Keeping Students Motivated


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Try to think of a skill that you struggle with. Maybe it’s something like calculus, parallel parking, or knitting. There are any number of reasons that you may struggle with this skill: perhaps you have difficulty understanding it conceptually, or maybe the rote skills involved simply don’t come naturally to you. Maybe when you first tried to learn this skill you were given too much information at once, and became overwhelmed and intimidated. Whatever the reason, this is a skill that you struggle with, and because it is so challenging, it is likely that being forced to do this skill may cause frustration, anxiety, or other negative feelings. Now, imagine that you were asked to do this skill every week, one-on-one, for an hour. For some people, having the opportunity to work on this skill may be exciting: you know that you will receive individualized attention, and therefore, it is a great opportunity to improve! For others, though, being asked to face something challenging – something you struggle with and that may not make you feel too great about yourself – might seem like a daunting or unpleasant task.

For some KOREH L.A. students, this might be exactly how they feel about reading – it may seem overwhelming, daunting, or even scary. But, that’s part of what makes your work as a KOREH L.A. volunteer so important! You have the opportunity to show your student that reading isn’t just not scary, but that it’s fun! By helping to keep your student motivated, engaged, and excited, you can help foster a genuine love of reading. But, just how can you keep your student motivated?


Engaging Your Student’s Learning Style

Every person is different, so it makes sense that each of us learn differently, too! Learning styles, or modalities, are indicators of different ways in which people learn best, and most students tend to have a preference for one learning style as the way they learn best.

The VARK model, introduced in 1992 by Neil D. Fleming and Colleen Mills, argues that there are four learning modalities that we use to learn information:

  • Visual, a preference of learning by seeing graphs and symbols.
  • Aural, a preference of learning by hearing.
  • Read-Write, a preference of learning by seeing words displayed.
  • Kinesthetic, a preference of learning through experience and action.

Discovering and understanding your student’s learning style (check the end of this section for quizzes and questionnaires to help you determine what your student’s primary learning modality may be!) can help make your reading sessions more productive, and also more fun for your student! If your student is an aural learner, for example, they may especially enjoy being read to, or hearing a new vocabulary word before trying to read it themselves. For visual learners, doing a picture-walk through the story or having a map on hand to show where the stories you read together take place, could help engage their learning preference. Flashcards with vocabulary, sight words, or new concepts could be good tools for both visual and read-write learners.

Many students who participate in KOREH L.A. tend to be kinesthetic learners, or students who learn through experience. For these students, we highly recommend breaking up your reading sessions with movement-based games and activities, or even just taking a moment to stand and stretch if it seems like your student is getting antsy or starting to lose focus.

Ultimately, as a volunteer, you want to remain open, flexible, and willing to alter your reading session to best suit the needs of your student. Since you are working with them one-on-one, you have the rare opportunity to create a reading session that is personalized to how your student learns best. Check out some more resources, games, and activities to incorporate learning style into your reading sessions below.

Encouragement, Praise, and Rewards

During your reading sessions, you can play a huge part in your student’s motivation! Just being there week after week to give your student individual attention, build a supportive space, and model a love of reading can help with your student’s long-term motivation. But, what about the short-term? What sorts of things can (and should) we be doing as volunteers to help keep our students motivated to sound out a difficult word, or to read just one more chapter?

Incorporating encouragement, praise, and appropriate rewards into your reading sessions can make a huge difference in boosting your student’s motivation and self-esteem. We have a few suggestions for ways to make sure that your rewards are the most effective and motivational for your student:

  • Always keep in mind that the best reward for your student is free: it’s your verbal praise! A “good job reading that word!” or a high-five can go a long way in helping your student feel motivated, encouraged, and comfortable enough to keep reading. Be sure to praise specific actions and accomplishments – don’t just throw around general compliments like “You’re so smart!” or even just “Good job!” Try to praise specific actions, for example:
    • “I know that this word has been really tough for you, but you pronounced it perfectly that time. I can tell that you’ve been working hard and it really shows. Great work!”
    • “Wow, you read 5 pages all by yourself – great job!”
    • “Good job sounding out that word!”
  • Encourage your student to continue in a positive way! Remind them of their past success, and make sure they know that you will be there to help them through more difficult words or sections. If a student looks at a page, for example, and is overwhelmed by the amount of words on the page, you can say something like, “You did such a great job reading that last page! I know that you can do this one, too, and if you get stuck, I’ll be right here to help you along!”
  • KOREH L.A. does not ask our volunteers to purchase rewards or gifts for your students. However, if you do decide to purchase a gift for your student, we recommend gifts that are small and educational. For example: pens and pencils, stickers, erasers, notepads, coloring books, colored pencils, markers, crayons, books, or education-related games like Scrabble or Boggle. You can also always print out rewards such as certificates for your student, to celebrate different stages of their reading success!
  • Always make sure that the rewards you bring comply with the LAUSD Code of Conduct. DO NOT give your student food – this is against LAUSD rules and regulations, and could cause serious issues if your student or their classmate has an allergy or dietary restriction. If your student tells you they are hungry, feel free to let their teacher or a school staff member know.


General Tips for Engaging and Motivating Your Student

At KOREH L.A., we like to encourage our volunteers to share best practices and innovative ideas for their reading sessions with each other! In addition, we try to bring in a variety of speakers with different areas of expertise to speak on topics relevant to our volunteers. Below are some tips and suggestions we have curated, both from expert speakers and from our volunteers. Enjoy!

Ask an expert: Tiffani Chin

In March 2015, KOREH L.A. had the opportunity to hear from Tiffani Chin, Executive Director and Co-Founder of EdBoost, a nonprofit organization focused on reducing education inequality by providing high quality educational services like one-on-one tutoring, college advising, and test prep. Here are some tips that she shared with our volunteers.

  • Students need to understand what they’re reading. “If they don’t understand the story,” Tiffani said, “It doesn’t count as reading.” This is where reading comprehension plays an important role! Make sure to ask your students questions, and to stop to make sure that they understand what’s going on. It is much more difficult for a student to enjoy a book they’re reading if they are confused, lost, or don’t understand what’s going on.
  • Help bring the book to life for your students. Make sure that your students can visualize what they’re reading. For picture books, you can always use the illustrations as a frame of reference, but if you’re reading a chapter book and talking about a kind of climate with which they might not be familiar (e.g. a tundra, or a volcano), consider bringing a visual aid like a picture or drawing to provide context and a frame of reference.
  • Pay attention to your student’s reactions as you are reading together. Take note of important clues that will demonstrate your student’s level of understanding. For example, if your student doesn’t laugh at a funny part in the story, stop and go back to ask, “That was so funny and you missed it! What just happened?” or “What just happened there? Why does that matter?”
  • Slow down. Oftentimes, classroom-set reading tends to focus on fluency, rather than understanding and comprehension. Students enjoy books that they understand and will remember the most! If they get through a really long paragraph, or many pages of text, be sure to give them a break. Reading should be fun, not too overwhelming or scary!

Ask an expert: Jennifer Johnson

In March 2015, KOREH L.A. had the opportunity to hear from Jennifer Johnson, Instructional Coach and Intervention Teacher at Knollwood Elementary School, one of KOREH L.A.’s partner schools. Jennifer has taught elementary school grades from preschool through 5th grade for over 10 years, and also serves as Knollwood’s Instructional Coach, where she started a Learning Center to work with struggling students. She also works with teachers on enhanced classroom instruction methods and improving the classroom environment. Here are some tips that she shared with our volunteers.

  • Students are different, and may have a different approach to looking at words. Some students, for example, may look at the word “cat” and see “C-A-T” and have no trouble blending the word together and pronouncing it. Other students may need to focus on context. Pay attention to how your student sounds out words to identify patterns.
  • Don’t be afraid to stop or slow down. If your student is struggling to read a word, stop and make sure that they know what the word means. Context can be helpful in solidifying a word and definition! If your student is frequently guessing words, ask them to slow down and take the time to sound it out. If your student is sounding out a compound word (for example, “bookshelf”) split the words into parts and have them read each part on their own before putting the word together.
  • Writing is very important for building reading skills. Writing helps students practice connecting sounds to words, and it also lets them take ownership of the words. You can do short writing activities together such as asking your student to write down their thoughts about what you have just read. Make sure not to correct your student’s spelling, grammar, or handwriting until they have finished writing – you can do this together in the revision stage. If your student is hesitant to write with you, you can explain that writing is just like talking with a pen! You can let them know that spelling and grammar doesn’t matter to you right now (you can always work on that later) but that you want to know their thoughts, feelings, and ideas. If your student isn’t ready to write yet, your student can always dictate to you while you write down their words exactly as they say them.

Thank you to Tiffani and Jennifer for providing your much-appreciated insight and advice!


Ask a volunteer: What are some ideas for keeping your student engaged?

  • Invent payoffs throughout your reading session to keep your student motivated to read. Use stickers!
  • Buy used books so you can give them to your student after you finish reading them together.
  • Create a portfolio throughout the year and give it to your student at the end of the year as a culmination of your student’s work. It can be a separate notebook where your student can write (or you can transcribe) their responses after reading a story, simple poetry, and other projects.
  • If your student has trouble with certain grammar rules or spelling, let them know about what words or rules you struggle with, so they realize that they aren’t alone and it’s not their fault that they are struggling to understand.
  • For older students, pick out a book that relates to subjects that you have previously discussed. For example, if you’ve learned about Benjamin Franklin, the book Ben and Me. Alternate reading chapters (or pages, for shorter books or picture books). You can also have your student read some of the book on their own and come back to discuss it during your session.
  • Take out the children’s page from the newspaper and bring it to your reading session! Read the jokes together.



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Wrapping Up the School Year