Motivating Language Learners Through a Variety of Activities
Updated: Jan 21
Living in different countries as well as learning and teaching several languages to a variety of students from different nationalities has motivated me to reflect on my own experience as both a language learner and instructor. One of the aspects I strongly remember is that when I was learning English, for example, I felt very comfortable and motivated to learn when my teachers created an environment where all students could interact with each other, could express their ideas with respect and were given enough opportunities to have an active role in their own learning process. I felt I could learn not only from the teacher, but also from my classmates. In other words, I felt part of a community where I had an important role and was motivated to learn. For these reasons, I think that one of the tools teachers can use to motivate language learners is by creating a sense of community in the classroom, which I believe can be achieved by the use of meaningful activities that motivate students to start or continue learning a foreign language.
Figure 1. Learning community (Google Images, n.d.)
In my experience as a language learner, motivation was what encouraged me to continue learning a language and that is why I believe that motivation is a key factor when learning a language. Therefore, I feel it is important to pay attention to what motivates language learners in the classroom. According to Wang (2006) “the motivated learners are usually more active in learning, while unmotivated learners are more likely to cause classroom disturbances” (Wang, 2006, p. 32); however, I think that it is worthwhile for teachers to focus and try to motivate both types of learners. Why? Because both types of students deserve the same attention and I believe it is possible to motivate those unmotivated learners who are willing to cooperate and keep motivated those students who are already motivated.
According to Dornyei (2003) second language “is a learnable school subject in that discrete elements of the communication code (e.g. grammatical rules and lexical items) can be taught explicitly, it is also socially and culturally bound, which makes learning a deeply social event” (p.4). His statement shows how the linguistic view has shifted towards a more social direction, which is related to the motivational renaissance in the 1990’s where researchers realized that “the classroom environment and the contextual surroundings of action had a strong motivational influence” (Dornyei, 2003, p. 11). Researchers noticed that what happens in the classroom, for example, the interaction between the teacher and the students and the students themselves as well as the type of activities that allow interaction and learning influence language learners’ motivation. Thus, researchers started to pay more attention to the course-specific motivation components such as the relevance of the teaching materials, interest in the tasks and the appropriateness of the teaching method. Another aspect that was given attention is the teacher-specific motivational components, for example, teacher’s personality, behaviour and style (Dornyei, 2003).
In my opinion, the teacher plays a very important role in students’ motivation. For example, in my experience as a language learner, I found that teachers who were approachable, charismatic, open to students’ ideas, needs and suggestions and had a positive attitude towards teaching, were great motivators. As a result, I felt engaged in class and enjoyed learning. In contrast, those language teachers who made me feel intimidated and scared due to their teaching style and personality decreased my level of motivation. For these reasons, I agree with Savignon (1997) that “language teaching requires a sense of community – an environment of trust and mutual confidence wherein learners may interact without fear or threat of failure” (p. 122). Following the above, another aspect that is important to consider in terms of motivation is the group-specific motivational components, for instance, cohesiveness, goal-orientedness and the group norms that take place in the classroom. Therefore, the relationship among the students themselves and how they feel in the classroom also influence language learners’ motivation. A good way to summarize the previous aspects is by using Wajnryb’s (1992) idea “learners who are ‘engaged’ by the lesson – by the teacher, the materials, the tasks, the activities – are more likely to have that learning make an impact on them” (p. 34), which also reflects the complexity of the motivational process in the language classroom as well as the challenging task that teachers have.
It has been found that people vary greatly in the ways they learn a language (Skehan, 1989). Therefore, the most frequent question that comes to my mind when talking about motivation and when observing my students in class is; How can I teach and motivate 30 students with different ages, backgrounds, needs, interests and learning styles in the same classroom? It has not been easy to find an answer to such a question. However, one of the tools that has helped me to do so is the use of different activities that take into account the previous aspects, for example, role-plays. Oxford and Lavine (1992) argue that “classroom instruction can provide a wide range of motivating activities that will work well with all learning styles” (p. 47) and I think that language instructors can balance their classroom activities gearing different parts of the lesson to different learning styles.
I believe that students’ different learning styles provide teachers with opportunities to develop new strategies and techniques, which helps teachers be better educators. Also, this makes language teachers’ work more interesting and challenging. That is one of the reasons why I think that being a teacher is one of the professions that always allows for both professional and personal growth because teachers have the opportunity to learn about their students and themselves continuously which makes teaching and learning a reciprocal process.
It is said that classrooms should be workshops full of ardent activity and I think that by following Comenius’ (1670 cited in Pennycook, 1989) principles to improve student motivation that can be possible. He suggests that (a) the teacher should be lively and interesting, (b) presentations should be brief, (c) examples should be concrete, (d) students should always be active, (e) activities must be useful and relevant, (f) there should be variety in every class, and (g) games should be used. Comenius also suggests having students working together and using role-plays, dialogues and sketches. In addition, he suggests the integration of language teaching with other parts of the curriculum. I consider that these suggestions can give teachers excellent ideas about how to improve language learners’ motivation.
According to Wajnryb (1992), activities may involve “thinking, feeling, acting, moving about, prioritising, ranking, making judgements, negotiating, interacting with others and consulting other sources of information” (p. 34). By using activities that involve such aspects, I think students can develop their language skills, but also learn about themselves through the interaction with others. In addition, activities can help teachers familiarize themselves with their students better. Kumashiro (2004) states that “it is certainly important that teachers try to know their students, know their subjects, and know how to teach” (p. 7). I believe that when teachers know their students, it is easier for them to get learners involved in the material and activities of their lesson and they know how to teach and approach each individual. My main point in this essay is to emphasize the importance of using different types of activities, for example, both written and interactive and not just one type. By using a variety of activities, I think that the opportunities for language learning and motivation to take place are higher. For example, I suggest the use of interactive activities such as role playing and games because they “serve the purpose of teaching everyday language, and they also make learning fun” (Meetu, 2008, p. 7). Role-playing also serves the following objectives giving a chance to put knowledge into live practice, bringing a confidence and self assurance and practicing appropriate vocabulary and correct sentence formation (Meetu, 2008), so interactive activities should always take place in the language classroom.
Figure 2. Students conversing (Google Images, n.d.)
I also suggest using written activities such as fill-in-the-blank exercises, definitions, true-false activities, etc. (Oxford and Lavine, 1992). Nowadays, written activities might be considered “old fashioned”; however, they also meet the needs of certain learning styles. When I was a language learner, I noticed that teachers tended to focus on written activities when having students practice the target language. By doing so, I think instructors only met the needs of certain students. As a result, the needs of students who preferred interactive activities were not satisfied. Consequently, some students felt unmotivated and left out, which is how I felt when I did not have the opportunity to practice the target language through interactive activities. Therefore, now that I have the opportunity to be a language instructor and have had a variety of students with different learning styles and needs, my idea about the importance of using a variety of activities has been reinforced. Since “language learning does not occur as a result of the transmission of facts about language or from a succession of rote memorization drills” (Walqui, 2004, p. 19), it is important to give students enough opportunities to use the target language through meaningful interaction with their classmates. Students should learn the language by using it, not by memorizing it.
Freire (2002), in his Pedagogy of the Oppressed, describes teacher’s talk about reality as if “it were motionless, static, compartmentalized and predictable” (p. 71). He also argues that the teacher’s task, according to the banking concept of education, is to “fill” the students with the contents of narration – contents which are detached from reality. In addition, Freire (2002) points out that the teacher controls students’ thinking and action and inhibits creative power. The teacher is the oppressor and the student is the oppressed. In my opinion, it is possible to change such a concept of education by giving students the opportunity to take an active role in their learning process. One way to do so, in language learning and in the teaching of any subject, can be the use of activities where students can establish a respectful dialogue with their teacher (Freire, 2002) and classmates. Also, I think that activities that promote students’ use of creativity and give them enough opportunities to express their ideas, thoughts, hopes and desires can make learning a process in which all grow (Freire, 2002) and can also stimulate students’ motivation.
It is important to remember that “no teaching method is suggested for any one teacher, for any one class, or for any one individual. The teacher should be cognizant of current trends and innovative techniques in foreign desired goals” (Grittner, 1990, p. 26). Since there is no “one true theory” (Grittner, 1990, p.38), method or technique, I believe that language instructors should be open to new methods and techniques. Also, they should be aware that the variables to confront throughout their profession are many and might change from one class to another. Also, I think that teachers should decide where they want their students to go and then use whatever helps them to get there.
The Ups and Downs of Motivation
Figure 3. Picture of roller coaster (Google Images, n.d.)
Because learning a language is a long process, students might experience the ups and downs of motivation, that is, “the ongoing changes of motivation over time” (Dornyei, 2003, p. 18). According to Dornyei (2003), “motivation shows different characteristics depending on what stage the individual has reached in pursuing a goal” (p. 18), so I think teachers should not panic when they observe that their students’ motivation has diminished. I am not saying that they should ignore such a situation, but that teachers should understand that demotivation is also part of the L2 learning process. Instead of panicking, I suggest teachers look for new methods or activities that can help students maintain or increase their motivation.
As Richards and Rodgers (2001) state, the contextual factors in which teaching and learning occur are also important, for example, “the cultural context, the political context, the local institutional context, and the context constituted by the teachers and learners in their classroom” (Richards & Rodgers, 2001, p. 248). Thus, these factors influence the teacher’s performance in the classroom, for example, their tendency to use certain types of activities or their way to motivate students. For instance, I have heard that at the beginning of a language course, there are teachers who are told to use the textbook and its prescribed activities in class as much as possible, which I disagree with. I like to think of the textbook as one of the many resources I can use in the language class, not as the only one. For this reason, I agree with Richards and Rodgers (2001) that the contextual factors in L2 teaching also affect what teachers do in the classroom; however, teachers are also responsible for adapting the materials to their students’ context.
I feel that language teaching and learning can and should be fun because a language shapes both how we understand and how we negotiate our world, learning a second language produces a deep awareness of difference (linguistic and cultural) while at the same time providing bridges to move across those differences (The Report of the LSA Foreign Language Review Committee, 2004). Therefore, I consider language learning and teaching valuable and not synonymous with boredom. I think that the use of the appropriate activities in the language classroom can be one of the tools that can make learning meaningful, successful and motivating not only for young language learners, but all in general.
In conclusion, I believe that motivation in the teaching and learning process is fundamental. Therefore, teachers should try to motivate their students, at least those who are willing to cooperate in their learning process. Also, teachers should not get unmotivated for those students who might never be motivated despite what the teacher does. The use of different activities should take place in the classroom to increase the possibilities to respond to students’ different learning styles and needs. Language learners’ motivation is a step-by-step, lesson-by-lesson process. “Such a process may seem tedious. But to me, such a process is what helps to make teaching exciting, challenging, and liberating. Such a process is what gives me hope” (Kumashiro, 2004, p. 107) that motivation for language learning is possible in my own classroom.
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Google Images (n.d.). Images related to language learning. Retrieved January 1st, 2023.
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