How to Motivate Students to Learn English: Top 15 Classroom Strategies
You’d attract bees with honey rather than vinegar—and the same idea applies to motivating the students in your ESL classroom
One of the toughest tasks a teacher can have on their plate is to motivate their students the right way. This means motivating them from the inside rather than from the outside.
I’ll show you several classroom strategies that’ll bring out the best in your students and get them excited about learning English.
- Smart Tactics for Motivating English Learners
- State clear rules and expectations
- Give plenty of talking time
- Know your students’ needs and goals
- Make your lessons practical
- Use authentic materials
- Include fun activities
- Let students be creative
- Make your classroom a safe space
- Connect with your students
- Don’t correct every mistake
- Celebrate hard work and achievements
- Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivation for Learning English
Smart Tactics for Motivating English Learners
State clear rules and expectations
Start at the beginning of the school year with clear rules. Above all, you need to explain from day one that this is an English class, and English will be the medium of communication.
Have realistic expectations too, depending on the language level of your students. Obviously, different age groups “ring the bell” concerning language or maturity levels. Your students also won’t develop their language at the same rate, face the same struggles, or excel in the same areas.
Give plenty of talking time
The more you encourage students to communicate in class, the more motivated they’ll be. Here are some ways I’ve made my class more communicative:
- Set up group activities so students have to use the language while working together.
- Instead of traditional rows and columns, arrange student desks to make larger tables to encourage communication.
- Try the discovery grammar method. Give students a grammar worksheet with the answers already in the blanks before you teach the grammatical concept. Then challenge groups of two or three students to work together to see if they can figure out the rule on their own.
- A flipped classroom is another great technique. Assign instructional material to be completed at home and then use class time for extension, practice and deepening activities—in other words, putting language to use through communication.
- When all else fails, keep your class communicative by minimizing teacher talk time (TTT). The less you talk, the more your students will be talking.
Know your students’ needs and goals
Get to know your students. Analyze their needs and understand their goals and reasons for learning English. Which skills are each student interested in improving, productive (writing and speaking) and/or receptive (reading and listening)?
To help find out this information, at the beginning of the term or school year I ask students to fill out a questionnaire. This is where students can describe their language needs, as well as their long-term/short-term English learning goals. You can devise your own questionnaire or use existing materials from the web or your textbooks.
As you go through the class, observe your students’ strengths, weaknesses and needs! 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.
Make your lessons practical
People don’t like doing things that are pointless. They want to know that there’s a purpose behind what they do, even with simple activities:
- Use realia whenever possible. Realia are physical objects, like fruits, maps and pencils. If you’re learning about oceans and beaches, have a handful of seashells to share with your students. Even just having a photograph or drawing of new vocabulary words will increase understanding.
- Project-based learning is a great way to keep things focused on reality, since it starts with a true-to-life problem and asks students to solve it. Students work through a series of steps to come to a solution, like planning their steps, gathering the necessary information and coming to a conclusion.
- Role-playing is another way to stay focused on the practical. Giving students real-life situations they’re likely to encounter in the outside world lets them practice for the future in a safe environment.
Use authentic materials
To have interesting lessons, you need to use authentic materials frequently. People love movies, magazines and contemporary music, so invite pop culture into class. One teacher resource, FluentU, even has hundreds of English clips from TV shows, popular vlogs and more, all with learner exercises and interactive subtitles.
Use these materials in class for listening activities, reading activities or to learn new vocabulary. Get yourselves out of the textbook and start reading People magazine. Use a movie as the basis for event sequencing, writing a summary or a cloze listening activity. Pay attention to the music your students like, the types of movies they watch and what they enjoy on TV, then include these materials whenever possible.
Include fun activities
Making class fun is a surefire way to up intrinsic motivation levels. When students are having a good time, they’ll be more engaged in learning.
I’ll be honest—I love using games with my students. Some of my favorites are Scrabble, Scattergories and Charades. And you don’t have to feel tied to the traditional rules, either. There are plenty of ways to change up traditional games to make them even more fun for your ESL students in class.
Another activity would be using social media in class. Try having students write short posts for Facebook, X (Twitter) or Instagram. They can also start a class blog and then write there and respond to comments from their classmates as well as the world at large.
Let students be creative
Being too explicit with instructions usually means there’s little creative liberty for students. They might have a fantastic idea, but it has been shut down by all the “dos and do nots.”
Give your students room to explore. Just as explicit directions lead to stifled creativity, an open-ended approach provides the opportunity for massive creativity. You can ask your students to create a written essay, video, blog post, photo essay with captions or something entirely different that brings out their creative side.
If there truly is a very specific way things must be done, explain it in 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.
Make your classroom a safe space
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.
Providing relaxed situations for students to try out English will really allow them 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.
Warm and positive tones, smiles and open body language will also put your students at ease.
Connect with your students
Your students will likely be more motivated to learn if they know that you care. That’s why forging relationships with your students is so important.
Let your students know that you care about them and where they come from by encouraging expressions of culture in class. Be on the lookout for any opportunities to have students share their values, beliefs and traditions.
Also, take some time every day to relate to your students on a personal level. Ask them how their weekends went. Encourage them if they seem down. Let them know that you’re there for them in any way.
Don’t correct every mistake
It’s important to give positive feedback, like compliments and encouragement, as well as criticism.
But 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.
Celebrate hard work and achievements
It’s great to celebrate achievements on a regular basis. This means taking the time to talk about the things your students have accomplished and giving them the space to brag a little. Go around in a circle and have everyone share something they believe they did well. Have their peers give them a round of applause, compliments or “snaps” to celebrate!
You can also praise students for their process and effort. If a student studies all night for a test then gets 60%, you can say, “You must have studied really hard, I bet if you study that hard next time you will do even better!” The student will know that if they study hard they’ll be praised (and they’re still aware that there’s room for improvement). This 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.
Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivation for Learning English
Motivation can be categorized into two types: intrinsic and extrinsic.
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 in a sport to win a trophy, or being paid to complete a task. This is extrinsic motivation, and it’s best used to complement 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.
But to motivate students to learn English, you need to bring out their intrinsic motivation, whether through games, creative projects or lessons that are tied to their goals. You should also provide a supportive environment for them to boost their confidence and help them see the real-world applications of what they’re 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.
Motivating students is a part of every teacher’s job.
And while honey and vinegar may be great in the kitchen, the best kind of motivation comes from within your students themselves.
By encouraging intrinsic motivation in your students, you’ll be setting them up for success even after they leave your classrooms!