Have you ever planned an excellent class and seen tired, uninspired faces? Here are some tips to motivate your students!

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Have you ever planned what you think is an excellent class and then walked into the classroom to see tired, uninspired faces looking back at you? Do you ever feel like you’re doing the same thing over and over until it becomes monotonous? Do your students seem less than enthused some days?

Here are some simple tips that even the most tired teacher can put into practice to inject a little more motivation into the language classroom.

1). Change your activities frequently

Sometimes the easiest type of work is individual work. Perhaps we add a little pair work or group conversation, but we don’t tend to differ too much from our normal routine; however, if we always do the same thing then our students can start to feel unchallenged. There are many different interactions and types of work that we can use, e.g. pair work, group work, project work, presentations, drama, creative writing, songwriting, skits, impressions, guessing games, quizzes and competitions. All these activities challenge the students and they don’t have to take up the whole class, but they can be used to gain interest or for larger sections of the class. Simply by getting your students up on their feet or asking if other classes can answer a few questions for a survey can take limited preparation time but change the mood in the room.

2). Personalise

Sometimes learning a language can seem unachievable and impersonal, but by including your students in the language wherever possible allows the students to take ownership of their learning process. If we take the time to find out some information about our students this can change everything. Are they athletes, dancers or artists? Do they like making TikTok videos or taking photography? Do they have brothers or sisters? What is their favourite subject at school? Where did they go on holiday last year? When we present language for the first time, we can use the answers to these questions to make these activities personal and relevant to our students. Many studies (Hur & Suh, 2010; Todaka (2017) have found that when students don’t find the topics relevant, they can become demotivated. So, why not personalise the topic, the vocabulary, the examples, the situations? Maybe at first, this can be a little daunting, but practice makes perfect.

3). Change the order

“Right, class open your books to page 60”-This is how a lot of people start their classes, but we could use this time for something else. Have a genuine conversation with your class and the keyword here is “genuine”. What did they do last night? Where are they planning on going on holiday? You can even explain the importance of these conversations as these conversations simulate real-life situations and make you more personable to your students. Moreover, if you always ask the students questions in the same order, for example, Juan, Pedro, Miguel, etc. change this! It keeps students on their feet. Maybe, Miguel has drifted off as he knows there are always two people before him (Juan and Pedro), but if you go straight to Miguel or even he knows there’s a chance this may happen, he’ll stay focussed.

4). Set a routine

This may seem contradictory to what I previously said, but what I mean, if you open the class in a certain way, have a feedback, correction, game or points counting section of your class, keep this! These are important so that your students know where they stand or how they are progressing. It’s also a chance for them to get a reward for example time to relax in the form of a game. These elements of the class make them feel comfortable and can help them to feel less anxious. A feel years ago, I taught 11-year-old Spanish students who were just getting to grips with the past simple, every class for the first 10 minutes we would have a little “spelling bee” in which the students would quiz each other on a list of verbs at the back of their textbooks. To begin with, we have some shy students, and some students were better than others, but after a while, all the students would come to class, take their books out, do a quick revision and then be ready for their spelling bee and this initial disparity levelled out. This was part of our routine and my students knew and loved this.

5). Create competition

A lot of students, including adults, like to add a little competition to the class. This can detract from some of the more difficult aspects of learning. Moreover, it provides a “short-term” motivational goal for them i.e. beat the opposing team. This competition can take the form of points, rewards, prizes, or you can play a game to start or finish the class. Just like with my spelling bee the students enjoy this edge and start to see language learning as fun instead of an unattainable task that they may feel their parents make them do.

6). Use the Students’ skills and strengths

All our students have different personalities which we can use to help us as teachers and other learners in the class. We can appoint some of these personalities as helpers, organisers, points-keepers or we can divide students into “houses” where they can collect prizes, recognition or rewards at the end of the term or semester. When my students finish first instead of letting them sit bored, I give them a task. This might mean that they come to me, I mark and correct their work, then give them a “helper” badge and coloured pen. They then walk around the classroom and ask other students if they need help or correct their work. This is a task in which they are continuing to learn by explaining the answers to their classmates, and their classmates are practising their listening skills. Additionally, we can use their energy to help us tidy up, organise, write a new task on the board, count up the points or any other task that you need help with, but anything that means that they are not sat in their chairs becoming bored and demotivated. Use this energy to your and their advantage!

7). Change the ambience

Students learn in many different ways and we often talk about if a student is an audio, visual or kinaesthetic learner; however, this has been advanced by Howard Gardener’s “multiple intelligences theory”, which included 8 and later 10 different types of learning styles (musical-rhythmic and harmonic, visual-spatial, verbal-linguistic, logical-mathematical, bodily-kinaesthetic, interpersonal, intrapersonal, naturalistic, existential (see further reading for details). Some people have refuted Gardener’s work; however, many language acquisition specialists (Skehan (1993), Tarone & Yule (1991)) have highlighted individual learner factors which can include elements related to the classroom environment, task selection, social interactions, and “long-term motivational goals” (e.g. career, education, pass an exam). These can affect motivation levels. By merely adjusting things such as posters, music, lighting, being aware of the reason/s to learn or allowing the students to get up and move around the classroom can positively affect learners. These factors go beyond the activities that you use and do not always entail a lot of extra planning. There are some limitations that we may all face such as small classroom size for example, but there are usually a few elements that we can incorporate.

8). Reward their hard work

Put their work around the room. This shows students that you are proud of what they’ve produced moreover, these pieces of work can act as educational aids for future learning. They provide vocabulary and can help create a relaxed atmosphere as opposed to a stuffy classroom. Give praise and tailor that praise to them and the task that they have completed. Returning to an earlier point, give points, prizes, certificates, “student of the week”, but be sure to recognise their hard work.

9). Create a learning contract

Let your students create some classroom rules. This means they are invested in keeping and policing them, and they’ve created an environment that they want to learn in. This might mean that they decide what happens if students break the rules in terms of a fun forfeit, they choose a game, or to listen to classical music or popular music on Fridays for example.

10). Highlight their progress

Your students are not a homogenous group, even if they are all studying from the same textbook or will sit the same exam. Unfortunately, in most educational settings assessments do not recognise this. What is progress for one is not necessarily progress for all. We tend to have a linear view of just getting our students to pass the exam at the end of the year, but maybe not all students will sit that exam. Some students have a steeper hill to climb and for others, it’s just about maintaining the level they already have. Moreover, for some just showing them that they have improved and highlighting this is the most important thing.

Have you got any other ideas on how to keep younger learners motivated? What are some of the ways that have worked for you?

Further reading

  • Budden, J. (2005). Multiple Intelligence. Available at: https://www.teachingenglish.org.uk/article/multiple-intelligences
  • Hur. J, W. & Suh, S. (2010). The Development, Implementation, and Evaluation of a Summer School for English Language Learners, The Professional Educator, Volume 34, No. 2 • Fall, 2010
  • Tarone, E., & Yule, G. (1991). Focus on The Language Learner, Oxford University Press, Oxford.
  • Todaka, Y. (2017). How to Motivate De-motivated Japanese College EFL Learners. European Journal of English Language Teaching. Volume 2. Issue 4. 2017.
  • Skehan, P. (1993). Individual Differences in Second-Language learning, Athenaeum Press Ltd, Newcastle upon Tyne.