Motivating ESL Students

If your students aren't motivated to participate in your lessons, it doesn't matter how amazing your lesson plans are. Therefore, motivating ESL students is just as important as preparing high-quality lessons. "But that's not my job," you might say. "If they aren't motivated, that isn't my fault." True, true, but it doesn't take much to give students a push in the right direction.

Motivating ESL Students Motivating ESL Students

Of course, we can't control other people's attitudes, but what we can do as teachers is provide an environment in which students feel safe and successful.

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Giving Opportunities for Success

Imagine you are in a foreign country. Everything is hard because you don't understand the system. Things as basic as going to the post office or figuring out how to get to the mall can take all day and almost feel not worth the effort. One Indian student barely ate for the first month he was in the United States because he didn't know which foods in the grocery store were vegetarian.

When this kind of difficulty typifies your life, any success is a big success. Therefore, as teachers, it is our job to facilitate success for our students because once you taste it, you will work hard to taste it again.

How to Build Success

Here are a few tips to build success in your classroom:

  • As students are working, walk around the classroom and chat with them about their work, making notes of which students have a firm grasp on which concepts or which students have correct answers to each question.
  • When you go over the work together, call on students you know will provide sound responses.
  • Praise each student for his/her correct answer.

Using Talents to Build Success

Providing opportunities for students to show off their special talents can make them feel successful. For example:

  • If you're working on giving instructions or using imperative verbs, let your students demonstrate a skill they have for the class, explaining as they go.
  • One student taught her class how to fold a fitted sheet, and when she was finished with this simple household task, the class applauded because it was the neatest folded fitted sheet they had ever seen.
  • Arranging flowers, changing the oil in a car, making a salad, wrapping a gift, playing a video game, boiling an egg, or setting a table are all activities students can demonstrate and explain.

The explaining part might take some work, but when the students are already comfortable with the activity, half the work is done.

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Showing Special Abilities to Build Success

Your students can show off their special abilities and feel successful if they can participate in group activities without having to produce much language. For example:

  • If a student can draw, let him illustrate the story that the group is writing.
  • If a student has beautiful handwriting, let him be the group's secretary.
  • If a student is a creative thinker, let her come up with ideas for how to use a broken umbrella, a colander, a calculator and a teddy bear in a skit.

Making Things Fun

Sometimes, things just aren't fun. But most of the time, our expectations have a lot to do with how fun things are.

One teacher, for example, was teaching a grammar/writing class to university students, and when it was time to work on argumentative essays, she set up a class debate on a hot topic to get them thinking along the right lines. The students thought it was boring and didn't engage.

The same teacher did the same exercise in a speaking class, however, and it was a huge success.

There are so many factors that go into the success or failure of a lesson plan that it's hard to say why one class engaged in this teacher's activity and the other didn't, but never underestimate student expectations.

Mold Expectations Starting on Day 1

Making things fun, then, is more an exercise in molding expectations than anything else, and it has to start on the first day. If the first day is fun, the students will expect every day to be fun, and when they expect fun, they find it even when they're working hard and the work is not terribly exciting.

So, on the first day of class:

  • Get students involved.
  • Get students up and moving.
  • Help students get to know each other.
  • Help students get to know you.
  • Give students an easy, creative project to do in groups.
  • Give out small prizes (if possible).
  • Give students a voice.
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Offering Encouragement

Chocolate can be very motivating, but a positive voice speaking into a student's life has a longer-lasting effect on his/her motivation. Finding something positive to say about a student's work might not always be easy; but, it could be just the thing that student needs at that moment to keep trying.

If they can't get present perfect verbs right to save their lives, but their handwriting has drastically improved, or they're finally putting the -s ending on third person singular present simple verbs, or they can now spell "mayonnaise" correctly, or their pronunciation is perfect, just a little encouragement might go a long way toward motivating your ESL students.