Do You Know How to Really Motivate ESL Students to Learn English?

Imagine the following scenarios.

You’re trying to completely give up drinking soda. You used to drink three bottles every day. Now, you only drink one bottle a day. That’s pretty good, right? Or maybe it’s still kind of bad?

You’re driving down the highway and see a sign stating that the speed limit is 65 miles per hour. You look down, you’re going 70. You’re speeding. That could be bad. It’s really only five miles over the limit, though, so maybe it’s okay?

You’ve made a resolution to eat more veggies. You have three helpings of cheesy-bacon broccoli for dinner. That’s a lot of broccoli—great job! That’s a lot of cheese and bacon, too. Perhaps it wasn’t such a great job…

Sometimes it can be difficult to determine the good from the bad.

A few miles over the speed limit is one thing, but when it comes to motivating our students to learn English? That’s a completely different story.

We don’t want to take chances with what might be good or what might be bad. We must take very opportunity to deliver absolutely the best, most engaging lessons that will leave students wanting more!

How to Motivate Students to Learn: The Good, the Bad and the Super Engaging

Like most things, classroom instruction of all kinds can fall anywhere on a spectrum from “bad” to “amazing.”

It can sometimes be pretty easy to see the difference between the two. However, it’s not always as easy to plan and execute that amazing instruction strategy that will keep your students motivated.

Oftentimes, it’s simpler to fall back on those old lessons that you’ve been delivering for years. They’re already planned out, you’ve got all the materials, you’ve done them a million times. However, your methods and your lessons might be outdated, irrelevant and—worst of all—boring!

Think about it from the perspective of your ESL students. They may already need to put in a lot of effort to understand the words you’re speaking, so if the methods and materials are bad, it’s the perfect excuse to tune out. They aren’t interested in what you’re saying, so what’s the point of trying to understand?

We ask our students to do a lot of things in our classrooms on a daily basis. Of course, our main expectation is that our students learn to understand and speak English. This is a huge ambition! To meet this expectation we ask that they listen, speak, read and create their own work—all in a foreign language. This can be a pretty daunting task, one that would be easy to give up on.

As teachers, the most beneficial thing we can do is keep our students motivated by ditching those stale methods and embracing those amazing and super engaging activities that will push them to the next level.

We’ll go through tips for getting students motivation to listen, speak, read and create in class—and for each skill area we’ll discuss the bad, the good and the super engaging strategies you should consider.

Motivating Students to Listen

One of the most important aspects of learning a new language is listening to that language being spoken. Not only is it vital to expose students to the vocabulary being use by native speakers in context, but we also want them to hear (and pick up) the inflections, tone and syntax.

The Bad

  • Uninviting Classroom Environment

Even before a student begins to engage, verbally or otherwise, with the teacher or other students, their impressions of the classroom are determined by the physical environment.

Harsh, fluorescent lights, minimal furnishings, no décor and a general lack of charm in your classroom can lead students to feel uncomfortable. Who wants to listen when they don’t feel welcome?

One easy way to add charm through décor is by decking out your classroom with some multilingual or bilingual posters. Language Lizard has plenty of these in a variety of languages, along with other language products you may find useful.

  • Unwelcoming Tone or Negative Body Language

More important than the words that we speak is the way in which we speak them. Voices that are too loud, tones that are too sharp or too bland, and faces that are too grim are horrible invitations to listen and interact.

  • Boring Content

If you’re bored teaching your lesson, imagine how those trying to learn it must feel. Repetitive lessons, dull interactions and predictable conversations can lead your students to quickly disengage. Providing little variety in the topics presented (AKA “same old, same old”) presents the perfect opportunity for students to zone out. 

  • Lack of Accompanying Visuals

Sometimes the only lifeline for an ESL student is to utilize something understood universally, like a visual. Endlessly droning on—sentence after sentence after sentence—without accompanying pictures, objects or examples can dissuade students from listening.

The Good

  • Warm Classroom Environment

Adding just a few personal touches to your classroom can really warm it up, making it an environment where students feel comfortable and ready to listen, interact and learn. Soft light from lamps, a few pictures, some posters and maybe even an old garage sale couch can work wonders in your classroom.

Remember to represent the cultures and interests of your students, as well as your own, when bedecking your classroom.

  • Positive Tone and Body Language

Your students might not understand all the words you’re saying, but they’ll understand the way in which you say them. Warm and positive tones, smiles and open body language will put your students at ease, opening them up to truly listening and learning.

  • Engaging Content

The best way to get students to listen is to give them something exciting to listen to. Allow students to steer the conversation. Talk about things they’re interested in. This may take a bit more work on the part of the teacher (actually determining their interests and researching them), but it’ll be worth it when you have a classroom full of engaged students.

Provide those lifelines! If you’re learning about oceans and beaches, have a handful of seashells to share with your students. If you’re teaching about the life cycle of a pumpkin, have the seeds, blossoms and pumpkins available as you explain the cycle.

Even just having a photograph or drawing of new vocabulary words will increase understanding, motivating your students to keep on keeping on.

The Super Engaging

  • DIY Classroom

Allow students to help set up the classroom environment. This will create ownership, motivating them to really become active participants.

  • Getting to Know You

Create an interest survey to distribute to your students. The surveys should help let you know what really excites them, then plan around those interests.

  • A Picture’s Worth a Thousand Words

Provide students with a blank “dictionary” and have them add visual representations (like cut-out pictures or drawings of their own) of vocabulary, especially when it comes to rare words and phrases. It’s kind of fun to add to this and review it throughout the year.

Motivating Students to Speak

Actually speaking a new language can be the most intimidating process of learning the language. A student might be confident in verbally understanding or reading English, but the thought of speaking it aloud, where others can hear and judge them, can be a little terrifying.

It’s key that we have motivation high in this area to aide in growing confidence as well as improving fluency.

The Bad

  • High Pressure Situations

One of the best ways to shut down an ESL student is to put them on the spot. Asking a student to respond or speak on demand, especially solo, can create some major anxiety.

Remember when you were a kid and had to read “round-robin”? That could shake even the most confident of native speakers. Imagine how you’d feel if you were just getting a handle on the language.

  • Overly High Expectations

You would never expect an infant to walk before they crawl, and the same courtesy should be extended to your ESL students. When a student is just beginning to speak, you can’t expect that they’ll instantly be confident and communicative.

A “blanket” expectation for all of your ESL students is also unreasonable. You can’t surmise that all of your students will develop their language at the same rate, face the same struggles, or excel in the same areas.

  • Inappropriate Error Correction

Oftentimes when our ESL students first begin to speak they’re really just “feeling out” the English language. Pointing out every mispronunciation, every adjective-noun reversal and every pronoun error can be extremely detrimental to your students’ progress.

How annoyed (and possibly embarrassed) would you be if someone was constantly stopping you while you talked? This will almost certainly result in a complete lack of verbal communication on the part of the student—and can you really blame them?

The Good

  • Low Pressure Situations

Providing relaxed situations for your students to try out English will really allow students to open up. Starting off with classroom or small group conversations doesn’t put anyone on the spot. If a student feels like they can communicate at their own speed, they’ll be more likely to eventually participate in the conversation.

Speaking of participation, games are always a great idea! Classroom games can be played in smaller groups and provide a stress-free and fun way to practice language and motivate students to keep speaking.

  • Reasonable Expectations

One of the first things we learn as educators is that every student learns at a different rate and in different ways. Of course, the same is true for our ESL students. You may have one student who’s practically fluent after a few months and another who may be stuck in the silent phase. That’s okay—adjust your expectations to meet the student where they’re at.

Always be cognizant that your students are learning an entirely new language and culture, oftentimes after leaving their home country, family, friends and traditions to do so. That’s huge! How might you respond in that situation? Would you feel like chatting the afternoon away? Expect the same response from your students.

  • Natural Error Correction

Please, please don’t correct every little thing. Ask yourself two questions: Is it causing a major breakdown in communication? If not, maybe just let it go. Will this embarrass the student? If so, definitely let it go.

If you must correct, it’s best to do it in a natural and positive way. For example, your student makes the following statement when speaking about his father: “She liking ice cream pink.” Instead of pointing out each of the errors in the sentence, it would be more beneficial to say “Cool—he likes pink ice cream. Me too!”. Your student will pick up on that. Next time they might not make the same error—or they might. The important thing is, they tried again.

The Super Engaging

  • Take Every Opportunity to Shoot the Breeze!

Start class everyday with a low-key chat. Allow students to talk amongst themselves. Some days you might give a topic, other days they can steer the conversation. Try to make your way around the room and into parts of every conversation. This creates a level of comfort between one another and with you.

  • Be an Observer and Take Note.

Know your students’ strengths, weaknesses and needs! This doesn’t need to mean adding yet another assessment. Just informally gauge where they might be. This can be done through those low-key chats, engaging in games or even by talking with students one on one.

You can only begin to reach your students after you know the level at which they need to be reached.

  • Turn Your Classroom Into a Safe Zone.

Try to go a whole day without making any corrections. This will let your students know that you aren’t looking to catch them screwing up.

Should you always let errors go? Absolutely not, but don’t make it the focus of your teaching.

Motivating Students to Read

A huge part of being fluent in a language is having the ability to not only read the language, but also fully comprehend the meaning of what you’re reading. It’s easy enough to sound out words, even in a different language, but understanding what those words mean can be a little tougher.

It’s our job to keep students motivated, reading and comprehending.

The Bad

  • Irrelevant and Boring Texts

Have you seen some of the stuff out there? My grandma is the only person I know who might possibly be interested in the quilting rituals of colonial women (only possibly interested, not definitely).

Well-meaning curriculum companies have been churning out this sort of reading sample for years. As educators only doing what has been requested of us, we’ve probably all been guilty of utilizing some form of this boring material in the past. What’s the motivation to read about this stuff, especially in a newly-acquired, challenging language?

  • Lack of Diversity in Materials

Not only are those old lady quilters boring, but they probably have very little to do with your students and their culture(s). Some of those tried and true texts you’ve used year after year could be culturally biased (only about American things with images of only white Anglo-Saxons).

This devalues your students and their culture(s)—a surefire way to put a damper on their reading.

  • Lack of Choice, Variety and Reading Level

You might have 500 hundred books in your classroom library, but if they’re all similar in substance and/or reading level, you may as well have 5.

Would you read a book that was uninteresting to you? No. Would you read a book that was well under your skill level? No. Would you read a book that was too advanced for you to understand? No.

The Good

  • Authentic Texts and Materials

Really want to grab your students’ attention? Give them something to read that will end in a reward of sorts. Recipes, movie reviews, lyrics to music; these are all highly-motivating pieces of text that your students will want to read. Such materials can be classified as authentic materials.

Authentic materials are different types of texts that are created for natives speakers to be used for a specific purpose (directions, newspapers, magazines, instruction manuals, greeting cards). They’re a far cry from the manufactured paragraphs of nonsense we may have used in the past—and they’re so much more engaging!

  • Culturally-appropriate Materials

How validating for your students to open up a book from your classroom library and see a reflection of themselves. That reflection might manifest itself in a book about their home country, their culture or even images of people with whom they may share similar physical characteristics.

After all, your students will end up being some of the most interesting people you’ll ever meet. How could books representing them be anything but intriguing?

  • Variety of Choices, Subjects and Reading Levels

All of your students have differences; different interests, different backgrounds and different skill levels. These differences should be emulated in your classroom library.

And your students should have the freedom to choose. Maybe you’ll see a kid who’s at an intermediate reading level choose a beginner book. Great! That’s were she feels comfortable, and she’s reading!

The Super Engaging

  • Bring In Recipes!

This first one is a no-brainer, really. Read a recipe. Learn how to make cake. Make cake. Eat cake.

There’s no greater motivator than cake. This one works with all sorts of recipes, or really anything with a tangible end product.

  • Add Diversity 

It may take a trip to the library or perusing online book sources, but having multicultural books available at all times will draw your students to your book center. Remember those interest surveys? Take another look at those before you stock your library, too.

  • Change Out Your Books. All. The. Time. 

Nobody wants to read the same book over and over again. Change them out to correspond with your classroom themes, activities, seasonal events, holidays (those being celebrated in the country in which you teach and those of your students) and the ever-changing interests of your students.

Motivating Students to Create

Digging in and actually creating something is one of the more exciting aspects of teaching and learning. “Something” might be an art project, a piece of written work or a multimedia project, like a video presentation or computer application.

The Bad

  • Overly-explicit Instructions

Have you ever tried to complete something, maybe an activity or project, and had all your enthusiasm squelched by someone telling you exactly how to do it? Providing mountains of instructions, either verbal or written, has two negative effects.

First, understanding all of that language might be too overwhelming. If you can’t understand what you’re supposed to do, why even try? Second, it can be discouraging to have someone micromanage every little detail you should or shouldn’t be doing.

  • Little Freedom to Create/Close-ended Activities

Those overly-explicit instructions usually mean there’s little creative liberty for your students. They might have a fantastic idea, but it has been shut down by all the “dos and do nots.” In this situation you may end up with a poor quality project that shows only a fraction of their capabilities.

Assigning only one, prescribed course to get to the finished project can be a major turn-off. This doesn’t allow students to use any of their own creativity. Worse yet, what if the way you’ve picked doesn’t fit with the learning style of a particular student? All their motivation goes out the window.

The Good

  • Simple Instructions

When we’re talking about directions, less is more. Just a couple of guidelines may be all you need to provide. You’ll always have those students who feel more comfortable with a million parameters, but if you can get them out of their comfort zone, you might open them up to their best work.

If there truly is a very specific way things must be done, explain it the simplest terms that you can. Providing a visual example might be more beneficial, though be careful that your example doesn’t end up being the standard.

  • Freedom to Create/Open-Ended Activities

Give your students room to explore. Just as the explicit directions lead to stifled creativity, the open-ended approach provides the opportunity for massive creativity. Allow students to get to the end product in a way that make sense for them.

A written essay might reflect their full creativity , but it might also be a video, a blog post, a photo essay with captions or something entirely different that gets them creating. Again, this may be out of the realm of those decades old lesson plans, but it’s the perfect opportunity for you to step out of your comfort zone, too.

The Super Engaging

  • One Word Showdown

Give students a one-word topic like “earth” or “fear” or “acceptance” and see what they come up with. The topic can relate to your classroom theme or whatever you’re currently exploring in the classroom.

Give them several options of ways in which to create (photo collages, poetry, journaling, etc. ) and just let them go. You’ll be amazed at what they come up with.

  • Get into Social Media

For low-key creating, use social media. Facebook posts, tweets, hashtags… these all require students to come up with something and type it out. This can really be a great place to start, because it doesn’t seem like an insurmountable task.

Most students will be familiar with and eager to use this sort of technology. It’s also a very brief form of expression, which beginning students will love. Their social media post can be anywhere from just one word to a few sentences—or a whole essay. An uncomplicated task can be a motivating task.


As far as motivating our students goes, we’ve seen the good, we’ve seen the bad.

Now it’s your turn to make it super engaging!

Jackie Hostetler has worked in the field of education for 15 years, earning her ESOL Masters in 2010. Her passions include early childhood education and language acquisition in our youngest learners. She is the director of an early learning center and the mother of two of her own little learners.

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