• How We Can Develop Intrinsic Motivation in Our ESL Students. Specific Examples. (Part 1)

REV Cover Intrinsic Pt 1


As I was leaving the hardware store with some light bulbs, I asked the very helpful clerk, Rich, what his plans were for that evening. He said, “I get to go home and play with my tools.” He was going to help his neighbor with some plumbing project.

I now realize that I was witnessing someone with pure intrinsic motivation. Even after spending all day selling tools, he enjoyed them so much that he was looking forward to working with them just for the pleasure and satisfaction that he got from them.

It is possible for our ESL students to be similarly intrinsically motivated to learn English.

 And there are ways that we can help them develop this.

The benefits for students having intrinsic motivation are well documented.

They are more likely to attach meaning to their work, explore new topics, and persist in the face of learning challenges. These students engage in an activity for its own sake in order to experience delight and fulfillment.

We can easily find general suggestions for how we can help ESL students develop intrinsic motivation to work on their language skills. The challenge is to find specific approaches to our lessons that we can apply that will instill this in our students.

Here are five recommendations based on research along with specifics examples of what we can do to accomplish the goal. (In this posting, Part 1, I discuss the first two, and in my next posting, Part 2, I’ll talk about the other three.)

According to research, how we can promote intrinsic motivation.

1. Give Students Autonomy

When students are being autonomous, they feel that have some control over the learning process. They learn how to learn and how to improve on their own.

This doesn’t mean complete detachment of the teacher. Instead, within the structure of some of the lessons, we can set it up so students can choose how fast or slow to work; or which exercise to do first, second etc.; or even to have some input into the content.  At these times in a lesson, the teacher’s role shifts from instructing to facilitating.

Examples of Giving Autonomy.

  • Use a writing workshop format. Prior to starting a workshop session, the teacher introduces the options that each student can decide to work on first. Some will choose to start with a writing-technique exercise, others will do a grammar one, some will correct a recently returned homework assignment, some will work on essay drafts, and others will conference individually with the teacher. Perhaps some will want to take a break. (See The most important motivator and how you can use it. and Video: The Writing Workshop)
  •  Customize conversation exercises. When we give students a list of questions to discuss, we can give students the opportunity to personalize it and include their own content. For example:

opinion questions

(See: Making the Perfect Mixture of Structure and Autonomy in Conversation Activities (Customizing Exercises)

  •  Conversation students choose what to do if they finish before others. Whenever we do pair/small group activities, some will finish before others. We can give the early finishers some choices at that point:

early finishers options

2. Explain the Purpose of the Assignment.

 Students need to feel like they are working toward something worthwhile and are doing something important. We can satisfy this need in students by explaining the reason for the assignment.

Examples of Explaining the Purpose

  • When we introduce an assignment, we can explain…

Purpose of assign (See • If You Want To Really Motivate Your ESL Students, This Will Do It.)

  • When introducing a reading assignment, we can draw a connection to a college course. For example, let’s say that students will be reading an article and completing a study guide for  “Can Animals Feel Empathy?” Before they start reading and answering the study guide questions, they do Task 1:

imaginary course reading

See Purposeful Reading: Read faster and create a tolerance for ambiguity (sample unit included)and Purposeful reading: Students read faster if they know what they are looking for.

  • To add credibility to the importance of an assignment, we can share with our present students testimonials from previous ones. For example, we can say (and project on a screen):

testimonial students

  (See ESL Teaching: Giving your course credibility in the eyes of your students)

This concludes Part 1. In my next posting, Part 2, I discuss the other three recommendations.

David Kehe

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