Experiences of an English Language Teacher

Motivating Language Learners

A few weeks ago, I decided to write up a post about drills in the classroom but I find myself deciding to write a topic which I have experienced first hand: motivating learners.  Last month, I wrote about dealing with the Intermediate Plateau as part of an ELTChat Summary and came across some wonderful ideas.  There were some great ideas in the previous blog post which were put forward but I would recommend that you have a read of this summary.  Hopefully, there are some crossovers between ELTChat Summary and this blog post.

When I first started teaching young learners, I found it quite challenging to motivate this learners.  I learnt a great deal after a number of weeks and learnt the “hard way” what worked and what wasn’t so successful.  I realised that young learners enjoyed any form of competitive lesson with a game as a last activity.  A lot of this is transferable to selected adult learners but I found that adult learners were more serious and were paying for a course and expected something greater than games or activities.  Nevertheless, I guess we have to determine what is meant by “demotivated learners”.

Demotivated Learners

Any form of demotivation in the classroom could be contagious and could get everyone down (the teacher included).  Some learners may direct their lack of motivation to the teacher but as educators we have to understand that language learners have a life outside of the classroom and may bring along ‘baggage’ to the lesson.  This could affect the “affective filter” by causing a screen against comprehensible input within the lesson and could then become quite problematic in future lessons.  This ‘high’ affective filter could transfer between the various language learners within the classroom, so in essence you have to win the “hearts and minds” of the learners so that it encourages an improved learning environment.  Demotivation is usually the main obstacle for learning in the classroom and it is doubly difficult when combining young learners (who have been carted off to the local language school or sent to a summer school – usually enforced by their parents).  Adult language learners are usually encouraged to undertake English courses so that they are able to get that promotion, receive that highly prized certificate or required to take a course as part of their national service.  The more experience gained, the more we become accustomed to delivering language lessons with various activities to ‘spice up’ the lessons, supplement the coursebook or improve overall fluency and communication.  Yet, we often forget that each of the learners have aims which are overlooked and we do not take advantage of these opportunities to deliver and create bespoke language lessons over the period of time.  This lack of humanising any short-term or longer-term course will always cause boredom and ultimately demotivate the learner.  We have all seen teachers walk into lessons armed with numerous handouts to supplement the coursebook each and everyday.  A few days or weeks later, the said teacher starts to wonder why the learners appear demotivated.  So, what is the best way to motivate and inspire interest in lessons?

Motivating Learners

  1. The first piece of advice which I would recommend to motivate and inspire learners would be to identify aims and objectives with all new students (or those that have joined the class from another).  The identifying of the aims and objectives would improve the overall learning environment and (if you react to research undertaken with the learners) it should make the whole process of developing a curriculum easier.  Take the time to develop a weekly lesson plan to cover topics, themes, grammar or vocabulary as highlighted by the learners in the aims/objectives survey.  The learners would feel happier that you are reacting to their input and they would also appreciate your support as they would judge to have some control in the content of their course.
  2. If you have quite a bit you would like to cover during the week, you could get learners to vote on the following day’s lesson – this is related to the previous piece of advice.  Essentially, learners have the opportunity to develop autonomous learning techniques through this process of voting on their lessons.
  3. If you are teaching young learners and you would like to add a bit of a competition to the lesson of the day or the entire course, you could nominate learner roles in the classroom (Worksheet Leader, Teaching Assistant, etc).  Learners would feel as if they are responsible for various tasks or roles in the classroom.  The teacher will have to maintain consistency, then the young learners will fall into their nominated roles at ease provided that expectations are explicitly mentioned.  If you wish to develop this further, you could get learners to create their own role badges, team names, chants, etc to supplement the nominated roles.  You could hand out nominated roles in secret sealed envelopes to jazz it up a bit.  All this assists in the cohesion of group work in the classroom and improves motivation.
  4. Create a class blog for learners to view and correct their own work (either written or recorded audio).  This will personalise the lesson and bring activities outside the classroom.  Comments added to the blog will encourage more student-to-student interaction on a virtual level and motivate learners to discuss ideas or provide feedback during lessons.  Any activities which some form of outside activity can motivate learners and are widely respected by the learners.  For example, when learners return to their home country (if they are attending a school abroad) or complete a course, they will be able to review activities and vocabulary that emerged during lessons.
  5. If you are teaching young learners who naturally have a short attention span and lose interest every few minutes, try to plan five minute activities every to ensure learners don’t lose interest, get bored and lose that invaluable motivation.  The organising of short activities is meant to keep the learners on their toes and keep them busy: learners will not have a chance to get bored and distract the others in the classroom.  Teaching young learners learn by doing so try to incorporate various songs, chants or drama in the classroom.  This will interest the learners and keep motivation bubbling away.  You will naturally have various individuals who would wish to show their singing, chanting or drama skills off to the class so let them and give them a badge or reward them with a silly certificate: “Best Worst Dancer”, “Ear Piercing Singer”, etc.  I would finally recommend preparing silly certificates or rewards based upon student input in the lesson.  It would liven up the lesson and keep learners happy.
ClassDojo © 2013

Online Tools

I have come across ClassDojo and have decided to use it for future young learner lessons.  The young learners will find the whole class report online software very easy to view and it can be developed to be incorporated in the lessons.  Furthermore, there is an iPhone/Android App which could be synced to ClassDojo so that teachers are able to award student input and effort in the lesson.  The rewards can be awarded at the end of or during a lesson.  If you are lucky enough to have an IWB in your classroom, you could show the “Whole Class” review and learners will be able to get a quick idea how to improve their behaviour and will motivate learners during the lessons.  Obviously, ClassDojo could be developed for adult learners but I guess the older learners will lose interest in the tool quicker than young learners.  Finally, as you are able to edit the rewards and punishments, you could rename rewards to “Good Effort”, “Great Motivation”, “Fantastic Participation”, etc while punishments could be renamed to “Poor Concentration”, “No English”, etc.  The fact that you could customise the friendly monsters can really develop learner interest in the whole online software and personalise the behavioural software for the students.

ClassBadges © 2013

Another activity you could develop in the lesson is to award badges for work and activities completed during the lesson.  There is a really good online tool that you could use to develop interest in this with ClassBadges.  With ClassBadges, you will be able to create your own badges for your learners, customise classes and student access or develop group-to-group interest in lessons.  By the end of the course, learners will have gained a number of different badges from their teacher and will be able to logon to their account and show their parents (if they are young learners) or reflect on how they received particular badges.  Like any online tool, I would recommend any teacher keen to learn more about the resources available to spend a bit of time learning more about the functions of the website, how to manage classes as well as inviting learners to the website so that they can access their own awarded badges.  If you are not so keen on the whole online activity of awarding badges, you could create a range of certificates to hand out in particular lessons.  You could stick up certificates on one side of the classroom and learners could be quite proud to show off their class-created certificates.

Final Thoughts

Do you have any activities to improve motivation in the classroom?  What do you do differently to spice up lessons?  Do you have activities up your sleeve so that you can engage learners quickly and effectively?  As ever, please leave your thoughts in the comment section below.


  1. Martin,

    I often see the old '5 minute activities' chestnut for YLEs trundled out.
    I have come to the conclusion that as a long-term strategy this is nuts! Good idea for new classes, while you find a groove that will work & take the edges off, get a routine established. There are only so many song & dance routines even your most polished YL teacher can stitch together week in/out!

    If you are ever going to get anywhere, you need to get calmed down and focused on longer activities – YL students need that too, to finish tasks, do something quietly, figure out patterns and work independently…not very different from the bigger kids! Not saying heads down & book an entire 45-50-60 minutes…bookend with warming up/cooling down & highlight with bounce.

    That's my take on ye olde 5 min drill for nippers!

    Need “motivation for students in 37 degrees without a/c” this week!

    Keep up the blogging 🙂

  2. I will be writing on a new blog post about more longer-term projects for Young Learners which could be developed over one lesson or the entire term. Again, thank you for your highly invaluable input Jim and best of luck with your greenhouse-style teaching.

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