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#EFLproblems – Motivating Intermediate Students

College student smiling holding booksWe’re helping to solve your EFL teaching problems by answering your questions every two weeks. This week, Verissimo Toste responds to Ageliki Asteri’s Facebook comment about motivating Intermediate students.

Ageliki wrote:

How can I motivate a teen advanced level student to do better as this level is demanding to achieve a certificate and the students is ok with his intermediate plateau?”

This is probably a situation familiar to many teachers and my first consideration is to question why the student is satisfied with their intermediate level. If a student is in a class at upper-intermediate to advanced level, it is because that student has goals he or she wants to achieve. Tapping into these goals, and into that motivation, will enable teachers to help these students.

Set goals

I would suggest that first we need to make such students aware of what they still need to achieve. This could be in the form of informal quizzes or simple self-awareness. From this awareness, students should be encouraged to set goals for both language and skills development. Depending on the age of the students, I would make the goals short term so that students can feel they are progressing. This should give them confidence to set new goals and work to achieve them.

Focus on using the language

Students may feel they know the language, even about the language, but can they use it to communicate real information about themselves and their world? While expanding their knowledge of language, including revision of what they have already learned, encourage them to use it. It is one thing to be able to understand the present perfect, even to manipulate the different forms, but it is quite another to be able to use it to talk about life experiences and achievements.

Whenever I ask my students to talk about what they feel they have achieved in their lives, even those who are able to communicate this, do so without using the present perfect tense. They are usually surprised when I tell them and make an added effort to use it next time. Writing tasks in which they share their work, or freer speaking activities – like discussions, simulations, or debates – challenge students to use the language they have learned. Encourage students to be both more fluent and more accurate when using the language.

Challenge them to be better

I set up a class library in a class of about 25 Intermediate students with the aim of providing them with more contact with English through extensive reading. I did not test their reading, but often discussed how they were enjoying their books. They seemed very satisfied. I could have left it at that but I knew the readers series I was using was accompanied by a series of quizzes to test reading level. I told my students about this and asked if they wanted to take the quiz to see what their reading level was. They all agreed. I gave them the quiz, but before returning their scores, I asked each to write in their notebooks what mark they would be satisfied with as a percentage.

19 students out of the 25 received marks below what they expected. They were all high marks and, in general, they were very good readers. However, the quizzes showed them they were not really understanding (and enjoying) as much as they could. Equally important, they were not taking advantage of their reading to learn more.

This simple activity was enough for those students to come out of their intermediate complacency and work to improve.

Encourage independent learning

Many times students simply rely on the opinion of the teacher for how well they are doing. Too many times this attitude also includes passing the responsibility to the teacher for the whole class. However, it is important to encourage students to become independent learners.

Develop in your students the capacity to monitor their own language. Did they say what they wanted to say? Or did they avoid certain topics because they didn’t have the language? Encourage them to notice the kinds of mistakes they may be making. Are they mistakes they could correct themselves, but have left it for the teacher to do so?

As I have mentioned before, challenge them to be accurate, as well as fluent. Help them notice the difference between the English they use and the English of more advanced learners. At times, give them work that is well above their level. If students are studying for an exam, give them a mock exam at the beginning of the year. Let them see what they will be working towards in their English classes.

Invitation to share your ideas

Do you have anything to add on the subject of motivating Intermediate students? We’d love to hear from you! You can respond directly to this blog by leaving a comment below.

Please keep your challenges coming. The best way to let us know is by leaving a comment below or on the EFLproblems blog post. We will respond to your challenges in a blog every two weeks.

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Keeping the vision alive: Completing the loop

Female student at a desk smilingAccording to Atkinson & Raynor (1974), our decision to do something is influenced by a force which is the product of the value attached to the goal and success expectancy, and these have been the most researched factors in the area of motivation. When one or the other is zero, there is no motivation to perform an action. In my previous posts, I have considered motivation to be a ‘process whereby a certain amount of instigation force arises, initiates action, and persists as long as no other force comes into play to weaken it and thereby terminate action, until the planned outcome has been reached’ (Dörnyei, 1998).

Our learners will value and be more attentive to what happens in the classroom if they can perceive the link between a short-term lesson goal and their long-term goal. With a relevant short- term goal in place, we keep a learner’s vision alive, increase success-expectancy and encourage learners to use appropriate strategies to complete a task. We can then offer informative feedback, acknowledging progress and providing pointers to future action for further improvement. In this way, we encourage learners to persist by actively engaging them in the learning process, we provide them with the means to further success and we drive intrinsic motivation and effective learning. When we consider how we might realise value and success expectancy in the language classroom, it becomes apparent that the whole might be bigger than the sum of the parts.

Annie McDonald, co-author of the English Result series.

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Keeping the vision alive: Feedback feeds motivation

Man and woman smilingHaving explored two factors that affect motivation in adult learners – the value of success and the expectancy of success – Annie McDonald, co-author of the English Result series, now considers the importance of feedback for learners’ development.


If learners ‘have a go’ at a communicative task, let’s say, explaining how to cook something, we can provide them with informative feedback. We could, for example, comment on the content of their explanation (whether there was sufficient information for a person wanting to cook the dish to be able to do so); coherence (whether the explanation contained sequencing words like first, then, etc.); and, say, vocabulary (whether ‘cooking verbs’ were used appropriately).

The criteria we select for feedback should be traceable to lesson activities and could be given to learners at the beginning of a task. Feedback needs to be informative and positively oriented, focusing on what an individual ‘can do’ in order to protect an individual’s self-esteem.

In the first instance, teacher feedback on the extent to which a learner has achieved an objective is of crucial significance if success-expectancy is to be maintained and effective learning is to continue.

Williams and Burden (1997) point out, however, that we need to exercise caution and be aware of the dangers of an over-reliance on hollow praise. Instead, we need to provide feedback which enables learners to ‘identify specific aspects of their performance that are acceptable and capable of improvement by some specified means, it should be both helpful and motivating to them to move into the zone of next development’. Informative feedback can drive effective learning.

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Keeping the vision alive: Success expectancy

Male teenager smiling confidentlyFollowing on from her post about the value of success, Annie McDonald, co-author of the English Result series, now considers the second factor that affects motivation: the expectancy of success.

By identifying an appropriate lesson objective, or short-term goal, we are creating a vehicle by which learners can more easily judge the usefulness of the task in reaching their future, long-term goal.

This not only prevents them from losing sight of what they are learning, it helps them feel that the overwhelming task of language learning is manageable. It also allows them to recognize their achievements and become more aware of their gradual progress.

As Dörnyei (1998) points out, ‘goal-setting theory is compatible with expectancy-value theories in that commitment is seen to be enhanced when people believe that achieving the goal is possible (cf. expectancy) and important (cf. tasks)’. Short-term goals play a pivotal role in cultivating success-expectancy, the second of our key motivational factors.

To generate success-expectancy, we need to do more than simply present a series of tasks on which learners are bound to do well. There needs to be an appropriate element of challenge in place for them to perceive they are making progress and so moving nearer to their overall goal.

Assuming the difficulty level of a task is appropriate to move learning forward, we will be in a position to provide learners with the strategies and the tools they need to succeed. These might include helping them employ an appropriate strategy when dealing with a listening or reading task with a particular purpose in mind, or teaching them how to overcome difficulties in communicative situations, for example, by asking for clarification or repetition.

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Keeping the vision alive: Maintaining motivation and promoting effective learning

Young adult male learner smilingIn this series of articles, Annie McDonald, co-author of the English Result series, considers two key factors which affect motivation: expectancy of success and the value attached to success.

I suggest that if the connection between classroom activities and an overall language learning goal is evident, then learners will be more likely to value and hence be motivated in a lesson. They will be able to answer the question ‘Why am I doing this?’ With value ascribed to classroom activities, it will also be easier for learners to experience success on a more regular basis, a key to both increasing motivation and promoting effective learning.


The value an adult language learner attaches to a course depends upon the circumstances under which they are studying. If their aspirations concern, say, passing a university degree in which a language course is a component, then tapping into this kind of extrinsic motivation might prove difficult, in the first instance. Perhaps a more promising approach would be to tap into learners’ natural desire to communicate. We live in a world in which communication between people in different places is facilitated by technology and educational and professional mobility is a reality, and many language learners envision themselves being able to use the language in various ‘real’ situations.

It goes without saying that the greater the apparent relationship between a language course and an adult learner’s goals, the greater the value attached to the course. So, what type of course will suit learners who are aiming to be effective users of a language? From my teaching experiences, learners whose aim is to use language in the real world will be motivated by a course which reflects an ‘action-oriented approach’ to language and learning as described in the Common European Framework of Reference (2001). Such a course not only deals with the nuts and bolts of the language of study, the grammar, vocabulary and so on, but also offers learners opportunities to draw on what they know and to have a go at carrying out real world communicative tasks. The main thrust will be on doing rather than knowing.

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