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Concourse 2

An essential guide to Motivation

donkey  +  carrot


What is motivation?

the willingness to expend effort

This is not a guide to psychology.
What motivates people has been researched for many years and there are lots of theories of motivation.
Here, we will only discuss a few of the main theories applicable to English Language Teaching.  The key text in this area is Gardner and Lambert (1972).
Numerous studies have shown that not only the amount but also the type of motivation is a key factor in language-learning success.

There is a guide on this site which will tell you more about motivation.  Here we will only discuss the essentials.


Global motivation

Why am I here?

Read these statements from learners of English and think about the different reasons they have for learning English.

I'm learning English to get a better job.
I don't enjoy it very much but I know that I will need to be able to speak English if I want to start a new career as a journalist.
Learning English is sometimes boring but I keep at it because I really want a new career.
learner 3
I love learning English!  It's fun to speak another language properly and I can read novels and watch films in English, too, and that's great.
I really enjoy all my lessons and work hard at learning vocabulary and grammar.
The more I learn, the happier I am.
learner 2
I'm learning English because I have just moved to America and I want to make friends and be part of the society.
I need to work here and I have to fit in.
I like learning the language because it helps me understand the culture and I can have conversations with neighbours and make friends.
learner 4
I'm learning English because my commanding officer told me to.
I don't really know why but I have to do what I am told because I'm in the air force.
There's a lot of pressure on me so I try to work as hard as I can.
think Task 1: Here are the four types of motivation explained.  Can you put the pictures to the descriptions?
Click on the eye open to show the picture and the name.
This type of motivation describes ... ... this learner's reason for learning
Instrumental motivation
the motivation comes from wanting to learn English to do something else, in the same way that people learn to use a computer in order to send emails, make a website or write documents.

eye open
learner1This is Ingrid's motivation.
She is learning English in order to do something else.  Her goal is not English, it's a new job.
English is just a tool she uses, like a computer or a pen.  She has to learn the language if she wants to make progress in her professional life
Extrinsic motivation
comes from outside the learner and may be the promise of something good (more money, a better position etc.) or the threat of something bad (losing your job, being demoted etc.).
eye open
learner 4This is Cary's motivation.
If he doesn't learn English he will be in trouble with the air force and he must obey orders.
He has to learn English but may have no real idea when or if he will use it.
Intrinsic motivation
comes from inside the learner.
Some people enjoy the process of acquiring and using a new language.
eye open
learner 3This is Audrey's motivation.
She may not have any use for English but she just enjoys learning a new language and having access to some of the culture of English.
She does not need English but she wants it.
Integrative motivation
the motivation to learn a language comes from wanting to be part of a society.
It may apply to people who are moving into an English-speaking society, even if they are only staying a short time.

eye open
learner 2This is Jimmy's motivation.
He wants to integrate into American society and he needs to be able to speak, read, write and understand English to do that.
Many immigrants will have this kind of motivation.
He has to learn English if he is going to be happy in America.


Is it as simple as that?

Most learners have a mixture of motivations, not just one type.

think Task 2: Read these statements from learners and decide what sort of motivations they have.  When you have an answer, click for some comments.
  1. I need to learn English because my company wants me to represent them in South Africa and I'll have to live there as well as do business with people.  Of course, it means a promotion for me.
  2. I am studying to take Cambridge First Certificate because my father has said it will help me in future.  He's paying after all!
  3. If I don't learn better English I'm likely to lose my job in the next round of cuts.  But if I do learn English, I may be able to leave and do something more interesting.
  4. I enjoy learning the language and it gives me access to American culture and books in English.  It'll also be useful in my career.

Try putting each learner's number on this grid.  While you are there, try it for your own learners in a class you are teaching now.  If you have learned English or any other language as a foreign language, where do you come on the grid?
Click on the grid when you have an answer.



Motivation in the classroom

So far, we have discussed what is called people's global motivation for learning: their general reasons for learning.
In the classroom, we can also affect motivation by what we do and how we work.

  1. Task motivation
    Making tasks and exercises enjoyable and challenging can increase people's motivation to do them.  The more they commit to the task, the better they will learn.
    For example, reading a letter from someone you don't know addressed to someone you don't know is not very interesting but reading a letter from your teacher addressed to you is immediately more interesting for you because it is personal.
    Personalising tasks of all kinds can help people to get engaged and learn more.
    For example, writing a description of a person in a picture practises some language skills but writing a description of a classmate, a friend or member of your own family practises the same skill in a more personal and interesting way.
    It is especially important for younger learners that task motivation is kept high because young learners often do not respond to very long-term goals.
    Telling a young learner that English will help them get a better job in 5 years' time is not very motivating for them so they need to be challenged by and enjoy what they are doing right now.
    Personalisation → engagement
  2. Institutional motivation
    This is the name often given to the fact that learners can also be motivated by their surroundings.  Boring, dark or uncomfortable classrooms do not help people to learn.  There are a number of things we can do to increase institutional motivation.  For example:
    1. make the classroom bright and welcoming
    2. put learners' work on the walls to show that it is valued
    3. maintain a positive attitude yourself and don't complain about your school in front of your learners (complain to the boss, instead!)
    4. make handouts and materials colourful and attractive
  3. Responding to learners
    1. Which do you want to hear?
      No, that's wrong.  The right answer is ...
      Well, that's not quite right.  Let's see if we can improve it.
      Yes.  Good.  Next?
      Yes that's right!  What an interesting idea!
      It is not difficult to choose, is it?
    2. Which do you want to see?
      I have underlined all your mistakes in red and put cross by them.  4/10 overall.
      I have put a tick by all the good things you write but there are some quite important mistakes and we'll go through them in class tomorrow.  Well done!

      Again, it's not difficult to choose.

self test

Self-test questions

Try these questions.

Related guides
how learning happens for the guide to some major theories of learning and what else can affect success
feedback to see how the type feedback which is given can affect how error is handled and motivation
motivation for the more detailed guide in the in-service section
task types for a guide to the types of task that you can set

Gardner, RC, & Lambert, WE, 1972, Attitudes and motivation in second language learning, Rowley, MA: Newbury House