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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. You can join Nick for his upcoming webinar ‘Motivational Teaching: Engaging young people in learning behaviour’ on 26th May.

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 you can join my webinar and leave it believing 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.


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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.