Eight Ways To Help English Language Learners Feel Motivated To Read & Write

I’ve previously provided some ideas on how teachers can create the conditions for self-motivated students.

By Larry Ferlazzo

This post will share a few ideas on how to specifically create those kinds of conditions to promote student interest in reading and writing.

Researchers have identified four primary ways to nurture this kind of intrinsic motivation:

  1. Supporting students to feel a greater sense of autonomy.  In other words, where they have a degree of control over what needs to happen and how it can be done.
  2. Competence - students are more likely to do something if they feel like they have the ability to be successful doing it!
  3. Relevance, which is when students feel that what they are learning relates to their present lives or future hopes.
  4. Relatedness - doing an activity that helps students feel more connected to others, and helps them feel cared about by people whom they respect

So, what can these elements look like in literacy instruction?


Autonomy can be promoted by:

  • Providing students choice in independent reading.  In the past, it was not unusual for even older English Language Learners (ELLs) to only be able to read English books written for toddlers.  However, now, a variety of books are available that are designed for – and accessible to – teenagers, especially graphic novels and nonfiction. In addition, there is no shortage of online reading sites that including audio support, animations and videos that make more complex text accessible.
  • Choice does not have to be limited to reading!  It’s not difficult to provide students with two different writing prompts that teach the same desired learning outcome.  For example, one day students were learning how to write an “argument” (also known as a persuasive essay).  After having learned about different natural disasters, they were supposed to write about which one they felt was the worst to experience.  One student had his head on the desk and didn’t want to do it.  I knew he was a football fan, and asked him if he could use the same structure to write about why his favorite football team was the best one.  He leaped at the chance,  got right to work, and delivered an essay that demonstrated he understood the key components of writing an argument.  That was the learning goal, not writing about disasters.


Some ways to help students feel like they developing more skills include:

  • Regularly giving “Low-stakes” formative fluency assessments (where students read a short passage to a teacher for a minute, who then tracks the number of words read and their level of “prosody”) can be done regularly and then students can see their own progress.  Even better, students can record these assessments and hear their progress for themselves!
  • Providing students with graphic organizers called “writing frames” and more advanced “writing structures” can assist them be more successful in their writing.  This kind of scaffolding can provide the support students need until they become more  proficient. 


Students can see that reading and writing can be connected to their lives in many ways, including:

  • When it comes to helping students feel like reading and writing (and speaking and listening!) in English is relevant to their lives, I find that regularly highlighting the social and economic advances of being able to read and write (as well as speak and understand spoken) English, in addition to their home languages, is a winning strategy.  I often pair a related funny video with research and articles in a mini-lesson to remind students of its value, in addition to inviting students to share how they think learning English can benefit them.
  • Nothing beats enhancing student motivation for writing than having them do it for an authentic audience (someone other than their teacher).  Whether it’s writing a recipe to be posted on a cooking site, a political opinion for a newspaper “letter to the editor,” an Amazon book review, or for countless other outlets, we all tend to feel more focused when others are going to read our work.  Many students are very focused on their online lives, and showing that what they write will be available for all the world to see can not only generate motivation, but perhaps more recognition that they want to carefully review everything they put on the Internet.


There are several ways to help students connect to each other while reading and writing.  A few are:

  • An easy way to help students feel more motivated to read is to have them read a text in pairs – taking turns orally reading paragraphs to each other.  Jigsaws take this step even further by having small groups read sections of a text together and then challenging them to teach what they read to others.
  • Having students write together – either in class or online – can be an effective to help develop writing skills, and to solidify relationships.  You can find a list of related sites and lesson ideas here.

None of these strategies are guaranteed ways to help every student in your class feel motivated to read and write in English, but they are certainly unlikely to make them feel less energized to do so!

Larry Ferlazzo teaches English and Social Studies at Luther Burbank High School in Sacramento, California. He has written nine books on education, include four on teaching English Language Learners, writes a teacher advice blog for Education Week Teacher, and has his own popular resource-sharing blog

No votes yet

Research and insight

Browse fascinating case studies, research papers, publications and books by researchers and ELT experts from around the world.

See our publications, research and insight