Top TEN best techniques to motivate language learners

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The burning question this time around is: What are the best techniques to motivate language learners?

For me, planning and teaching lessons to students is a job half done. I also have to motivate my students to do some self-study between classes. For instance, they need to revisit texts, update their vocabulary records and engage 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, 2020, when 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 we studied. 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. Nevertheless, I encourage you to explore your own interests in English and send me articles related to your interests. 

In the meantime, I urge 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 the 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 ensures my knowledge of the English language is in reasonable shape. Sometimes, I have to look something up in a grammar manual.


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 share my experience of picking up the Serbian language with them. 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 enough to receive plenty of authentic input.

It wasn’t just about being around the right people though. I'm an inquisitive person by nature who likes to know the ins and outs of how languages work. Therefore, I always had lots of questions and language points for my teacher to clarify every time we met. 


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.

If students regularly revise their Word-Phrase Tables, these personalised sentences WILL be “swimming in the brain” when they speak a foreign language.


5. USE VARIED AND STIMULATING MATERIALS

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

Anyway, these are the materials I typically use with my students:

- My own self-written texts

- Online news articles 

- Stories on deepenglish.com

- TED talks


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

In this post, I emphasised my belief that it's better for language learners to have short but regular lessons. In this way, learning a second language becomes a habit rather than a chore.

I have a few students who I meet on Skype every second or third day day. On the days we don’t have lessons, I’m confident that these students are revising previous lesson notes or preparing for the next 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 inset 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.

Quite simply, one of the best techniques to motivate language learners is to show them that you - the teacher - care and are willing to go the extra mile for your students.


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, I test them on the meaning of new words and phrases. Moreover, I ask them to correct some of the grammar and pronunciation mistakes they made while speaking during those 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. Interestingly, my highly opinionated texts encourage students to come out of their shell and rebuff 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 “Do you have enough time to revise all your notes?”


Wrapping up this discussion of the best techniques to motivate language learners

There you have it - ten of the best techniques to motivate language learners. I try to apply all of these methods across the board so that no student gets shortchanged.

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

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