There’s nothing like authentic motivation to uplift the learning quotient of language students. Well-motivated ESL students learn faster, retain lessons better, discover opportunities to apply lesson principles more frequently, and express themselves in English more fluently compared to students who lack proper motivation.
Early learners are naturally curious and are often compelled to explore and engage their environment. As people grow older, however, this natural curiosity tapers off substantially, such that many students in a conventional classroom environment find it hard to focus on the lesson.
As demonstrated in countless studies, motivation in very young children is almost always very high. This allows for cognitive, associative, assimilative, and imitative learning at an unparalleled rate. At this stage, language learning is among the areas where children exhibit unusual affinity and learning speed. However, as children grow older, the intrinsic motivation to learn new skills gets eroded by different external stimuli. Bullying, the fear of being ostracized by peers when an attempt at something fails, and excessive parental restrictions are just some of the factors that can hamper young students’ learning rates. Eventually, the experience of learning–a process that previously generated pure excitement among toddlers–becomes something more associated with boredom in a four-cornered classroom. Given this scenario, the intrinsic motivation to learn among many adults is understandably low and subconsciously de-prioritized in favor of externally induced motivation (learning something to help pay the bills, being the most prominent).
That said, motivation–regardless of origin–is pivotal in hurdling the challenges associated with language learning. The more motivated ESL students are, the better they are at absorbing and applying lesson principles. It is therefore important for ESL educators not only to know the nature and properties of motivation but also to adopt approaches that help motivate students to learn English.
Nature of Motivation
To motivate language learners more effectively, ESL educators first need to fully grasp the concept of motivation. Different students engage ESL lessons differently. For one thing, the desire to participate in classroom dynamics differ from one student to the next, with each having their own reasons or goals for getting involved in the learning process.
Cognitive experts believe that students can be motivated in at least three fundamental ways:
1. Intrinsically motivated – students who are intrinsically motivated get involved in a learning interaction for its own sake. Intrinsically motivated students genuinely enjoy the learning interaction and feel some form of achievement once the learning process is completed.
2. Extrinsically motivated – students who are extrinsically motivated participate in a learning interaction primarily as a result–or in pursuit–of an external factor. Commonly, this factor is some variant of the reward-punishment principle. This is clearly established in the training of animals, wherein rewards (such as food or tangible expressions of affection/affirmation) and punishment (whip lashes, electric shocks, and confinement) are used to goad an animal into performing an activity or task designed by its human trainer. In human learners, rewards include high grades or acceptance into a state college while punishments include the fear of parental reprisals.
3. Motivated to learn – students who are motivated to learn are propelled to participate in a learning interaction by a blend of intrinsic and extrinsic factors. Ordinarily, students who are motivated to learn are more mature in terms of their awareness of the value of learning something and tend to pursue learning regardless of whether a subject elicits personal enjoyment or not. In one research, being “motivated to learn” implies in-depth involvement in and a strong commitment to learning a specific subject.
Methods of Establishing and Increasing Motivation
As competent ESL educators know, being aware of the nature of motivation in the context of language learning is just half the journey. It would be a great thing to teach in a classroom full of intrinsically motivated students, but such is a rare and unlikely thing indeed. It is much more probable for a language teacher to have a class where the roots and level of motivation vary among students. Almost always, there will also be students whose learning progress is hindered by a serious deficiency in motivation. Hence, to help students complete the learning journey, ESL educators need to adopt the right approaches in increasing student motivation.
Before going any further into the specific approaches, it is imperative for ESL educators to understand that their own motivation and energy inevitably affects those of their students. In the first place, how motivated and committed is the ESL teacher in instructing language learners? Does the ESL educator truly understand what she is trying to impart? Situations wherein ESL teachers are not properly motivated eventually translate negatively on the learning progress of students. Simply put, if a language teacher lacks commitment or is poorly motivated, students will have less motivation to learn. Secondly, commitment without the right skills is inadequate. ESL educators must come into classrooms equipped with the right teaching skills, tools and resources in order to become effective sharers of new knowledge. Lastly, language teachers should be aware of the specific needs of their students in order to engage them more meaningfully. Drawing from the cultural, political, and economic backgrounds of students will help second language teachers design relevant lesson plans and achieve more positive learning outcomes.
Once ESL educators have fully appreciated and prepared for their roles in the learning dynamic, they can then proceed to applying the different approaches. The techniques are pretty straightforward and any ESL teacher who has been engaged in the profession for some time can easily adopt and customize based on the needs of specific classes. If you are an ESL educator, following these basic guidelines will help you motivate your students better.
1. Exude your own excitement about the subject matter. There’s nothing like learning from a teacher who’s genuinely enthusiastic about the lesson and exhibits this enthusiasm in class. Energy is contagious and demonstrating positive energy will speed up the learning rate in any class.
2. Make each individual lesson relevant to students. Depending on class size and other factors, you may want to consider students who have the least level of motivation and align your lessons to make them more relevant to these students. If this is not plausible, making the lesson meaningful to the most number of students is the safest course to take.
3. Avoid giving assignments and homework that are irrelevant to the students’ personal lives (i.e., that outside the classroom). As much as possible, give assignments that excite them or attract their interest.
4. Be proactive in building relationships with challenged learners. Probe for their weaknesses and identify the factors that impede their learning. Determine the tings that inspire and excitement. Based on the information you have gleaned, create learning bridges that hurdle difficulties and help them appreciate the lessons.
5. Practice variety and rhythm in teaching approaches. The use of computers, rich media, and group dynamics should be interspersed with out-of-class engagements and traditional teaching methods.
6. Don’t be frugal in the use of humor. Studies have shown that people learn more in relaxed and positive environments than they do in stressful ones.
7. Encourage students to talk more in class.
8. Create scenarios for collaborative learning.
9. Never skimp on giving praise and positive feedback. Demonstrably recognizing student efforts and achievements will help reinforce their motivation to learn.
10. Regularly gather student feedback and their opinions on how they think and the learning process can be improved.
For ESL educators, the most important input in motivating students is to show them that you are genuinely motivated in the lesson yourself and that you truly care about their learning progress. Once this have been established, you can then proceed with applying the different guidelines that encourage language learners to participate more and become more involved in classroom activities. Knowing students’ specific backgrounds, needs, and learning difficulties will help ESL teachers align lesson plans and methodologies such that the best learning outcomes are achieved.