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3 Strategies for Motivating ESL Students

Motivating ESL students is a fundamental aspect of teaching young learners English. Learn three powerful strategies here.

It’s easy to lose sight of the importance of motivation.

“Motivation has been called the ‘neglected heart’ of language teaching,” according to Michael Rost, editor for the student book series “WorldView.” “As teachers, we often forget that all of our learning activities are filtered through our students’ motivation.”

Yet, research confirms its value. Motivation affects effort, which, in turn, affects results and ultimately, students’ abilities. By building their motivation, you can help students become more skillful in English and nourish their ability to learn.

Recognizing the importance of motivating ESL students isn’t the tough part for teachers. The real issue is accomplishing that goal.

How to Motivate ESL Students: 3 Strategies

Inspiring your classroom doesn’t have to be intimidating. With a few small steps, you can make increase engagement and curiosity. Here are three strategies for motivating ESL students.

1. Trigger Their Interests

Make English learning personal. By connecting language to something personal in your students’ lives, they’ll tap into something emotional that will help with engagement.

Rost offers a couple of ways to trigger students’ interests. One way is to integrate current topics, music, movies, and fads to create a relevant class culture. Another option is to investigate the theme of self-expression. By using personalized tasks, idea journals, and speaking circles, learners will be motivated by the fact that the class focuses on their personal lives.

You can also consider project-based learning. One teacher, Amanda Nehring, engaged ELL students by choosing a topic that appealed to her general education classroom: birds of prey.

  • Students started on the project by brainstorming what they knew and what they wanted to learn.
  • Then they performed research at libraries on pre-selected websites and by meeting experts in their classroom.
  • The next step, which the teacher deemed most valuable and rewarding, was integrating examples and experiences into the learning process. In this case, students met live raptors from local conservation and rehabilitation organizations.
  • The project concluded with a final presentation, which took place at a local children’s museum. Students created posters as well clay models of talons and nests. This step incorporated listening, speaking, reading, and writing in English.

“I cannot emphasize enough how rewarding this project was for my class and my ELL students,” Nehring said at Scholastic. “This is a favorite memory of all of my kids, and the growth I saw in their interests and abilities was staggering.”

2. Integrate Fun Activities and Technology

Games and fun activities offer several benefits to students. Marina Dodigovic wrote in The TESOL Encyclopedia of English Language Teaching that “games promote learner centeredness, create the space for genuine communication within a meaningful context, and are often team‐oriented.” She went on to say, “They have been found to stimulate motivation, reduce anxiety, and allow for the integration of all language skills.”

You can consider a cognition-oriented game like the website SpellingCity’s pedagogical version of a crossword puzzle, and effective socially oriented games include Simon Says, Hangman, and Scrabble. A monologue activity used for short stories can match students’ levels and interests. Select a story and have students read it, choose vocabulary they want to learn, journal the vocabulary, and then create a monologue that could have been delivered by a character in the story. Students read the monologue without describing which character they’re impersonating, and the rest of the class guesses who it is.

Technology can help locate effective games and activities, but don’t overlook how it can become a central motivation. In a separate chapter of The TESOL Encyclopedia of English Language Teaching, Sara Smith described how ESL learners can view English as necessary for accessing the digital world. In other words, they’re motivated to learn English because they want to use technology generally or engage in specific digital environments. Some ESL learners, such as those limited in geography, are focused on joining a digital English community instead of a physical English linguistic community.

Using technology can help students find pleasure and even develop a certain identity in learning English. Smith believes that “increased digital environment contact and engagement will heighten general global affiliation and potentially even give rise to a distinct ‘digital affiliation,’” which explains specific environments like online gaming communities.

Examples of motivating ESL students through technology go hand-in-hand with the next strategy.

3. Encourage Language Experiences Outside of the Classroom

By engaging students with English outside of the classroom, you can impact your students’ motivation.

Applied Linguistics polled more than 100 high school students in Sweden, where English is prominent, and found that the English language learners exerted less effort in the classroom. They strongly believed that language is best learned “naturally,” outside of school. A report from Oxford University Press found that across 30 studies, outside-of-class reading was linked to positive motivation for young language learners.

One way to encourage outside-of-the-classroom language experiences is with technology. Engaging digital environments like social media platforms can help students express themselves and browsing the web can enable them to pursue their interests. Gaming is particularly noteworthy. Research in the book International Perspectives on Motivation demonstrated how games have high intrinsic motivation for continued play, given elements like fantasy story lines, challenges, humor, benchmarks of success, and clear rules. As a result, ESL learners can engage in rich, diverse, and meaningful language experiences.

Another example of technology in outside-of-the-classroom language experiences was featured in an older entry of The Internet TESL Journal. A teacher in Korea asked students to create short movies on topics of their choice using digital cameras and cell phone cameras, and the “results far surpassed my expectations,” ESL instructor Dana Hazard said. “The classroom turned from being a group of clock-watchers waiting for the end of class into a room of dynamic English-speaking butterflies.” Nearly 80 percent of students felt more motivated to study English as a result of the project, which arguably used all three strategies listed in this article.

Learn More

Try motivating ESL students by appealing to their interests, incorporating fun activities and technology, and promoting out-of-the-classroom language learning activities. You can improve your knowledge and skills by earning an online M.Ed. in Language and Literacy. The program helps you teach effectively to all students, including English language learners, in a variety of content areas. A major focus is on using technology in the classroom, integrating reading and writing into lessons plans, and matching readers and text.

Lesley University’s program is offered in a convenient online format, giving you the flexibility to study when and where you want.

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