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How to Motivate Your Students

Motivation in the classroom, words from a TEFL teacher

Sometimes there are lessons where there is a complete lack of motivation – and that’s just the teachers! I jest, but how to motivate your students is a big problem in some classrooms. Sure, when we have beginners many are keen to learn, and much progress can be seen by learning a list of food words or the present simple with frequency adverbs. The rules are simple and the message is clear. At that level anyway.

It’s often when a student has been trapped in the seemingly inescapable depths of intermediate, that the seeds of ‘What’s the point?’ and ‘I don’t seem to be getting anywhere’ take root. As teachers, what can be done so that their linguistic tree blossoms rather than wilts and dies? With a twenty year career in teaching English, I've highlighted my tips on how to motivate your students.

how to motivate your students

Check the homework first

Much of 2020 has been online due to the pandemic, and homework has never been so important. I am a strong believer in giving work outside the class. I feel that it promotes personal responsibility for learning instead of becoming reliant on your teacher in class. Since the restrictions have been in place I have made a point of going through the homework at the start of each class. To be perfectly honest, I’m not even that bothered if they have done it or not. But the fact is 99% of the time they have. If I were a teacher who was going to catch out people who hadn’t done homework, this would be the biggest motivation for my students NOT attending class. This method insures the teacher doesn’t have a lot of extra work to mark outside of lesson time, and also provides a continuous wheel of motion as far as language learning is concerned. It prevents students never looking at their work again, and gives them the chance to ask questions about anything they don’t understand well.

Vegetables before dessert

Another idea to help motivate your students is what I call vegetables and dessert. I always remind students that we have to eat our vegetables before we have dessert. In other words, if we are doing something challenging or even what they consider to be boring (vegetables!), I’ll make sure there is something fun coming up (dessert). It is a little like something I would do with my own kids, but trust me, it works. They could even choose which ‘dessert’ they have in the form of an activity they enjoy, whether it be a game or a song for example.

student in exam tefl

Have something to work towards

Then there are exams. It’s a bit like someone who jogs. There is much more incentive if you decide to book yourself into that half marathon you’ve always wanted to do. I have never seen such motivation to get fit! There’s no more dragging your feet because it’s raining outside or because you’re tired. The fear of a fast-approaching race is enough to make you leave the house. And I bet that person feels so much better in themselves for having done so. The same is true for exams and to motivate your students. As previously mentioned, intermediate English can seem like something you will never navigate your way out of, but by placing exams throughout, like PET and FCE, the road doesn’t seem as long: you have targets to aim for on the way.

Always give encouragement

Last but not least, praise! As TEFL teachers we can often focus on the mistakes and not the successes. I have a student at the moment who is illiterate in their own language and every time he says the days of the week in the correct order, or is able to tell me how his name is spelt, I see this is a massive achievement for him. So I praise him. And when a student feels like they’ve done a good job, they’re more likely to feel good about themselves and want to learn more. Overpraise means praise becomes meaningless but a ‘Well done. That was excellent!’ at an opportune moment goes a long way.

Learning a language is a slow process and it is often the case that a student can feel like they’re taking two steps forward and one step back. But we as teachers, can help them see how far they’ve come when they’ve lost focus. Our enthusiasm, positivity and the way we teach can give them the boost they need to continue their journey.

student clapping tefl

Written by Lucy Holmes. Lucy is a TEFL teacher, materials’ writer and author of Talking Images: idioms. She has lived in Italy and Japan and taught English for twenty years. As well as teaching, she writes for Macmillan and OUP, and is currently working on her second book.

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