Learning how to motivate ESL students throughout all phases of their English learning is truly a fine art.
As an English teacher, you’ll find that you wear many hats. One of them being the motivator.
In my opinion, the role of the motivator is even more important than your actual teacher role because you only have a limited amount of time with your students every week, so the majority of the time, they are practising English outside of the classroom.
Ultimately it is up to them to put in the extra work to acquire more English skills, but there are a few things you can do to motivate your students both inside and outside the classroom to give them an extra push.
Learning vs. Acquisition
Now, you might be wondering why I use the term acquire and not learn. According to the learning-acquisition hypothesis coined by expert linguist Stephen Krashen, acquisition describes a gradual process that happens subconsciously through exposure to a language.
In contrast, language learning is a conscious process that focuses on rules and grammar, usually in a classroom setting. Acquisition often occurs in young children and people who have extended periods of interaction with native speakers allowing them to “pick up” the language.
So why is this important to know?
Well, many factors could prevent or encourage the successful acquisition of a second language. One that ranks high on the list is motivation.
Motivation ultimately allows for a long-term holistic acquisition to take place. It drives us to continue doing something and determines how much input and intake we will expose ourselves to.
Students who feel successful in their language studies remain motivated and therefore expose themselves to more input.
Okay, all this information is wonderful. But how do I motivate my students?
How to motivate ESL students inside the (online) classroom
There are four key things I do to help motivate my ESL students inside the online classroom. Anyone can easily adopt these tactics, and I’d love to hear in the comment section if you have any handy tactics for maintaining motivation.
Set clear goals and define learning outcomes
If you’re teaching online, the chances are that you’re working one-on-one with students, which is excellent. It means you can adapt their classes according to specific needs.
During your first encounter, you should discuss what the student expects to achieve during their classes with you. This could include the type of fluency/level goals, skills (reading, listening, writing, speaking, test prep, etc.) they’d like to focus on, and topics and grammar that they will find practical for their everyday English communication.
Keep things relevant
Keep content relevant! I can’t emphasize this enough.
Humans enjoy discussing topics they are interested in and that they find helpful. They are more likely to enjoy classes if they are talking about things that they find genuinely interesting.
It’s not always possible to include “amusing” themes in more focused classes (test prep, business English). Still, if you throw in some questions and ask them about their personal experience or opinion of a topic, they will relate it to themselves and feel more satisfied.
Yes, it might sound simple, but many teachers forget that students need to feel encouraged in class, EVEN if they’re adults.
Taking an interest in your students and guiding them as much as you can is, without a doubt, essential. Support can be both positive acknowledgements, but it also includes correction and feedback.
Students need to know they are supported even when they make mistakes. This support makes them feel like their lessons are beneficial as their teacher can point out which areas they should improve in.
Giving corrections and providing feedback can be pretty tricky, especially for new teachers. Sometimes teachers don’t want to upset the student, so they avoid providing corrections.
Over and under correcting can both lead to problems. Discussing a student’s desirable correction strategy at the beginning of class is crucial. Ask them if they’d like immediate corrections, corrections at the end of an explanation, only serious corrections or general feedback and corrections at the end of class.
Encouraging communication will give you the confidence to provide helpful feedback constructively.
How to motivate ESL students outside the classroom
Let’s take acquisition one step further and discuss how to motivate your ESL students outside the classroom.
As a language teacher, you might often try to carry the weight of the world on your shoulders. More specifically, your students’ progress.
However, you can only do so much. Encouraging your students to engage with English outside the class means they will see better results sooner, and you too will have more to work with during your lessons.
Out of class acquisition suggestions
For students to acquire a language faster, they need to immerse themselves in the language as often as possible. While many people can’t live in the native country of their target language, they can bring content to them.
Here are a few things they can do:
1. Write sentences using newly learned vocabulary
Advising students to review new vocabulary and use it in as many contexts as possible helps them retain the newly learned words. Getting them to write a few sentences that you review together at the start of class means they engage more with the content and see if they can use the words correctly.
2. Practice writing texts
Text writing is more complicated than sentence writing, but the same idea applies. Students can write about topics previously discussed in classes and try to make use of new vocabulary.
Again, you can check the texts at the start of class and give appropriate feedback.
Side note: When writing texts or sentences, students can identify their grammatical weaknesses and, from there, study them!
3. Traditional grammar practice exercises
Most students don’t enjoy grammar, but you get the rare few that do. In this case, you can give them practice grammar worksheets with solutions and then if they have doubts, they can discuss them with you in class. Check out this list of resources my friend, Meagan, compiled to use with your students in class.
Reading, whether it be books, newspapers or articles, is highly advised. Students will learn an immense amount of new vocabulary, and without question, they will improve faster.
You can again ask them to explain the content they have read during the week, which is an excellent exercise at the beginning of class.
5. Learn to listen
Listening to podcasts, music and watching videos all help students train their listening skills. For many, listening isn’t easy, but to adapt to the rhythm and flow of the language, you need to do it more. Like the other suggested acquisition activities, chatting about what they listened to or watched during the week helps ingrain the content more.
These are just a few activities your students can do to improve their English. Remember that the small things you do to motivate your ESL students is invaluable, and you are making a difference in their lives every day.
Despite this, it’s essential to keep in mind that you can only do so much. The student will have to foster that motivation within themselves to see tremendous progress.
Lastly, as a language teacher, it’s important to remember that all students are different and learning to adapt according to their needs is vital. Some students are scholarly, and others aren’t. You give and recommend what you can, and then it’s up to them to follow your expert advice and put in the appropriate effort.
About the Writer
Diana is currently living between Istanbul, Cape Town and Portugal while juggling part-time studies and working online as an ESL teacher. When she’s not working or studying, you can find her learning languages, practising yoga or spending time in nature.
Check out Diana’s Cambly profile here.