Motivating Students to Learn English: Tips for ESL Teachers

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ESL Tate
I have been an ESL Teacher for more than 15 years and a Teacher trainer for the last three. Now I help new teachers start their journey traveling and teaching English abroad.
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Motivating students to learn English is perhaps the most difficult challenge you will face as an ESL Teacher.

Not every student in your classroom is going to be motivated to learn English because the majority of the time they don’t want to be in your class anyway. Their parents make them.

But this doesn’t mean that because they don’t want to be there you should give up on them. That is the last thing you want to do unless of course, you use this as an advantage.

How do we keep on motivating students to learn English?

For those students who just don’t want to learn English, you want to motivate them by using other highly motivated students who love English. You can use these students to show them just how fun it is. Call on the smart students then celebrate their correct answers by involving every one of them in the celebration. And the best way to do this is for you to clap and get all the students to clap with you for that student. Then when that less-motivated student answers a question, do the same thing for them but this time even go over the top a little. If you keep on motivating students to learn English with this idea, eventually you will win them over and the fact that their parents force them to learn English will become less of a factor.

motivating students to learn english

You are smarter than them by far and you have a lot of resources at your disposal to motivate them. A lot of those resources I have highlighted on this site under class management and tips so browse those sections for ideas as well. I tend to use rewards like stickers, candy (sparingly) and a lot of psychology. My Minor in College came in handy after all.

This is one of the ways I get students to understand why it’s not really that important for their mother who makes them study English but more important for them:

I call this one the Taternator lol

One of, or perhaps the smartest student I taught in Pyeongtaek walked in the class one day and said, “Teacher, I don’t want to study English”. And I looked at her and said well Sara, I have prepared all this material for you and your timed exercises and fun activities; do you want me to put it all in the trash?

She looked at me without hesitating and said, “yes”. So I got to thinking, well, she looks exhausted and she studies for more than 12 hours a day with school, English academy, Taekwondo academy, Japanese academy and Piano academy I see why she is tired. But at the same time, her mom pushes her to be the best speaker in the school and I have to accomplish that and maintain her interest. So I decided to play along.

First I sympathized with her and listened as she went on talking about all her problems. (All the while I told her to say it all in English and she gladly did as she was accustomed to showing off her skills.) I listed all the things she does on the board and listened to her rant about how her parents put pressure on her and how I was surprised she maintained a great attitude and got “excellence” (my highest grading scale) on nearly all her assignments.

By recognizing her plight, her mood improved a bit and she started smiling as she always did. Then I decided to take it a bit further by making it look more like she is studying English because she wants to and it’s going to benefit her and not just because her parents want her to. So I decided to do an interview with her to illustrate my point. It went like this:

Me: Are you sure you really don’t like to study English Sara?
Sara: Not really!
Me: Why?
Sara: English is difficult.
Me: But you are a very smart student and you do very well on my intense lessons. If you don’t like English, then why do you come to a English academy?
Sara: Because my mom makes me come and when I ask her why she wants me to learn English she doesn’t give me an answer. But sometimes I like English plus my friends are in this academy and it is fun to see them.
Me: Excellent sentences. You see, you are very good at English. (She smiles). I have taught you for months now and I have never had a student do so well, not even the older students. How long have you been studying English?
Sara: I have been studying since when I was 5 years old.
Me: Why do you think it’s important to learn English?
Sara: I don’t know.
Me: Do you want to know one reason?
Sara: Okay, why?
Me: Do you like to travel?
Sara: Yes.
Me: What country would you like to travel to?
Sara: Sydney Australia. I really want to visit the Sydney Opera House someday. And I want to go to America too.
Me: What language do they speak in America and Australia?
Sarah: English.
Me: Now do you understand why it’s important to learn English?
Sara: Yes.
Me: Let’s get started.
Sara: Okay.

Sara was nine years old and she was a fantastic student. She grasped information like a sponge and she put together very good sentences.

Sometimes just being patient and hearing them out helps a lot in motivating students to learn English. It tells them that you care and because you care, they don’t want to disappoint you. I have used this tactic on a large class of 20 and half of them little to no interest in learning English and you know what, with consistent effort and a positive attitude as my way of motivating students to learn English, I got their attention and respect. Because of that, they make an effort and that’s all I want from them, a sincere effort and in that time hopefully, I can leave them with something. Cheers.

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