Ajarn Street

How to motivate your students

An extract from a new book on teaching English to Thai students

There have been many books written about the TEFL industry, both fiction and non-fiction. Andrew Fleming (a previous guest in our Hot Seat section) has kindly sent us an extract from his book that he is currently writing. The book, titled Thai students can speak and write English! They just need to be taught using techniques that are ‘fit for purpose' argues that progress can be made if efforts are concentrated on the learner. However, in order to achieve this, certain strategies and techniques must be applied.

The book will explore how to motivate students, how to make your course material relevant, and why feedback is so essential. There will also a chapter on classroom management, exploring the issues involved in preparing and managing the space where you teach and creating a ‘learning-centred' classroom.

Communicative Language Teaching (CLT) will also discussed and how can it be applied in a Thai classroom with students of varying abilities. Different techniques for the development of speaking, writing and listening skills will be discussed in detail, as will the need to have comprehensive strategies with clear aims and built-in success indicators, and how to implement these. Finally, the issue of integrating those skills required to make students communicative and competent are discussed.

The book is based on the author's tried and tested techniques that have been developed over a 25-year period, not only through his personal experiences in Thailand but also from working with young people in both informal and formal educational environments in the UK

The author runs a very successful English language tutor school in the Northeast of Thailand and is currently contracted to the local provincial government as their English language ‘expert'-their terminology rather than his!

He has also recently developed and delivered a Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) training course for Thai teachers. Over 100 Thai teachers have undertaken the course and gained certificates, while the feedback has been both encouraging and rewarding.

Andy initially started working with young people as a volunteer in his late twenties, working his way up to becoming part of a senior management team within local government. He was responsibility for work with young people that achieved four consecutive ‘excellent' outcomes from OFSTED inspections (OFSTED being the government body responsible for inspecting education throughout the UK.)

His practice in the UK has also been cited as ‘innovative' in various government journals, leading to him being invited to lecture on ‘working with young people' both in the UK and oversees. In 2003 he was awarded the Public Servant of the Year Award from the Prime Minister's Office for my ‘groundbreaking' practice with young people in the UK.

Chapter one: How to motivate your students?

Many studies have been undertaken to determine the reason why South East Asian students have problems learning English. Murray and Christison (2010) observed that many students just perceive English as a school subject, without significance in regards to their future employment prospects, resulting in lowered motivation.

'What demotivates students?'

Trawinski, (2005) identified the following factors as having a major impact on students' motivation for foreign language learning:

1) English is regarded as a difficult subject to learn
2) learners' outcomes is too dependent on the quality of the English teacher and their ability to motivate their students
3) lack of support and opportunities to use English in the home and the wider community
4) lack of exposure to the English language and the opportunity to use it outside the classroom
5) limited vocabulary proficiency (as well as lack of access to English reading materials)

I would also add to the list the following: weakness of the curriculum design, limited school resources, class sizes, poor course design, and course-books not always being relevant to the student's own environment.

It's comparatively easy to identify a wide range of issues demotivating students of foreign languages. I think it is more useful to explore what actually motivates students and how can we build on these. This chapter will attempt to explore these issues in detail using the following parameters: teacher/pupil interactions, sharing the responsibility for learning, course content and feedback. (I believe all these factors are crucial.)

Teacher roles and styles

When reflecting on teacher and student(s) interactions one could easily describe the role of the English teacher is of teaching the English language, while the role of the student is to study hard. However, as must be obvious, it is assuredly not that simple for we have already identified many other contributing factors, both internal and external, though I believe in only concentrating on factors over which we have some control over.

Focusing on issues outside of our control not only wastes time but distracts us from addressing those issues that we can influence. It may well be only human nature to complain about factors preventing us from succeeding, but creating a ‘culture of blame' means that we effectively escape self-scrutiny. (This may be especially relevant upon relocating to a country with a culture and an education system very different to the one you left behind.)

All teachers have their own style. Some want to be the undisputed centre of attention, in total control of the class at all times. Other teachers see their role as being more of a facilitator or coach. I personally feel that different approaches are required for different situations, with an intuitive teacher altering his or her role any number of times. What is more important is that the teacher is aware of exactly which role they're using at any given point, as this has a major impact on student motivation.

Further, as teachers we need to be aware of our body language and tone of voice, ensuring that we treat every student as an individual. Our goal is to try and project a positive demeanor, even when we might feel the burden of the world on our shoulders (not always easy, as we all have ‘good' and ‘bad' days!)

Unfortunately, if we are having a ‘bad day' this can be evident in our overall body language, level of enthusiasm and even reactions to classroom situations. It's hard to leave our troubles outside the classroom door: teachers are only human beings and it's unfair to expect them to have complete control over their thoughts and feelings. However, awareness itself can make a difference: awareness of how we compose ourselves around students, from the moment we enter the classroom.

The impact of the teacher

When walking to a classroom I often try to remind myself how much impact my demeanor can have on the lesson, and that the onus is on me to motivate the students, and not the other way around. . . If the students await me I need to focus on my entry into the classroom. Walking in with a ‘smile on my face' and a ‘spring in my step' has a much more positive impact!

The same applies if I'm already in the classroom. I've often found it helpful to stand at the door and welcome my students individually as they enter the classroom. While I wait for the majority of students to settle down I use the time to enter into a casual conversation with a few. Building positive relationships with students is very important. Sometimes knowing that the teacher is interested in you as a person can make all the difference to how a student responds in class. Not every student is self-motivated and as outlined at the beginning of this chapter there are many external factors that can impact upon a student's motivation. I've seen so many students become inspired simply because they felt valued and respected by their teacher.

However, motivation needs to be taken into consideration at every stage of the teaching process, from planning stage all way through final evaluation. Every single class is different and teachers need not only to be aware of the differences but also to prepare for them, not only with regard to different class sizes or levels of ability but also different levels of motivation. Teachers need to get to know their classes. I've found it helpful to keep a small log, not only detailing which activities I've used with a particular class but also recording what worked with a particular group and what ‘died a sudden death!'

Lesson content

At this point it's important to concentrate on the content of the actual lessons. Teachers may have excellent relationships with students but if they fail to make their lessons interesting, interactive or challenging pupil motivation will be short-lived.

Working with large class sizes and or students of different ability levels is never easy. I personally feel it is very important to decide at to which level to ‘pitch' our lessons. My ultimate aim is to always try and deliver a lesson that the students enjoy but also find challenging. In order to help me determine what a ‘challenging' lesson is I use three zones: the comfort zone, the stretch zone and the panic zone.

The comfort zone is where an individual has already previously processed the knowledge, feels more than comfortable with the subject matter and can recall it as and when required.

The stretch zone is where students are accessing new information that logically follows on from what they have previously learnt.

The panic zone is an area that we as teachers all need to try to avoid at all costs. The panic zone is where an individual feels totally out of their depth and anxiety and stress levels take over. Teachers should do everything possible not to take their students into this zone for motivation will go into automatic ‘shut-down'. The main cause for students entering this zone is being presented with material well above their level, with no logical connection to what they have previously learnt. A good strategy to avoid it is to recapitulate the previous lesson's learning outcomes at the start of every new lesson or topic area.

However, it's also not best practice to keep your students in the comfort zone, for they will swiftly become bored and again their motivation will dwindle. To keep your students motivated both lesson activities and learning outcomes should be ‘pitched' in the stretch zone. The aim is then to reinforce learning until what had previously been in the stretch zone becomes embedded in the comfort zone. Therefore, ‘challenging' lessons need to be well-planned and the course material ‘fit for purpose'. Course materials also need to be appropriate for they have a large impact on what type of lessons we deliver.

From personal experiences

In our private tutor school I have a cupboard full of course-books and teacher's packs that promised me the world but have yet to see the light of day: a complete waste of money! I purchased them prior to coming to Thailand, to help me feel prepared for any situation. Unfortunately, most course-books are written for a global market and are therefore not always culturally appropriate for Thai students. (How I empathise with any English teacher told that he or she must follow a set course-book for the duration of the semester!)

My personal advice would be to take it home and then think long and hard about how you could adapt it for you and your students. Working with a ‘one-size-fits-all' course-book is setting you up to fail in regards to improving students' language acquisition. I now make all my own resources, designing them to meet my students' needs. I can modify these resources in order that they can be accessed by students of different levels and abilities. Planning is such an important part of the process, while starting off with a resource not ‘fit for purpose' is definitely a big mistake.

When planning I first consider what I want the students to have achieved by the end of the semester. I start by visualising the whole semester as a journey with a beginning, a middle and an end. Then I start to work backwards from where I want them to finish all the way back to where they'll start. My next step is to set measurable outcomes along the journey. All I need to do then is to find (or make) resources that will support the students in achieving the set outcomes. That's the part I really enjoy for it enables me to be creative.

When choosing or designing activities or resources you need to ensure that they'll inspire the students: for students to be motivated they must see the relevance in what they are doing. Meaningful and authentic activities genuinely engage students and before they know it they become so intent upon whatever they're doing that they forget their shyness (a typical trait of Thai students). The issue of meaningful and authentic activities is very important and will be covered in more depth in the chapter dedicated to Communicative Language Teaching.

Exploring the concept of 'sanook'

A large majority of Thai pupils are indeed shy, and worry about making mistakes. This is often attributed to the possibility of ‘losing face' which is deeply embedded in the Thai psyche. However, once engaged they are very enthusiastic, competitive and thoroughly enjoy themselves. The challenge for any English teacher is to design and deliver activities that really engage the students, thus increasing their motivation and combatting their shyness.

However, as I am writing this I can hear (at the back of my mind) a class of Thai students shouting, ‘Game, teacher!'. . . ‘Can we play a game, teacher? Please?'. . . Don't get me wrong: I have nothing against games as long as they're part of lesson-learning outcomes. On the other hand, playing games merely as a way of filling time is no part of my teaching philosophy. Teachers who have to do this have not planned correctly for their lesson.

I've heard many native English teachers openly state: ‘Thai students love "sanook,"' (translated ‘fun') ‘and don't really want to learn English. I just play games with them for an hour.' It seems obvious to me that these teachers either don't understand the process of teaching or else lack confidence in their own teaching ability. Wherever possible, make all your activities fun but also be aware of the learning outcomes. (Better still: share them with your students. Sharing lesson outcomes is an important part of sharing responsibility for learning.)

The importance of learning outcomes and feedback

Sharing the responsibility for learning with your students is a great motivational tool. Everyone likes to understand what they are supposed to be doing; in fact, not knowing often leads to anxiety and an increase in stress levels. Things are no different in an educational situation. How can students achieve desired learning outcomes if they don't know what they are supposed to be learning? One method I use is to write the learning outcomes on the board at the beginning of the lesson. Explain to the students what achieving the outcomes will look like. Give practical examples.

I also often spend the first five minutes of a lesson going over what we achieved in the last lesson (again, giving practical examples). I then explain what the learning outcomes are for the current lesson. For example, if I am preparing or setting a speaking test I will actually demonstrate what an ‘A' answer and a ‘B' answer to a question would look like. I believe that once students realize what's is expected of them then they can then start to share the responsibility for their own learning. This often increases their motivational levels: they become a stakeholder in the process. They are no longer a ‘passive learner' but an ‘active learner! --This is the philosophy underpinning the creation of a ‘learning-centred classroom' (discussed in the chapter on ‘good classroom management techniques').

Sharing responsibility also has a positive impact on the feedback process. When students are aware of what outcomes they're working towards they can also identify how much progress they're making. This then enables feedback to be given not only by the teacher but also by fellow pupils.

Feedback is a very important part of any social interaction and a fundamental component of the learning process. However, it needs to be managed carefully for it can have negative as well as positive connotations for learners.
Many teachers believe that feedback is best given at the end of the learning process, but I think that it needs to be continuous.

One technique I've found useful is to be constantly giving individual or group feedback as you are walking around the classroom. I also occasionally pause activities in order that I can give the entire class feedback, based on my observations. A good model to use for this is ‘traffic lights'. Red is used to signify what is preventing the activity outcomes from being achieved, yellow is used to show what is partially assisting the process and green shows what is really working well. I often draw three big coloured circles on the board, one for each of the corresponding traffic lights. I start by verbally giving feedback but I also write it inside each of the corresponding circles. Once students are familiar with this method I then start to ask them for their opinions, including their feedback inside the appropriate circle.

Student to student feedback is often referred to as ‘Peer Feedback' and can be rewarding, as long as it is correctly managed by the teacher. You need to set the ground rules and agree them with the whole class prior to undertaking any peer feedback. All peer feedback should be positive. Get students to start practicing this while you are facilitating small ‘group-work' exercises. I find this a very successful technique in our tutor school, where we have classes of around twenty, but it is a lot more difficult to manage in a class of fifty.

Feedback should be given throughout the whole of the lesson, using lesson goals. (As previously discussed it is good practice to write lesson goals at the board at the beginning of the lesson.) When all the activities have been undertaken return to those outcomes, giving the whole class feedback on how well you feel they have undertaken the activities and whether they have achieved the outcomes. You can involve the students in this process by asking them to vote on what they feel that they have achieved.

Concept checking

You can also use concept check questions (CCQs). CCQ's are closed questions, requiring only ‘yes' or ‘no' answers, based on what you wanted the students to learn. (The reason why closed questions are used is because they're easier for the students to understand and respond to. Choose students at random and of different English abilities rather than asking the same students.) The reasons underlying CCQs is twofold. Firstly to measure whether you've achieved the outcomes set for the lesson and secondly for the students to see how well they've done. There is no better feedback for learners than actually seeing and hearing the results for themselves.

To summarise: ‘how to motivate your students':

Try to be self-aware and try and to conduct oneself in a positive manner.

• Be aware of body language and tone of voice when interacting with, communicating to or teaching students

• Keep a diary log of activities undertaken, with notes on outcomes.

• Ensure when you planning lessons that you take motivation into consideration.

• Make your lessons meaningful, creative and authentic.

• Share your desired outcomes with your students to inspire a shared responsibility for learning.

• Take every opportunity to give feedback to your students and (where possible) to enable positive student-to-student feedback.


Looks like an insightful textbook. Couldn't agree more on keeping students out of the panic zone and keeping a positive demeanor.

By Mike, Aus (12th October 2015)

I love what you are saying here, it makes perfect sense to me but of course we share a grounding in informal education methodology. I especially liked the way you make the learning outcomes very clear to your students which is diametrically different to mainstream education, how many of us still ask ourselves "what was geometry/algebra/all those details about artesian wells FOR?" I also love that mainstay of youth work - Conscious use of self - as the starting point in your lessons, Yes how many times have I at and filled myself with positive energy before walking into a youth work session. How many workers have I seen project their own emotional state into such a session by not being aware of their impact? And I like the stress you put on knowing your pupils, a secret known to all good teachers and a sure way to success.Good luck with the book you have done so well I hope others can gain from your experience .


Best wishes

By jill rodger, sykehouse south yorks (9th August 2014)


Thank you for taking the time to respond and clarify your direction for the book. As Jason suggests, I think it might be a good idea to create a section dedicated to further reading for anyone who is interested in learning more.

All the best,


By Greg , USA (5th August 2014)

Hi Andy,

I really enjoyed reading the short piece you were kind enough to share with us and will certainly have my eyes peeled for it once it is published. What you have shown us so far aligns very well with current research in educational psychology and I am very interested to see what approaches you will highlight with regard to L2 acquisition. I admire that you have elected to follow a personal view as you write your book as opposes to an academic view. I think, this will help to make your work more accessible and relevant to the majority of teachers working in Thailand. I would like to mention that, since you have chosen not to overfill your pages with citations and references, I believe many of your readers would appreciate it if you could include a brief list of further readings for some of the topics you cover for those who wish to delve a little deeper. Other than that, I look forward to reading your finished product.


By Jason, Bangkok (4th August 2014)

Hi Gregg

Thank you for taking the time to read the article (chapter) and especially commenting. In regards to your point on referencing I have tried to ensure that the book does not become too academic. The book is predominantly based on my experience and practice, within the classroom, over the past 25 years. The introduction for the book clearly outlines this (I appreciate you have not had site of this.)

When I decided to write this book I though long and hard on what approach I wanted to take. Would the book be academic or more based on my experience? I chose the latter.

I totally agree that by referencing my ideas would give them more credability but many of them are my own. I am sure they have been influenced by other theories and concepts which I could find a source for and then reference. This for me, would not produce the type of book I want to write. I aim to reference when I discuss other people's work but will not apply this principle when discussing my own concepts.

The other chapters have lots of examples of how I have addressed certain issues when teaching and what techniques I have developed and how I have applied them.

Thank you once again for your kind comments and useful feedback.
Take care

By Andy, Udon Thani (4th August 2014)


If I could offer you any advice, it would be to include more research based best practices for teaching in the ESOL classroom. You cover some good points, but you need to support them with research in order to increase your credibility on the topic. I look forward to reading the final version.

All the best,

Greg Duggan M.S.Ed.

By Greg, USA (3rd August 2014)

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