Phil Roeland

How to motivate students

Keys to improving language learning

motivate (verb)
• to cause someone to behave in a particular way
• to make someone want to do something well

motivation (noun)
• enthusiasm for doing something

Improving student motivation is one of the keys to improve education in general and language learning in particular. Let me explore some possible avenues as to how exactly students can be motivated. I am aware that many articles have already been published on this topic, but I’ll put in my two cents/pennies/satang anyway; if there is any repetition, please fast-forward.

Research has shown that average students who are well-motivated usually do better than excellent students who are not. Motivation is important if we want students to exploit their capabilities to the fullest. Remember that in real life as well, there usually – if not always - has to be some kind of motivation, a purpose or an incentive for people to do something, be it learning English, enrolling in a cooking class or going swimming.

Motivation can either be internal or external. 

Internal motivation

Students who are internally motivated usually learn English because they want to, because they enjoy learning or because they want to achieve a certain goal, not because they have to. Examples of personal goals could be pursuing a promotion at work or planning to enrol in a foreign university’s graduate programme.

Goals can be more general as well: some people just want to be able to speak better English with friends or colleagues, write e-mails to pen pals, read interesting articles on the Internet or be able to travel the world without always having to rely on tourist guides or talking dictionaries. Most students who are internally motivated tend to be adults.

Few children or teenagers have the internal motivation adults have, which is not really surprising. 

Have you ever heard an eight-year old say ‘I want to learn English so I can find a good job when I graduate and make lots of money?’ I haven’t. When you ask children or even teenagers why they are studying English (or any other foreign language), they’ll more often than not say (or think) ‘because my parents want me to’, ‘because I have to’ or ‘I have no idea’.

I admit that some give better reasons such as ‘because I like (sic)’, ‘because it important (sic)’ or ‘because I want to speak English very good (sic)’. 

In my experience, these replies don’t necessarily prove the student is internally motivated, especially not in Thailand; students usually just want to please their teacher by giving these answers. I sometimes have to refrain from replying ‘Well if you like it that much, why the hell don’t you try a bit harder?’

External motivation

External motivation means that there is an outside factor giving students a reason to learn English. For adults, this could mean that their boss or company expects them to brush up their English (or face the axe) or that they need a certain TOEIC score in order to be considered for a bonus. 

Especially for adults, internal and external motivation often overlaps. For children, it is usually their parents or teachers who provide stimuli for motivation.

Getting students motivated just by the power of persuasion is quite difficult. Thus, parents and teachers alike often use reward or punishment to motivate students. Here are some examples:

(Loving parents talking)

If you get good grades,

- we’ll go to KFC every day. (this makes not only students, but also Colonel Sanders happy; it also assures doctors' future employment thanks to obesity and clogged arteries)

- we’ll buy you a new computer game. (with illegally copied games to keep Thailand on the Priority Watch List)

- you’ll get your dinner every night. (a bit more old-fashioned, I admit, but food is extremely important to Thais)

(Strict parents talking)

If you fail or do worse than the neighbours’ kids,

- Santa won’t come this year. (only works with kids under 15)

- we’ll have you do exercise. (every couch potato’s nightmare)

- we’ll start calling you Buffalo. (only works in Thailand)

(Caring teacher talking)

If you do your best and cooperate well,

- your parents will be proud of you. (a long shot, I admit)

- we’ll play a (language) game after the break. (kids love games)

- I’ll buy everyone pizza at the end of the term. (budget wisely)

(Fed-up teacher talking)

If you keep mucking about,

- I’ll have teacher Somchai cane you. (it's outlawed, but who cares)

- I’ll confiscate your mobile phone and computer games. (ouch!)

- I’ll tell your parents. (only works with strict parents)

- I’ll send you to the principal. (annoys them both)

There are of course other techniques in order to make students – willingly or unwillingly – cooperate more. Here are a few ideas:

- Simple oral praise in the classroom.

- Giving a 'thumbs-up' when answering correctly.

- Stars or positive comments in workbooks or notebooks.

- For smaller groups, wall charts or whiteboard-based systems for keeping track of students' cooperation and effort (e.g. Students' names with smiley faces or ticks for positive participation, sad faces or crosses for disruptions or laziness; possible prize for the best student at the end of the term).

Although I am based in Thailand, I have no reason to think that lack of motivation is typically Thai. It can be found in EFL classrooms around the world. In Thailand however, the lack of motivation seems to be more ingrained and tougher to stamp out. This could be due to the no-fail policy, which ensures students graduate no matter how good or bad their English is or how lazy they are.

Also, many Thais – especially children and teenagers – don’t see any reason why they should speak English. 

As said before, they know a foreign teacher can’t fail them, so they feel untouchable. On top of that, many of them have absolutely no desire to go abroad or to speak to foreigners if they can avoid it. All foreign TV programmes are dubbed in Thai and cinemas provide either dubbed or subtitled versions of most films.

Although I’ve been somewhat pessimistic, I’d like to end on an optimistic note. I do think it is possible to motivate students, even in Thailand. 

I am certain that the enthusiasm and creativity shown by many teachers eventually rubs of on learners, well, at least to a certain extent and if not on all, then at least on some students. 

We teachers can only do so much. As the saying goes, you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.


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