How can we as diligent EFL/TEFL/ESOL teachers motivate our students to learn English? This is a question we probably ask ourselves on a daily basis. Many of us will often have to teach classes that don’t seem very motivated at all. We may sometimes get the feeling we are more like babysitters than teachers, whose primary task is to keep the students occupied and out of their parents’ way for one or two hours in the week!

In this article, we will describe the two main types of motivation and highlight 7 motivational strategies that experience has shown to be effective and successful. We will begin however with a practical example which demonstrates that perhaps the most important thing is to be prepared to use anything that works.

The Story of Faustino

Faustino was the bane of my life for several months. He was a fourteen-year-old student in a relatively small but unenthusiastic English class I was teaching in Northern Spain. It was an evening class comprised of students whose parents thought they should be doing extra English. The students themselves didn’t really want to be there. It was very difficult to get them engaged in activities and Faustino was particularly challenging and disruptive. Several weeks into the course I was running out of ideas and the prospect of teaching Faustino’s class filled me with dread twice a week. And then, by sheer chance, I stumbled on something which had a dramatic effect. The result was that six months later Faustino passed his English exams with an excellent result and both he and his father came to thank me for my support. So, what had I done? Let’s look at things from Faustino’s point of view…

Faustino was failing in English. His parents were concerned and probably angry with him. They knew he was an intelligent young man but with his adolescent hormones in full force, he was more interested in girls, music and generally being ‘cool’. As a result, he was falling behind at school and having more arguments at home. He was being a typical teenager! Then, when he would rather be out drinking and smoking with girls at the local bar which had no age restrictions, he was instead forced to endure two extra hours each week in a classroom with a teacher speaking a language he didn’t like and found difficult. Messing around and trying to impress the girls in the class seemed like a logical way to take the edge off his predicament. With any luck, the teacher would complain about him, and he would be removed from the class… Result!

Then one day while he is supposed to be doing an exercise in his book but is actually busy chatting with the girls beside him, he looks up and sees something amazing. The teacher is at the front of the class waiting for the students to finish their exercise, and while he is waiting, he is moving a pencil around on his desk, without touching it, apparently just using the power of his mind. Faustino is transfixed! “Teacher, how are you doing that?” He demands.

The teacher looks up. It seems to take a few moments for him to realise what has got Faustino’s attention. When he does realise, he smiles. He has seen an opportunity. “It’s just concentration Faustino.” He says. “But I will make a deal with you. If you do better in these lessons and get a good result in your exams, I promise I’ll show you how to do it. It is just about using the power of your mind.”

Faustino is now convinced he can acquire a superpower. How cool is that? Learning English is going to be a small price to pay!

I will explain the real magic behind Faustino’s turnaround later, but first, let’s take a closer look at types of motivation and strategies for using them.

Types of Motivation

There are two main types of motivation, intrinsic and extrinsic.

Intrinsic motivation is a drive that comes from within a person. People are intrinsically motivated when they enjoy doing an activity. The pleasure of doing a task, therefore, becomes the key motivational force. Many scholars agree this tends to be the most effective form of motivation.

Learners of English are more intrinsically motivated when they have a positive impression of English-speaking people and cultures. If they are interested in the music, films, sports and cultural background of the language they are studying they are more likely to want to engage with the language itself. Therefore, motivation comes from learning activities which seem interesting and meaningful. This type of language work should be fun, varied and creative and should minimise the potential stress of getting things wrong or failing tests. Much of this depends on the teacher establishing a good rapport with the students in the first place.

Extrinsic motivation is a drive that comes from outside of a person. It is a goal orientated form of motivation. People are extrinsically motivated when they want to gain a reward (like a prize or a good grade) or when they need to learn English for a particular purpose, for example, to get a job, to get into university or to travel. Winning the respect and admiration of peers, parents and particular individuals can also be seen as extrinsic motivation.

In most cases, it is useful to employ a mixture of intrinsic and extrinsic motivational strategies.


1. Make it Fun and Communicative

Hopefully these days we don’t feel guilty about having fun in the classroom. Using well-chosen games and fun activities makes learning English enjoyable. To enjoy doing something is one of the most primal intrinsic motivations for doing anything. Games can underline grammar points and revise vocabulary. Where possible use communicative games and activities that get the students speaking. This approach emphasises that English is principally about communication, not grammar tests, although employing some competitive games and quizzes adds an extrinsic motivation as well.

2. Make It Personal

Students should be given opportunities to explore their own interests in English. By connecting the use of English with something personal in their lives, they will become more emotionally involved and this will create greater engagement. This could be achieved through individual or group project work, or by choosing themes indicated or voted on by the students themselves.

3. Get the level right

It’s important to have learning activities at the right level. If an activity is far too easy or too difficult, it can be uninspiring and demoralising. Students should believe that the learning activity they are engaged in can be successfully completed. If it seems impossible, they won’t even start. If it seems too easy, their attention will quickly wander, and they might become disruptive to other students. In mixed-ability classes, some activities should be grouped by ability.

4. Variety of Input and Output

Students have different preferences for how they take in information. Some like to listen to explanations and discuss, some like to look at diagrams and pictures, and some like to actively experiment and create. Similarly, the students will have different strengths and weaknesses when it comes to the production of language. For example, some will prefer to present work orally while others are more confident in writing things down. The key is to remember which works best for which students and to tailor tasks where you can. Each student should feel that it is possible for them to achieve an outcome that is positive for them.

5. Praise and Approval

We should praise good work and effort as often as we can. Language Learners, like all people, like to get praise and approval from someone they respect or care about. That might be the class teacher but could equally be their peers or their parents. If their work is something they would be pleased or even proud to share with those who matter to them, they are more likely to do their best. Sometimes we might become too reliant on wanting our students to please ‘us’. They might be more motivated to create a PowerPoint or work on a drama scene that their friends would be impressed with.

6. Choices and Control

It can be really motivating for students to have some choices and a sense of control over the work they are doing. It may encourage them to work harder and produce more creative work. In the long term, it also encourages them to take control of their own learning and be responsible for their decisions.

7. Integrate Technology

Technology itself can become a central motivation. For most students, these days technology and social media are fundamental aspects of their daily lives, so it would be extraordinary not to use these things in the classroom. Social media is specifically about communication and English enables students to communicate with a far wider audience. The motivational aspect of this should be self-evident. Of course, technology can also be used to find and present information and to enhance games and other fun activities. Moreover, some students who might not think of themselves as natural linguists will still relish the chance to use technology. Thus, the technology itself becomes a motivational force to demonstrate their use of English.

The Magic Trick

So, let’s go back to the story of Faustino. What was the magic trick that motivated him to become a better student of English?

While waiting for the students to finish an exercise in their books, I was literally twiddling my fingers. A teacher who had previously worked in the classroom had shredded a strand of long blond hair on the desk I was using. A pencil was lying across the hair. I found that by gently rolling the hair under my finger with an almost imperceptible movement, the kinks and twists in the hair would cause the pencil to move in various directions. Even to me it looked quite magical and when Faustino and his classmates looked up at me, I realised that from their perspective (several desk lengths away) it must have looked even more dramatic; and there was no way they could see the hair. By using my face and especially my eyes to concentrate on the pen, I distracted their attention from the tiny movements I was making with my finger; about ten centimetres away from the pencil itself. It really did look as if I had telekinetic powers!

Faustino was particularly impressed and very keen to know how it was done. That would become his extrinsic reward. I convinced him it was something to do with mind power and promised him I could teach him how to do it, but he would need to win my respect by demonstrating his mind power in English first. To my surprise and relief, he agreed. The magic trick was the first real connection between us and over the next months I built up a rapport with him based on that. Not only did his work in English improve but he became a positive influence on the rest of the class. He got the best result in an English exam he had ever had.

When I honoured my part of the bargain by explaining the trick to him, he first seemed quite disappointed at how mundane the real explanation was. Then I pointed to the exam certificate he was clutching. Eventually, he grinned, and I was pleased to see he understood the real magic of the trick.

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