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Learner Motivation in Language Teaching

Shahid Abrar-ul-Hassan highlights several strategies that may help increase and sustain second language learners' motivation—one of the key predictors of their success. See Mary Amanda Stewart's References & Resources review of In the Year of the Boar and Jackie Robinson, Essential Teacher, March 2009.

Learners' motivation is a key variable that frequently concerns and challenges practitioners in language classrooms (Cheng & Dörnyei, 2007; Scheidecker & Freeman, 1999). It is an abstract construct (Dörnyei, 2001) that has been defined in a number of ways. Dörnyei and Ottó (1998) define motivation in second language (L2) learning as "the dynamically changing cumulative arousal in a person that initiates, directs, coordinates, amplifies, terminates, and evaluates the cognitive and motor processes whereby initial wishes and desires are selected, prioritised, operationalised and (successfully or unsuccessfully) acted out" (p. 65). This definition captures various influential factors that drive learners' desire or arousal to acquire an L2.

Learners' motivation varies because of numerous endogenous (i.e., internal or inner inspiration) and exogenous (i.e., external to human personality) factors, such as sociocultural circumstances, professional needs, and language requirements for international education. Endogenous factors bring pleasure and satisfaction to a student, and exogenous factors relate to the tangible benefits attached to an activity (Noels, Clement, & Pelletier, 1999). A number of studies over the past couple of decades have analyzed patterns of motivation in language classrooms in a variety of situations (e.g., Cheng & Dörnyei, 2007; Dörnyei, 2001; Gliksman, Gardner, & Smythe, 1982). These studies have established a consistently strong relationship between motivation and L2 success. As a language professional, I have faced two main challenges in teaching—motivating learners and sustaining their motivation—and I have come to recognize learners' motivation as a vital element in language teaching.

To deal with the motivational variable (i.e., "cumulative arousal"), I employ several microstrategies, or "techniques that promote the individual's goal-related behaviour" (Dörnyei, 2001, p. 28). These are clustered under the following three macrostrategies, which are general guiding principles to enhance and sustain learner motivation and will need context-specific adjustments if considered for any other ESL or EFL instructional site.

Promote Learners' Involvement in the Program

I involve learners in some decisions about the ESL program. For instance, setting assignment and project deadlines is one of the important decisions that interests learners. In one of my ESL courses, an independent research project is a semester-long component of the program. The project has a number of steps (e.g., deciding research focus, searching sources, developing an outline), and during the second week of the semester, the students and I discuss and set deadlines for all of the project stages. This collaborative decision making allows learners to feel that they set their targets themselves rather than someone else ordering them to do so. Furthermore, I give learners a clear understanding of my expectations, leaving no room for ambiguity or missing information. This objective can be achieved by providing a detailed course outline, using a clear assessment rubric, and, most important, making adjustments to teaching plans according to learners' reflective feedback (e.g., I use a self-assessment narrative with prompts such as "I learned from this project . . . " and "The major problem areas in this course were . . . "). These strategies are just a couple that are likely to help learners realize that their opinion matters in various course decisions and that the teacher cares about the learners. Thus, I strive to make my ESL teaching a bidirectional process through teacher–learner involvement.

Create a Safe Atmosphere for Learners in the Class

I make all efforts to provide learners with a low-anxiety, if not anxiety-free, classroom atmosphere (Brown, 2001; Cheng & Dörnyei, 2007). This motivational strategy also ties into my learner-centered approach in language teaching. I try to create a safe as well as supportive environment in which learners can learn and practice the language comfortably. I maintain this positive environment through good teacher–student working relationships. For example, I make regular contributions to a bulletin board in the classroom with welcome, happy birthday, and congratulations messages and encourage students to use the board to exhibit their projects. Additionally, I make use of Web-based chat rooms for virtual interaction and mutual support.

Other similar strategies can also strengthen good working relationships. Teachers can take simple yet highly effective steps, such as joining learners on field trips, hikes, and lunches. These confidence-building efforts over time help to develop a classroom community. Learners experience and appreciate the supportive teaching environment in which they are encouraged to take risks in using language structures creatively and accept that the mistakes made in this effort probably will not impede their initiatives (Cheng & Dörnyei, 2007; Reid, 1999).

Make Language Learning Enjoyable and Interesting

I believe making learning an enjoyable experience is crucial to maintaining learners' motivation (Dörnyei, 2001). This belief leads me to consider the application of various principles related to motivation when preparing a teaching plan for a semester or similar period. First, texts, audiovisual materials, tasks, and class activities should be related to students' interests. Second, the teacher should always give learners choices in assigning a task, and learners' preferences should get priority. Third, an extracurricular component in the course is a very desirable feature so that elements such as music and humor can be incorporated in teaching, thus increasing learning opportunities beyond regular lessons (Kumaravadivelu, 2003). These extracurricular activities can be simple speaking and writing acts such as sharing a cultural object from one's country/region, giving a musical or dramatic performance, and having poster competitions. I have tried these activities and found them quite successful in enhancing and maintaining learners' motivation.

Furthermore, it is important to appreciate learners' efforts and progress. To promote learner autonomy, I incorporate activities that involve peer support and feedback in addition to teacher commentary. The use of interesting icebreakers can help in overcoming classroom drudgery. For this purpose, I use cartoons and brief video clips related to the lesson. Moreover, sometimes changing the class venue to an open space or a corner in the school café can help break monotony, especially when a lesson does not require use of classroom equipment.


Though a magic formula for motivating language learners may not exist, motivational strategies that are suitable to a specific population can positively impact the "cumulative arousal" of language learners. The abstract nature of motivation makes it difficult for classroom practitioners to gauge or quantify learner motivation using a measuring instrument, so to cope with this abstractness, practitioners can rely on their critical observations about learners' motivational patterns during the course of an academic program. It's a plain fact about language teaching that motivation of language learners fluctuates (is "dynamically changing"), and practitioners need to factor awareness of this reality into all curricular stages.


Brown, H. D. (2001). Teaching by principles: An integrative approach to language pedagogy (2nd ed.). White Plains, NY: Longman.

Cheng, H., & Dörnyei, Z. (2007). The use of motivational strategies in language instruction: The case of EFL teaching in Taiwan. Innovation in Language Learning and Teaching, 1,153–173.

Dörnyei, Z. (2001). Motivational strategies in the language classroom. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Dörnyei, Z., & Ottó, I. (1998). Motivation in action: A process model of L2 motivation. Working Papers in Applied Linguistics, 4, 43–69.

Gliksman, L., Gardner, R. C., & Smythe, P. C. (1982). The role of the integrative motive on students' participation in the French classroom. Canadian Modern Language Review, 38, 625–647.

Kumaravadivelu, B. (2003). Beyond methods: Macrostrategies for language teaching. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Noels, K. A., Clement, R., & Pelletier, L. G. (1999). Perceptions of teachers' communicative style and students' intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. Modern Language Journal, 83, 23–34.

Reid, J. (1999). Affect in the classroom: Problems, politics, and pragmatics. In J. Arnold (Ed.), Affect in language learning (pp. 297–306). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Shahid Abrar-ul-Hassan ( is a faculty member at the Language Center of Sultan Qaboos University, in Muscat, Sultanate of Oman.