on [his] own experiences (Strauss & Corbin, 1998, p.5). But what if ones experiences are of a religious nature? Should a social science researcher be unafraid to drawn on them as he engages in his work? These are sticky questions with which Schweber (2006) and others have wrestled. Schweber found that her experiences as a descendent of a long line of traditionally orthodox Jews (p. 112) influenced her work among young people attending an ultra-orthodox Jewish school. As a researcher, Schwebers religio-cultural experiences and commitments made her feel uncomfortable in the school, yet her Jewishness also accounted for her feeling like she was also more at home as a person (p. 127) when she was at the school. Deeply held positions of faith can influence ones professional work and the manner in which one engages in that work, although the manner of that engagement may not be simple or easy.

With regard to this study, I am sensitive to the complex positioning I undertook as a religious social scientific researcher producing religious literacies research. Here, I lay out my religious commitments, my relationship with both congregations, and the steps I took to simultaneously maintain my religious views and scholarly pursuits. First, I am a practicing Christian, affirming a belief in the principles of Christianity. I am also a practicing Latter-day Saint, affirming a belief in the principles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. If any of the youths in this study held similar beliefs about Christianity and/or Mormonism, then we could be said to share them. My beliefs as a Christian and a Mormon influenced my religious practices; specifically, I regularly prayed and read scripture publicly and in private, taught lessons, gave talks, and attended worship services.  

Second, as a member of the same congregation, I personally knew all of the Latter-day Saint youths who participated in this study, and their parents. In my role as a Sunday school teacher prior to the beginning of the study, I had taught many of the youths and their siblings. I had also talked, sometimes extensively, with the youths parents about religious, social, and personal matters. As such, I felt that I had an insider view of the youths experiences as practicing Latter-day Saints and an understanding of the workings of the Mormon Church. Prior to the study, I did not know any of the Methodist youths, although I did know one of the Churchs pastors, who put me in contact with the Director of Youth Ministries, through whom I was introduced to the youths. My knowledge of Methodism prior to the study was very thin and I felt initially like an outsider, but that changed quickly once I began meeting regularly with the youths during their Sunday worship services.   

Third, because I used appropriate tools for managing my religious views and commitments as I engaged in this study, I do not believe that my religious beliefs or my close relationship with the Latter-day Saint youths compromised any part of this research. Specifically, I gave careful attention to scientifically accepted practices for conducting research (Corbin & Strauss, 2008; Emerson, Fretz, & Shaw, 1995; Erickson, 1986; Patton, 2002; Strauss & Corbin, 1990, 1998; Woods, 1992) and attended to field-wide standards for reporting educational research (American Educational Research Association, 2006). These social scientific research tools helped me hold my religious and scientific commitments simultaneously and negotiate my complex position as a religious individual and a literacy researcher.

Together, the theoretical framework and relevant literature guiding this study demonstrate the strength of a sociocultural approach to literacy and motivation for literacy, and the need for additional work that explores what motivates youths to engage with complex, religious texts. Currently, the following key questions remain unaddressed: What motivates Latter-day Saint and Methodist young people to engage with religious texts, and how do religiocultural ideologies, practices, and traditions influence their motivations? Ultimately, by situating religious youths motivations for literacy as social and cultural practice, this study taps into a rich and understudied field of inquiry that may hold important insights for literacy research and the development of motivated literacy instruction in schools, community organizations, and religious institutions.    


Because this research conceptualizes literacy and motivation for literacy as socially situated constructs, I designed this study to capture the young peoples personal motivations by drawing upon their social and cultural practices with and attitudes about religious texts within the contexts of their religiocultural experiences. Two years of interviews and an academic year of ethnographic observations enabled me to identify the participants situated motivations for literacy.


This study was part of a larger investigation of Latter-day Saint and Methodist youths literacy practices. The larger study explored how texts, contexts, and the youths attitudes and experiences informed their religious reading, writing, and speaking practices. After receiving written informed consent from all of the participants and their parents I began observing the Latter-day Saint youths during their Sunday worship services at one location and their early morning seminary classes at a different church closer to the local high school to accommodate the high-school-aged youths who attended each day before school.2 I also observed the Methodist youths during their Sunday morning worship services and their youth fellowship services held Sunday evening.

Consistent with sociocultural theory, this study explores the youths experiences with literacy beyond a single system level (Erickson, 1986, p.143) by attending to a number of nested but permeable environments that influenced the youths motivations for religious literacies. Conceptually, this multisystems approach demonstrates the complexity of studying socially mediated literacies and motivations for literacies by focusing on the manner in which the youths, the specific congregations, the denominations, and the shared social spaces were situated with respect to one another. In the reminder of this section, I demonstrate the embedded nature of the various social settings that were important to this study and how they overlapped with one another to inform the youths motivations for literacy.

The daily work of the study occurred in three physical locations: one Methodist church and two Latter-day Saint churches. The Methodists met in a church that was dedicated shortly after the state in which it is located was admitted to the Union by Congress. Occupying a large, downtown lot, and built of rough-hewn stone, with a slate-shingled roof, elaborately decorated, lancet windows, and stone friezes, the church is physically imposing and gives the impression of solidity and strength. Inside, banners, original murals, photographs, and other artifacts of the faith and the community adorn the walls and display cases. For their Sunday worship services, the Latter-day Saint youths met in a newly constructed church with a full-sized basketball court and chapel at the center that are encircled by a ring of classrooms. Framed reprints of religious art from Jesuss life and Mormon Church history hang along the halls. For seminary, the youths met in a downtown, Latter-day Saint church that had once been a large home. Architecturally, this location represents some of the history of the city with an updated functionality of a modern, multipurpose building. The room in which the youths met for seminary has a whiteboard, rows of long tables and chairs, and religious art and posters on the walls. There is also a large, nonoperative fireplace at the back of the room.

The Methodist church and one of the Latter-day Saint churches were situated within a midsized Midwestern community. The other Latter-day Saint church was located in a neighboring city. All of the young people from both faiths lived in the focal community, which boasts a vibrant cultural arts life that draws individuals and talent from the surrounding area and beyond. The cultural arts were particularly important to the Methodists, who routinely sponsored musical and dramatic performances and lectures in their church. As home to a large, public university, the focal community also has a rich intellectual culture with a large portion of the local high school students attending college. Known locally and nationally for its liberal politics, competing ideas and diverse points of view flourished in the community.

As for the young people in this study, they were active members of their community. Many of them participated in school-sponsored events, volunteered their time at local charitable organizations, and took classes or lessons outside of school for personal enrichment. Because of their high level of involvement, many of the youths knew one another from school, volunteering efforts, in-school and out-of-school sports teams, and various other community events. As such, both groups of youths were routinely engaged in the community, and frequently, with one another. Over the 2 years that we worked together, youths often talked about one another with me and asked me questions and told me stories about their peers from the different congregation. There seemed to be a high degree of respect shared by the youths inasmuch as their stories and questions carried a tone of sincere interest and even admiration of one another. In a number of ways, the young people from both faiths negotiated a familiar civic space because of their close ties within the community.

As demonstrated by the various, embedded settings identified here, there are a number of contextual influences on these young peoples motivations for religious literacies, which demonstrates the complex nature of literacy learning and motivation. In the end, the embedded social environments and their similarities and differences made these two groups of youths ideally situated for a comparative study.


As mentioned previously, I selected Latter-day Saint and Methodists for this study because youths from both denominations demonstrate high to moderate levels of engagement with their respective faiths, including participation in their religious traditions and use of religious texts (Smith & Denton, 2005). Historically, they also share a similar religious text in the Bible, and, in this study, a similar community context. Because this study was designed to explore the youths motivations for religious literacies across their faith traditions, these similarities demonstrated that the youths were alike in important ways. Yet, the youths also had distinct differences in their religious traditions that I believed would provide important points of contrast for their respective motivations for religious literacies. Together, these social and cultural similarities and differences gave me the opportunity to compare and contrast their motivations for literacy, as they were informed by their religiocultural traditions, ideologies, and practices.

Table 1. Description of Individual Participants



Religious Affiliation


Interests or Hobbies



Latter-day Saint


Skateboarding, video games



Latter-day Saint


Basketball, video games



Latter-day Saint


Reading, sports, music



Latter-day Saint


Reading, playing guitar



Latter-day Saint


Science fiction, blogging



Latter-day Saint


Karate, volunteering



Latter-day Saint


Basketball, music



Latter-day Saint


Science fiction, fantasy



Latter-day Saint


Acting, playing drums





Poetry, playing guitar, music





Lacrosse, ice hockey





Friends, acting, singing





Acting, volunteering





Horses, reading





Volunteering, family





Volunteering, sciences

Reprinted and adapted with permission. Copyright © 2014 by Wiley-Blackwell.

Demographically, all of the participants were European American, aged 1218 at the beginning of the study, and with one exception, attended local public schools (see Table 1). Most of the participants described themselves as interested in attending college and had a great variety of personal interests. They all reported feeling welcome in their respective congregations. And with the exception of two Latter-day Saint youths who did not participate actively in the Church for a few years prior to the study, all of the participants were life-long, attending members of their faiths. They all stated that their religion was very important to them and that for most of them religious texts were the most important texts in their lives. They claimed to read religious texts regularly by themselves and/or with members of their family. The primary criteria I used to select participants was regular attendance at Sunday worship services. To recruit participants for this study, I directly solicited young peoples involvement from both congregations. As a practicing member of the Latter-day Saint congregation, I had access to contact information of the youths parents and knew all of them personally. I emailed all of the parents of the 1218-year-old youths. Nine of the 18 I invited agreed to participate. After unsuccessfully attempting to make announcements to solicit participation from the Methodist youths at fellowship gatherings, I received permission to approach groups of youths before and after activities to ask them to participate. In the end, seven Methodist youths agreed to take part in the study.


Semistructured Interviews

Consistent with Seidmans (2006) view of interviews as meaning-making processes, I conceptualized and designed the interviews in this study to provide the youths with opportunities to construct accounts of their experiences with religion, literacy, and motivation. The youths completed a series of five interviews over a 2-year period that focused on their attitudes toward religion, their literacy practices, their motivations for engaging with religious texts, their views of what counts as sacred texts, the role of religious texts in their lives, and the ways in which they read religious and nonreligious texts (see Table 2). Most relevant to this paper, the questions about their motivations for religious literacies ran across several interviews and examined why and how often they read religious texts, the best and most challenging parts of these texts, what they got out of religious texts, how reading religious texts influenced them, and where and when they felt most comfortable reading religious texts. Participation in the interviews varied, resulting in a total of 59 completed interviews. The substance of the interviews was influenced by my guiding questions which were informed by a theoretical framework drawn from literacy theories, motivation for literacy theories, and youth religiosity research. Moreover, as the study progressed I developed questions based on previous observations and interview responses, and in-progress data analyses. Each audiotaped interview lasted approximately 4560 minutes and was transcribed prior to analysis.

Table 2. Semistructured Interviews


Interviews Completed




Notions of religion, religious involvement, religious activities, religious reading and writing



Motivations for academic and religious reading and writing



Motivations for engaging in religious discussions, conceptions of the sacred and sacred texts



Processes for reading religious texts, personal evaluation of reading scripture, challenges of reading scripture



Processes for reading nonreligious texts, personal evaluation of reading non-religious texts, challenges of reading non-religious texts




Participant Observations

I began my 9-month observations with a broad survey of the community within which both congregations were situated. I drove around the community, walked the blocks surrounding each of the study sites, and collected descriptive data on each of the congregations and the focal community (Erickson, 1986). The nature of my observations in each congregation varied, based on the wishes of the respective congregational leaders. During my observations of the Latter-day Saints early morning seminary classes, which I attended three days per week, and their Sunday worship services I was asked to sit in the back, observe, and avoid interacting with students during class time. In these contexts I took on the role of observer because I was asked not to actively participate. When possible, I arrived early for the observations and stayed after the end of the scheduled class so that I could informally interact with the youths and the adults. The Methodist youth leaders allowed me to be as involved as I wanted during the Sunday morning and evening services. In these contexts I took on a more participative role than I did with the Latter-day Saints. Typically, I sat with youths during large- and small-group discussions, asked and answered questions, and led small-group discussions when invited by an adult leader. During these participative observation experiences, youths often told me about themselves, their peers, and made comments to me about the lessons.

In each site, I took detailed field notes based on my personal experiences as a (participant) observer, my direct observations of the youths in religious contexts, and the informal conversations that I had with youths and adults. My field notes contained descriptions of what I was experiencing, specifically what individual youth said and did, how and for what purposes they engaged with religious texts and textual practices, and the effect of these engagements (Emerson, Fretz, & Shaw, 1995). As another source of data, ethnographic observations in various religious settings permitted me to verify and challenge statements that the youths made during the interviews. Together, interviews and observations offered multiple perspectives on the youths motivated literacies and allowed me to identify and capture the cultural patterns related to their socially situated personal motivations for reading complex, religious texts.


Based on my reading of social and cultural theories and motivation and literacy research conducted within sociocultural perspectives, I posited that the youths religiocultural practices, beliefs, and traditions would manifest themselves in unique, denominational-specific representations of motivations for literacy. With this in mind, I began open coding a subsample of the interviews, looking for the youths socially situated personal motivations for engaging with religious texts, by denomination. Informed by methods of constant comparative analysis (Corbin & Strauss, 2008; Strauss & Corbin, 1990, 1998) the initial codes included applying scripture to my life, reading to learn about God and Jesus, it makes me stronger, and I read when Im really stressed out. These and the other codes were inductive and descriptive insofar as they came directly from the data and described the young peoples personal motivations for reading religious texts. This round of coding helped me identify numerous analytic codes from both denominations. I continued analyzing each denominations responses, looking for general patterns of motivation within their distinctive religiocultural traditions, and noting the frequency with which the patterns occurred in the interview subsample. To my surprise, the patterns in both denominations were much more similar than different, which supported the creation of a single, preliminary framework that captured the youths personal motivations for religious literacies across both denominations.

At this point in the analysis process I began to see that rather than finding denominational differences between Latter-day Saint and Methodist youths personal motivations for reading the Bible and the Book of Mormon, I may have captured a broad-level framework to explain the youths personal motivations for reading religious texts that transcended religious affiliation. Specifically, based on my analyses of the data I inferred that the youths shared ideological orientations toward scripture and the importance of scripture in their lives and their faiths had a greater influence on their motivations for reading religious texts than any single or set of unique denominational factors. In this way, personal, denominational motivations for reading religious texts appeared to be less salient for the youths in this study than were their shared motivations for reading them. Therefore, being motivated to read scripture like a Latter-day Saint or like a Methodist receded into the background as the youths shared ideologies about the importance of religious texts and their shared motivations to read them took center stage.

Next, I analyzed the observations and the rest of the interviews searching for evidence that could refine and challenge the framework as a whole and its individual components. In the observational field notes I focused specifically on the notes describing youths use of religious texts individually, in small groups, and as classes or congregations. This round of analysis further supported my inference that differences between the denominations motivations for literacy were indeed minimal, subject primarily to ostensibly minor variations in vocabulary. Methodist youths, for example, stated that they read religious texts to make it meaningful for me, and to have different ways [to] approach your life, whereas LDS youths stated that they read religious texts to apply it to my life, and to show how to live and how to have a good life. This part of the analysis process clarified and strengthened the development of a single framework to explain both denominations personal motivations for religious literacies. Continuing to think through the data, I made theoretical comparisons between the developing framework and previous research and scholarship on youth religiosity (Dean, 2010; Pearce & Denton, 2011; Smith & Denton, 2005), religious literacies (Eakle, 2007; Rackley, 2014; Sarroub, 2002), and motivation for literacy (Guthrie & Wigfield, 2006; Moje, 2006). I include examples of the coded categories in Table 3 and samples of coded transcripts in the Appendix. To ensure reliability, an independent coder analyzed samples of the data to identify the youths motivations for religious literacies. There was 94% agreement in assigning a category.

Table 3. Sample Transcription Coding



Learn (Ln)


     Gain knowledge (LnKnow)

I would say the main reason I read scripture is to learn. God has a lot of things to teach us or give us advice on and it seems that the way to learn what he wants to teach is to read the Bible. . . . Theres just so much knowledge to be gained from it. Thats why I read the Bible.

     Learn lessons (LnLsn)

You look for what [the] message [is]; what is the moral? What is the truth? Like getting kicked out of the Garden of Eden, you have to say, I didnt get kicked out of the Garden of Eden. There is nothing I could have done to get back in there, right now.  So its like whats the lesson here? Why is it relevant? And you say, Alright, if you lie and disobey God, [then] youre taking away something good and there are consequences. So, its finding what [the] message is.

     Excitement (LnExc)

When you understand concepts and you get excited! Thats the best part [of reading scripture].

     Understand religion (LnRel)

Trying to get a better background knowledge and understanding about what our religion is based on.

     Learn stories (LnSty)

I think it is important to learn about my religion partly just because I am fascinated by all the ideas and stories that it is made up of.  To me, there is so much that can be learned from the ways that Jesus lived. 

Apply (Ap)


     Approach life (ApApp)

You read it to benefit yourself somehow and for spiritual development and all different ways you approach your life.  Youre looking at it to somehow benefit you.

     Happy (ApHpy)

It is also important for me to apply the teachings of my religion to my life because I believe in them and I believe that they will help me and make me happier. 

     How to live (ApLive)

I mean, it has like principles and teachings about how to live and how to have a good life.

     Fulfilling (ApFul)

I feel it is important to apply these teachings to my life because I think that it will make me a better person and that I will have a more fulfilling life.

Strength (Str)


     Handle problems (StrProb)

If Im thinking about it for longer than right after I read it. Some Im pulling a lot of lessons from and some are just something small that I feel will help me with a problem in my life.  

     Stronger testimony (StrTest)

I think it strengthens my testimony of the Church.

     Spiritually healthy (StrHth)

Because youre supposed to stay spiritually healthy spiritually active.  

     Faithful (StrFaith)

The Book of Mormon is my root. . . . In a lot of ways it keeps me faithful. And it keeps me going.

     Better person (StrBtr)

Sometimes, like with my siblings Ill kind of be grumpy. Then Ill read the scriptures.

Comfort (Cm)


     Feel loved (CmLove)

Its kind of like love . . . . Kind of that kind of feeling.

     Feel good (CmGood)

And it seems like even if Ive goofed up, Im valuable to Godwhich is a good feeling.

     Feel better (CmBtr)

You kind of feel better after youve read [scripture].

     Feel peaceful (CmPcf)

Some youths are writing [in response to the question, How does it feel that Jesus did this for you and me?]. Vincent is air drumming quietly and surreptitiously on his leg. It is quiet in the room.  Vincent puts away his scriptures. Many youths keep their scriptures open as they write. The teacher says, Have you noticed that when we talk about the atonement it always feels more peaceful? Obviously, its the Spirit. I felt it today.

Connection to God (God)


     Closer to God (GodCl)

An adult begins by asking, What is the most important thing is that we can know? Students respond with That God loves us, He has a plan for us, and Hes always there for you.

     Talk to God (GodTalk)

To keep our faith strong and I dont know, like to remember things that happened and so we talk to Heavenly Father with questions with what we have read.

Note. Codes are as follows: Learn = Ln (Gain knowledge = LnKnow; Excitement = LnExc; Understand religion = LnRel; Learn stories = LnSty; Learn lesson = LnLsn); Apply = Ap (Approach life = ApApp; Happy = ApHpy; How to live = ApLive; Fulfilling = ApFul); Strength = Str (Handle problems = StrProb; Stronger testimony = StrTest; Spiritually healthy = StrHth; Faithful = StrFaith; Better person = StrBtr); Comfort = Cm (Feel loved = CmLove; Feel good = CmGood; Feel better = CmBtr; Feel peaceful = CmPcf); Connection to God = God (Closer to God = GodCl; Talk to God = GodTalk).

Analyses of interview and observational data allowed me to triangulate findings across multiple sources. In practice, the analysis process was iterative and disjointed as I revised and refined previous interpretations by continually comparing the emerging findings with forthcoming data. Moreover, I employed specific methods to enhance the trustworthiness of my single-researcher analyses. First, I immersed myself in the youths multiple religious environments over time to provide an added level of credibility to the data and findings, and reduce potential biases (Patton, 2002; Woods, 1992). Second, I engaged in member checking by sharing some of the developing findings with the participants and asking for their responses (Lincoln & Guba, 1985). The youths often used these opportunities to share additional experiences that supported or problematized my interpretations. Third, I subjected the developing codes to the scrutiny of my professional colleagues during research meetings and professional conferences. Peer scrutiny provided fresh perspectives that I may have overlooked and encouraged me to pursue potentially important lines of inquiry. The next section details the five components of the motivation for religious literacies framework developed from this analysis.


In sociocultural work it is theoretically suspect to separate participants from their social environments, and in this case, their texts. As such, the qualities that motivated these youths for reading religious texts were not found in scripture,3 per se; rather, they arose from youths social and cultural interactions with scripture. Because the young people in this study had experienced a lifetime of reading and valuing scripture as a source of guidance and inspiration, they were motivated to read these texts because they providing them with (a) knowledge about their religious tradition, (b) tools for applying religious knowledge to the lives, (c) strength to endure challenges, (d) comfort during stressful times, and (e) a connection to God. In practice, the youths social and cultural motivations for literacy did not always have clear boundaries. I attempt to capture the distinctiveness of each of these personal motivations and the ways in which they overlapped with each other by representing them graphically as interlocking spheres (see Figure 2).

Figure 2. Motivations for Religious Literacies




Learning from scripture was consistent with the cultural importance both congregations placed on scripture. They taught that scripture was inspired by God and that it should be revered, and studied. As such, every Latter-day Saint and Methodist religious service that I observed included reading and/or discussing scripture. Indeed, learning from scripture, or the message that one should learn from scripture, was ubiquitous across both congregations. Given the religiocultural power of scripture, it is not surprising that every Latter-day Saint and Methodist youth talked explicitly about the importance of learning from scripture as a motivation to read it. Some, like Priscilla (Latter-day Saint) and Sarah (Methodist), even stated that they read and struggled through scripture until they felt that they learned something important. Alex (Methodist) explained his motivation to read scripture in these words:

I would say the main reason I read scripture is to learn. God has a lot of things to teach us or give us advice on and it seems that the way to learn what he wants to teach is to read the Bible. . . . Theres just so much knowledge to be gained from it. Thats why I read the Bible.

Alex referred to this acquisition of knowledge as the best part of reading scripture. For Alex, the Bible was the principle repository of what God wanted people to know, so reading it was a way for God to communicate with him and teach him. By reading the Bible and learning what it had to teach, Alex and his peers were engaging in the historic religiocultural practice common to many faiths of seeking to know Gods word through scripture.

Stephen (Latter-day Saint), normally reserved in our interviews, became animated when talking about scripture. He said he read scripture because it helped him see messages4 and really understand . . . important concepts of the Church. When Stephen learned these messages and concepts, he said, You get excited! A cycle seems to have been created whereby Stephens positive experiences with learning from scripture motivated him to continue reading it. And when he read scripture he continued to have these experiences, which further motivated him to read. In terms of learning, Stephen and his peers in the Latter-day Saint and Methodist congregations were motived to read scripture for three specific reasons: Learning about their religion, learning important narratives, and learning life lessons.  

Learning About My Religion

Joshuas (Methodist) words are representative of the motivational quality youths placed on learning about their respective faiths. Joshua stated that he read scripture to better understand, you know, what religion is. He elaborated, saying that he read scripture, trying to get a better background knowledge and understanding about what our religion is based on. Joshua wanted to learn about religion in general and develop a deeper understanding of his particular religious tradition. Paul (Latter-day Saint) echoed Joshuas words, stating that he read scripture to gain a deeper understanding just of our religion in general, and why we do certain things. Joshua, Paul, and their peers wanted to know more about their religious beliefs, and they felt that scripture could help; therefore, they read it, searching for specific insights and knowledge.

Learning Stories

Priscilla (Latter-day Saint) said she read scripture because there are a lot of stories about, you know, people. Actual people. For Kate (Methodist), these peoples stories were important because they conveyed their experiences with God and Jesus. She said enthusiastically that the Bible was full of these stories! Scripture stories appeared to be such powerful influences in both congregations religiocultural experiences that in formal instructional contexts scripture stories formed the core text of study, with instruction often moving episodically from one story to another. Moreover, these stories were often present in the youths informal conversations. Frequently, during discussions outside of instructional time the youths in both congregations talked about scripture stories, peppering their exchanges with phrases, characters, and episodes from scripture. When they were younger, some Latter-day Saint youths even acted out key narratives from the Bible and the Book of Mormon to create scripture videos that they circulated among their Latter-day Saint peers. For these youths, learning the stories in scripture was an essential motivation to read scripture. But these stories were more than sequences of narrative events; they contained important messages.  

Learning Lesson-Stories

Youths were also motivated to read scripture because they believed that an important life lesson that people need to understand was tucked into every story (Jennifer, Methodist). Priscilla (Latter-day Saint), for example, read scripture, searching for principles because everything in scripture is written for a purpose, for us to take something out of it. Priscilla appeared to take this to heart. She stated that as she read scripture, she believed that it was her responsibility to find those principles that were deliberately included in scripture, and live them. Samantha (Latter-day Saint) offered an informative take on the lessons that one could find in scripture by calling them lesson-stories. Samanthas concept of lesson-story captured the moral and narrative qualities of scripture that drove her and her peers to read it. In a rich description of how he read scripture Daniel (Methodist) demonstrated how he found morals, or lessons to guide him:

You look for what [the] message [is]; what is the moral? What is the truth? Like getting kicked out of the Garden of Eden, you have to say, I didnt get kicked out of the Garden of Eden. There is nothing I could have done to get back in there, right now. So its like whats the lesson here? Why is it relevant? And you say, Alright, if you lie and disobey God, [then] youre taking away something good and there are consequences. So, its finding what [the] message is.

Here, Daniel demonstrated the mental processes he used and the types of questions he asked to make historically distant narratives meaningful for him. Personally, socially, and culturally the stories in scripture were important, primarily because they helped youths like Daniel capture the big ideas, and perhaps the modern-day relevance, embedded in the stories. As such, the religiocultural importance of scripture as an essential source of knowledge and truth motivated these youths to read it and study it.

Although they had their theological differences, both faiths taught that scripture was the Word of God and that one should learn what it had to say. Ideologically and materially, doing this endowed individual youths with a special type of socially significant grace that set them apart as knowledgeable and committed members of their congregations. For example, the Latter-day Saint teachers often commented favorably to me about certain young people who seemed to really know their stuff about the Church, its teachings, and scripture. The Latter-day Saint youths also spent class time committing passages of scripture to memory, reading long passages of scripture, and trying to learn what scripture said (Rackley, 2014). Moreover, during a youth worship service Daniel (Methodist) explained a complex idea about individuals relationship to God that he learned through his personal scripture study. Melinda, who was seated next to me, leaned over and said to me, Hes so smart. The director of youth ministries added, Very deep (field notes, November 9, 2008). Later in an interview, Daniel explained that he made this comment because he knew how important it was to know about his religion, and not just be social.

By knowing about their religious traditions and what scripture said, the youths in both congregations were enacting a religiocultural commitment that they may have been socialized into accepting as a valued part of their membership in their congregations. Specifically, these youths motivations to engage with religious literacies because of the knowledge they could develop, demonstrated their belief that knowing about their religious traditions, as found in scripture, was important to their faith communities. But this was not learning simply to gather information. Youths from both congregations were also motivated to study scripture and learn from it so that they could apply that knowledge to their lives; so that they could live what they learned.


Application of scripture was closely tied to learning from scripture and was also a key motivation for literacy. Although Latter-day Saint and Methodist youths did not always use the word apply, they communicated the concept of application when they talked about scripture providing different ways [to] approach your life, ways to live the standards, morals, and teachings of my church or as a tool to relate to your own experiences. As with learning, application was an important religiocultural motivation for engaging with scripture for all of the youths. The motivation to apply scripture was bound up in the youths desires to be certain types of people, namely good members of their faiths, both of which valued living ones religion.

Priscilla (Latter-day Saint) stated that scripture is the most applicable reading to my life. More so than school reading. She said that the principles and teachings from scripture showed her how to live and how to have a good life. Stephen (Latter-day Saint) stated that when he read scripture, I make sure that Im able to get a message from it and try and apply that in my life. Every other Latter-day Saint youth made similar claims about trying to apply scriptural knowledge. Echoing his peers, Jonathan (Latter-day Saint) stated, I would say that I think scriptures are more important than other books. When I asked him why, Jonathan said that through scripture, I can learn how to obey a certain commandment. Jonathan and his peers read scripture to learn how to be certain types of people by learning what scripture said and then applying that to their lives.

This learn-and-live ideology was a central element of Mormonism in this congregation, as demonstrated by almost every end-of-lesson prayer offered by youths and adults including some version of, help us apply this lesson to our lives. Furthermore, in informal conversations the teachers indicated that helping students live the gospel that they were learning from scripture was one of their highest priorities. Application of religious learning appeared to be a highly valued religiocultural belief that was closely tied to an aspiring sense of self insofar as reading and applying scripture helped the youths become the committed Latter-day Saints that they wanted to be. As such, the youths motivation for reading scripture may have been informed by their exposure to and experiences with this larger ideology of living ones religion by learning about it and applying the lessons learned. These Latter-day Saint youths experiences with their identity-oriented motivations for reading scripture were representative of Jennifers (Methodist) words: scripture kind of helps shape who you are. In this case, as they applied its teachings, reading scripture appeared to help shape these young people into examples of devoted Latter-day Saints.

Alex (Methodist) explained that what he learned from scripture influenced his own morals and values. He provided an example from the New Testament:

It is about how Lazareth had a broken leg, I believe, and everyone was trying to get into see Jesus so that they could be healed. Lazareth was taken to Jesus by his friend on a stretcher but there was no room and too many people for Lazareth's friend to take him in to be healed. They ended up making a hole in the roof and sending Lazareth down to Jesus.  Jesus healed him. This is what true friends would really do for one another. It's the friend that I try to be.

Although the episode that he conveyed was narratively different than the one contained in the Gospels,5 Alexs point was clear: This was a story of friendship, and he wanted to be the type of friend exemplified in it. This is an interesting take on this biblical episode because narratively the mans friends are incidental to the passage, yet that was Alexs focus. He saw himself as the friend, helping in a time of need. Alexs reading of this passage was not wrong; rather, by focusing on the mans friends Alex showed that he brought his own purposes, interests, and social values to help him interpret the passage in a personally meaningful way. Specifically, this episode provided Alex with an example of the lengths true friends would go to help each other. And it had impact. Alex thought about it, and concluded that he wanted to be a different, and better, person after hearing this story.

Given the highly social and accepting nature of his particular Methodist congregation, where there were no put downs, (field notes, April 5, 2009) or wrong answers, (field notes, September 28, 2008) and where mutual respect was highly valued (field notes, January 25, 2009), Alexs desire to be the type of friend who would go to great lengths to help someone may have been informed by similar values that he experienced over time in his congregation and that he was socialized into believing were important for him to emulate. Melinda recognized the importance of feeling accepted by her religious peers when she called church, a total lifeline for the average teenager. Indeed, as I entered this particular religious community as a researcherand, in some ways, as an outsiderI was struck by the warmth with which I was received. Friendship and acceptance seemed to be a guiding ideology of this congregation, which may have influenced the manner in which Alex chose to interpret this biblical passage and how he wanted to apply it to his life.

If learning from scripture was about learning how to live ones life, then applying scripture was about living ones life in religioculturally appropriate ways within the boundaries of the youths specific religious ideologies and traditions. Speaking of the power of scripture in her life, Sarah (Methodist) said, Sometimes you dont even realize it, but I have certain morals or beliefs because of those stories (emphasis in original). For Sarah and her religious peers, learning the words and trying to live the lessons in scripture were important motivations for reading scripture, in part, because they helped them become, as they argued, better people.


Scripture was a source of power that helped the young people in this study be faithful and spiritually strong. Jonah (Latter-day Saint), for example, stated that reading scripture strengthened my testimony of the Church. Samantha (Latter-day Saint) said that scripture reading keeps your faith strong. Timothy (Latter-day Saint) summarized the strength that he received from scripture when he said scripture helped him stay spiritually healthy spiritually active. Because Timothy and his peers valued adherence to their religious beliefs, values, and practices the power that scripture provided them to live those beliefs was essential, and motivating.

Sophia (Latter-day Saint) alluded to the strength she received from scripture when she said that the Book of Mormon is my root. . . . In a lot of ways it keeps me faithful. And it keeps me going. Faithful for Sophia meant living by the guidelines of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. During our interviews, Sophia talked to me about people in her high school who were guided by ideologies much different than her own. She felt, at times, conflicted, wanting to be like them and do the things that they did, but also wanting to remain true to her religious beliefs (see Reyes, 2009). I asked Sophia how she coped with these conflicting feelings. She said that reading her scriptures helped because they allow me to improve myself. For Sophia, scripture helped ameliorate the tensions she experienced living in two seemingly conflicting worlds by helping her become a better person, ostensibly, a better Mormon. Importantly, as an anchor for her identity as a Latter-day Saint, Sophia felt that scripture gave her the strength to resist the pressure to do things that she felt were inconsistent with being the type of Latter-day Saint that she wanted to be. And she knew what it was like to not be that type of person. Years prior to the beginning of this study, Sophia had lived a life very much like her high school peers until her family came back to church, and her life changed, as she said, for the better. According to Sophia, scripture was a source of power from which she drew to endure in her faith, improve herself, and continue to live the life that she had chosen as a faithful Latter-day Saint.

The strength Sophia received from scripture echoed Sarahs (Methodist) experiences. She said, I love the Bible. It just absolutely fascinates me what you can find it in: Just a simple sentence or verse that can stick out in your mind. I asked Sarah for an example of when this happened and she shared an experience from the end of her first semester at college:

I just found one. Lets see if I can remember it. I want to say its Psalm 18:28-32. I think thats what it is. Because I was getting really frustrated at the end of school, like I was just so tired. The work was getting so hard and just . . . . I just found a lot of strength in those verses . . . . I was just flipping through and thinking about you know, asking God like, I need something. I want a direction. I need you here.

Away from family and close friends for the first time and struggling under the weight of final exams as an engineering major, Sarah went to the Bible for strength. Her previous experiences with the Bible when she was feeling frustrated, tired, and really stressed out led her to believe that it would help now, when she was in a new place, experiencing new struggles. And by Sarahs account, it did help. By reading the Bible she just found a lot of strength to endure the challenges she was facing. The strength that Sarah received from the Bible during her first semester of college and when she was growing up as a Methodist, provided repeated evidence that as she read it and studied it she could draw power from it when she needed it. Experiences like these drove Sarah to state that when she struggled, scripture had the power to bring me back to my core [and] center myself.

Kind and unassuming, Jonathan (Latter-day Saint) reported that he received similar help to be a better person because he read scripture regularly. I asked him what scripture did for him:  


It helps me in, like, everyday life because I have those blessings from Heavenly Father for reading my scriptures.


Can you think of an example of how it helps you in your life?


Well, I just tend to have a better day and Im less grumpy, I guess.


You get grumpy?


[Laughs]. Sometimes, like with my siblings Ill kind of be grumpy. Then

Ill read the scriptures. And if Im, like, really focused on my scriptures, then I can have a better day.

Reading scripture could change Jonathans attitude, specifically it could improve his day and help him be more patient with his three younger siblings. In fact, Jonathan often read scripture because he wanted to change the way he felt. One of his motivations for reading, therefore, was to rid himself of what he considered inappropriate feelings or actions toward his family members, which may have been brought on by experiences at school or the stresses of preparing to move to another state. As he read scripture, Jonathan was conducting a sort of religious experiment, paying close attention to when the blessings of scripture reading were manifest. He said that the blessings came when he was really focused on my scriptures. Casual reading did not seem to produce the results that Jonathan valued. It took effort on his part to receive the strength to be a good brother and son, keep the commandments, and do the right thing. Through honest, focused, scripture reading, Jonathan felt that he received the help he needed from God to be the type of person that he wanted to be, even when it was difficult.

Of all the resources Methodist and Latter-day Saint youths had for remaining faithful and spiritually strong, scripture was one of the most influential because it gave them power to act in ways that they believed were beyond their individual capacities. In a word, scripture helped them become the types of people they wanted to bemore faithful, centered, and patient. For these youths, reading scripture during difficult times allowed them to harness divine power to endure the challenges of teenage life, which was an important motivation to continue reading it.   


Developing peace in ones life was consistent with the purpose of the religious instruction in both congregations. On several occasions teachers and adult leaders indicated that they sought to make religious contexts comfortable places for young people to engage in religious learning. Seminary for the Latter-day Saints, youth fellowship for the Methodists, and Sunday school for both of them were intentionally designed as respites from the struggles that youths may have been facing at home, school, or elsewhere. Melindas statement about church being a total lifeline for the average teenager seems applicable here because it captures how comfortable she felt at worship services and how she perceived others feeling about them as well. Across both congregations, youths in this study were troubled by peer and familial relationships, crises of faith, angst about their academic standings and college admissions, and a host of other stressors common to many teenagers. During these difficult times scripture was not far away. Like the religious contexts that were designed to help youths feel safe and accepted, scripture was also held up as a source of positive feelings, like comfort and love. The comfort that the youths received from scripture was a motivational element closely tied, but distinct from the strength that they received. As a source of strength, scripture could give them power to act in certain ways, overcome challenges, and become certain types of people. As a source of comfort, scripture could make the youths feel good, even loved, in part because both denominations believed that it was a sacred text, even the Word of God.  

Daniel (Methodist) explained that he read the Bible because, Theres definitely comforting verses that can make you feel good. He talked specifically about the story of the Prodigal Son found in Saint Luke, chapter 156:

Its nice.  It is sort of comforting to know that no matter how much you mess up, God wants you as soon as you turnaround and sort of start working back towards him. . . . The lost sheep, the bad brotherthe brother that left, Ill saythey goofed up and yet God found them extremely valuable.  And it seems like even if Ive goofed up, Im valuable to Godwhich is a good feeling.

Similar to the lesson-stories identified previously, Daniel extracted a specific moral from this narrative that he applied to his life, but this time Daniel explained how this application made him feel. Realizing that he could return to Godas the Prodigal Son returned to his fatherby working through his goof-ups, made Daniel feel good. It comforted him to believe that God valued him, wanted him, and loved him no matter how much you mess up. These feelings of spiritual well-being appeared to motivate Daniel to continue to engage with scripture.

Jonah (Latter-day Saint) expressed similar feelings about why he read scripture. You kind of feel better after youve read it he said. Then, struggling to find the right words to explain, Jonah said, You feel better after youve kind of . . . .  Its kind of like love . . . . Kind of that kind of feeling. Taking a moment to organize his thoughts, Jonah continued, You read scripture because it brings you closer to the gospel and you just kind of get this feeling that comes over you when you do, that youre doing something right. Reading scripture made Jonah feel better, loved, closer to God, and that he was doing the right thing. In another interview Jonah explained that he had read almost all of the Latter-day Saint standard works, some 2,500 pages of scripture. When I asked him why, he said, It seemed like the right thing to do. This notion of doing the right thing when he read scripture was part of a cultural practice that was so ingrained in Jonah that he had internalized the act of reading scripture as a moral and religious imperative. Part of Jonahs motivation to read scripture seemed to rest in his belief that it was morally correct; yet, as with young people in both congregations, Jonahs motivation to read scripture may have also been tied to the larger denominational belief in the Bible as a sacred text. For Jonah, reading scripture was what practicing, faithful Latter-day Saint youths did.

In fact, Jonah was so eager to recapture these feelings of comfort and love that he felt when he read scripture that after school he completed his homework like, as fast as possible so that he could read more scripture. By the time he began high school, Jonah had read nearly all of the Latter-day Saint scripture; yet, he was failing or nearly failing most of his classes in school. I asked Jonah about his experiences reading for school:


How often do you read things for school?


I have to read every day.


Why do you read things for school?


Because were told to.


Any other reason?


No [laughs].


Whats the best part about these things you read for school?


I dont really like it.


No best part?


No best part.

Jonahs attitudes about school reading contrasted sharply with his motivation for reading scripture. Its kind of like love is worlds apart from [I read] because were told to. Rushing through homework to read scripture is vastly different from reading for school out of compulsion. These two types of reading, for Jonah, were distinct and motivated quite differently. In our interviews, Jonah expressed none of the positive feelings about school reading that he associated with scripture reading.

In the end, one of the reasons Jonah, Daniel, and others were motivated to read scripture was because of the way it made them feel. Growing up in their faiths, these youths had been taught that religion, religious contexts, and religious texts could help them feel safe, accepted, and comforted. The following example from a Latter-day Saint early morning seminary class demonstrates one way youths were taught to associate positive feelings with scripture. As part of the class, the teacher read a passage from the Book of Mormon (Alma 7:11-13, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1981a) about Jesus sacrifice for sin. He talked about it for a few minutes and then asked the students to respond to the following question in their notebooks, How does it make me feel that Jesus did this for you and me? As the students wrote, the teacher said, Have you noticed that when we talk about the atonement it always feels more peaceful? (field notes, January 12, 2009).

I observed a similar experience connecting religious practice with feelings of peace and love in the Methodist congregation. This experience occurred in the sanctuary/chapel and served as the culmination of their lesson about Gods transformational power in our lives.

[The Director of Youth Ministries] says, We believe in a God of mercy and miracles. She invites us to take the slips of paper in the pews and write down the things that weigh upon your souls. She says, Relieve your burdens. Write them down and know that you are forgiven. Youths are very quiet as they write. . . . We begin singing Amazing Grace as youths and adults write down their burdens and lay them on the altar. . . . Slowly, youths begin to file out of the pews and toward the altar. Then they go in a large, constant wave, some moving forward, others returning to their seats. Joshua puts his arm around his sister as they walk back from the altar. . . . When we finish singing Amazing Grace the second time [the Director] stands up and says, Go forward free from sin (field notes, January 11, 2009).

Later that night I asked some of the youths about this experience. They talked reverently about it with me, and all of their responses suggested the positive influence this experience had on them. Some said that this experience made them feel clean, loved, and happy. Another said, It helped me feel closer to God (field notes, January 11, 2009). The positive feelings associated with this religious practice, and with the Latter-day Saints scripture reading, were not isolated to these two experiences. Indeed, both of these examples are representative of other experiences that demonstrate the important place of certain types of feelings in these congregation. Feeling safe, comforted, loved, and accepted, for example, were highly valued and often associated with religious texts and contexts. As such, the youths in the study actively looked for, or were at least attentive to, these feelings when they read scripture, and they tried to keep them with them for as long as they could.


Establishing a relationship with divinity was a centerpiece of both congregations religious, social, and cultural practices. Instructionally, teachers often brought lessons about such topics as cheating, reciprocity, or sexuality back to ones relationship with God or ones willingness to follow Gods commandments (field notes, January 18, 2009; January 25, 2009). One example that represents the importance of being close with God took place during a Sunday morning lesson in a class entitled Fruits of the Spirit. To begin the lesson an adult asked the thirteen students in attendance, What is the most important thing that we can know? The students responded with, That God loves us, He has a plan for us, and Hes always there for you (field notes, December 7, 2008). Interestingly, all of these initial responses focused on what the youths believed God was like; specifically, loving, interested in their lives, and always available. These insights about God, they believed, were the most important things that [they] could know, suggesting the critical place God occupied in their everyday religious lives and their understanding of the importance of being close to God.

Even on special occasions like baptism the focus on connecting with God was clear. The Latter-day Saints, for example, taught that at baptism individuals covenanted to stand as witnesses of God at all times and in all things, and in all places . . . . and serve [God] and keep his commandments (Mosiah 18:9-10, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1981a). At baptism, Methodists promised to keep Gods holy will and commandments and walk in the same all the days of [their] life (field notes, June 7, 2009). Moreover, for both denominations, Communion (for Methodists) and the sacrament (for Latter-day Saints) was a religiocultural remembrance of the relationship with divinity that one established during ordinances such as baptism. Each Sunday both congregations took the sacrament or Communion of bread and water covenanting to take upon themselves the name of Christ, always remember him, and keep his commandments. And scripture reading was one of the literacy practices that the youths believed would continue to strengthen that relationship and keep them close to divinity.

Youths from both denominations read scripture because they believed that it drew them closer to God. Stephen (Latter-day Saint) was very clear on this point. He stated that scripture does help to connect me with God. Kate (Methodist) said that scripture helped her understand . . . who Christ was and better understand the nature of God. To help me understand why he read scripture, Jonah (Latter-day Saint) explained even though I might have never like met God in personI still know hes watching over me and stuff.  I feel like I should respect him in that way, and like I should try to get closer to him. Although veiled in this statement, the phrase, in that way in the context of our interview referred to reading scripture. For Jonah, reading scripture was one way that he could demonstrate his respect for God and get closer to him. Alex (Methodist) made a similar statement about why he read scripture: I dont want to say duty, but I feel like I owe it to God to kind of read his literary work. Although Alex did not explicitly state he read scripture to connect with God, he indicated that he was motivated to read it out of a sense of responsibility toward God, implying a relationship with God that in some way he hoped to cultivate through engagement with his Word. One reason that this may have been important to Alex and some of his peers was that it could help him become the kind of person that he wanted to be, namely a better friend, a more committed Methodist, and a more faithful Christian.

Periodically, the youths in this study had the opportunity to attend religious camps or activities at or away from home for several days. These camps were designed, in part, to (re)connect the youths with God, which happened primarily through engagement with scripture. One example of how the youths were helped to connect with God through scripture was the scripture study packet Sarah (Methodist) shared with me from a recent religious camp she attended. The packet was titled, Truth Will Set You Free. In 15 half-pages, the packet was broken into 9 days, with each day focusing on the truth about something, a brief explanation of the selected truth, scriptures to read, questions to answer about the scriptures, and projects to complete.

Several of the truths were clearly focused on divinity or scripturethe truth about God, the truth about Jesus, and the truth about the Bible, for example. Yet, even the truths that may not have explicitly sounded like they were focused on divinity, such as the truth about us, the truth about the new you, the truth about stuff, the truth about love and sex, and the truth about death, were explained through the use of scripture in relationship to divinity. For example, the truth about us focused on how God created people as recorded in the Book of Genesis in the Bible, the cost of sin or going against Gods word, and how one can find the remedy for sin by seeking Gods forgiveness. To understand the truth about us, the scriptures and questions for this day focused entirely on ones relationship with divinity. Therefore, the youths who used this packet were taught, through the use of selected scriptures, to understand their own identities, and other aspects of life (stuff, love, sex, and death) in terms of their relationship with God. In this way, connecting with God through scripture took center stage, which was reasonable because getting to know God for the young people in this study represented the ideal direction and intention of ones life and provided a means with which to measure the quality of ones life. In a word, the heart and soul of their religious instruction seemed to be about developing their relationship with divinity. I asked Sarah how she felt about these camps and the scripture study packets, in particular. She said that she enjoyed the camps and the packets because they helped her make new friends, learn about her religion and herself, and because she felt that she understood God better by the time she got home. As an expression of the motivational quality of drawing closer to God, engaging with scripture was critically important for these youths.

The tremendous social and cultural space God occupied in these faiths is difficult to capture; yet, one measure of it is seen in the frequent and powerful ways that scripture and God came together for these youths. Simply put, the young people in this study read scripture, in part, to connect with God. One reason that this was so importantso centralto their faith was that drawing closer to God could enable one to be with God forever. I asked Stephen to talk about the best part of reading scripture. He described getting excited [about the] concepts he was learning from scripture and then explained that one should read scripture because you want to be able to return to the celestial kingdom and be with Heavenly Father. In Mormonism, the celestial kingdom is the highest of the three heavenly kingdoms. It is the place where God lives and will be the home of all those who are just and true (Doctrine and Covenants 76:53, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1981b). Although Methodists do not share a belief in graduated levels of heaven, for the youths in both of these congregations, knowing God now could mean being with God in the eternities that followed this mortal existence. And one of the singularly important ways to develop that relationship with God was through reading scripture.


In the field of literacy there are no substantive theories or descriptions that explain how and why religious youths may be motivated for religious literacies. Given the ubiquity of religion worldwide, the power of religion in young peoples lives, and the prominence that making sense of religious texts holds for faith-based communities, developing a clearer understanding of religious literacies and the motivations that drive them may be particularly important. This study contributes to literacy research by demonstrating the manner in which religious youths are motivated to engage with religious texts and how these motivations are informed by their religiocultural ideologies, traditions, and practices. Collectively, these motivations helped explain why the young people in this study engaged so readily with complex and anachronistic religious texts. Analyzing young peoples personal motivations for religious literacies has raised some issues that seem critical to current work in literacy. I close by exploring some implications of the present study for literacy research, theory, and instruction.


This study has implications for theorizing the nature of motivation for literacy as informed by reader, text, and contextual factors (Moje, 2006). The current study contributes to literacy research by being the first to use this model to explore motivations for religious literacies. This suggests that Mojes conceptualization of motivated literacies may have implications for a wide variety of research exploring how and why young people engage with texts within specific sociocultural contexts. Far from being a zero-sum proposition, motivation is textured insofar as young people are not simply motivated or unmotivated for literacy. Young peoples motivations for literacy can be influenced by (a) the experiences, attitudes, and skills that they bring to their work with texts, (b) textual factors such as language, style, coherence, and structure, (c) contextual factors such as classroom and peer group norms, instructional activities and purposes, and larger political, economic, and educational climates, and (d) the interaction of these factors over time and from one place to another. As demonstrated in this article, theorizing motivation for literacy from a reader, text, contexts perspective may be a rich source of future motivational research, particularly as it is situated within specific communities of literate practice.

Given that the youths in this study engaged in religious literacies that appeared to be informed by their religiocultural ideologies, the current research may also provide a theoretical entry point into further study on the relationships that exist among religious ideology, motivation, and literacy practice. Future research could explore the nature of these relationships in various religious congregations, with various religious texts, and with attention to specific religious ideologies. One could, for example, study the influence of American Evangelicals conceptions of grace, or divinity, or works on youths motivations for reading the Bible. Or the manner in which Muslim youths socially constructed views of sacred texts inform their motivations for reading it, in various contexts. Future work could also investigate the relationship itself, exploring the manner in which religious ideologies, motivation, and literacy practice interact with one another in various social settings for various religious youths. Work of this sort could provide additional insight into the nature of religious youths socially situated motivations for literacy.

Furthermore, the current study demonstrates that religious youths are motivated to read religious texts, even when these texts are highly complex. As such, religious youths may be a rich source to further explore the motivations that drive young people to engage with complex texts in religious and other settings, including school. Recent research demonstrates that religion and religious literacies influence the manner in which students make sense of academic material (Poveda et al., 2005; Reyes, 2009; Skerrett, 2013), but what influence do their religiously situated motivations have in school? Or more to the point, how do their motivations for reading religious texts influence students motivations for engaging with academic texts? Given the muscle of religious youths motivations for engaging with conceptually dense and historically rich religious texts more work that explores if and how this occurs in other contexts could deepen our knowledge of young peoples motivations for engaging with various types of complex texts.

Moreover, future literacy research in religious settings could validate, nuance, or challenge the motivation for religious literacies framework presented in this study. Does this framework only describe the motivations of the young people from these two congregations, or is it robust enough to explain the motivations for literacy of young people from other faiths? Can adding or nuancing various components provide a more generalizable explanation of young peoples motivations for engaging with religious texts? Future research could also explore the secularization of this motivational framework by investigating how and to what extent young people outside of religious settings and apart from religious purposes may be motivated to engage with complex texts to gain knowledge, apply this knowledge to their lives, receive strength to overcome personal challenges, find comfort or peace, and connect with a higher power or something or someone beyond themselves.


This study also has implications for how literacy instructors conceptualize motivation for literacy in their classrooms. As most educators know, students motivations for literacy ebb and flow across a text, throughout a literacy lesson, and over the course of their experiences with various meaning making practices. As a model for understanding religious youths motivations for literacies, the five elements of the motivational framework presented in this study can help literacy educators see young peoples motivations as dynamic, complex, and variously informed by their own experiences with and purposes for reading texts, the social nature and cultural value of reading texts and the texts themselves, contextualized activities involving texts, and the larger social, economic, and political contexts of schools, communities, and religious traditions. For example, rather than viewing a students lack of motivation for reading a textbook in terms of the boring nature of the text, a literacy educator can draw upon a sociocultural conceptualization of motivated literacies to see this situation in terms of (a) the students attitudes, interests, and religious and personal experiences for engaging with a certain genre of text, (b) how she might employ specific literacy tasks or activities to more purposefully and meaningfully connect the student with the text, and (c) what peer group, religious, or community influences might be effecting the students motivation for reading this text, in this context, for this academic purpose. This certainly has the ability to complexify motivation for literacy; yet, it can provide educators with a robust view of what may drive their students (dis)engagement with the complex texts and demanding literacy skills and practices necessary for academic achievement in todays schools.

This study also has implications for how literacy educators practice motivating their students for literacy. Indeed, this study demonstrates that youths were motivated to read socially and culturally important texts in part because they believed that these texts could ameliorate the personal, familial, academic, and broader economic challenges in many of their lives. This knowledge can guide educators careful selection and use of texts that can empower young people to take on the challenges that they face. Specifically, educators could provide opportunities for their students to identify, analyze, evaluate, and further explore the empowerment messages in the texts that they read for a variety of academic courses. Educators could also highlight the manner in which texts were created or developed to help students see the empowerment messages embedded in these texts histories. Texts as agents of empowerment can guide youths through their struggles, help them find resources to understand their challenges, and give them power to bear them. Moreover, as literacy educators are thoughtful about selecting and using texts that can provide students with some tools for managing their challenges, they may find that students are more readily engaged with these texts even though they may be conceptually dense, linguistically rich, and highly complex. As Haberman (2011) argues, working daily to motivate students for learning is one of the distinguishing characteristics of high quality teachers. In this vein, the present study provides educators with a more comprehensive understanding of the motivations that may drive a sizable population of students and, therefore, give educators greater access to knowledge about how to motivate their students for engaging with complex texts.

One of the ways that religious communities influence individuals faith development is through the use of sacred texts (Watt & Fairfield, 2008). For religious educators, this study has implications for the manner in which they motivate young people to engage with these texts, which, as Watt and Fairfield argue, may be used to develop their faith. Specifically, religious educators may wish to intentionally address motivation in their literacy instruction with youths to engage them more readily with sacred texts. Explicit attention to the manner in which religious educators might motivate youths to navigate these texts may add an important instructional layer to the more common focus on content, and may actually improve youths learning of religious content insofar as motivation can mediate instruction and learning (Guthrie & Wigfield, 2000). Furthermore, religious educators might wish to more clearly explore the motivations that seem to drive the youths in their congregations. This local approach to identifying motivations for religious literacies may provide a more sensitive and nuanced approach to motivating youths for religious literacies because it has the ability to attend to the specific motivations of individual youths, which may or may not be the same as youths in other contexts who engage with other religious texts.

Although religion and literacy have a long history together, it has not been without its tensions (Nord, 1995; Prothero, 2007) in part because of ostensibly conflicting social and cultural commitments. As such, literacy educators must be careful about uncritically incorporating young peoples out-of-school literacy practices and motivations into academic contexts. A faithful Latter-day Saints belief about the Bible being the word of God, for example, may motivate her to read the Bible, but the same belief may be at odds with critically examining the Bible as part of a literary analysis, critiquing the Bibles role in imperialist campaigns in a history course, accepting the spiritual validity of other sacred texts during a social studies lesson, or making a compelling argument for removing the Ten Commandments from municipal buildings for a civics assignment. Although this study has clear and important implications for literacy research, theory, and practice, indiscriminate implementation of religiously situated motivations for literacy can have unintended costs, such as the reification of socially intolerant and prejudiced worldviews that can undermine a robust, liberal literacy curriculum. Indeed, the knowledge produced through this research can inform the field of literacy, but it must be used wisely and prudently.


This research adds to the limited number of empirical studies that explore religious literacies and the even smaller number that attend theoretically and methodologically to motivation for religious literacies. Moje (2006) argued that it is crucial that the field of literacy has a stronger grasp of adolescents motivations for literacy so that we might reshape contexts and either rewrite or scaffold the texts . . . to better support adolescent engagement in reading and writing (p. 11). Surely, this call extends to a wide variety of adolescents, including those who hold strong cultural commitments to religious ideologies and traditions. This study has provided a space to explore these religiocultural commitments as they interact with literacy and motivation in order to understand the nature of motivation for religious literacies from the point of view of the young people who are actually engaged with these texts and literate practices. This study is also intended to stimulate discussion about religious literacies, motivations for religious literacies, and the role of religion in literacy research and practice in order to explore how literacies and motivations develop across a wider range of social and cultural contexts. Therefore, developing a deeper understanding of religious youths literate practices and motivations may provide valuable insight in working with other young people who demonstrate strong cultural commitments for literacy, about whom we may know very little.


1. Smith and Denton (2005) report that approximately 85% of young people in the United State consider themselves, in varying degrees, religious.

2. Seminary is a 4-year religious curriculum that high-school-aged Latter-day Saints are encouraged to complete. Each year focuses on a different area of study that coincides with Latter-day Saint scripture: Old Testament, New Testament, Book of Mormon, and Church History (The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter- Day Saints, n.d.a.). For the youths in this study, seminary was held from 6:207:15 a.m. every school-day.

3. I use scripture in the findings section to represent the religious texts used in both congregations. Changing from the previously used religious texts to scripture represents a conceptual shift from a general reference to sacred texts to a more specific manifestation of the sacred texts that were used in these religiocultural settings. Moreover, the youths and adults in the study used the word scripture when talking about their sacred texts, so the shift also honors the congregations socially situated language.

4. Timothy (Latter-day Saint) referred to messages he got from scripture as spiritual messages.

5. Alexs description is incorrect on a number of counts. First, in the New American Standard Bible that Alex read most often, the man Alex referred to was called Lazarus, not Lazareth. However, Alex could have read other translations that refer to him as Lazareth, but this is unlikely because the most common English translations of the Bible use the name Lazarus. Second, the sequence of events Alex described does not coincide with Lazarus (who Jesus raised from the dead in John 11); instead, the events coincide with an unnamed man whose friends lowered him through a hole in a roof so that Jesus could heal him. Third, the unnamed man did not have a broken leg. Matthew 9:2 and Luke 5:18 state that he was afflicted with some form of paralysis. However, Alex was correct on his main point: a mans friends got him access to Jesus.

6. The Prodigal Son is about a young man who takes his inheritance and wastes it in lavish living, only to return to his father to ask for forgiveness. His father forgives him and throws a party to celebrate his return. The Prodigal Sons older brother, who stayed home serving his father, is upset by his fathers generous reception of his wayward brother.


I would like to thank the young people who participated in this study for their generosity. I also want to thank the anonymous reviews of Teachers College Record for their insightful critiques of this manuscript.


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Note. Codes are as follows: Learn = Ln (Gain knowledge = LnKnow; Excitement = LnExc; Understand religion = LnRel; Learn stories = LnSty; Learn lesson = LnLsn); Apply = Ap (Approach life = ApApp; Happy = ApHpy; How to live = ApLive; Fulfilling = ApFul); Strength = Str (Handle problems = StrProb; Stronger testimony = StrTest; Spiritually healthy = StrHth; Faithful = StrFaith; Better person = StrBtr); Comfort = Cm (Feel loved = CmLove; Feel good = CmGood; Feel better = CmBtr; Feel peaceful = CmPcf); Connection to God = God (Closer to God = GodCl; Talk to God = GodTalk).

Sample Transcription Coding of Interview Response 1

I: Why do you read religious things?
R: Hmm. Its a good question . . . . Im trying to read the Bible because I want a better understand, you know, what religion is (LnRel).

I: So, let me just restate to make sure I understood what you said. So, the Bible you read because you want to understand it, not necessarily because its part of a class.

R: Yeah. Like right now Im trying to read through the Bible.

I: Mhm.

R: I havent done that for awhile. I should get back on that, but just trying to get a better background knowledge and understanding about what our religion is based on (LnRel).

I: How is your Bible reading going?
R: Not too much progress since last week, or last time. I got more time in the summer.

I: Yeah, isnt that great.

R: Mhm.

I: Whats the best part about the things that you read for you religion?
R: I like how sometimes you can learn things, like you know moral lessons [that] may be a little more like helpful or guiding than youd get out of, say, a novel or a textbook (LnLsn). Your math or physics textbook wont really tell you what you should do and why you should do it. It just kind of tells you how things work. So, its kind of cool to get some information on that.

I: What does your religious reading do for you?
R: Ive learned about what my religions stands for and how they practice in different ways (LnRel). Ive learned a number of things from it.

Sample Transcription Coding of Interview Response 2

I: Why do you read things these religious things?
R: To keep our faith strong (StrFaith) and I dont know, like to remember things that happened and so we talk to Heavenly Father with questions with what we have read we know what were talking about (GodTalk).

I: Why does it matter to you? Well, when you say to remember things that happen. What sorts of things are you thinking about?
R: Bible stories and parables (LnSty) and the order of events.

I: Why does it matter to you to remember these things?
R: If were talking about the story of like Adam and Eve and everyone knows it except me in a Sunday School class and we have to go over it just for me, but, and its also good because I need you to apply the stories to your life (Ap).

I: Mhm. Okay. So, what do you get out of the things that you read for religious purposes?
R: Insight. A different kind of knowledge than the kind of knowledge we read in school (LnKnow). But the two are kind of similar. I dont really absorb the information very well or know whats going on until someone explains it for me or breaks it down.

Sample Transcription Coding of Interview Response 3

I: Why do you read these things?
R: Why do I read them?
I: Yeah.

R: I think in this case, it does make you a more well-rounded person (StrBtr) and it keeps you rooted in your faith (StrFaith). Yeah.

I: Okay. I like that phrase, It keeps you rooted in your faith. Whats the best part about the things that you read for you church or your religion?
R: The best part? Like about them itself, or like what I get out of it?
I: The best part about reading these things.
R: Best part about reading . . . . I would guess . . . . I think kind of like the feeling that you get about them. Like, you may be reading the right thing. You could be spending your time doing something else, but . . . . And you can, I mean, I learn lessons from them all the time (LnLsn).

I: Oh, what types of lessons?
R: Spiritual types of lessons (LnLsn). I dont know how specific you want me to get.

I: Im just asking a bunch of questions Ive organized here just to see what you connect to, what you dont connect to. Like I said, Im not looking for anything, I just want your insights.

R: Okay. Yeah, I guess spiritual lessons about what I can be doing better (StrBtr; Ap).

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 118 Number 11, 2016, p. 1-50
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 21603, Date Accessed: 10/26/2021 1:36:04 AM

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About the Author
  • Eric Rackley
    Brigham Young University-Hawaii
    E-mail Author
    ERIC D. RACKLEY is an assistant professor in the School of Education at Brigham Young University-Hawaii. His research and writing focus on disciplinary literacies and religious youths’ literacy practices and the motivation the drive them. His recent publications include “Scripture-Based Discourses of Latter-day Saint and Methodist Youths” (Reading Research Quarterly) and “How Young Latter-day Saints Read the Scriptures: Five Profiles (Religious Educator).
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