This is a big question for intermediate readers. Sometimes, they don't even know the motives behind their own actions! (Dealing with an indoor recess squabble--"Why did you do that?" Student: "I don't know!)
Because our reading homework text this week focused on "Theseus and the Minotaur", I decided this was the perfect time to examine this question. After all, there are big questions of motive in "Theseus and the Minotaur"!
A character's motive can be implied or stated--and it's important for readers to know the difference. I modeled reading to find the difference between implied motives and stated motives with our read-aloud, Fair Weather. I just love this book! It seems that no matter what I want to teach, I can find it in the books of Richard Peck.
This year I've been keeping a daily log of our reading with the Promethean board, which makes a handy flipchart and a great way for us to keep track of our thinking as we read. After we read the day's chapter, we talked about the actions of the characters. What were their motives--their reasons for doing what they did?
A quick chart showing action and motive can illustrate this. Intermediate readers sometimes try to write the same statement for both action and motive. This reveals a bit of where they are developmentally---they confuse action with reason behind the action. In the chart to the right, it took a bit of discussion before students stopped restating Granddad's action and started guessing at his motives.
We put question marks behind these motives to show that we were guessing at them. These motives are implied in the text, and as readers we had to make inferences to figure them out. This contrasts with Mama's motives for sending Lottie and Rosie to Chicago--this motive is stated right there in the text, as she wants to "nip it in the bud" Lottie's romance with a neighboring farmhand.
In a novel, readers have to play a long inference game, and we might have to wait a few chapters before we see how our inferences pan out. That's why keeping track of our thinking all along is so important!
Independent PracticeStudents then worked with the familiar story "Theseus and the Minotaur" to make some guesses about character motives. (The story and the page are available in February Reading Homework.) I like having a partially filled out chart to scaffold students for success. This activity led to rich discussions between partners. Why did Ariadne betray her father? Why did Theseus go to Athens as a volunteer?
Most importantly, students had to go back to the text to find evidence to support their thinking about motives. A few groups had put their stories away and tried to complete the task without looking back to the text. I didn't intervene at first, hoping that they would get to a point at which they would realize independently that they had to use the text. Fortunately, they did! And it's so much better for students to come to this conclusion on their own than for it to just be something that I tell them.
I knew the lesson was successful when students started thinking beyond the text. "Why did King Minos build the labyrinth for the Minotaur, anyway?" one student asked. Their version of the myth did not go into detail about this. "And why did he leave Ariadne behind?" another asked. Hopefully once Percy Jackson's Greek Heroes comes out they will be able to find their own answers to these questions.
The lesson had another layer of success--suddenly students wanted mythology books to read. Any lesson that leads to independent reading books flying off the shelves is brilliant in my book!
More on the reader-based inferences used to figure out character motives can be found in Chapter 6 of The Forest and the Trees.