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How teachers can help students to remain motivated in learning English

Hi Everyone

I would like to spend a little time today reflecting on the part that student motivation plays in language learning. As a teacher if we want to see accelerated language learning I think it is important that we try to find ways to tap into what motivates students and help them to stay motivated. As I believe motivation is one of the key aspects to successful language learning.

Researchers (Deci, Dörnyei, Crookes &Schmidt, Brown, Maslow) believe that intrinsic motivation is one for which there is no apparent reward except the activity itself – aimed at bringing about certain internally rewarding consequences e.g. competence and self-determination are superior to extrinsic motivation.

Often when I was teaching ESOL classes I would have highly motivated new arrivals who were very keen to learn English. However after some time in New Zealand and usually once they had good level of social English, their level of motivation would decrease, their rate of language acquisition slowed and sometimes their behaviour declined as well. While other students remained highly motivated to learn English and continued to do well. Therefore I began to ask questions of my students early in the school year to find out why they were learning English and what motivated them.

Most of my students had extrinsic (outside of themselves) motivation to learn English often because their parents wanted them to learn. The students that remained highly motivated often had their own intrinsic motivation for learning rather than just extrinsic factors. For example I remember one student who really wanted to get onto the Korean police force and to achieve that he needed a good level of English. His parents actually didn’t want him to be a policeman. He remained motivated for a long length of time and made really great language learning progress but eventually even his motivation began to fade. At this point I think teachers need to find ways to re-motivate students. I had discussions with him and found out that he was no longer sure if he wanted to be a policeman like his Grandfather. Living in New Zealand away from his family had opened up new possibilities and he had been exposed to Kiwi culture and a different world view.  I tried to help him to discover new reasons within himself for learning English. His behaviour and motivation increased but it didn’t return to the previous high level.

I think every teacher knows that motivation is key but how many of us actually take the time to think more deeply about it and to ask deep questions of our students. I think we should particularly do this with the students we have concerns about or whose learning is beginning to slip. Before we can do this we need to take time early in the year to find out what really motivates our students. This data could be gathered initially through a survey with some follow on discussion.  Note down your findings and find ways to tap into their motivations in the way you teach. I think motivation is a powerful tool that we could explore and utilise further in our teaching.

Researchers have also concluded that teachers are one of the most determinant factors of L2 learners’ motivation (Dörnyei, 1994; Tanaka, 2005). Second language teachers play one of the most influential roles to help students engage and persist in the long process of second language acquisition. Among the role that teachers play are as initiator, facilitator, motivator, ideal model of the target language speaker, mentor, consultant, and mental supporter. These roles are assumed to influence each learner’s motivation.

Here are some of my tips to help maintain and increase student motivation.

  1. Involve learners in some decisions about the ESOL programme.
  2. Create a safe classroom environment, a supportive atmosphere for learners in the class with mutual trust and respect and with low levels of anxiety and stress. Students should be encouraged to express their opinions and perspectives on different issues because they feel safe and protected from embarrassment and sarcasm. Teachers interact with students on a personal level and show that they care about student’s personal issues and challenges that they face in the classroom and outside the classroom. Develop a sense of community and promote a sense of belonging.
  3. Be enthusiastic, enthusiasm is contagious in classrooms; therefore, if students recognize their teacher’s enthusiasm to the task, they will be enthusiastic as well.
  4. Make language learning enjoyable and interesting: texts, audiovisual, ICT materials, tasks, and class activities should be related to students' interests and culture. Teachers should give learners choices in assigning a task, and learners' preferences should get priority. Elements such as music and humour can be incorporated in teaching to add fun to a lesson.
  5. Make the teaching materials relevant to the learners. Provide material that will assist students to succeed in the mainstream classroom and in their world beyond the school ground. Motivation to learn decreases dramatically when the learners do not see any relevance to their lives.
  6. Involve students in setting their own learning goals and use “assessment for learning” strategies pre and post the lesson. This helps students to think about their learning and be more connected to it. Make sure teacher feedback is specific and linked to the learning goal.
  7. Set challenging tasks but scaffold them to success. Students will have a greater tendency to do an activity if they feel they will succeed in that particular activity. Hence, it is unlikely to aim for something if we know that we will eventually fail. The simplest way to ensure that students expect success is to make sure that they achieve it constantly.
  8. Use pair and group work for learning language is close collaboration and communication among students is in itself motivation and provides more opportunities to practice using language.
  9. Help students create realistic beliefs about language learning. Some learners bring some unrealistic learning beliefs about how much progress or learning they can achieve in a term or year. If they do not see that their beliefs or expectations achieved, they will become disappointed and lose interest. Teachers, therefore, should explain the complexity of learning a second language and help them to see the progress that they are making. 

Reflection Questions

  1. Do I know the main motivations for each of my students to learn English? If not how can I find out? How well do I really know my students, do I know their interests and hobbies?
  2. Do I notice when a student’s motivation is beginning to slip? What could I try implementing to try and mitigate this when it happens?
  3. What is one thing I could change in the way I teach to try and increase student motivation? How will I measure its effectiveness?

Readings on Motivation

Here are some readings and links for those of you wanting to learn a little more about motivation. There is loads of information and research out there so it is probably best to do your own google search on the area that interests you.

  1. Second Language Motivation, The Role of Teachers in Learners’ Motivation, Mastoor Al Kaboody. Journal of Academic and Applied Studies, Vol. 3(4) February 2013, pp. 45-54.
  2. Learner Motivation in Language Teaching. Shahid Abrar-ul-Hassan, TESOL International Journal, Vol 6, issue 1. 
  3. Wikipedia has a useful section on motivation in language learning  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Motivation_in_second-language_learning
  4. Teaching English, Ways of Motivating EFL/ ESL Students in the Classroom. Submitted by alexenoamen on 21 July, 2009 - 11: