Motivating Children to Learn English

Written by: Olha Madylus, e-mail: olhmadylus@gmail.com

Biodata: Olha began her teaching career as a secondary state school teacher in the UK, teaching English and Drama. She has been involved in YLELT for 25 years, living, teaching and training in the UK, Hong Kong, Venezuela and Greece.
For the past six years she has been a freelance YL consultant and teacher trainer and is involved in the training of local state school teachers in countries as diverse as Peru, Qatar, Greece, India and Malaysia, working with the British Council as well as Ministries of Education and other educational institutions. She is also a CambridgeESOL CELTA and CELTYL trainer. Olha is interested in the whole range of Young Learners from the age of 5 to 18. She is particularly concerned with the role of motivation and challenge in learning.

Motivation is, without question, the most complex and challenging issue facing teachers today.

Scheidecker & Freeman

Without doubt it would be wrong to oversimply the exact nature of motivation. But, I will take the liberty of simplifying and focussing particularly on selected aspects of motivation. I will attempt to be clear and concise, knowing that others have gone into many of these ideas in much greater depth and word-length. You have the choice to follow up for homework by diving into the bibliography, if you should so wish.

What is motivation?

While many still argue about the very nature of this vital ingredient in the learning recipe, let’s do what I advise my students to often do for some clarity, let’s refer to the dictionary, which tells us that there are, two facets to this:

To motivate:
=  to stimulate the interest of someone
= to cause someone to want to do something

Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary

As language teachers we can immediately see how this is crucial in our classrooms. Once we have the attention and interest of our students and they are willing to do the activities we put before them we are well on the way to doing our job as a teacher i.e. getting them to learn something.

Mummy, why is the sky blue?

But why do they need to be motivated? Look at any toddler. The behaviour that characterises young children is that they are constantly learning, asking questions (any parent of young children will attest to this constant, even somewhat irritating, questioning), they are free from inhibitions and enjoy discovering and improving. This is true for language development as well as learning about the world around them. John Holt describes this ‘natural learning style’ thus:

The child is curious. He wants to make sense out of things, find out how things work, gain competence and control over himself and his environment… He is open and receptive. He is experimental.. He is bold. He is not afraid of making mistakes. And he is patient. He can tolerate an extraordinary amount of uncertainty, confusion, ignorance and suspense.. He is willing and able for meaning to come to him – even if it is very slowly, which it usually does.

John Holt

Holt even gives lots of examples of children as young as three and four teaching themselves to read, just because they want to, they can and it is fun.

The Classroom Environment

With such extraordinary raw material, what goes wrong in the classroom?

Let’s face it: school attendance is compulsory, and the content of the curriculum is almost always selected on the basis of what society – rather the learners themselves – consider important. Furthermore, it is also difficult for the students who are in the most energetic years of their lives to spend what seem to them terribly long periods of time confined to the relatively small space of the classroom, and the fact that they are continuously monitored and assessed does not add to their well-being either.

Zoltan Dornyei

By the time we become teachers, we have no difficulty accepting school as the most natural environment for learning, but it so many ways it is not. Children have not chosen to be there, they have no power over what they do on any given day and they lose their individuality and special-ness in the crowd. When we are training to become teachers, how many of us consider this? Dealing with disruptive behaviour may be a module on a teacher training course, but is dealing with thirty five individual children who may be uncomfortable, unhappy and frustrated and therefore not motivated? It seems to me that a huge part of what we have to do as teachers is address this. First we need to understand how our students are feeling, for learning, especially learning a language, is just as affective as it is cognitive, that means: we must address not just the students’ heads but also their hearts.

What we need to consider is how, despite all the drawbacks of being in school and having to work within the constrictions that that entails, we can foster children’s will to learn. First we have to acknowledge what, or who, may be inhibiting learning and then takes steps to remedy the situation as best we can.

Give all children a chance

Children want to be involved and to be noticed. The children who most readily put up their hands are not the best – they are simply the quickest and usually the ones who know they will be asked by the teacher either because they are nearer the teacher and therefore most visible or the ones who know the teacher likes them more (alas this is true even if we are not aware of it ourselves).

Even if teachers try hard to ask as many different children as possible, there is limited time to do so. I have watched many classes where children are almost exploding with the desire to answer the question, to be seen, to be valued as participants in the learning experience but are not asked. Little wonder they stop putting up their hands and hold a conversation with their friends about what was on television yesterday instead.

All individuals can be characterised be two learned drives, a motive to approach success and a motive to avoid failure.

Martin V Covington

Children will make mistakes. Students are students! The very nature of that role is in the not knowing. That’s why we are there: to lead them on journeys of discovery. Is it fair then to jump on any mistake they make and punish them for it? Any time a student tries to answer a question, write a sentence in English, do a grammar exercise, they take a risk. Of course they may make mistakes, but the attempt is the vital step.

Many of the things we call mistakes and see as problems are in fact signals that our students are successfully learning the language. They are taking the necessary steps… Our Job as teachers is not to point out differences between our students’ language and standard English. That is too negative a role. Our job is to encourage the growth of language by appreciating the learning steps.

Julian Edge

I always respond to students’ efforts as positively as possible. A ‘that’s a good answer, but not the one I’m looking for’ does not fool the children into thinking they were quite right, but makes them know I admire their ability to have a go and be brave enough to try. Isn’t that worth celebrating? If we tell children they are wrong, if we inculcate the belief that they are failures, they are more prone to failure. Children will stop trying; they will be demotivated if those around them not only fail to encourage them, fail to take into account what they need to support their learning but also criticize or even ridicule their efforts. The signals may come not from us but from other students in the class, perhaps laughing or sighing at an incorrect answer, but the teacher is complicit is she allows such an atmosphere to prevail. Creating an appropriate learning environment of mutual respect, collaboration and patience is vital.

A simple solution to the above problem is to avoid a too teacher-centred lesson with a battery of questions directed at the whole class that require individual children to answer with alacrity and speed. Set tasks for groups or individuals to work on so that they can use whatever strategies come most naturally, ask for help and support if they need it from their classmates or from us and they can take the time to think and eventually reach the answer without being constantly pipped to the post by the fastest horse in the race. Allow them all to succeed -  all to be winners.

The simplest way to ensure that students expect success is to make sure that they achieve it consistently.

Jere Brophy

Meaning

Dropouts don’t leave school because we didn’t give them enough facts, but because they don’t find any meaning in them.

Gertrude Moskowitz

Teachers are under a lot of pressure: large classes to teach, lots of administration and a syllabus to cover and finish as well as examinations to prepare children for. Sometimes the focus of teaching becomes solely getting through all the grammar and vocabulary and we forget how vital meaning is.

Children require and seek out meaning. That’s why they, we, love stories. What fabulously meaning-rich vehicles of language stories are. How often does the classroom become shelter for the meaning-poor? The grass is green. The sky is blue. Is the repetition of sentences such as these of any interest to children? Does it touch them at all?

We must present and practise in such a way that meaning is always paramount and that children ‘realise’ meaning. I use the word here to mean that they notice the meaning through the examples that we present to them and it becomes real, or meaningful, in their heads, so that they can then create their own meaning with it.

So in order to practise, for example, modals of probability – may, might, could etc. we can use a picture like this:

And ask the students to guess what is happening. For example – he (or is it a she? – it could be) may be late for school / he / she could hate early mornings. We are obviously not sure and all suggestions are good. Students are being asked not just to repeat language mechanically but to focus on the meaning of what they say, because this meaning is coming from them. In their minds a story to explain the picture is evolving. This is also a fabulous activity in my mind, because every answer is a good answer – the possibilities of meaning are endless and children rise to the challenge of creating different meanings with their suggestions.

Also we have to remember that I am the most interesting person in the world. That is every I – all of us.  We all love talking about ourselves and we like to express our own opinions. As teachers we must ensure that there is plenty of room for personalisation in our lessons.

If we consider the students in our classes to be more interesting than the rather cardboard characters found in the traditional course book, it follows that a real need exists for activities where the students are invited to speak to each other and express their ideas using structures that have already been presented to them (it) is much more emotionally real..

Frank & Rinvolucri

Challenge children

Human beings feel best in flow, when they are fully involved in meeting a challenge, solving a problem, discovering something new

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

Children, as well as adults, love being absorbed in a task. And only when we are absorbed and focussed on what we are doing can we learn well. We can get lost in a good book, a good film, a good conversation, painting a picture and this gives a great sense of satisfaction and pleasure. There are too many distractions vying for our attention throughout the day. Have you noticed your students staring out of the window when they should be doing an exercise in their book. Their minds have wandered, perhaps distracted by a soaring bird or an airplane flying over the school. These triggers have captured their imagination, have proved a welcome relief to the tedium of the task at hand. So the task at hand should be attractive and also challenging to keep the student’s mind focussed.

There are many tasks that children find challenging in the class that can absorb them and stretch their thinking capacities. Take for example a simple activity like this. Write these letters on your board – I  B  A  E  N  R  D C, ask the children to work in small teams of 2 or 3 and create as many words as possible using these words – bean, in, rice, bread etc. Watch them get excited trying to get as many as possible, watch them collaborate and help each other with spelling and even telling each other what a word means. Energy levels rise, interest is roused and the atmosphere in the room changes. That’s the atmosphere of a learning, motivated class.

Fun and Games

This brings me on to what I believe is a crucial motivating element in any classroom, in any workplace in any home – fun. From a long time ago the need to play has been recognised as a key component to children’s learning. An 18th Century Frenchman was exhorting us

to encourage free expression and natural playfulness…

Jean Jacques Rousseau, 1762

And the cry was still heard in the 20th Century, with Jean Piaget stressing that :

play leads to consolidation of newly learned behaviours… exposing the child to new experiences and new possibilities for dealing with the world

Wood & Attfield

Laughter is very motivating. Pleasure is very motivating.

We play games in class to make students feel comfortable, to help the language be memorable, to practise language, to facilitate involvement and because we recognise that language learning is affective as well as cognitive.

Of course we must choose games that recycle the English that students have been studying. They are a great way of helping students review and use language in different ways – crosswords, quizzes, riddles, guessing games etc.

Beware of red-pen-it-is (the deadly disease, known only to teachers, of being unable to look at any work of a student without automatically reaching for  red pen)

Assessment is an area that teachers consider very serious. It is often the most formal aspect of the teaching we do. But do we get into bad habits in the way we assess? I have shown the following piece of writing to many teachers over the years asked their opinion about it. Please note it is just the opening few lines of a short story.

On year 10,000 scientists found a very big problem! A very tiny microchip was into a computer. This microchip could destroy the hole world. Scientists were trying over five years to destroy it but it was so impossible.

A twelve year old Greek student of English

The question I ask is ‘What would you do with this, if a student handed it in to you as their homework?’ many teachers hone in immediately on the mistakes and start correcting. One teacher even screwed up the paper I handed her with this printed on and said she would throw it in the rubbish bin. Shame on her. Are we so programmed to see errors that we don’t see the great things that students produce? This is a fabulous introduction to a story. It is dramatic and draws the reader in to discover what this awful problem could possibly be. The contrast between ‘very tiny microchip’ and its capacity ‘to destroy the hole world’ is powerful indeed. (That spelling mistake in comparison is minor.) And don’t forget to look at the complex structure of the final sentence – well crafted indeed.

Let’s not forget Julian Edge and his call for us to appreciate the learning steps our children are making – and jolly well celebrate them too!

Homework

Let’s be honest – homework is often the least motivating assignment that children get. It’s the long writing composition or the grammar exercises. How many times do you look at what is given in and despair as your hand reaches for the pack of red pens that you will need to tackle this mammoth task? Do your students sometimes do their homework in front of the television, on the bus or even copy it from their friend while walking into their lesson; or even, heaven forbid, get their mother to do it for them? The resulting anguish on both our parts – for us at having to mark work that we actually know is substandard and does not reflect what they could do when motivated, and for the children handing it in whose heart just wasn’t into the chore and whose heart sinks even further when it is returned covered in red ink and stamped with a low mark or grade.

Why can’t homework be more fun and more motivating? I think it’s because many of us run out of steam by the end of the lesson and assign tasks automatically – often things that can be marked easily. In my mind, it is better to have children do something, anything well and with some enthusiasm for five minutes at home than in the desultory manner described above. Why can’t children just be asked to read something in English that they enjoy – a magazine, story or website, thereby fostering their pleasure in using English and respecting their choice of what they read?  Why can’t children illustrate a story they wrote in class, thereby rereading the story and thinking carefully about its meaning while putting crayon or brush to paper?  Why can’t students chose an English song they like and transcribe the lyrics to share with their classmates in a future lesson, thereby honing their listening and concentration skills and playing a part in shaping one of their own lessons?

Just pause a second before you set the next homework for you class and consider how motivated you would be by a similar task and is there any way you can make it more meaningful and / or more fun for your students to do.

In conclusion

Let me return to the John Holt quotation above to put together some basic approaches that we can try to put into practise in our own classrooms.

The child is curious – so we should allow children to ask questions, to explore, to feel free to reflect on what they do not know.

He wants to make sense of things – don’t do that for him, allow him to discover, to feel that flush of success when he has found the solution, sees the connections and appreciates his role in his own learning.

He is open and receptive – don’t force him to shut down, by convincing him he is not a successful learner.

He is experimental – allow room for experimentation and discovery in the classroom

He is bold – respect that miraculous capacity of self-belief.

He is not afraid of making mistakes – so don’t you be afraid of your students’ mistakes or even your own.

He can tolerate uncertainty, confusion, ignorance and suspense – so why can’t we?

He is willing and able to let meaning come to him – so nudge it in his direction.

We do not have to train children to learn…we have to avoid interfering with it.

Frank Smith

Bibliography:

  • Brophy J E, Motivating Students to Learn, McGraw-Hill, 1998
  • Covington, M V, A Will to Learn, , CUP, 1998
  • Csikszentmihalyi M, Finding Flow, Basic Books, 1997
  • Dornyei, Z, Motivational Strategies in the Language Classroom, CUP, 2001
  • Holt J, How Children Learn, Penguin, 1967
  • Edge J, Mistakes and Correction, Longman, 1990
  • Moskowitz G, Caring and Sharing in the Foreign Language Classroom, Newbury House, 1978
  • Scheideker D & Freeman W, 1999, Bringing out the Best in Students: How Legendary Teachers Motivate Kids, Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press
  • Smith F, Reading, 1978, CUP
  • Wood E & Attfield J, Play, Learning and the Early Childhood Curriculum, Paul Chapman Publishing, 1996

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