Did you know that motivation is the primary trigger of language acquisition? And that motivation differs student to student? It seems so obvious but there was a time when academics assumed students all had the same level of motivation for learning a new language. Crazy right!

The fact is, motivation is a personal thing and differs student to student and those with higher motivation learn better. Luckily, motivation is changeable. So let's talk about how we can use these ideas to help more students succeed in the English classroom.

What is Motivation


the reason or reasons one has for acting or behaving in a particular way

Does that mean all motivation comes from the teacher in the form of reward or punishment? Obviously not. Motivation from the teacher, whether reward or punishment, is external motivation, or extrinsic motivation. Students also have their own internal reasons for learning English, also called intrinsic motivation.Some people think of motivation as the stick and the carrot. These days as teachers, we avoid the metaphorical stick but the thing is, the carrot works so much better anyway. Or as another saying goes: you catch more flies with honey than vinegar.

Internal (intrinsic) motivation is basically personal satisfaction. Some examples of internal motivations are an interest in the topic, a personal desire to learn, enjoyment, etc.

How to Build Students' Motivation

External Motivators

Many teachers use rewards because they seem to work well. They are quite effective at increasing student participation and super easy!

  • Stickers
    A classic that many teachers award for correct answers or even attempts.
  • Candy
    Ten times as effective as stickers but not suitable for schools (I've used them at after-school and holiday study events).

If you don't like buying stuff or lugging stuff around (join the club!, and yay, help the environment!), here's some free reward based motivators.

  • Hi-fives
  • Thumbs up with big smiles
  • Verbal praise
    Good job, well done, nice work (works 3 times better when you can say it with the student's name)
  • Signatures

Internal Motivators

Internal motivators are a bit harder to take advantage of because they are individual to each student. However, accessing this motivation is, in my opinion, more powerful than rewards because rather than doing a task simply to earn a sticker, they are doing it because they are enjoying it. Some examples are:

  • Aligning a lesson topic with students interest
    This makes use of students interest in a certain topic to increase their interest in using English to learn about it or communicate about it.
  • Plan for students' success
    When students can complete a task, they feel good about themselves. Success feels good! We all tend to enjoy doing things we are good at so if you can make the students feel like they are good at English, they will be more motivated for English class each lesson.

The above two examples are more about bringing English to students' internal motivations. Alternatively, you can aim to channel their basic motivations towards your own goals that are ultimately going to result is their English success.

  • Build interest
    Students have their own internal motivations, but they're also flexible and you can spark interest in a topic so that students have a personal interest in learning about it. Think of it like clickbait for the English class. I had great success with a Mother Theresa reading by creating interest before the reading so that as we read through the very long passage, students were picking out new information with excitement (at least, as much excitement as junior high students are allowed to show).
  • Make friends
    If students like you they will try harder to do well in class (or at least behave) because their motivation is for you to see them in a good light. The big question then is how do you make students like you? The answer: find something you like about them first. (This is advice from: Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion.)

As you can probably see, making use of internal motivators is a lot harder. It requires knowing about your students interest and takes a bit more work on the prep side. But the best ALTs are the ones who, alongside hi-fives and scoops of praise, learn how to harness or manipulate students intrinsic motivations and align them to the goals of the English classroom.

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# Calvin 2017-04-28 01:36
Aligning a lesson topic with students’ interest is quite broad, but I mean that in a good way. It doesn't have to be all about fashionable J-Pop or K-Pop artists, etc.
I recently did a listening activity for warm up and I talked about a catholic wife and protestant husband who couldn't be buried in the same cemetery. (This was for junior high 2nd or 3rd graders, to review the "This photo was taken in Hokkaido." grammar point. - I included a few versions of this grammar point in my speech.)
Point is, the students were very interested and were really listening and had great discussions afterwards. Students’ interests are broad.

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