If you can read this, thank a teacher.
This is a line from a framed poster hanging on the wall of a secondhand bookstore that I frequent.
Every time I pass by and glance at it, I can’t help but think, “How true.”
Then all the famous quotes about teachers and teaching come flooding back:
Be proud you’re a teacher. The future depends on you.
To the world you may be just a teacher, but to your students… you’re a hero.
Without teachers, life would have no class.
As language teachers, you’re mentors; it’s a tautology as old as chalk.
And an important subset of that mentorship involves motivating yours students.
So to help you breath life into your students’ excitement towards their foreign language, I’ve put together five powerful techniques that’ll boost motivation in any language classroom.
Teachers as Motivators in Language Learning
With a fair amount of negative talk about learning a new language—that it’s too hard; that it’s only for the chosen few, the linguistically gifted or the well-heeled—I’d like to remind every language teacher reading this post of that special place we occupy.
Instead of causing burnout, we can really light a fire in the bellies of our students. With our words, our actions and our strong belief in our students, we can bulk up their self-belief and spark a mental transformation that will make them unstoppable in learning any language.
Yes, that’s really the privileged space we occupy. A student might think herself motivated, but the assured nudge of a language teacher can ensure that a student reach her linguistic potential. So in a sense, we teach not only our subject expertise, but we also guide students to better themselves as a whole.
As such, every language teacher needs the tools to effectively lift up a student’s spirits. And that’s exactly what you’re about to gain: Five incredibly effective motivation techniques that’ll spark a fire of language desire in your students.
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5 Simple Techniques to Spark Motivation in Those Learning a Language
1. Start Students Past “Zero”
They give customers a special card which the business stamps every time the clients return to the store and buy something. After a certain number visits, loyal customers get a special gift. Stamping the card gives people a sense of accomplishment so they keep going back to the store.
The key in this business technique is that they stamp the card on the very day they first hand it to the customer—not the next time. Seeing stamped proof of their visit, customers are started right and feel the urge to complete the whole card. (Really clever business owners stamp the card two to three times on the first visit, amping the need to keep coming back.)
Applied to a language class, it means we don’t want to start our kids from “zero,” which is the equivalence of a loyalty card with no stamps. In a Spanish class, for example, we’d want to tell beginner students they already know a lot of Spanish words from their native English language, like pronto, aficionado, armada, rodeo and cafetería. Cognates are definitely a topic to introduce early on, with words like directo (direct), efecto (effect), famoso (famous) and inmenso (immense).
It gives students a feeling of, “Hey, I’m already speaking Spanish and don’t even know it. Cool!” It gives them a sense that they’ve already started long before stepping into a Spanish class.
It always feels better to know you’re already on step three or four, rather than knowing you have to begin from the very first step, down at the bottom. It would make anyone unsure.
So motivate your students by pointing out that they’re already making progress. As shown, for very beginners this could mean covering English cognates right away. With intermediate and advanced students, you’ll want to draw connections to previous knowledge whenever possible when introducing new topics. This will give your students that first stamp on their punch card, signaling that they’re already headed in the right direction.
This next one is both a motivation and an attention-grabbing technique.
Imagine you’re a young student again, happily chatting away with your friends at recess. Unexpectedly, you hear your name spoken from the far reaches of the playground—and all of the world stops. I’d bet that nothing matters more at this moment than who spoke your name and what it was all about.
As a teacher, you can stimulate that effect by extravagantly mentioning the names of your students during class discussions. Simply mentioning “Cindy,” “Barry” or “Robert perks the ears of those students and motivates him/her to pay attention in class.
So for example, you could say, “Class, can you remember the Italian word for circle? Remember, Sheila wrote it on the board last time.” Can you imagine the effect of those ordinary lines on Sheila? Her heart would beat a tad faster and adrenalin would flow into her system. And Sheila would be intently listening for the next several minutes just because you happen to mention her name. (The fact that you even remembered what she wrote on the board is a precious nod of recognition.)
Note that this technique is more subtle than overt praise. Saying, “Good job Harry!” is great, but if that’s all you say, it will lose its authenticity over time. So you need to mix it up a bit. By simply mentioning a student’s name when they’re not expecting it during class, you can create a tremendous boost in motivation.
It’s really like magic.
3. Go for “Intermediate” Questions
In order to motivate students for success, you need to let them have a taste of it from the very beginning.
To do this, it’s important to remember that your language class exists in order to help students learn a new language, not to categorize them into “A students,” “B students,” etc. The focus really needs to be on the language, not on grades.
Now, back to experiencing success. This doesn’t mean that the course should be easy—that would actually be very demotivating and boring. The class should be challenging enough such that students believe that their labor will produce tangible results. (Note that it can take years of teaching to attain this ability to balance the degree of difficulty so that it’s right on the money.)
So while you work towards that point, one of the things you can do to motivate students immediately is by giving them “intermediate” questions. Not “easy,” as that would be patronizing, and not “hard,” which would slowly nip at the student’s self belief.
Now if a student still can’t answer an “intermediate” question when called on, go out of your way to feed it to them. Don’t let the student sit down without giving them a graceful exit. Even if you have to give the answer yourself, do it. (There’s nothing wrong with that, and it shouldn’t bother you one tiny bit.) Then let the student repeat the answer a few times so the whole class can hear. After which you say, “Good job Stephen. Keep working at it, you’re getting there.
This “nobody-sits-down-without-getting-the-right-answer” rule is a good way to boost your students’ confidence.
4. Highlight What Went Right
We teachers have a natural tendency to look for mistakes and correct them, because it’s required of our jobs.
It’s normal. But we shouldn’t forget the motivational aspect of teaching. And we can do this by highlighting the things that our students do well. We should always be asking ourselves, “What went right?”
So if you’re reading essays written by the class, don’t just mark the places where the student tripped—circle or write several exclamation points or smiley faces on places where they got it right. You could comment, “Nice!,” “I knew you’d get this!” or “Good job, Liz!”
Or if you’re giving comments on an oral presentation or report, be lavish and quick to highlight what was good about it. Did the pair pronounce their lines correctly? Did they entertain the class? Were they creative in the report? There will always be good things to say, so be on the lookout for these. The students will really feel appreciated when you do so.
I’m not saying that you shouldn’t critique or correct those things that need correction. You can use the “Sandwich Technique” to give actionable reminders to the students. You sandwich a negative comment between two positive ones. For example, you could say: “I really like your approach to conjugating Spanish verbs. The report could have been better with more examples, but overall, it was fun and creatively executed.”
See what happened there? A gentle correction was sandwiched between two positive ones. The student still hears the negative comment, but it’s not as jarring. They still has a smile on their face after getting such a comment.
By highlighting the good, the right and great, we can easily spark fire in the self-belief of those we teach.
5. Pump up the Mood with Music
Nothing beats a blast of catchy tune to get the blood going.
When you want your students to get into the groove of the lesson (or if you need a shot of dopamine), music is a perfect motivator. Mood management is the name of the game.
Music keeps students awake and makes them move: snapping their fingers, tapping their toes, nodding their heads. And suddenly, your lesson takes on a new beat.
So if you want a quick fix, let music lead the way. It will elevate your lessons to another energy level.
Motivate your students (and make your lessons memorable) by leading the class in songs, for example. (You’re really hitting two birds with one stone here.) Turn the lesson from a lecture into a catchy song by easing in lyrics from the latest pop hits. If you can play an instrument, even better.
You could also play background music in the target language—while students are doing classwork, for example. It’ll make students realize that the target language is indeed real, and that there are real people—perhaps from the other side of the world—using it. This will motivate students with the utility of what they’re studying.
There you have it! Five utterly powerful, yet deceptively simple techniques to spark a wave of motivation in your class. Use them often, and use them a lot.
They will do you well in the years ahead as you dedicate yourself to positively impacting the lives of your students. Don’t forget, you are in a position to motivate your students like no other.
And you just never know, the spark you light today might be the spark that changes the world.
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