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  • Writer's pictureAmy Flynn

Motivation - One Lever for Success in the Classroom

by Amy Flynn, M.A.


See if this scenario is familiar to you; The bell rings, your students enter the classroom and you are really pumped for today’s lesson. Maybe you are ready to teach something you loved learning yourself, or you have the most amazing lesson ever planned, and as you watch the student file into their seats you know it is going to be a class to remember. But over the course of the lesson you notice that the students don’t meet your own level of motivation for the day’s learning and by the time they leave, you know that what you wanted your students to learn and experience didn’t meet up to your expectations.


The unavoidable reality of teaching is that when students enter through your door, chances are they are probably not always thinking “Oh boy, I can’t wait to learn _____.” That’s not a knock on you, you are a great teacher, you care about your students and you are prepared. But students will come into your classroom with other things on their minds. Maybe it is what someone just said to them in the hall, thinking about their homework or an upcoming game or their significant other…or a myriad of other distractions. How do we as educators counteract this unavoidable reality? What can we do to make sure we are not the only ones motivated?


“Intrinsically motivated students are more engaged, retain information better, and are generally happier”. (Deci & Ryan, 2001, in Hanus & Fox, 2015)


One pitfall I have fallen into, and seen others do as well, is to lean on extrinsic motivators like planning a fun game, rewards, or even punishments. I am not saying that extrinsic motivation isn’t useful, but its benefit is often short term. Research has shown intrinsic motivation as being a more powerful force, which is why I want to share in this article some of the best things I’ve learned and seen in other world language classrooms. We can as educators intentionally create an atmosphere that fosters intrinsic motivation.



The Five Dials of Motivation


I was lucky enough to attend a seminar in 2006 from Pat Quinn, author of Behavioral Strategies that Work, who proposed that there are a set of conditions in the classroom that we as teachers can control, like the dials on a machine, to set the tone of the class and control the motivational environment. Below are the five dials and some examples of how they can be used in a world language classroom.


Dial A: Recognize Individual Differences


You may or may not have students come to your classroom with background knowledge in the language you teach. Let them know that there are differences within a language and what they will learn from you might not be the same as what they might already know.


To teach students about individual differences, line up all students in a single line, facing the door and tell them to get an A they must reach the door in one step. Of course the first few students could get there in one step, but it will get harder and for some impossible the farther down the line they are. Stop and talk with them about what this means when it comes to learning. Let them know that not all students start at the same place, not all students learn at the same rate, so they can be comfortable with the knowledge that no matter where they start or how long it could take, they can all learn another language.


Another metaphor I’ve used is this video, followed often by the verbal prompt, “time to get off the escalator!"


Dial B: Safety


In a world language classroom, extra care needs to be taken in creating a safe environment as the process of acquiring another language can make students feel very vulnerable when lack of understanding and fear of making verbal mistakes is higher than in a L1 environment. Here are some things you can do to lower the affective filter and create an environment that promotes trust and reduces anxiety:

  • Keep your use of target language comprehensible.

  • Let students know that it is okay to not understand everything, and that not being comfortable is okay while being frustrated is not.

  • Teach students that making mistakes is not only okay, but a required part of learning a new language.

  • Be vulnerable about your own mistakes and praise them when they take risks.

  • Be a model for learning. For example, when a student asks for a word you don’t know, write it on the board and when students take a vocabulary quiz, you take a quiz on the words from the board.

  • Have students thank each other or high-five each other after each partner activity.

Dial C: Relationships

Students don’t care what you know until they know that you care, right? Use time in the language, for example during PQA, to get to know your students and let them get to know you. Show real interest in their lives and interests, and when they are absent make a big deal that they have returned. As a classroom job, assign a student to help anyone returning from an absence get caught up.


You can also intentionally help promote the relationships between students. Consider assigning special jobs for several students when they walk into the classroom by handing them cards (randomly or intentionally) with instructions like “Today, remind someone to stay in (the target language).”, “Ask someone if they need help.”, or “Give someone praise for speaking in (the target language).”


Dial D: Behavior Solutions

Think always of behavior problems as academic problems, and don’t take them personally. Often a student’s poor behavior is linked to their own attitude about his or her own success. There are many ways we can adjust instruction so that students can feel successful, such as:

  • Give an assessment that 100% of your students can be successful at, even if it takes extra lessons to get there.

  • Give grades or praise for what is most important in the day’s learning, not for everything.

  • During interpersonal mode, only make corrections if an error interferes with communication.

  • Even if a student says something without the best pronunciation, let them know that it was comprehensible.

Despite your best efforts, you may have some students you like and honestly, some you do not like as much. That is human. As a way to build relationships that may seem impossible, Pat Quinn suggested a technique called “The China Policy”. Named for the favored trade partner status we have with China, it is based on the idea that it is easier to change behavior from a position of friendship than from the position of an enemy. In this technique, take a student you don’t like and give them favored student status, e.g. class privileges, running errands, more personal time… whatever you might give to your favorite student(s). Though this doesn’t work after one day, over time it can yield results.


Dial E: Teach Everything

You can’t change what students walk into your class with every day, but there is always something you can teach your students that will help them overcome obstacles in their lives. This is the true power of teaching, to have a lasting impact on your students beyond the content you teach.


Other Moves that Build Motivation


Remove Randomness

Be intentional about calling on students, and when assigning partners and groups. If you know your students, you know who will work well together. And if they aren’t working well together, you could try the “New Friends” technique from Whole Brain Teaching - great to use also to raise the energy level in the classroom and quickly mix up pairings.

  1. Say “New Friends” in the target language, turn your back to the students and count down slowly from 10 to zero.

  2. At zero, turn around, and all students should be sitting with a new partner or in new groups. Just switching seats does not count!

Legends and Traditions

Traditions foster a sense of comfort and belonging, and when a new student arrives in the class, introducing them to your class traditions can help build the class identity.

  • At the end of each semester or year, take a group picture of classes to post on the walls. As the years go by, they like to look at where they were years ago which creates a feeling of belonging.

  • Recognize birthdays using a song, or activity related to the culture of the language you teach.

  • Give students a crown or pin to wear when they do well on an assessment.

  • Use routines that make the classroom feel like they are in another culture, such as always starting or ending class with a saying in the target language that reminds them of why they are there.

Keeping a Checklist

Find a question that goes along with the unit you are teaching that you can ask all your students over a period of a month or so. Keep track of their answers on a list or your seating chart. You might find that you have certain students with no information by their name, and if you do make sure you find that information from those students.


Love Languages

Love Languages is based on the concept that there are five different ways that people feel loved: Words of Affirmation, Quality Time, Gifts, Acts of Service, and Physical Touch. You can use this knowledge of your own students to help them feel noticed and welcome in your class. For example, if you compliment a student and another says “What about me?”, that student is a words of affirmation student. A student who brings you a gift is a gift person, and if you have a student who wants to help you pass out papers, they are an acts of service student.


Getting to know your students, seeing them and acknowledging their individual differences, creating a community of safety and respect, can all go a long way to building motivation in students. What is most important to remember is that we as educators have the power and responsibility to use our role to build positivity, encourage growth and confidence, and help our students each reach their full potential.


Amy Flynn was a German Instructor for 13 years and spent 5 years as the World Language Coordinator for Jeffco Public Schools, where she currently serves as the Assistant Director for Choice Programs.


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