Reflecting about motivation and students

In a recent PD afternoon I attended, before the closing of the event the main speaker had a Q&A session with the audience, answering questions about teaching English in general. One of the questions stuck to my mind:

“How can we motivate our learners?”

The question is not new to any teacher. It has been the topic of countless articles, chapters in books, discussions in the staff room, workshops and presentations at conferences. I am not here to dispute the importance of motivation in language learning (or in any kind of learning, for that matter). My intention is simply to share the reflection I made and how I handle the issue of motivation with my students.

The way the question was asked by the participant placed the responsibility of the motivation on the teacher. In my (humble) opinion, that is a lot of responsibility to put on our shoulders. And worse, we can’t give the students motivation to learn. That responsibility is the students’. Intrinsic motivation, by definition, has to come from inside the person which makes it unfair to ask teachers to “give” it to the students.

However, a simple change in the wording of the question would make it better.

The way I see it, as teachers what we can (and should) do is help our learners find their motivation for learning. Many times when I ask students why they are learning English their answer is “Because it’s important for my future.” That’s not good enough for me – it’s too vague, too abstract and more importantly when my students are children or teenagers (adult learners usually already have a real reason for studying): it’s too far. So, I always make a point of asking questions to help them find a real and more immediate reason for studying English. It may be being able to play videogames, read the new book of that trendy series written by an American or English author or interacting on social media to YouTubbers or celebrities they like (this last one has also worked with a few adult learners I’ve had). I know it may sound silly to some people, but you’d be surprised to see how many students I have been able to “convert” and engage more during the lessons, do the homework. I have even been able to do this with students who only go to English class because their parents make them do it, by making them realize that the harder they worked and studied, the faster they would be able to get a language certificate and have their parents let them quit.

Teachers can give extra motivation by teaching interesting, fun lessons and doing different activities. But without their own, it’ll be hard for it work.

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Cecilia Lemos has been working with ELT since 1993 and is an Academic Coach for Educate Bilingual Program. She has worked a teacher trainer, writer, coordinator and teacher, presenting at local, national and international language teaching events. She’s a member of IATEFL’s Teacher Development SIG committee. Her main interests are feedback, correction and lesson observation.

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