Are you a secondary or private language school teacher faced with po-faced, sullen teenagers who'd rather be chatting in the L1 or sleeping or watching telly?

Do you find the coursebook you use hardly motivates them? Is it a challenge for you to get them to speak in English and make them see the benefit of it in the long term? Then this blog is for you!

I'd like to do some action research into motivational strategies and teen psychology and this blog will hopefully help me gather some feedback and ideas from teachers who, like me, have problems motivating their teens to work hard and speak English. The problems I face are various:

  • Time of lesson: evening, so students are tired from school
  • Challenging coursebook: the prescribed coursebook is a little too "adulty" for them
  • Impersonal classroom: we teach in a satellite school premises and are not allowed to put written work up on the walls
  • Sense of isolation: not many classes happening at the same time so no affective relief during the break
  • Little intrinsic or instrumental motivation: there is not much "love" for the language or culture due to a lack of authentic exposure and not much uptake of an idea of going to university abroad.
  • Overburdened learners: students have too much school homework and tests

Questions you could help me answer include:

  • How do you overcome the problems above or similar problems you may have?
  • How do you collect (positive) feedback from students or evidence of language improvement after using these strategies?
  • How much do you think motivation affects learning?

All your ideas welcome! Thanks!


Motivation is the name of the game I think. I teach 11-16 year olds in France. Some of my pupils are motivated to learn English in their families, others know that they need reasonable marks to achieve their objective at the end of the school year but lots of them can see no reason to learn.  These pupils very often seem to see no link between the work done in class, the notes in their copy and the evaluation if any. They become frustrated very quickly sometimes, they then get angry and give up. Success creates motivation and motivation creates success but for the pupil who has neither, and for his teacher, it's an uphill struggle. In our school we take some of the pupils in difficulty (often because of dyslexia) out of the larger group a few times a week to give them more personal attention. The extra attention and the smaller group enables them to keep up with the class, several of these pupils regain motivation and become successful particularly in oral work "It's quite easy madame when you listen and take part" I often find things to do which the pupils will find interesting for a time (make wooden spoon puppets and have them talk, work about their "work experience week"  films, quizes... but once we move on to a different theme it's as though they have locked the box and thrown away the key. The transferable skills don't transfer.All of that being said, I have frequently seen that a pupil who has had little or no interest over a long period, may one day begin to participate and find that all unbeknownst to himself English has wormed its way into him and can find its way out again.  Just today, after 18 months of practically doing nothing, a boy had a good mark in vocabulary work. Specific answers to some of the questions you have raised:I sometimes do a five minutes realaxation at the start of class when I see that they are tired. They seem to be interested in stories I tell about my country (Ireland) family and so on (I usually do it in French) This sometimes generates talk about countires / cultures, "Do they really do that?"  "My cousin says..."I have to prepare listening and other work since the coursebook work assumes a lot of pre-knowledge and patience which isn't there.I will continue to read the blog since I really need to work on the question of motivation. 

Hi there,          Well, I read your article and it seems your not the only English teacher in the world that suffers from such problems.Although I'm  from the West Midlands,for the past 20 years, I've been living in France,I'm now currently teaching English to french students.For me however, the key would lie in the importance of motivation and more to the point, how motivation is managed in a class room environment,with teenage learners who'd rather be somewhere else.Motivation takes on a new meaning and becomes yet another teacher problem named frustration,I guess you've already encountered this guy.Being a teacher is not as easy as most people imagine,then again,most people aren't teachers so teachers talk to other teachers, and in the end the motivation that was there in the first place, just flys away out through the class room window. But yes, motivation does affect learning in a big way. Have a nice day.  

Thank you for your comments Simon and Imelda, all very interesting ideas.
Taking you up on the idea of stories, Imelda, I remember how keen I was on drama when I was at school and how much it improved my English (I'm a NNS). We used to do Shakespeare, Brecht, Schaffer, Chekhov, etc... it was wonderful, and the benefits I got out of this in terms of cultivation and language practice (pronunciation, vocabulary, speaking and listening, reading the script, etc) was tremendous. I've done scenes from plays with advanced students and got a lot out of them during readings, discussions and writing essays about topics raised by the play. I even set up a blog for them to share ideas for homework (which they eagerly used!). It's harder for intermediate or lower-level students, though, because the language is much harder for them.
What's your take on this? Do you use extracts from abridged or simplified versions of real novels or plays with your lower-level students? Does it motivate them to learn a little about British or Irish culture? Are you familiar with any resources?

Hi,I've been having similar problems with my teenagers and they've just done very badly in an obligatory test. Thankfully this was a diagnostic, rather than final, test.I've just started using a few sites to help my class. We don't have much technology in my school: only 2 computers in the staffroom, the teacher's own laptops and a new projector. But I still think it's possible to use technology with the students. Some of the sites I use are :www.englishattack.comwww.lyricstraining.comI also follow blogs with useful ideas, including: Hope that helps!Sandy

I'm definitely with you there, Sandy. Using computers is a definite plus in teenage motivation, as long as the learning outcome is planned in advance. Using CALL software is useful, although Internet-based activities, like treasure hunts and webquests, are a more integrative way to develop skills. Webquests, in particular, are task-based and develop all 4 skills. There is a wealth of webquests on the internet appropriate for teens. Have you tried the Bernie Dodge site? There are lots of webquests for other subjects, not just for EFL, so if you're into CLIL, you'll find them stimulating.
Keep the entries coming!

Just wondering if anyone has read anything by Dr Dornyei? He's very much into motivation and its role in second language acquisition. There's a book I'm particularly interested in reading: Motivational Strategies in the Language Classroom. Is anyone familiar with it? Would you recommend it?

`Hi, I am a secondary school teacher in Romania and as you all know the ex-communist countries are in full swing and the open borders have brought about sweeping changes in the mentality of the Romanians. My scool does not offer up-to-date computers but students have their own at home so I combine lab work with research at home. Most of them have travelled abroad and realised that learning English is essential in coming in touch with the rest of the world. Most of my students are eager to study hard dreaming of becoming students in a European country and later find a better paid job. So, under such conditions, I consider myself a lucky teacher who is a lot helped by social and political circumstances.   

Hi Daniela
I think you're right there. I've also taught in other countries like China or Jordan and the kids there are of course much more motivated, either because they seek to study/live abroad or the culture is such that the teacher is very much respected and a source of inspiration. You can't tar everyone with the same brush, but by and large, lack of motivation is more of a problem with teenagers in Western Europe or South America, rather than the Middle East or Asia. This of course depends on other factors, such as educational or social background.
Can anyone comment?

I don't think that students in the Middle East are more motivated than teenagers in other parts of the world. On the contrary, the obstacles that the Education system has to face in a country like Egypt for example make the issue of lack of motivation more pressing.


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