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Motivational Teaching in the English language classroom Q&A

teenage_students_smiling_studyingNick Thorner, author of the professional development title ‘Motivational Teaching‘ in the Into The Classroom series, reviews some of the concerns raised by teachers in his recent webinar on the subject of student motivation and offers some practical advice on how to overcome them.

I really enjoyed our Motivational Teaching webinars on 26th May. They provoked quite a few questions, which I’ve enjoyed reflecting on.

Many concerns that participants had were about the language that was being used in the webinar, and in particular the use of the concept of reward. I thought this was a really challenging response from one participant:

Maybe it’s against what we’ve been learning about motivation so far but when I learnt English myself I didn’t need any motivation at all… I just did it out of pure love for the language itself. So ‘motivation’ to me is not about rewarding… 

I really know what he means. Surely, it’s that intrinsic love of learning that we need to aim for; not a compromise solution where we are coaxing students along with promises of rewards.

But I would say that the pleasure we get from language learning is itself a reward and it’s useful to see it that way because it reflects the way our brains work. Whether we are aware of it or not, the motivation to do anything at all depends on the anticipation of some gain or fulfilment, or the avoidance of some loss. If we can understand what it is about learning that makes our brains anticipate fulfilment, we can focus our students’ minds on those aspects of learning.

For example, let’s say an aspect of enjoyment comes from the moments when we successfully apply meaning where there was once incomprehension. By exposing students to unknown words well before we reveal the meaning, we will help students anticipate that moment of pleasure.

This participant wasn’t the only one that didn’t feel comfortable with the use of the word reward, as these questions demonstrate.

Does the fact of rewarding your students all time make them dependent and lazy?

Sometimes, giving students rewards might result into them becoming competitive. Will it be detrimental for their learning?

Here again, we see how ‘reward’ is often associated with extrinsic motivators, like stickers or a promise of a break. Indeed, this is its meaning when used as a countable noun. I agree extrinsic rewards shouldn’t be over-used, for the reasons given here. But we should be aware of other forms of ‘reward’ that are not given to students. For instance, collaborative learning can be socially rewarding, a sense of progress can be psychologically rewarding, and so on. To avoid the confusion, we could simply reject the term reward and use ‘motivator’ but I think our minds find a lot of things to be rewarding that aren’t often considered motivators. These include indulging the senses, showing off skills, watching things move, etc. I thought the concept of ‘reward’ captured the idea of these smaller pleasures more effectively.

But what if the student doesn’t visualise the reward?

As this question shows us, another concept which has created discussion is the idea of visualisation. What I meant by this term was not really ‘seeing rewards’ but ‘becoming aware that an experience may be rewarding’. That said, as we generally think in images, I think the idea of ‘visualising’ a rewarding experience is very useful. Jill Hadfield, for example, proposes visualisation techniques in the book Motivating Learning. It is not enough to be told something will be fun; we have to picture a rewarding experience before we will strive for it. This is the main point of the future diary activity I proposed, which (incidentally) I didn’t explain very well…

I didn’t quite get the idea of the diary – do students just describe their future??

The idea is that by really imagining a day in their future in detail, they will become aware of a range of rewarding experiences that will follow on from their current studies. To set up the task, we should get students to think of the benefits they will derive from being language users and then to imagine themselves enjoying those benefits through the Future Diary activity. The procedures are outlined in more detail in Motivational Teaching. Drawing a picture of their future selves also helps them create a positive and goal-orientated self-image, in contrast to the relatively powerless present identity that a lot of young people experience.

Many of the other questions I got from the talk focused on specific instances of motivation, in line with the point we noted at the start of the webinar: motivation problems often manifest themselves in very challenging, specific cases. Here are a selection.

It’s quite difficult to motivate students with behaviour problems. They are not really interested in language learning, they can’t stay focused and it’s quite difficult for me, though I usually prepare different enjoyable tasks. Any ideas?

I totally agree with this. In fact, I would say behaviour is essentially a motivation issue. If we don’t wish to be in a place or to do a certain activity, then poor behaviour is a logical way of dealing with it. First, it signals our displeasure, without making us lose face or appear weak (as crying might); it makes it clear that we aren’t putting in effort so that eventual failure cannot be put down to inability; and it increases the chances that the bad experience might be avoided or delayed since it will disrupt the class. I would say what they have is a motivation problem. If we can find a way of making the classroom environment rewarding for these students, I’m sure behaviour would improve. That said, we mustn’t reward bad behaviour or suggest it’s acceptable or it will spread. But once it’s subsided then engaging with the student and building their esteem is essential.

How can we help every student as they are so different?

To respond to this question, I’d like to refer to the first point below. I personally would use the word flexibility instead of eclecticism but both work.

Eclecticism is the key word – take a little bit of what works for you and your students, try not to embarrass them, praise but just for real achievement.

(Can I have) ideas to motivate students to learn / read literature classics in English?

I’m afraid I have little experience in teaching literature but I imagine one of the issues is that students see classics as dated and less relevant to their lives. There is also a sense that classic literature is ‘chosen’ by social elites or by previous generations and so by engaging with the canon of classic literature they are upholding values that they would prefer to be rebelling against! The only solution I think is to help students see the relevance of themes and characters in the classics to their lives. For example, presenting quotes and characters in the book without explaining they are from a ‘classic’, or comparing the ideas to a contemporary performance poet or similar, may help break down resistance.

How can we motivate students to be punctual?

This is a great question. I heard a radio programme just last week about how to get meetings started on time. They recommended that meetings always start at an odd time such as 11.47 rather than on the hour and that late attenders should be made to sing a song!! I’m not sure those recommendations would work for you, but I think the fundamental thing is not to allow lateness to affect your relationship with students. In other words, we shouldn’t confront the student in the instant they walk in late. But neither should we ignore it. If we have a clear set of rules, we can take the student aside after the class and explain that we are forced to take action.

To conclude, here is a good suggestion for us and another participant takes me to task on falling into the classic teacher trainer’s trap: creating ideas that are unrealistic once we’re at the chalk face!

Do you think that writing a diary daily blog in English would be a good idea for students to practise English and find it rewarding at the same time?

Yes, I do. Writing about ourselves provides a narrator’s perspective from which to examine our fears and motivations and confront them if necessary. I think committing fears and worries to paper is especially useful as it can help us work through them sequentially (writing is an act of ordering) and prevent swirls of irrational thought from hijacking our emotions.

Nick (some of your ideas) require a lot of preparation on part of the teacher, which is sci-fi in state schools

This point (brilliantly put) draws attention to the issue of time. Does motivation always require an investment of time? To some extent the answer is yes. Students will appreciate investments that teachers make as it shows we care about them. That said, we have to be realistic and some of the resources I showed were designed to showcase general principles rather than be examples of what we should produce. My hope would be that aspects of them could be borrowed and adapted with little effort. For example, a lesson map (to increase students’ control) or Sinek’s Golden Circle (to arouse a sense of purpose) could be sketched on the board rather than prepared on paper or added to homework sheets, and streaks can be recorded the register.


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Motivational Teaching in the English language classroom

Nick Thorner, author of the professional development title ‘Motivational Teaching‘ in the Into The Classroom series, explores some of the issues that cause low motivation among students and methods to overcome them. 

Few issues in education are as troubling as low student motivation. It leaves countless individuals unable to achieve their potential, and many teachers feeling demoralised. But perhaps more serious than low motivation is the lack of understanding we have of its causes, which can be complex and deep-seated. If we can’t understand our students’ lack of commitment, it’s difficult to identify strategies to deal with it and easy to blame individuals. And if students themselves feel puzzled by their apathy, they can become very frustrated. The effect can be a classroom atmosphere of resentment and mistrust.

That’s why I believe we cannot deal with the issue of low learner motivation unless we explore its causes. So we’ll begin our discussion by looking into some of the latest research on the psychology of motivation, and understand how our brains respond to the prospects of rewards, sanctions, and perceived threats. This will then lead us towards three clear approaches for raising motivation.

  1. Increasing task commitment

How often have you set students’ homework in the dying moments of lessons as they pack away their things? All too often, time pressure leaves us setting learning tasks quickly, without much thought to learner motivation. Yet there is so much we can do to help students increase their  commitment to tasks, for example:

  • Explain the reasons for the task to help students value it more.
  • Discuss stages of the task in the lesson so learners can visualise doing it.
  • Get students to decide when they’ll do the task to make procrastination less likely.

The image below shows what a task designed with motivation in mind might look like on paper. We’ll be explaining some of the other features shown below in the webinar. Presenting tasks in this way may seem a lot of work, but getting learners to engage fully with one task can help improve their self-image as learners more generally and build motivation.

  1. Breaking down barriers

No matter how attractive we try to make learning experiences, there is often deep resistance to learning on the part of our students. It’s important that we understand the psychological barriers that can stand in the way of engagement with learning behaviour. These can include:

  • low expectations of learning outcomes
  • negative associations connected with study
  • images of themselves that don’t sit comfortably with study

These psychological barriers are often firmly entrenched, but we can slowly wear them down in the way we speak with students and through exercises that help students connect learning with their own personal values and ambitions. An example might be producing a real vlog that they can post online, or doing visualisation exercises to help them imagine the life they might enjoy as proficient users of English.

  1. Creating reward-rich experiences

Finally, we all know that if we make lessons fun and interesting we can help motivate our learners. This is because memories of enjoyable learning experiences help students to predict rewarding outcomes. But labels like fun and interesting are a little too vague to be useful: in fact, there are lots of specific ways to make learning seem rewarding. So, we’ll finish our discussion by considering how we can fill learning experiences with psychological rewards, from novelty and sensory stimulation to play and revelation, and see why techniques like back-chaining can transform classroom experiences.

I hope, like me, you believe that motivational teaching is not about following general principles, but about practical day-to-day steps we can take as teachers. And by increasing our understanding of the factors that lie behind motivation, we can start discussing it honestly with students and create trusting classroom relationships.

For more information, read the Q&As from the webinar


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Webinar: Prepare your Foundation-level students for IELTS success

Older man interviewing young womanNick Thorner explores the challenges of preparing Foundation-level students for IELTS from his webinars on 21 February and 7 March entitled ‘Prepare your Foundation-level students for IELTS success’. Watch a recording here.

In my experience, what really worries students about the IELTS exam isn’t their grammar or their vocabulary – it’s having nothing to say. They worry about tricky Speaking Part 3 questions such as: ‘What can governments do to promote international cooperation?’ or Writing Part 2 topics with a word they haven’t studied before, such as ‘obesity’ or ‘rehabilitation’.

Often students have never thought of such questions and topics, and even if they have, they’ve never tried to discuss them in English. And of course their IELTS score suffers as a result: I find that when students are less confident or don’t have great ideas their pronunciation becomes flat and they start hesitating or repeating ideas.

The fact is that knowledge itself, or at least the confidence that comes with having it, underpins a successful IELTS performance. But do we teach students knowledge, or even how to access knowledge and express it?

I think too often the texts and materials we work with have arcane topics that don’t challenge our students to think, respond or engage personally. IELTS lessons should be a window on the world that will fill students’ minds with ideas and provoke them to respond at every turn, making them confident and enthusiastic candidates.

In my upcoming webinar, I’ll be showing you how you can help your students to build the confidence they need to express world knowledge and discuss it. I hope you can join me.


Nick ThornerNick Thorner is co-author of Foundation IELTS Masterclass. He lives and works in Oxford, where he has been teaching IELTS courses for several years. He is also an experienced IELTS examiner.