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Motivating Language Learners to Succeed

Sevtap Karaoglu points out the significant role that motivation plays in learning and provides suggestions for how to keep language learners motivated in the classroom. See also Debra W. Hawke's Portal article, "Improving Academic English at Outdoor Nature Centers," Essential Teacher, June 2008.

Motivation plays a significant role in the process of learning a language. Language teachers cannot effectively teach a language if they do not understand the relationship between motivation and its effect on language acquisition. The core of motivation is what might be called passion, which relates to a person's intrinsic goals and desires. Successful learners know their preferences, their strengths and weaknesses, and effectively utilize strengths and compensate for weaknesses. Successful language learning is linked to the learner’s passion. And instructors should find ways to connect to this passion.

Learners need quality instruction, input, interaction, and opportunities for meaningful output, not only to make progress, but also to maintain motivation for language learning. A good teacher, then, must tap into the sources of intrinsic motivation and find ways to connect them with external motivational factors that can be brought to a classroom setting. This is especially significant when English is not seen as important to the students' immediate needs, other than to pass exams. Because learners have different purposes for studying a language, it is important for instructors to identify students' purposes and needs and to develop proper motivational strategies. Students should understand why they need to make an effort, how long they must sustain an activity, how hard they should pursue it, and how motivated they feel toward their pursuits.

Motivation fluctuates, and it is challenging to keep language learners' motivation at a high level all the time. When designing a language course, teachers must take into consideration that each learner has different interests and expectations. The following strategies are effective ways to increase language learners' external motivation.

Create a Friendly Atmosphere in the Classroom

Develop a friendly climate in which all students feel recognized and valued. Many students feel more comfortable participating in classroom activities after they know their teacher and their peers. Creating a safe and comfortable environment where everyone feels like a part of the whole is one of the most significant factors in encouraging motivation. Doing so may take time as students adjust themselves to a new setting.

At the beginning of the school year, you can provide students with a bright and colorful classroom with pictures and projects completed by the previous year's students. This gives students the impression that learning the target language will be easy and enjoyable. It also gives students a chance to learn from what is present in the environment. Pair and group activities can be used from the very outset, reducing the pressure of teacher–student interaction and allowing students to feel recognized by their peers. The feeling of becoming a part of the whole is one of the strongest motivational factors at the beginning of a school year.

One ice-breaker that you could use to start this process is the nickname activity. Students can invent and write down a nickname (or use a nickname they already have). Arranged in a circle, each student has to stand up and explain his or her nickname. Along with introducing themselves, this fun activity gives students a chance to create a friendly and flexible classroom atmosphere.

Encourage Students to Personalize the Classroom Environment

Providing students with a learner-centered, low-anxiety classroom environment has a great impact on language acquisition. Personalizing the environment can relax the students and enhance the friendly atmosphere, which will increase their desire to learn and develop their language skills. Students who feel safe and comfortable will feel more secure taking chances; they will display greater motivation to read aloud in class or write an essay without the fear of being criticized.

I remember very well, as a student, my English teacher giving us a chance to arrange the classroom in the way that would make us feel most comfortable. The teacher gave us the impression that there was no limit to what we could do to our learning environment. We covered the walls with colorful movie posters and the lyrics of famous songs, and we also personalized our desks. Our classroom became a warm, cheerful place where we enjoyed learning and studying.

Create Situations in Which Students Will Feel a Sense of Accomplishment

A sense of accomplishment is a great factor in motivating students. Be sure to give positive feedback and reinforcement. Doing so can increase students' satisfaction and encourage positive self-evaluation. A student who feels a sense of accomplishment will be better able to direct his or her own studies and learning outcomes. Positive as well as negative comments influence motivation, but research consistently indicates that students are more affected by positive feedback and success. Praise builds students' self-confidence, competence, and self-esteem.

However, giving positive feedback should not be mistaken for correcting mistakes without giving explanations. Some teachers correct students' mistakes without really explaining the reason for doing so. It is very important for teachers to point out the good aspects of a student's work and to provide a clear explanation of his or her mistakes. Students value the teacher's ideas when they feel that their good work is appreciated, and this encourages them to start evaluating themselves for further studies.

Encourage Students to Set Their Own Short-Term Goals

Language learners can achieve success by setting their own goals and by directing their studies toward their own expectations. Students can help themselves achieve their goals by determining their own language needs and by defining why they want to learn the language. Having goals and expectations leads to increased motivation, which in turn leads to a higher level of language competence. We as teachers should encourage students to have specific short-term goals such as communicating with English speakers or reading books in English. No matter what these goals are, we should help students set and pursue them.

Provide Pair and Group Activities to Develop Students’ Confidence

Students learn by doing, making, writing, designing, creating, and solving. Passivity decreases students' motivation and curiosity. Students' enthusiasm, involvement, and willingness to participate affect the quality of class discussion as an opportunity for learning. Small-group activities and pair work boost students' self-confidence and are excellent sources of motivation. Group work can give quiet students a chance to express their ideas and feelings on a topic because they find it easier to speak to groups of three or four than to an entire class. Once students have spoken in small groups, they usually become less reluctant to speak to the class as a whole. Group activities allow students not only to express their ideas but also to work cooperatively, which increases class cohesion and thus motivation.

I often do a vocabulary exercise in which I put students in groups of four. I distribute vocabulary words on flashcards, and each student must choose one of the flashcards without showing the word to fellow group members. Then, each student explains his or her word by giving three clues to the group without using the actual word. Using the clues, the other students must draw pictures that reflect the meaning of the word. This activity gives students flexibility to use other skills for their language development. It also gives quieter students a chance to express themselves within their groups, even when they are not confident to express themselves in front of the entire class.

Connect Language Learning to Students' Interests Outside of Class

In today’s high-tech learning environment, it would be unfair to limit students to traditional methods. Encouraging students to relate their classroom experience to outside interests and activities makes developing language skills more relevant. For example, computer-assisted language learning could be linked to playing computer games, or to computer programs that the students are interested in using. Listening to English language songs, watching English language films or videos, and reading English language Web sites can lead students to broaden their perspective on their language acquisition process.

Motivational teaching strategies such as these can easily increase language learners' motivation levels. The idea that student motivation is a personality trait and that students are either motivated or unmotivated is incorrect. Without sufficient motivation, even individuals with the most remarkable abilities cannot achieve their long-term goals. As instructors, we may be the most important factor in influencing our students' motivation, which is a key element in the language acquisition process.

Sevtap Karaoglu ( is a graduate student specializing in TESOL at the University of Northern Virginia, in the United States, and an ESL teacher.