What is the difference between a student that learns and a student that does not? The more that I teach, the clearer it is to me that motivation is almost always the answer. Defining motivation is a little more difficult than identifying it as a problem, as there are many different kinds that come from many different places. To get started, below are five areas in which you, as a teacher, can boost your students’ motivation levels, not only making your job easier, but making you a better ESL teacher too!
1. Be Enthusiastic Every Day
Every morning, I face a room full of students who are tired, who have personal problems and who are frustrated with English. Every morning, whether it is true or not, I tell them that I feel fantastic and that I am happy to see them. If you are not enthusiastic, your students definitely will not be. It is very easy to fall into a dry presentation of grammar or vocabulary and assume that the students will see its intrinsic value. Instead, smile, make some jokes, and have some fun. I cannot guarantee that they will follow, but they definitely will copy your lack of enthusiasm if that is what you show them.
2. Use Student Interests to Enhance Lessons
Using your students’ interests is also a great way for you to show them that English is not just something that they have to learn from 25-year-old textbooks. It can be difficult to get your students speaking, but if you hit on the right topic at the right moment, it can be difficult to stop them. Show them that English is a living and useful language. I had one student who loved boxing. A couple of minutes of googling, and I had found the major English-language boxing websites and magazines. Because it was something that he could relate to, his level of interest was one hundred times greater than when he read about MySpace or Thanksgiving in the dated textbook we had.
3. Find Balance
Using too much flexibility or too much structure can have a negative impact on student motivation. Finding a balance is key. Students will look to you to give structure to their language learning. They want to understand what the topic is and why they are learning it, and see that it is leading to something greater. Structure and Rigidity, however, can stifle students; some flexibility is necessary. If something is too difficult, slow it down. If something is boring, spice it up. If something provokes conversation, allow it to run its course. Give students a stake in the classroom. Let them choose what you do in the last five minutes of the day, or allow them to choose their own writing assignments. A little flexibility will make them feel more involved without undermining the structure of your classes.
4. Add Variety to Your Classes
Most students recognize the utility of grammar exercises, written assignments, and dull listening tests. Many do not like them, but, generally, they will do them. Problems arise when classes consist only of ‘boring’ activities. Attention levels and motivation quickly drop off in such environments. You can add some variety to help combat this problem. One of the most popular ways is through games. Almost any topic, be it past perfect conditional or fast food vocabulary, can be turned into a game. Also, remember that variety comes in many forms. Activities could be spoken or written, loud or quiet, physical or cerebral, individual or in groups, competitive or cooperative. A more interactive, fun approach will challenge their notions of the traditional language classroom, and should in turn increase their motivation to participate and learn.
5. Build a Community
The first four points are strategies that you can implement from day one. The fifth strategy takes a little more time and effort, but has the largest potential pay-offs. A successful language classroom should be full of interaction and communication, which can be difficult when students are strangers to one another. A class with a strong sense of community, therefore, is usually the type of class where most learning happens. Classroom rituals, such as songs or games, enable students to share positive moments. Activities centered on shared experiences or interests often provoke more meaningful interactions, and rewards can encourage teamwork. Unfortunately, there is no recipe for creating a community, but with a little thought the classroom can become a friendlier and more positive space.
As a teacher, there is only so much that you can do to increase your students’ intrinsic motivation to learn a language. What you can do, however, is make sure that you take the most advantage of the motivation that they already have, sustain it, and use it to your advantage. Higher levels of motivation will make your job as an ESL teacher easier, more fun, and ultimately more rewarding.
Written by Robin Garnham
Robin Garnham originally planned to spend a year teaching in Spain to improve his Spanish, but has now been teaching for five years. He is currently an ESL teacher in Oakland, California and is an Oxford Seminars instructor in San Jose, California.