My TEN commandments for motivating language learners

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The burning question this time around is: What are some of the best techniques to motivate language learners while they’re learning a language?

For me, planning and teaching lessons to students is a job half done. I also have to think of how to motivate my students to do some self-study between classes. This includes revisiting texts, updating Word-Phrase Tables and engaging themselves in some authentic listening practice, such as TED talks. 

Here are my ten commandments for motivating language learners:


1. SEND THOUGHTFUL EMAILS 

From time to time, I send my students an email to remind them of key language learning strategies and to let them know that I’m happy to clarify anything that needs clarifying.

Here’s a letter I wrote to some of my new students from Gdańsk. I wrote it in the middle of March when the coronavirus COVID-19 was just beginning to take hold in Poland:

Dear all,

These are all difficult and uncertain times. Anyway, I’ll try to take your mind off coronavirus for a few moments and steer you in the direction of improving your English. 

First of all, most of you are getting used to the following cycle:

- revise previous lesson notes - study/listen to a text alone - analyse the text alone - analyse the text/words/phrases with me - speak about the new text - revise lesson notes, and so on.

A key point which should be added to this routine is REVISITING the previous text. Even if it’s just one read through or listening - it will make so much difference to your retention of key words, phrases and even sentence structures. It’s also worth reserving 45 minutes at the end of each week in order to revisit all of the articles and TED talks you met that week.

A few of you have started to record new words/phrases, with personalised sentences using these target words and phrases, in a Word-Phrase Table. I’d also like to add that you can also add grammar points to these tables. For example, one of my students, whose English is at quite a high level, made the mistake of using a zero-infinitive, instead of “-ing”, after “verbs of feeling” such as like, enjoy, hate and love. I think that such issues should be nipped in the bud right away through personalised sentences which contain the correct grammar point. Visualisation matters - don’t forget to use different colours, fonts, bold and italics to aid the learning process:

When it comes to creating personalised sentences, you need to see how words and phrases behave in a range of contexts. Hence, it is really worth exploring the following: 

- english-corpora.org 

- wordhippo.com (the sentences tab) 

- good online dictionaries, such as Longman. Diki.pl is ok as a starting point, but I wouldn’t solely rely on it

I’m happy to share my texts, recorded news articles and TED talks with you. Deepenglish.com also has some useful, albeit short, texts. Having said that, I encourage you to explore your own interests in English and send me articles related to your interests. 

In the meantime, I encourage you to read my blog for more tips on learning English.

Finally, don’t be shy to ask questions to seek clarification about the meaning of words, or for me to explain a grammar point. Write to me on Skype and I’ll be happy to answer. 

Cheers

Steve


2. BE ENTHUSIASTICALLY OPEN TO ANSWERING QUESTIONS FROM STUDENTS

As I mentioned at the end of my letter in point 1, it’s vital for a teacher to make himself open to clarifying the meaning of words and phrases, as well as tricky grammar points, which may have arisen in previous sessions.

Some students are shy and don’t want to burden their teacher with additional duties. However, I don’t like it when my students feel insecure. It should never be troublesome for a teacher to respond to the occasional IM on Skype. Besides, I like answering students’ questions as it keeps my own knowledge of the English language in reasonable shape.


3. SHARE PERSONAL EXPERIENCE OF LEARNING A FOREIGN LANGUAGE

I believe that students like to hear stories and experiences that their teacher has had. For that reason, I try to share my experience of picking up the Serbian language. In fact, I became quite communicative in Serbian after only three or four months of learning the language.

Look, I don’t boast. Blowing one’s own trumpet doesn’t get anyone anywhere.

I merely tell my students that, by constantly being around my wife and her family at the start of my language learning journey, I was lucky to have plenty of authentic input.

I wasn’t just fortunate though. I was also a very inquisitive learner and always had lots of questions down on paper to ask my teacher every time I saw her. I also valued the need to learn new words and phrases in a deep way by creating personalised sentences containing these words and phrases.


4. SPEAK OF THE POWER OF PERSONALISATION

I’ve written extensively about the power of personalisation in many of my posts on this blog, and in this section on this website.

When students create true sentences about themselves which contain newly-learned words and phrases, there is a clear end-goal - to use these personalised sentences in future conversations.

With regular revision of one’s Word-Phrase Table, these personalised sentences WILL be “swimming in your brain” when you speak a foreign language.


5. USE VARIED AND STIMULATING MATERIALS

Some students might feel comfortable with turning pages in a coursebook. However, I have found that sharing a range of high-quality authentic materials which contain plenty of collocations and structures which native speakers use in everyday speech helps to maintain student engagement for longer periods - even years. Indeed, I’ve been teaching a few of my students for nearly eight years.

I tend to use the following materials with my students:

- My own self-written texts

- Online news articles (with audio files recorded by me)

- Deep English stories

- TED talks


6. PROPOSE TO MEET STUDENTS EVERY SECOND OR THIRD DAY FOR SHORT LESSONS

My belief that having short but regular lessons, in order for a second language to become a habit rather than a chore, was thoroughly documented in this post.

Just to reiterate, though. If language learning is broken down into smaller chunks, where a student has SOME contact with a language every day, their motivation levels will be where they need to be. 

I have a few students who I meet every second day. On the days when we don’t have lessons, I’m confident that these students are revising their previous notes or preparing for next day’s class. 

Learning a language must be a habit - not an unserious once-a-week chore.


7. COMPILE LESSON NOTES FOR STUDENTS 

I always compile lesson notes for students after each lesson.

The following set of lesson notes contains new words and phrases, pronunciation errors and incorrect utterances with corrections:

lesson notes for language learning students

As you can see in the sample of notes above, students are able to track their progress, particularly when it comes to the mistakes they make (in the ‘Other’ section). 

Ideally, students should include as many of the new words, phrases and grammar points into their Word-Phrase Tables as they can. The next step, as I mentioned in point 4, is to create personalised sentences containing this new language.


8. GIVE TESTS TO LET STUDENTS KNOW WHERE THEY STAND WITH PROGRESS

I’ve recently decided to write short tests for a few of my lower level learners.

I tend to test students on the previous five or six texts, articles and TED talks we studied together. Essentially, students are tested on the meaning of new words and phrases, while I also ask them to correct some of the grammar and pronunciation mistakes they made in free speech during these lessons.


9. GIVE STUDENTS A LITTLE GLIMPSE INTO YOUR LIFE - WRITE YOUR OWN TEXTS

I firmly believe in the idea of teachers writing about their own experiences and sharing these texts with students. 

Why is that?

I think that students enjoy learning things about their teacher. 

When I write my own texts and share some of my experiences of travelling around the world and working abroad etc, I don’t go overboard and share too many personal and intimate details. I merely strive to share my experiences, observations and opinions. I have found that many of my highly opinionated texts encourage students to come out of their shell and respond in detail to my opinions.


10. JUST ASK YOUR STUDENTS HOW THE LEARNING PROCESS IS GOING!

Every language learning student needs to know that their teacher cares.

Sometimes, asking “How are you?” and “What’s new?” is not enough.

How about: “How are you finding the language learning process?” or “Are you finding the time to revise all your notes?”


CONCLUDING THOUGHTS

I have outlined ten of the best techniques to motivate language learners. I try to apply all of these methods across the board so no student gets short changed.

All in all, I believe that variety is the spice of life, so distributing varied materials and introducing students to a range of language learning strategies will keep them on their toes and ensure that they don’t get bored.

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