How to Motivate ESL Students to Learn

How to Motivate ESL Students to Learn thumbnail
Motivated students are more likely to retain knowledge.

Learning to speak English as a second language is difficult. For students from kindergarten through grade 12, surrounded by English-speaking peers, it can be especially challenging. Frustrated and confused, English Language Learners (ELLs) are not always the most motivated learners. However, student motivation problems often have their roots in the fact that teachers simultaneously believe that it is their responsibility to make learning fun and that "school activities are inherently boring and unrewarding," according to, an online resource for such teachers. When teachers abandon this contradictory thinking and take a strategic approach to motivating their ELLs, they will find motivating their students much easier.


    • 1

      Understand the teacher-student power dynamic. According to resources such as, the role of power in the teacher-student relationship is closely related to motivation, as teachers either base this on coercion or punishment, or reward and motivation. Adopt a commitment to base your power on motivation. Try different motivational strategies until you find one that works with your students. Evaluate your strategies with careful reflection.

    • 2

      Establish the basic motivational conditions: ethical behavior and appropriate teacher-student relationships, positive classroom environment and a cohesive classroom group with appropriate group norms. Establish clear expectations for student behavior and academic achievement at the beginning of the school year.

    • 3

      Plan activities that involve your students' interests or areas with which they are familiar. Avoid gimmicks or planning activities just because you think students will enjoy them.

      Become familiar with students' interests and experiences so that you can incorporate your learning objectives into a platform familiar to your students. For example, Dana Hazzard writes in the internet TESL Journal of her successful project to motivate ESL students to abandon their English-speaking fears by asking them to produce videos.

    • 4

      Remain consistent. Abide by the late assignment, attendance and grading policies established in your syllabus. Treat each student equally and fairly, and respond to student and parent communications.

      Remaining consistent throughout the semester or year empowers your students to stay motivated since they believe they have a fair chance of achieving their grade and learning goals.

Tips & Warnings

  • Maintain a positive, excited attitude each day in the classroom. Your attitude about teaching and the English language will rub off on your students. Students are more likely to stay excited about learning English if you are excited about teaching it.

  • Make changes each year or semester based on your new classes. Each class is different. What motivates one might not motivate another.

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