How To Motivate Students
In An ESL Classroom

Actually, the title "How To Motivate Students" is an intentional misnomer. A better one might be "How To Deal With Varying Student Motivations."

I am not an expert but in my experience a student will walk in the door with motivation in place or just not have any. I'll concede that some students' motivations are stronger than others but I believe that if it is lacking in the person, the classroom is not the place he or she is going to find it. I do believe that a good teacher may validate and strengthen a students' motivation but not create one from nothing.

There may be motivation to come to a class if the teacher is pretty or handsome, some students may be there because their friends are there or their mother forces them to attend. There are no doubt many other peer, family, academic and societal pressures that will put a student in a classroom to keep a chair warm but the personal desire to acquire a fluency in English is going to be the greatest factor in their success.

Alphabet on Chalkboard

An important fact to remember is that among those students with motivation, there are possibly as many different motivations as there are students. The real challenge for the instructor is to provide help with satisfying as many of those needs and wants as possible.

As a practical matter for how to motivate students, it may not be necessary to distinguish between needs and wants but they are different. A "want" may be the desire to learn English that stems from a dream and passion for travel and the understanding that learning English will make that more doable. The "need" can be an intelligent understanding that a grasp of some grammar and a sizable number of vocabulary words memorized will determine test scores important to their career goals. There may be few outward clues to these differences but but I suspect that there is an effect of some sort on the teachers' emotional connections with the students.

While the student with a "need" may be more disciplined and attentive in class I believe the student with the "want" finds ways of demonstrating their pleasure when they are learning something they perceive as being personally useful. And in the meantime, the rest of the students jockey everyday for the seats in the back row.

I have sometimes joked with a new class that the front row of students in the room will receive "A+" grades, the second row "A", the third row "B+" and so on until I tell the last row of students that they are free to sleep because staying awake won't make any difference in their scores. I appreciate the occasional laughs I get because everyone knows it is probably the truth. With freedom to choose their seating the students soon sort themselves out.

How to motivate students? The only satisfying strategy for me is to give as much new material and opportunity to practice as you think they can handle to all of the students. The students in the back row will most likely take away as little as you expect and the front-row students will receive more personal satisfaction and value from your efforts than you might guess.

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