Four Ideas for Motivating Learners

In his monthly blog, National Geographic Learning’s in-house teacher trainer Alex Warren explores what’s going on in the world of ELT on his travels around the region.

It’s no coincidence that no matter where you are in the world, teachers face exactly the same problems. I’ve spoken with teachers in Saudi Arabia, Bulgaria, South Africa, Malta, Ukraine and Russia over the past few months and everywhere I go I get asked the same question (or at least variations of) – “How can we motivate our teenage learners?”.

There’s no easy answer to this question because every teaching scenario is unique and no two students are the same. After all, different things motivate different students. Our job as teachers is to find some kind of middle ground, whereby we can make our classes as varied, interesting and engaging as possible to ensure that all students are engaged and motivated for as much as our lessons as possible. This, in turn, means meticulous planning on behalf of the teacher to ensure maximum engagement.

However, at the crux of this issue is the need to ensure a positive learning experience to develop motivation within the classroom. If we can create positive learning experiences for our students, then there is more chance of them enjoying their classes and as a result, becoming more motivated. Certainly, from my own learning and teaching experiences, the more positivity there is around the learning journey, the more motivated students become. So, how can we ensure a positive learning experience for our learners? Let’s look at some ideas.

Content! Content! Content!

I’m a firm believer that creating a positive learning environment is as much about what we teach as how we teach. This, in essence, comes down to the material that we choose to use in class. We need materials that engage students, materials that they will want to understand, materials that will get them thinking, materials that will get them communicating and materials that will teach them more than just English. In other words, material which is authentic. And authentic material means authentic learning with authentic tasks and outcomes. As Hyland (2003) points out, “One of the most important advantages of using authentic material is that it increases learners’ motivation and reflects positively on the learning process.” Thankfully, such materials exist throughout the National Geographic Learning catalog. Courses like Impact, Perspectives and Life, for example, can really help motivate learners through real-world content, stunning imagery and inspiring videos. Equally, we also need materials that students can relate to, that’s relevant to them and has a real-world purpose; materials that give them choice and which challenges them in the right ways. If we have the right content, then it might just be the spark that they need to become motivated in the English classroom. As Bruce Springsteen sagely sings, “You can’t start a fire without a spark.”

A Unit Opener from the Foundation Level of Impact

Personalize It

Personalizing the learning experience is key to motivating students, and I don’t just mean writing sentences about themselves using the target language from the lesson. Yes, that’s a small part of it as it gives learners a real-life purpose for using that language, but it goes beyond that. Personalization is about sharing what they already know about a topic/theme and having the opportunity to express themselves and give their opinions. But it’s also about increasing that knowledge and having opinions about new topics. It’s about having the opportunity to be creative with the language and applying it to the topics being studied. Personalization is also about having a choice. As Max Fischer states, “choice gives them (learners) a sense of empowerment over their learning environment. Choice helps keep them engaged.” So, as well as having the right material we need the right task types and let students decide which tasks to do and how to do it, as in coursebooks like Impact.

Mix it Up

Variety is the spice of life and the same is true of the English language classroom. No lesson should ever be just a grammar lesson or just a reading lesson. They should be multi-skilled and multi-systemed. If you’re being honest, as soon as you tell a class you’re going to be doing a grammar lesson their faces fall and motivation is lost. Which is why whenever I have a grammar lesson I focus on the communicative result of the grammar point – dress it up as speaking lesson, with grammar input, vocabulary input, a bit of reading, a bit of writing. It comes down to planning, but make sure you cover as many areas as possible, ensure there’s a good mix of different interaction patterns – individual, pair, group, whole class – as well as actual activity types to appeal to different learning styles.


Goal-setting plays an important role in motivating language learners, but the goals need to be manageable and attainable. For example, achieving perfect fluency and accuracy without an accent is not a realistic goal. Every lesson should have a goal which students should be made aware of at the start of the lesson, either verbally or written on the board. For example, “by the end of the lesson, you’ll be able to talk about past experiences.” These aims should then be referred back to at the end of the lesson, with the teacher asking the students whether or not they think they have achieved these aims. By doing this we are making students very much aware of what they have achieved in the class. This can be really motivating for them as it gives them a sense of direction in their learning journey as well as allowing them to see progress and that they’re not, in fact, treading water. Indeed, recent findings in neuroscience reveal that motivation is linked to the production of a chemical called dopamine, which motivates us to act by making us feel good. And guess what? Dopamine spikes when we have achieved something.  Interestingly the research suggests that we also get a dopamine rush when we are getting ready to achieve something, as a way of encouraging us to act, thus making the very act of goal-setting motivating.

In my next blog post, we’ll look at four more ideas for motivating learners.

Further Reading

Techniques & Principles in Language Teaching, Larsen-Freeman and Anderson, 2011

Motivational Strategies in the Language Classroom, Zoltan Dornyei, 2001

ETPedia Teenagers, Hughes and Dudley, 2018

Teenagers, Lewis, 2007

A Positive Learning Experience ETP March 2016, Bress, 2016

Motivation in your Classroom, Helen Stephenson, NGL In Focus blog

Author: Alex Warren

Alex Warren is a DELTA trained teacher trainer with over 14 years’ experience of working in ELT as a teacher, academic director and teacher trainer. Working for National Geographic Learning, Alex is driven by his passion for developing teachers on a global scale and helping them to reach their true potential. A firm believer in a communicative approach to language learning and student centred learning, Alex enjoys working with innovative, thought-provoking materials and presenting on a wide range of ELT-related topics.

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