The Latin root of the word "motivation" means "that which inwardly moves a person to behave a certain way." Unfortunately, all too often we teachers talk about motivation as something we have to do to students instead of helping them identify ways they can motivate themselves.
I was a community organizer for nineteen years prior to becoming a high school teacher, and one of the tenets of effective organizing is recognizing the difference between irritation and agitation. We irritate people when we challenge them to act on our interests while we agitate people when we challenge them to do something about their own interests, concerns and dreams.
Given the fact that our students are not in our classes the vast majority of their time, we must make the latter a priority.
I don't believe I have ever motivated a student. As Edward Deci, the renowned researcher on motivation issues, wrote: "The proper question is not, 'how can people motivate others?' but rather, 'how can people create the conditions within which others will motivate themselves?'"
There are many strategies ESL teachers can use to create those kinds of conditions by fostering students' sense of intrinsic motivation, which comes from within themselves, as opposed to extrinsic motivation, which comes from outside factors (such as grades).
Teachers and researchers have found that positive teacher-student relationships, a supportive classroom atmosphere, enhancing students' sense of autonomy through providing choices (homework options, seating arrangements, etc.), and praising effort ("You pronounced the dialogue very clearly, Jose -- all that time you spent practicing it paid off") instead of ability ("Your English is great, Jose") are a few strategies teachers can use to strengthen ESL student intrinsic motivation.
ESL Students setting their own goals has also been found to be an effective motivating strategy. I have collected many different goal-setting lessons I use, including student hand-outs, here.
Once students have identified their goals, substantial research has been done showing that student use of imagery -- particularly with those learning a second language -- can result in both increased learning and increased student motivation . I often have students take thirty seconds at the beginning of a class to visualize in their mind successfully working towards achieving their specific language learning goals (after teaching a lesson on its value towards learning).
Just as plentiful research has found that students seeing the economic and social benefits of high school graduation and college attendance generates increased student enthusiasm for learning, it is not a stretch to imagine a similar effect on English Language Learners by their learning about the many benefits of learning another language. Through lessons and videos, my students regularly learn about the economic, professional and health benefits of learning English.
As you can tell, I emphasize in-class efforts to help students motivate themselves. But I don't live in a fantasyland. I recognize that learning another language, especially one as crazy as English, is very hard work, and, despite lots of intrinsic motivation, there will always be many attractive alternatives to studying available to students outside of school.
So, as part of "creating the conditions" in which they can motivate themselves, I provide my students with a list of low-stress, high-interest activities that I request they do outside of the classroom, and which they can fit in doing a few minutes at a time.
- For the growing number of students with smartphones, I provide class time where they can try out the growing number of mobile apps for English-language learning. Duolingo and ones created by the British Council are particularly engaging.
- I ask students to take photos of signs or passages they come upon during the day that they don't understand. They then text them to my phone and I create a weekly slideshow where we review their meanings.
- I ask students to keep a simple "log" of things about which they talk to themselves in English. For example, while they are riding their bike to school they can say to themselves, "That is a red car with a man and woman inside." Students then share these internal conversations with the class.
- I maintain "virtual" classrooms on many different websites where students with home computers and Internet access can go to and learn/practice English. I usually ask that they spend a minimum of two hours each week on the sites of their choice, and will modify that up (and occasionally down) based on individual conversations with students based on their self-identified language-learning goals.
- For students who do not have computers and home internet access, we use creative strategies to help their families obtain them.
How do you help your students to motivate themselves?
Larry Ferlazzo teaches English and Social Studies at Luther Burbank High School in Sacramento, California. He has written six books on education (a small portion of this post is adapted from his book, The ESL/ELL Teacher's Survival Guide), writes a teacher advice blog for Education Week Teacher, and has his own popular resource-sharing blog. He writes a monthly post for the New York Times on teaching English Language Learners.