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How to Maintain Motivation

Henry Stephens

Perhaps you’ve experienced a similar scenario. Imagine taking a weekly one-to-one session with a French speaker. It was his boss who signed him up for English lessons, in an attempt to get him operational with English speaking colleagues. The problem is, he’s more than happy just sticking to French. Apparently, many of his friends in London are French speakers, and most of his department speaks French anyway. He’s not highly motivated, and that certainly makes him harder to teach.

Motivation comes in many guises. There are those who have a deep interest in the wider cultural context of a language. They don’t need to learn urgently, but they want to deepen their cultural knowledge, and they recognise the language as part of that. Then, there are those that need to learn urgently. They may be suddenly immersed in the language and need survival skills. They have plenty of opportunity to practice – and they can hardly avoid it. Their urgent need makes them highly motivated. Then there are those that would like to pass an exam, or appease a boss, or parent. Their interest doesn’t run deep it’s true, but they are prepared to work hard; they too are highly motivated.


Surprisingly perhaps, one useful tool for maintaining motivation is testing. Not only can we test initially to show how much learners already know (and startle them with what they don’t), we can also test very usefully during the course. No matter their source of motivation, students will be motivated further by concrete achievements. Hopefully progress checks will be encouraging! On the other hand, tests may reveal areas for further work – failings and weaknesses. Even so they are useful. They still provide a target – something to work towards, so that students are involved in their classes and their learning. Admittedly, sometimes tests are tricky to pull off and there’s always a danger that we will unintentionally put our students off. I find it’s best to choose a pre-prepared test of some sort either from a class-book, or a short section from an exam, otherwise they are too time-consuming to devise.

Often students haven’t really thought about what they’d like to do in the language. They sometimes say “I don’t know, you are the teacher – just teach me”. Devising a questionnaire or discussion activity that helps them think about and communicate what they hope to gain by the end of the course is really important in crystallizing motivation. If we ask them to write down their own goals and keep a record of them, we give them something to reflect on – to act as a reminder throughout the course.

Sometimes students simply want to be able to talk about whatever interests them, or work on an email they have to write for work, or a job application they are stuck on. Occasionally, anything is appreciated that allows them to use the language in a real way. So my guess is that plenty of discussion, debate, negotiating and problem solving will help learners maintain interest in learning. Further to this, we need to show students how the language is really used as a living entity, beyond the confines of the whiteboard, and the course-book. Exposing learners, at all levels, to authentic language can act as an antidote to too much grammar and academia. They might conduct questionnaires outside of class with native speaking housemates or home-stay families, or other teachers, colleagues, or even the public at large. We may show them a section of a movie, or perhaps a newspaper article.

Sometimes students simply want to be able to talk about whatever interests them, or work on an email they have to write for work, or a job application they are stuck on. Occasionally, anything is appreciated that allows them to use the language in a real way.

It is likely that learners will find language that hasn’t been adapted for them tough, and possibly incomprehensible at lower levels. As long as we have realistic expectations of what they can achieve (like asking them to identify an overall topic in a text, or by providing guidance on questions so as to elicit a usable response) the experience should be stimulating and encouraging. But, as with testing, here too we find that an activity meant to motivate, could have the opposite undesired effect if we aren’t careful.


As ever, maintaining motivation requires a balancing act. Some students want to see progress: frequent ticks next to their work, good grades, concrete results. Others want to be able to use the language in a practical way above all else – we need to make sure they can do this. Others need to be shown where they are: shocked into action. Some, like I suspect the learner I began by describing, need to be coaxed into a less resistant relationship with the language – maybe by arousing their interest and teasing out a voluntary response. The last thing they’ll want is a test.

About the author

Henry has been working in teaching EFL (English as a Foreign Language) since 2001. Henry is married with one young son, and he lives in Harrow, London. In his spare time he enjoys playing the piano and practicing his Spanish whenever possible.