2 Types of Motivation to Get Your ESL Students to Love Learning English

It’s 6 a.m. and your alarm is buzzing through the pillow. It’s cold and dark outside, and the last thing you want to do is wake up and get ready to teach.

Motivation. Some teachers always have it, and some don’t. Same goes for students.

Motivation is one of the most important aspects of learning and yet it’s one that’s often passed over. The assumption seems to be that students don’t really want to be in the classroom studying English and there’s no way to change that.

“But what’s motivation?” you might ask, “and can I do anything about it?” Why yes you can.

How to Motivate Your ESL Students: Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivation

Intrinsic motivation is simply the motivation to do something because it’s personally rewarding. For example, you might play a sport because you enjoy it, or you might complete a puzzle because you find the challenge interesting. This would be intrinsic motivation, and this is the holy grail of learning.

The opposite is extrinsic motivation. This is when external factors are required to motivate you towards doing something. Examples are competing at a sport to win a trophy, or being paid to complete a task. This is extrinsic motivation, and it’s best used to compliment your students’ intrinsic motivations.

One thing that you should notice straight away is that almost everything we use as teachers is extrinsic. Praise, rewards, stickers, candy, wanting to make parents proud, awards: all extrinsic motivation.

There are obviously reasons for this, namely that we as educators can’t control what intrinsically motivates a student, whereas we can control most extrinsic motivations. We can’t make a student like algebra but we can give them a sticker if they finish their homework.

Here’s the downside: intrinsic motivation is much more useful when learning. Extrinsic motivation can be a very useful tool, especially to encourage students to do something they have absolutely no interest in whatsoever. The focus, however, should be on using the students’ intrinsic motivations—their real motivations—to help them to learn.

What’s Real Motivation?

It sounds difficult, but it’s not all bad news. There are lots of ways to work with a student’s intrinsic motivations. It’s all about knowing what they like, and—more importantly—using it.

Firstly, just ask the students what they like. Seems simple, but this can even be a lesson in itself. All English language teachers will have taught an “I like _______” lesson. Use this as an opportunity to encourage the students to talk about what they like. What food/activities/singers/animals/people/colors/anything do they like? Once you have this information, bank it. It’ll be useful later.

Next, use this knowledge when building your lessons. This is where lesson plans become extremely important. If you know one class loves pop songs, then use pop songs. If a different class hates pop songs but loves giraffes, then maybe today’s lesson is all about giraffes. Taking the time to adapt your lessons to the students can really pay off in the long run.

Remember that students—especially as they get older—aren’t always motivated by grammar and studying. They don’t necessarily want to learn about past participles just for the sake of learning them. But they do want to learn English to read comic books, watch movies or follow a soccer game, and you can work with this. Reading, writing, speakinglistening and even grammar can all excite your students, if employed correctly.

Some of the best success I’ve had motivating students as a teacher is by abandoning the typical lesson format and gearing the lesson completely towards their wants. A lesson spent reading comic books will seem like a dream come true to many students, and yet they’re reading more English than they ever would have done in a normal lesson. Some ten minutes spent learning soccer vocabulary and then 50 minutes of playing soccer or watching an important game will have even the least motivated students shouting English until their throats get sore.

It’s not just about playing to your strengths as a teacher, it’s about playing to theirs too.

One thing to remember is to not over-motivate them. If the students already love an activity then there’s no need to change it. Smiles and laughter are a good sign of motivation and if your Batman game is getting lots of smiles and “again!”s then you don’t need to worry about adding sticker bonuses or giving out candy. Research has shown that added rewards can actually reduce motivation, especially if students were already motivated in the first place.

Giving Proper Praise

Praise is very important in a classroom. As a result, it should be carefully considered for its effects on motivation. Feedback as a positive or a negative reinforcement is crucial to children and their motivation, and yet often teachers dish it out with little regard. Consider these two scenarios:

A: Carla is taking an algebra test. She usually does well on tests, so she didn’t study yesterday. She aces the test and gets 100%. Carla’s teacher showers her with praise.

B: Robert is taking the same test. He finds algebra very difficult and so he studied all night. He gets 60% and is very happy. Robert’s teacher tells him to try harder next time.

You see the problem. Carla has been rewarded for getting a high score without trying. She’s being told that not studying and doing well anyway is the best way to do things. Robert, on the other hand, tried as hard as he could, and was told he isn’t good enough. Carla is now motivated to achieve with as little effort as possible, and Robert will feel that no matter how hard he tries, he won’t be good enough.

Praise and feedback should always be focused on the process, not the result. Here are two alternative scenarios:

A: Carla is taking an algebra test. She usually does well on test, so she didn’t study yesterday. She aces the test and gets 100%. Carla’s teacher tells her “well done, you must understand algebra very well.”

B: Robert is taking the same test. He finds algebra very difficult and so he studied all night. He gets 60% and is very happy. Knowing that he tried so hard, Robert’s teacher tells “you must have studied really hard, I bet if you study that hard next time you will do even better!”

Now Carla knows that understanding is what gets praised, not just test results, and Robert knows that if he studies hard he’ll be praised (and he’s still aware that there’s room for improvement).

This is a subtle distinction but one which can reap rewards in the classroom environment.

Scholarly research into effective praise goes much deeper into the subject, and the BSP model of praise (Behavior-specific, Student-specific, Positive praise) is very popular in educational discourse at the present time. There’s much discussion about the appropriate ratio of praise to criticism, average amount of praise per hour and specific praise-related targets. But don’t get bogged down. The important thing is simply developing a classroom culture in which praise reinforces good behavior rather than good results.


Remember that all learners are different, and that everybody is motivated by different things. There’s no magic motivating technique or subject that will work every time, all the time. But with some consideration and patience, learning how to use the students’ intrinsic motivations can have huge effects on their learning outcomes…and might just get you motivated too!

Cal Hudson is an ESL teacher in Sokcho, South Korea. He has taught children from kindergarten to high school, and adults from complete beginners to advanced. Cal’s focus in ESL teaching is developing non-conventional lesson plans to get the maximum motivation from his learners.

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