10 ESL Teaching Strategies That Successfully Motivated My Students To Reach The Next Level

We ESL teachers stick with our students through thick and thin.

For better or for worse.

Alright, maybe we’re not married to our students, but we’re definitely committed to their success.

So, what to do when your students start to despair?

If your awesome in-class learning games can’t get the job done, you might not have anywhere left to turn.

Wondering how to keep your ESL students motivated and determined to overcome serious linguistic obstacles?

Whenever I’m asked about strategies for teaching ESL students, I always think back to my experience with Mayda.

Mayda is a former student of mine who had become utterly discouraged by her slow progress towards English fluency. Over many years, she’d done an outstanding job building her vocabulary, improving her grammar skills and increasing her reading fluency. Still, with all that progress, it seemed like the homestretch was the most difficult phase for her.

No matter how much time she spent studying, reading and speaking the English language, fluency did not come nearly as easily as she’d anticipated.

As Mayda’s teacher, I knew how determined she was to master English. She’d invested in quality language classes and was one of the most hard-working and motivated students in my class. She studied relentlessly and always came to class on time, prepared and with a positive attitude.

In all honesty, I dreamed of cloning her on several occasions.

Nevertheless, I could certainly understand how falling short of her personal goals, despite all her hard work, could be both frustrating and discouraging enough to affect her desire to carry on with English.

Hang in there — this story has a happy ending. Mayda fueled my motivation to create more effective strategies for my ESL students, and now I’m going to share these strategies with you and your students.

10 ESL Teaching Strategies That Successfully Motivated My Students To Reach The Next Level

Now, to figure out the right teaching strategies, I knew I needed to understand exactly what the problem with Mayda was.

As we discussed the roadblocks she faced, Mayda told me about the language learning strategies she used outside of class. To my dismay, I learned that this time consisted of completing textbook assignments and studying the text materials and resources from class.


Although Mayda was determined and consistent with her study time, textbook study isn’t meant to be the sum of a student’s outside learning practice, and it alone was certainly not what Mayda needed to achieve her goals.

I’m pretty much ashamed to say that, until then, I’d never truly focused on my students’ learning strategies outside of school. As teachers, we tend to concentrate on how we can help students in class, but we oftentimes neglect giving them tools to continue learning the language when they leave the classroom.

This is unfortunate because, for many students, the majority of their practice time happens at home and within their communities. We can’t argue the importance of teaching our students strategies they can use to maximize their learning opportunities outside of class.

This was the basis for my new set of foolproof teaching strategies. They hone in on the intersection of classroom teaching and outside study, and can make a huge difference in your students’ attitudes towards learning English.

1. Get yourself in the right mindset: Classroom learning vs. outside practice.

After my discussion with Mayda, I had to reevaluate what I was doing to make sure my students were making the most of ALL their practice time. As teachers, we can’t assume that students know how to practice effectively or even see the importance of doing so. From that point on, I began seeing myself not only as a teacher but as an English learning advisor as well!

You have to create a holistic English learning experience which extends outside the classroom and into every corner of your students’ lives. This outlook certainly changed the way I approached teaching, and ultimately helped many of my students to take their English speaking and listening abilities to the next level.

2. Create in-class strategies that effectively translate to outside practice.

Sure, our primary responsibility is classroom instruction. Most of us have no interest in following our students everywhere they go. It’s useful to focus on in-class strategies and ideas that simultaneously benefit students outside the classroom.

Although some of these ideas may seem obvious to us as teachers, we have to be explicit about teaching them to our students. As you incorporate the following 8 ideas on the list, remember to make no assumptions about your students’ basic knowledge of language acquisition. Remember, they aren’t professionals. YOU are!

3. Take the time to teach students basic principles in second language acquisition.

Studies show that over 80% of language learning students have misconceptions about what it takes to actually learn a second language. Unfortunately, those misconceptions usually translate to ineffective learning strategies.

For instance, some students believe that learning a new language simply entails acquiring a large amount of new vocabulary in the target language. Because of this, they focus their practice time on learning new words and are unaware that vocabulary acquisition is an ineffective learning strategy all on its own. While they need not be experts, equipping your students with a basic understanding of the process of learning English will ensure that their practice time is effective and grounded in sound language learning practices.

4. Use technology to garner motivation and student interest.

Research clearly indicates that motivation is a huge factor in a student’s ability to learn a second language. I mean, that’s just common sense, right? Some students may come to your class intrinsically motivated and require very little from you to build interest. Others will require a large degree of extrinsic motivation, and you may need to be creative to find out what excites them.

To make your job easier, experts have identified common motivating factors that generally apply to different age groups. For instance, tweens and teens may be motivated by the prospect of socializing with English speaking peers, while adults may be motivated by the prospect of acquiring a new job. Whatever the motivation, today’s technology has a vast variety of resources and tools to build on that interest.

Talk to students about changing their Facebook or Instagram profiles into English, instead of leaving them in their native language. Play entertaining English language video clips that are targeted to your students’ age groups. Have the grown-ups browse English language career boards as homework. Have the kids send English language Tweets. Not matter what age group you’re teaching, technology can be a true interest builder that students can use outside of the classroom.

5. Set realistic expectations and goals, early and regularly.

One of the largest factors in Mayda’s frustration was her unrealistic expectation of how long it would take her to learn to speak English fluently. Simply examining those expectations and re-establishing her short and long term goals did wonders for her self-confidence.

After my experience with Mayda, goal-setting is now an integral part of my time spent with beginning students. Setting 1-3 realistic goals and tweaking them along the way can assure students that they’re on the right track, redirect them when needed and avoid the anxiety that makes language learning unnecessarily difficult. Furthermore, goal-setting worksheets allow students to outline clear plans while giving them an opportunity to practice writing and planning skills.

6. Give students explicit instructions and ideas on strategies they can use at home.

As teachers, we often assume that our students have a basic understanding of English learning strategies. Because of this, we may give students general guidelines and strategies instead of being explicit and providing much needed examples. Remember that your students don’t have the training or pedagogical background that you do, nor have they spent countless hours studying language acquisition.

One tidbit of advice that I gave to Mayda was to make sure that she spent a lot of time thinking in English. But that advice in and of itself was not enough. If I expected her to really put my advice into practice, I had to specifically give her examples of ways in which she could incorporate this into her daily life.

I gave her specific strategies for thinking in English. For example, I explained how she could try narrating her daily activities and routines in her mind in English. I also recommended websites such as www.newsela.com and www.newsinlevels.com to help her immerse herself in news and current events that are on the minds of English speakers. That way, she could read articles at her level of English, reflect on the topics and form opinions about them. This was one tangible way that I advised her to make sure that she was thinking in English outside of the classroom.

7. Set up English speaking peer groups.

We know that, in order to learn a language, students have to practice speaking to others in authentic situations. Setting up peer groups is one fun way to facilitate and encourage this. Just as content area teachers assign group projects pertaining to their content area, ESL teachers can assign group projects with the goal of increasing the amount of time students spend in meaningful communication outside of class.

As with any group project, you should be purposeful in how students are grouped in order to achieve the maximum benefit. Also, there should be some sort of final product — as well as several smaller ones along the way — to give students the opportunity to demonstrate what they’re doing and learning. These products will also allow you to adequately supervise, assess and advise them along the way.

The Teaching Channel has a short video that discusses Project Based Learning (PBL) and cooperative learning for ESL learners. You can also find specific ideas for projects here!

8. Build and maintain a classroom library.

Reading teachers understand that reading as much as possible is a major key to improving reading fluency. This is also true for gaining reading fluency in another language. Unfortunately, not all students will have access to English books at their level, and others will need assistance in choosing books that are appropriate for their specific reading levels and interests.

Building and maintaining a classroom library is one way to make sure your students have access to an adequate amount of reading materials for at-home reading practice. Accessing virtual libraries like Open Library and Lit2Go is another option to consider, especially if your resources are limited.

9. Decrease Teacher Talking Time (TTT).

As a teacher of English language learners, you probably know all the research regarding decreasing TTT and ensuring that student talking time is maximized. The research behind this is substantial to say the least, and I dare not attempt to touch on all of it here. However, I do want to point out that the more opportunities you give your students to speak in class, the more likely it is that they’ll be using the language as often as possible outside of the classroom.

By maximizing student talking time, you’re demonstrating to your students that they have an active role to play in conversation and English learning as a whole. With that idea instilled in them, they’re more likely to play a more active role in learning the language outside of your classroom.

10. Make your classroom speaking and listening experiences as authentic as possible.

Some experts wholeheartedly believe that, when it comes to language learning, the words “classroom” and “authentic” are incompatible. This is probably true in many situations. However, I do think that it’s possible to strategically incorporate authentic speaking and listening time into your lessons AND meet your learning objectives at the same time.

The key to this is pretty simple: build opportunities for your students to talk about things that interest them. This will show them that you’re interested in what they have to say and what they like. Maintain a positive and encouraging atmosphere for these experiences to take place and don’t be afraid to get off track (you can always get back on track later). After all, the overall goal isn’t for the students to learn scripts or how to answer questions correctly. We want them to ultimately be comfortable with spontaneous, authentic communication. The way to get there is to — you guessed it! — practice spontaneous, authentic communication!

Embrace and look positively on your role as an instructor and English learning advisor. Simply by being conscious of your classroom effectiveness and making small changes accordingly, you can be confident that you’re giving your students the tools to continue their English learning journey wherever they are.

As for Mayda, she is now employed with an American company and only speaks English at her job. According to her, the changes she made in her study methods outside the classroom made all the difference in helping her meet her goals.

But don’t take our word for it! Try these strategies out in your own classroom and see what your students make of it.

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