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How would you define 'motivation'?  Think for a moment and then click for a definition.

This is not a guide to psychology.  The area of motivation in that field has been extensively researched for many years and there are numerous theories of motivation, many of which have a direct influence on teaching and education.  Here, we will only discuss a few of the main theories which seem most applicable to English Language Teaching.
Numerous studies have shown that not only the amount but also the type of motivation is a key factor in language-learning success.


Three types of motivation

In this guide we are concerned with three distinct areas of motivation:

Global motivation
referring to the learners' overall reasons for learning English
Institutional motivation
referring to the learners' responses to the setting in which they are learning
Task motivation
referring to the learners' reactions to activities and procedures they are asked to do in the classroom (or outside it)


Global motivation


Gardner and Lambert: four fundamental ideas

For these investigators, four main types of motivation are important.

Instrumental motivation
refers to learning a language in order to gain another goal.  For some, e.g., learning English may enhance their job prospects and open up new career opportunities.
Integrative motivation
refers to the motivation to learn a language stemming from a desire to integrate into an English-speaking culture.  This doesn't just apply to people moving into an English-speaking society; it may apply to anyone who has an affinity with English-speaking cultures of one sort or another.
Intrinsic motivation
springs from within the learner.  Some people actually enjoy the process of acquiring and using a new language.  Gardner and Lambert concluded that this form of motivation was more powerful than ...
Extrinsic motivation
comes from outside the learner and may be the promise of a reward or the threat of a sanction.  Gardner and Lambert concluded that the intangibility of rewards and threat made this a less powerful factor.

It's important to note here that a) these definitions may overlap and b) that individuals often have a mix of motivations and it's unwise to assign just one sort to each learner.

read think 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 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.

think This is a slightly harder task.
Can you assign these comments from learners to each (or a mix of) the four categories?  When you have an answer, click for a commentary.
  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.
  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.  Click on the image when you have an answer.



Acculturation theory

Acculturation theory is associated with the work of Schumann (1986) and is mostly concerned with non-instructional settings, those in which the learner is acquiring rather than learning the language in Krashen's dichotomy.
It has a good deal in common with theories of integrative motivation which we have seen above so it does not get a major section to itself.
It is asserted that success in learning depends on a variety of factors:

  1. How much the learner wants to communicate with speakers of the target language
  2. The availability of opportunities to do so
  3. The degree to which the learner wishes to integrate with the target language community

In turn, these factors are influenced by other, mostly social, factors which include:

As you can see, most of acculturation theory concerns integrative and instrumental motivation and should be seen in that light. 


Abraham Maslow

If you plan on being anything less than you are capable of being, you will probably be unhappy all the days of your life

Back in 1943, Abraham Maslow proposed his 'Hierarchy of Needs' and asserted that until needs at lower levels are satisfied, those at the next highest level can't be addressed.  Levels 1 to 4 are described as 'deficit needs'.  So, e.g., if you are hungry and in need of sleep, you can't focus on desires for self esteem and so on.  The hierarchy can be represented like this.

maslow Self-actualisation needs are described as: Truth, individuality, realising one’s own unique capabilities, ‘being who I really am’, achieving goals related to a sense of purpose, becoming fully human, everything that a person can become.
Esteem needs are: Self respect, reputation, status, feelings of strength, independence, adequacy and importance to others.
Belonging and love needs are: Family, friendship, a place in a group, a sense of identity, social approval.
Safety needs are: Stability, order, shelter, freedom from fear, freedom from chaos and freedom from pain.
Physiological needs include: Air, water, food, sleep, shelter, procreation.

This has obvious classroom implications.  If learners are feeling threatened (a safety need) and excluded (a belonging and love need) then they are unlikely to be able to focus on realizing their own potential.


Expectancy Theory

A different understanding of motivation has been put forward by Victor Vroom.  Vroom's work was focused primarily on a workplace environment and concerned with how people are best managed in order to get the most positive outcomes.  Whether it is relevant to language-learning settings is in some dispute but many believe it offers a simple and satisfying explanation for how people reach decisions and what will encourage them to work better.
Essentially, Vroom identifies a relationship between:

  1. Valence: the value attached to an outcome.  In our case,
        How much do you value learning English?
  2. Expectancy: the individual's ability to achieve the goals set.  In our case,
        Do you believe you can successfully learn English this way?
  3. Instrumentality: the likelihood that the effort will be rewarded with a successful outcome.  In our case,
        Do you believe the learning you are doing will help you to use English successfully?

The theory can be represented like this:



These are, according to the theory, measurable.

  1. Valence can be measured on a scale of -1 (highly undesirable) to +1 (highly desirable).
  2. Expectancy can be measured on a scale of 0 (the effort will NOT lead to the performance) to 1 (the effort will certainly lead to the performance).
  3. Instrumentality can be measured on a scale of –1 (the performance will certainly not lead to the outcomes) to +1 (the performance will certainly lead to the outcomes).

Behaviour is then determined by the subjective evaluation of the strength of the correlation between: EFFORT, PERFORMANCE and OUTCOME.
Motivational Force = Expectancy x Instrumentality x Valence


Influencing global motivation

It is often averred that neither the teacher nor the institution can influence global motivation to any great degree.  After all, the idea of global motivation is the motivation that the learners bring from outside.
That's not always the case.


Institutional motivation

This is the name often given to the fact that learners can also be motivated by their surroundings.

Teachers often conclude that there really is nothing they can do about how their learners feel about where they are studying and the facilities which are available to them.  Of course, if you are an academic or school manager, there most certainly are things that you can do.

Boring, dark or uncomfortable classrooms do not help people to learn.  There are a number of things we can all do to increase institutional motivation.  For example:
  1. Make the classroom bright and welcoming.
    1. If the walls are bare and dun-coloured, disguise them with posters, pictures and examples of the learners' work (having that put on the wall is often a motivating factor in itself).
    2. Don't ask people to work in the gloom.  If you have lights, use them.
    3. Make sure that the seating arrangements suit the type of lesson.  For more on this, see the guide to classroom organisation (new tab).  Are the sight lines right?  Can everyone see what they need to see?  Can everyone hear clearly? and so on.
      It is very frustrating and demotivating to be asked to do things in an environment that hinders you.
  2. maintain a positive attitude yourself and don't complain about your school in front of your learners (complain to the boss, instead!)
    1. Which would motivate you?
      The photocopier isn't working too well so I'm sorry about the streaks.  We are working on it and it will be OK tomorrow.
      The photocopier isn't working too well and they haven't done anything about it yet so I'm sorry about the streaks.  What can we do?
    2. If you are an academic or school manager, what sources of complaint have the teachers got?  Do they transmit these to the learners or are there other, more positive, ways of bringing it to your attention?
  3. make handouts and materials colourful and attractive
    1. It is not very motivating to be handed a hand-written text which you can barely read.  It is motivating and reassuring to receive well-written, attractive handouts which can form the basis of a record of what you have learned.  This also increases task motivation (see below).
    2. If you are a teacher, make sure that what you give people is attractive, accurate and fit for purpose.
    3. If you are a school manager or academic manager, establish an in-house style which ensures that what people receive in class and work on at home looks professional and well prepared.
  4. Remember Maslow's third level in the Hierarchy of Needs and make sure
    1. that your learners know about each other's lives
    2. that the learners respect (or at least tolerate) each other's opinions and feelings
    3. that all participants feel part of a group not part of a group of individuals

There is, in fact, a good deal that teachers can do to influence institutional motivation, isn't there?


Task motivation

This is the area over which the teacher has the most control, of course.

  1. Making tasks and exercises enjoyable and challenging can increase people's motivation to do them.  The theory is that the more they commit to the task, the better they will learn.
    1. 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
    2. using tasks which are either too easy or too difficult demotivates.  The first because it leads to boredom, the second because it leads to anxiety and frustration
  2. Personalising tasks of all kinds can help people to get engaged and learn more: personalisation → engagement
    1. 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
    2. using the target language or skill in a role play in which you pretend to someone you are not can be reassuring and safe but being yourself in that situation can be involving and memorable
  3. Responding to learners' contributions is a key teaching skill.
    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.
    3. Don't ask impossible questions such as "Do you think hunting is right?  Why?"  With no time for preparation and no warning or context, all of us would struggle to answer questions like that.
      See the guide to asking questions (new tab) for more.
  4. Setting the level of cognitive challenge.  This is not the same as selecting materials which are at the right level for the learners.  It involves knowing what is being required of them in terms of thinking skills.  Set this level too low and a task becomes dull and predictable, set it too high and the learners may be frustrated and fail to make connections between new data and data they already control.  Either will reduce the level of task motivation.  There is a guide, linked below, to an influential approach to cognitive challenge initiated by Bloom and others in the middle of the 20th century.  Very briefly,
    1. Level 1: remembering
      This involves simply the ability to recall a fact.
    2. Level 2: understanding
      This involves some deeper thought to get to grips with a fact.
    3. Level 3: applying
      This involves using knowledge and understanding to make a decision about action.
    4. Level 4: analysing
      This requires the application of levels 1 to 3 and then going on to breaking things down into constituents to understand fully what is happening.
    5. Level 5: evaluating
      This involves using all the processes in levels 1 to 4 and judging how well, for example, one's use of language measures up to the models with which one has been presented.
    6. Level 6: creating
      This is the most demanding level of all because it requires the use of the previous 5 levels in order to synthesise data into a new and original work.

    For a more detailed consideration of Bloom's taxonomy and its various revisions, see the guide, linked below.

  5. 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.
    1. 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.
    2. Focusing on topics beyond the learners' experiences is often a demotivating and off-putting exercise.  Topics in coursebooks try to avoid this kind of thing, of course, which is why they are so bland and uninteresting
    3. Choosing topics about which you know your learners have views, is, however, a motivating and intriguing experience.  Don't shy away from the controversial or important.


Here's a summary but, although the various parts are in separate boxes, that does not mean that they are not operating together.


You have shown a good deal of motivational force getting this far but there is, of course, a short test.

Related guides
humanism in ELT for more on how motivation may be enhanced by considering the whole learner
Krashen and the Natural Approach for more on affective influences on the motivation to learn
unlocking learning this is a guide in the Delta section which considers motivation and three other theories
Blooms' taxonomy for more help in recognising and applying challenge in terms of cognitive load
alternative methodologies for more on some techniques which may raise motivation through innovation

Gardner, RC, & Lambert, WE, 1972, Attitudes and motivation in second language learning, Rowley, MA: Newbury House
Schumann, J, 1986, Research on the acculturation model for L2 acquisition, Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development, Vol 7/5
Vroom, VH, 1964, Work and Motivation, New York: McGraw Hill