4 Practical Tips for Motivating Adolescent ESL Learners to Use English

Imagine a day where you walk into class and your adolescent EFL/ESL students are very chatty.

Some are talking about last night’s soccer game, while others are curious about a classmate’s new lucky charm.

When you get their attention and begin class, your students are actually quite intrigued, and many are asking thoughtful questions.

Oh, and the best part? All of these questions and chatting happened in English!

This scene is every ESL teacher’s dream, right?

So how can this be achieved?

If you want to get your students to use English in class, it all boils down to motivation.

Motivation is a key concept in foreign language learning for any age group, but teaching a class of teenagers can sometimes be extra challenging when it comes to keeping their focus on the lesson itself.

As a teacher of teenage English learners, you really want your students to use the language in constructive ways. So let’s take a deeper look at what affects motivation, and then learn four tips to help increase it in our students!

Factors Affecting Motivational Levels

Using motivational strategies to increase the amount of English spoken in class by students is essential for language learning, and depends on various factors, such as:

Age – Teenage English learners can be from 11 up to 19 years of age, so keep in mind that we have a group ranging from pre-teens all the way to young adults!

Language level – These adolescent students could be ESL learners (English is the second official language in their country of residence) or they could be EFL learners (English is a foreign language in their country of residence). Also, their language level could range from absolute beginners to advanced. In other words, as a teacher you could have a mixed background of learners with either a common or various mother tongues, but you have to convince them of the value of using English in the most constructive way.

Type of motivation – As a language teacher, you are familiar with the concepts of extrinsic and intrinsic motives in learning. But which ones should be emphasized more in English language classes? Extrinsic motivation is linked to better school results, success in exams, acquisition of certificates and of course, better job prospects for the teenager in the future. Intrinsic motivation, on the other hand, is the inner drive the teenager can have to learn the language and use it in class since it’s essential but enjoyable at the same time.

4 Practical Tips for Motivating Adolescent EFL/ESL Learners

We should bear in mind that for motivation to take place, we need meaningful lessons and a supportive learning environment. In other words, chaotic, unsupportive, meaningless classes cannot boost motivation; they are more likely to destroy any interest or inner drive on the part of the learners!

So use these four tips to motivate teenage English learners.

1. State clear rules and expectations from the start

You cannot assume that your students are intrinsically motivated, nor that they’ll meet your expectations just because you’re the teacher! You should start at the beginning of the school year with clear rules and realistic expectations. Above all, you need to explain from day one that this is an English class, and English will be the medium of communication.

These rules also need to be followed, just as they should be in any class of teenagers anywhere around the world. Have reasonable expectations, depending on the language level of your students. Obviously, different age groups “ring the bell” concerning language or maturity levels.

2. Create a pleasant and supportive classroom atmosphere

One element that hinders constructive language use in EFL/ESL classes is the way the teacher treats mistakes in pronunciation, syntax or vocabulary. When teenagers feel their peers can make fun of mistakes, they do not open up and will prefer to either use their first language or not speak at all in class.

The way we treat mistakes as teachers reinforces or hinders the use of the target language by students. Do we correct each slight error, interrupting students when they speak? Do we ignore the fact that other students make fun of their peers’ errors? If yes, then we already know one reason why some students do not feel motivated to use English in class.

Remember that teenagers are more sensitive than other age groups with respect to their self-esteem. We should also take into account that poor self-esteem produces insecurity, diminishes communication and decreases motivation. Therefore, constant praise and feedback are extremely significant. All in all, avoid harsh comments or labeling, and help students build their own problem-solving strategies to avoid repetition of the same mistakes.

3. Know your students’ needs and goals

Aim to provide lessons that are as learner-centered as possible, and 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 you could 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. Depending on student age and language level, you can devise your own questionnaire or use existing materials from the web or your textbooks.

4. Use authentic materials for meaningful lessons

Meaningful lessons inspire students and boost their participation in the language lesson. For interesting lessons to take place, you need to frequently use authentic materials (literary abstracts, newspaper articles, websites, videos, films, songs, etc.). 

We all know that most teenagers worldwide spend their free time listening to English music, reading about their favorite pop stars on English sites or in magazines, playing online games, watching YouTube videos, etc. So we need to make good use of this convenient situation!

Of course, talking or writing about film stars, sports, music, online games, current events, etc. will not be an end in itself. Rather, this can form the basis for communication, allowing more elaborate vocabulary and complex structures to follow with the use of additional material.

Furthermore, language games, group work, experiential learning and creative writing techniques can help teenagers feel motivated to use English in a constructive way, instead of solely solving meaningless exercises in a workbook!

Teaching EFL Students in a Non-English Speaking Country

If you live and work in a country where English is spoken as a second language, then things are a lot easier when it comes to motivation. But what about the rest of the world where English is taught as a foreign language, but not used outside the classroom (in the community/student homes)?

If this is your case, you have a double role to perform since teenagers may constantly resort to their native language or the official language of the country/area where they live. All the above tips are helpful tools, but your overall attitude towards your students and classes will also make a huge difference! Friendly attitudes, verbal and non-verbal communication, a supportive climate and your own motivation to teach will provide the best teaching results.

No matter if your target teenage group is EFL or ESL, remember that the key to motivating your students is your own motivation to try new things and help learners love the language themselves.

That opening scene of endless English chatting and discussion among your students doesn’t have to be a dream. Put these tips into action and watch it become your reality!

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