Motivating Students in the English Language Classroom General educational psychologists

General educational psychologists believe there are three main sources of motivation for students, and these directly apply to students of the English language. First, a student’s personal, natural interest in a subject, called “intrinsic satisfaction,” influences their natural affinity for learning more about the materials covered in a class. Second, the teacher’s perceived expertise, the prestige of the school, and/or the future impact on employment prospects, called “extrinsic reward,” defines for the student how much he/she is likely to benefit from learning English. Finally, when students are successful in a given task – whether this be a simple activity, a test or the overall course – they combine satisfaction with reward and are likely to be more motivated to continue the learning process.

A teacher can do little to impact a student’s motivation based on intrinsic satisfaction. For many, language learning isn’t interesting, and many students take language courses because they are required as part of their education. The prospects for reward from learning English are motivating, but that relates to reward, not to satisfaction. Teachers of younger students can raise satisfaction levels by using games, puzzles and songs in the classroom, but the impact on motivation tends to be short-lived and specific to the activities rather than to the act of learning English. Older students may be motivated by their interest in traveling or working in other cultures, which would naturally raise their motivation to learn a new language.

It is an easier task for teachers to cultivate an environment where a student’s belief in extrinsic rewards is strong (e.g., that the teacher, the school, or the rewards upon successful completion of the course will positively impact their lives). Students’ motivation can be encouraged by offering them more challenging tasks or placing them in a higher-level group. These public rewards enable them to improve at a pace that reflects their abilities and credits them for progress with the language.

However, extrinsic rewards can be both motivating and de-motivating, so it is important for teachers to find a positive blend between rewarding students for progress versus punishing students who may find certain tasks difficult. The punishment is rarely intentional, but for the struggling student, it becomes harder and harder to feel motivated when they regularly watch their classmates receive more challenging tasks and gain praise from the teacher.

In order to successfully motivate every student, teachers must find a balance between motivating students and recognizing their work product appropriately. For example, teachers should get to know their students and understand where they are succeeding and where they are struggling. The teacher can then offer individual coaching and/or extra credit exercises that allow students to apply English language learning to other activities from which they gain intrinsic satisfaction. A student may have difficulty with the difference between verb tenses, but if the teacher can create an exercise in which the student can speak or write about a subject that they are really passionate about, their motivation level will naturally increase. Being able to describe their favorite activity in the new language would allow them to share with the teacher or the class something that makes them happy, while at the same time improving their knowledge of the English language.

Following some simple guidelines during every class would enable the teacher to keep their students’ motivation levels high. I would include the following as a basis for my lesson planning:

•Change the activities on a regular basis with direct input from students on subjects to cover;

•Allow students to respond to activities in different ways, acknowledging that not every student can express themselves in the same way (e.g., writing versus speaking, subject to use, etc.);

•Provide choice – give five options, and each student chooses the one he/she finds most interesting;

•Rigorously reflect on how feedback is given to students, making sure that everyone is treated equally;

•Finally, be optimistic about everyone’s ability to learn English and maintain an upbeat, positive attitude that conveys how exciting you, as the teacher, find the language.

Students’ motivation will increase when they feel they have accomplished something, which may have been difficult at first. The challenge for the teacher is to discover how to motivate the student who believes they are “no good at English” and help them progress at a level that isn’t intimidating to them. Accomplishing this goal can be difficult for the teacher due to the constraints of the culture, the school, and/or the student’s willingness to put in extra effort. Yet, if the teacher knows the subject matter, and students believe that he/she is passionate about their learning, the students’ motivation – at least during the class time – will improve.


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