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10 Commandments for Motivating Language Learners

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Multi-generation Latin American family on the beachTim Ward, a freelance teacher trainer based in Bulgaria, introduces us to 10 simple steps to help increase motivation among language learners.

Motivation’s one of those ideas like justice or world peace: we all know it’s a good thing but it’s not quite so clear how to get there.

For adult learners and younger kids it’s probably a bit clearer – the former know where their interests lie, whether it’s university or emigration or working abroad or finding a partner on the internet, and are much more able to relate that goal to the language learning process (there are words for these things – instrumental motivation, mostly, if it’s about achieving something).

And younger learners – I guess I’m talking about children – are happy when things are fun. I see this every day from my own two young learners, age 4 and 6 (though if you ask them it’s 4 ½ and 6 ½) who will enjoy most things – even tidying up toys and clothes – when it becomes a game.

A big part of my professional life, however, involves going into state schools and talking with teachers of teenagers and younger adults. Students of these ages present a set of challenges very different from the older and younger learners, and those two messages, of fun and relevance, don’t always apply so obviously.

And the message that often comes over loud and clear from all quarters is that the job of teaching languages is getting harder – students often appear to be interested in many things of which too few are to do with learning a language. So one of the questions that we most often hear as teacher trainers (along with what can we do about big classes, and what can we do about mixed ability classes) is “what can we do to motivate students?”.

It would be dishonest to pretend there are any magic bullets; that there’s a wand we can wave which will make the problems disappear. For one thing, the big world outside is always going to have an enormous effect on the job we can do. I’m not just talking here about the attitudes of the students we teach but also about the state of the places we teach in – in many countries, state schools are underfunded and teachers live peripatetic professional lives where they teach in lots of different rooms, and this makes it really hard to produce an attractive teaching environment.

So, given the real world constraints, what can teachers do about motivation?

I’ve found one way into this area to be really useful. It’s really useful because it’s practically grounded in research conducted with practising teachers.

Without going into too much detail, here’s some context. Two experts in motivation studies, Zoltan Dornyei and Kata Czizer, surveyed over two hundred Hungarian teachers to find out their views. They were asked how important they found, and how often they used, a selection of 51 strategies. Based on their answers the two researchers came up with a list of 10 ‘motivational macrostrategies’, which they called the ‘Ten commandments for motivating language learners’:

  1. Set a personal example with your own behaviour
  2. Develop a good relationship with the learners
  3. Increase the learners’ linguistic self-confidence
  4. Make the language classes interesting
  5. Promote learner autonomy
  6. Personalise the learning process
  7. Increase the learners’ goal-orientedness
  8. Familiarize learners with the target culture
  9. Create a pleasant relaxed atmosphere in the classroom
  10. Present the tasks properly

When we talk about this, the reaction from teachers is often one of smiles of recognition – a kind of ‘yes, that makes sense’ look. But another thought normally follows quite quickly, and that’s the ‘yes, but’ one.

In this case, it’s ‘yes, but what can we actually do to make these things happen on a day to day basis when we’re using our text books?’. This is the challenge that, I fervently hope, this blog is going to address over the course of the next few months, as we explore these Commandments in more detail.

Do you have any Commandments for learner motivation that you teach by? Leave your comments below, I’d love to hear them.

References
Dörnyei, Z. (1998) ‘Ten Commandments for motivating language learners: results of an empirical study’ Language Teaching Research 2,3: 203-229.
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81 thoughts on “10 Commandments for Motivating Language Learners

  1. If I can venture an addendum to #7…Get the learners to identify how they can use English in their lives and make it useful and relevant for themselves. Too often, students (of all ages!) are placed in English classes for reasons that have nothing to do with their own motivation, but if you can help them make a connection withat least one thing in their lives that they like, it helps enormously.

    For adults, I’ve found that the standard “I need English for work” line is, sometimes, just that – a line. It’s not really true in their circumstance, and they may not really believe it. Give me a student who says, “I want to learn English because I love Al Pacino movies” or “I’m really into jazz” – then I’ve got a more useful starting point.

    • This is great! I started a program that brings international students to work and travel in the U.S, but when I ask them what they wish to accomplish from the experience, they all answer “have the perfect American accent!” haha… talk about motivation!

      You can take a look at some of the participants’ blogs as they prepare for their arrival in the U.S.

      One of the students from China asked me if it was appropriate to shake hands when we meet, cause in the movies everyone in the U.S. hugs. I love it! I’m sure I’ll learn as much from them as they will from the program!

      Read their Blogs at http://topganacademy.com/news/

    • I agree with the point you make about students who don’t feel motivated just because they have a vague need for English in their jobs. I have a one-to-one course at the moment with the manager of a logistics platform who just didn’t seem to be making progress. At the third time of asking he finally admitted that his “real” wish was to pronounce better when singing in his punk rock band at the weekends. Now we alternate book work with examples from songs “London’s Calling” as an example of the present continous, anyone? Or how about “Ever fallen in love (with someone you shouldn’t’ve)” for the present perfect and a modal auxiliary? He’s streaking ahead and I get to play my music in his lessons, so we’re all happy.

    • I absolutely agree about the spinnng of the line — though living in Bulgaria I am more and more awaere of how people round me need English not so much for work (important though it is) but as a kind of symbol of aspiration, of being part of the more modern country…

      I hope to fill out no 7 in future weeks!

  2. Great article! Iam back to school after 20 years as an EFL teacher in my home country. I am getting my master’s in ESL and Motivation was the subject I chose to research for a Second Language Acquisition project. I think it is the most important thing to get the school year going! A nice motivated start guarantees a good year! Build raport and keep it up even when loads of paper to correct make you doubt you chose the right profession! Your students’ enthusiam that you “inflated” in them from start willcome back to you and also motivate you!

  3. Tim, good to see your hints around here!!!!
    Teaching does make a difference after sharing classroom ideas w you guys. I try to motivate my students as much as I can, but (there is always a “but”) course books need to be used completely in my school, and we feel sometimes overloaded…Last but not least, say hi to Linda. Hope to see you guys in Brazil again!! Let´s keep sharing!
    Marluce

    • Hey Marluce — good to hear from you. May all be well.

      I know what you mean about text books — it’s important to keep the use focused, isn’t it. (Brazil remains a favourite experience, by the way).

  4. Hi, Tim….

    nice to see your post here. Having worked with you on summer school, it’s no surprise to me that we are talking about similar things. I’ve just come back from an author visit to Taiwan, giving a talk called ‘Ten ways to get your students to DO something’ which is about both student AND teacher motivation, because we are know they are inextricably linked.

    I also referred to Zoltan Dörnyei and his excellent research on this subject.

    My ten things can be reduced to the following headings (if any of them aren’t clear, let me know)

    1 Engage your students
    2 Make them curious
    3 Challenge them
    4 Find out what they’re good at
    5 Let them tell YOU about stuff
    6 Give them responsibility
    7 Shake them up a bit
    8 Encourage them to use their imagination
    9 Stop working so hard
    10 Turn your classroom into a spider’s web

    Keep up the good work!

    • Hi Ken

      Good to hear from you: I htink we can both be pleased with the footie season this year!

      I think no. 9 is spot on! (What’s a spider’s web, by the way, in this context?)

  5. Absolutely true!! I also believe that for young learners you have to show them you really care about them, not only as students but as indiviuals – once you’ve won them over they are always willing to make you happy.

    • Absolutely true: one size fits one person, which is why teaching is both a challenge and a joy!

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  7. I’m really glad to see your mention of both goals and personalization. I think education is often presented in a “one size fits all” manner, and after years of teaching journalism to college students, it clearly CANNOT be that way!

    Amazing how each class has a culture — a vibe. And while the teacher’s job is not to cater to the class, I think he or she definitely needs to be flexible and try to present material in the best manner for the target audience.

    Great commandments. I’m a follower! 🙂

    • So true! It’s much easier to learn a language if the teacher is responsive to the students. It takes more energy and creativity on the part of the teacher of course, but I think it’s definitely worth it.

  8. Great tips!

    I had a post about language learning Freshly Pressed. It was called “A Tale of Miserable Failure: Moanings of a Second Language Learner.”

    http://www.reinventingtheeventhorizon.wordpress.com/2010/12/07/a-tale-of-miserable-failure-moanings-of-a-second-language-learner/

    Kathy

    • Kathryn,
      I really like the link. I sympathise entirely — what you wrote about French struck a chord with my stumbling effors to learn Bulgarian. (The only time it seems to come naturally to my tongue is when I’m trying to speak French…)

  9. What helps me is to introduce the subject at first and pronounce what one can expect after the course is complete.
    However, breaking it down into modules, so that no one freaks out is the way to go. If there is a realization that it’s achievable then its attainment is certain, otherwise its just struggle complemented by sluggish attitude.

    • Yeah, I think a modular approach is cool — if by that we mean a step by step approach so people can keep along with us (aka scaffolding, in some ways!)

  10. Great, simple points to remember- loved your post. These are some of my suggestions. (For more, visit my blog)
    *Give them immense freedom.
    *Appreciate their originality and creativity.
    *Do point out the mistakes but more than that appreciate even the little bit of improvement they make.
    *Never give them a pattern to write as it will only limit their creativity. Just give them outlines/ points. Let them think out of the box.
    * Motivate, encourage, inspire!

    • Thanks Bindu! We’ll come back to mistakes in future weeks I hope. It’s of course a critical area.

  11. I love your message. I have to agree with you on all aspects. One has to learn about human motivation, then learn the students motivation. Introduce all postive aspects of the culture around the language and make it fun. Fun is what helps us remember the things we learn.

    Many blessings to you. Your students have been blessed, with you.

    🙂

  12. As an educator, you have to figure out what makes the learners tick. I liked what you said about creating a pleasant environment–they have to feel comfortable. Good post!

  13. Thank you, I think instilling learner autonomy is the most challenging but essential piece. You can encourage and introduce but when someone decides they are going to do something for themselves, it can really go.

    • I hope learner autonomy is something we will come back to again and again.

  14. I heard that the Bible was used in America to teach English to children. I heard that the highest form of English is presented in the King James Version. Children that are taught the Bible can learn that which was called common sense, an example of which is realising that the law of God is higher than the laws of men. (That could straighten out some crooked court decisions.) The scriptures can teach children to become better persons, which could elevate our society. In this day when the people desire God’s blessings, and are concerned about terror, some scriptures to ponder are Deuteronomy 28 and Leviticus 26.

    Thanks.

  15. Very interesting… I’m in Yr 8 and study Russian, German and Latin and the classroom very often flies out of control! Infact, I think language lessons are the most likely to fal into chaos. Our teachers are really good though… But I agree with what you’re saying and maybe they should emphasise the points you mentioned more! Or who knows, it’s probably just my form. They don;t really work right in any lesson. *sighs*

    • I’d like to hear more, Bethanyx! What happens to make your class not want to work? (Or fall into chaos…)

  16. Pingback: Motivating Language Learners | Diego Gonzalez Algara

  17. Great tips. Thanks for sharing!

  18. Great post. As a language learner myself in Cantonese and Mandarin, I especially appreciate your 10 commandments.

    I think the best method of learner motivation is exposure to different languages/cultures at a young age. When I was kid, my parents made me to go to Chinese school, and I dreaded it. Now, I can’t get enough of the language. So what changed? Maturity, familiarity with the language, and newfound interest in my heritage through Chinese food, music, and movies.

    So, early exposure + passage of time =
    culturalized individuals.

  19. Great list! I might add “establish a need-to-know what your teaching.” If students do not think this lesson will benefit them in the long-run, they will not be motivated to learn.

    • Yes, agreed. Do you know the WIIFM acronym? (What’s in it for me?) — somehting I’ll return to in future weeks, I hope.

  20. I am one of these “language learners”. While I enjoy and agree with your 10 commandments, I am confused as to HOW you implement them. I myself am very passionate about learning my languages of choice (Spanish, Italian and Portuguese), but my challenge comes in explaining why learning another language is truly useful. I do it to meet people, to interact with them and learn their stories. I want to know about a culture outside of my own. So, how do you exactly create a “relaxed classroom atmosphere”? Isn’t this a little subjective?
    Thank you for your post…please continue to help bring passion to language learning.

  21. As a self-learner I’ve had to figure out ways to keep myself motivated. One way, ironically, was to sign up for classes at the local college. Thank you for your blog, it’s very interesting to read!

  22. I think you’re right on the money with little kids needing learing to be fun (my own are 4 and 2 and a half). And I think the same holds true for us adults! If my husband was going to teach me through drawings how to rewire a lamp, I’d be bored to tears. Just as I was when he showed me some plans for installng a sump pump in our basement. But when he gave me the tools and the wire cutters and I got to rewire the lamp myself, then it became fun.

    Thanks for the tips!

  23. Nicely organized and very neat list. Join me as I explore foreign language learning/teaching also over several posts under the ‘Teachable Moments’ category. ¡Hasta la próxima!

  24. In Venezuela, we learned, the easiest way to learn Spanish was, to get yourself a sleeping dictionary.

  25. If you don’t understand what I wrote above, then learn some other mundane way. Most sleeping dictionaries in Venezuela, know how to cook breakfast well.

  26. I sincerely look forward to reading your future posts regarding the ten commandments. I’m a new language teacher who is struggling to balance between motivating the language learners themselves and covering what is taught in the textbook, or following the expected schemes of work. I think these commandments are absolutely useful to hold on to, and I’m certain your elaboration and experiences in future posts will serve to build on those! 🙂

  27. Thank you. It becomes more difficult when I have to teach English while I am supposed to be teaching writing.

  28. Let me share one of my teaching commandments: “It’s a SIN to be BORING.”

  29. If I can venture an addendum to #7…Get the learners to identify how they can use English in their lives and make it useful and relevant for themselves. Too often, students (of all ages!) are placed in English classes for reasons that have nothing to do with their own motivation, but if you can help them make a connection withat least one thing in their lives that they like, it helps enormously.

    For adults, I’ve found that the standard “I need English for work” line is, sometimes, just that – a line. It’s not really true in their circumstance, and they may not really believe it. Give me a student who says, “I want to learn English because I love Al Pacino movies” or “I’m really into jazz” – then I’ve got a more useful starting point.

  30. These are good valid points, but I do think students must also visualize how they speak the language. By doing this they are positive about the outcome of their studies and it will help them succeed even faster.

  31. Pingback: 10 Commandments for Motivating Language Learners (via Oxford University Press – English Language Teaching – Global Blog) | Dari Mata Sang Pecinta Biru

  32. I am a taking up language myself. I wish all teachers went by these principles.

    Thanks for sharing!

  33. Probably it can help in learning better. thanks

  34. Great post. I try to do the above, and nice comment from Ken as well.

    Keep them coming.

    Kind regards

    Allan

  35. great!it’s so useful to me!thanks!

  36. Great tips for language teachers!! Any chance that you might post something about self-studying? I find it hard to motivate myself to learn language although I like the culture of the country.

  37. Hi. I’m Stella, 23. I was an English course teacher for middle and high school when i was in university. For me, teaching math was much easier than teaching English. Good ideas you share. Well, i’ll try to implement it when i teach again someday. Thanks. 🙂

  38. I am a taking up language myself. I wish all teachers went by these principles.

    Thanks for sharing!

  39. The lack of motivation in middle school learners in the public school system seems to be universal! Thanks for your tips. They coincide with my view and exprience. Great way to share and know what is happening around the world in the ELT classrooms.

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  41. So true! It’s much easier to learn a language if the teacher is responsive to the students. It takes more energy and creativity on the part of the teacher of course, but I think it’s definitely worth it.

  42. Great tips for language teachers!! Any chance that you might post something about self-studying? I find it hard to motivate myself to learn language although I like the culture of the country.

  43. I sincerely look forward to reading your future posts regarding the ten commandments. I’m a new language teacher who is struggling to balance between motivating the language learners themselves and covering what is taught in the textbook, or following the expected schemes of work. I think these commandments are absolutely useful to hold on to, and I’m certain your elaboration and experiences in future posts will serve to build on those!

  44. How about these?

    1. Be interested and enthusiastic about the topic you are dealing with.
    2. Be interested and enthusiastic about the students.
    3. Relate the material to differing needs of students (i.e. not a blanket approach).
    4. Breakdown the material into easily assimilable parts.
    5. Have patience.
    6. Use humour and a variety of stimuli.
    7. Introduce a topic in such a way that it immediately engages their interest.
    8. Use plenty of examples.
    9. Constructive use of visual aids and resources and an indication of where to find extra material (e.g. books, DVDs etc).
    10. Organise the structure of the class so that it contains a variety of elements and a coherent pattern which builds to a conclusion.

  45. Pingback: 10 Commandments for motivating language learners: #1 Set a personal example with your own behaviour « Oxford University Press – English Language Teaching – Global Blog

  46. Pingback: 10 Commandments for motivating language learners: #10 Present the tasks properly « Oxford University Press – English Language Teaching – Global Blog

  47. Love these commandments … basically the same ones that are covered in the Cambridge TKT (Teaching Knowledge Test) Course book.

  48. – create an environment for effective communication.
    – be their teacher, guide and friend.
    – let them know you care.
    – instil your faith and confidence in them by increasing expectations.
    – Try and speak to at least one student after each class for about 5 minutes.
    – use guided discoveries.

  49. Very good advice. An uninspiring teacher can not inspire learners, that is for sure.

  50. Pingback: 10 Commandments for motivating language learners: #5 Promote learner autonomy « Oxford University Press – English Language Teaching Global Blog @OUPELTGlobal

  51. Pingback: 10 Commandments for motivating language learners: #2 Develop a good relationship with the learners « Oxford University Press – English Language Teaching Global Blog @OUPELTGlobal

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  54. Pingback: Unit 9. Motivation | TKT Blended 2014

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  58. Motivating the students is very important in order to encourage the students to learn the language. Reward, praises and
    positive reinforcement will help to develop self confidence among the students.

  59. Pingback: Último BrELT Chat de 2015: Como manter a motivação dos alunos? | #BRELT

  60. nice post here

  61. I like what you said about creating a pleasant atmosphere and make the language classes interesting.
    As a student I can say that I like when teacher can motivate the student. In my opinion, it is more easier to learn a language if the teacher is responsive to the student.
    I especially like your “motivational macrostrategies”. I might add: “individual approach to every student”. I consider you can discuss about it.
    I believe that this article will be useful for many people.

  62. I like what you said about creating a pleasant atmosphere and make the language classes more interesting.
    As a student I can say that I like when teacher can motivate the student. In my opinion, it is more easier to learn a language if the teacher is responsive to the student.
    I especially like your “motivational macrostrategies”. I might add: “individual approach to every student”. I consider you can discuss about it.
    I believe that this article will be useful for many people.

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