Observations On ESL Student Motivation

I’ve taught in four countries, including my own, and had students from a variety of backgrounds. It often strikes me as somewhat irresponsible to generalize too much by country, especially when it is based only on one’s own experience. But it is interesting to me to note that learners often do tend to fall into categories of “learner attitude” or motivation for learning. I think it’s perfectly reasonable that this happens not because some nationalities have or cultures promote an innate love of testing and apathy towards “actually learning”, but because certain requirements and practices exist in different places, and people quite naturally respond to these realities.

In general, people tend to be in classes because they need to know English – or maybe better said as “due to some external motivation”. I don’t think most people dislike it, but in contrast to the situation in many English speaking countries (where people are typically not really compelled to learn languages but do it because they like it, or see value in it even when its not a formal requirement), learning a language is often just one more of many requirements they need to meet. They do want to learn, but I think especially after the lower levels, it can be a little frustrating for anyone to experience progress that is not as fast or straightforward as they would like it to be, given their time and dedication to it.

Some people are quite focused on passing a test, (not surprisingly) especially if the test result is what they need. It’s easy to criticize this – focusing on the test – and I think it is an accurate observation that focusing on a test does not tend to truly improve a person’s language ability – but often it’s the case that they really just do need that test result, even if things “should be” some other way.

Some people are well aware that they simply need practice to improve their English, and see their native speaker teachers as a perfect fit for this. I think this is often a very accurate description of what people need, and students who realize this can be among the most rewarding to teach. I don’t mean to imply that this is about “just talking”– students may appreciate the use of correction, or reading and then discussing a text, or even somewhat controlled practice of a structure connected to an interesting topic. But they realistically see that practice – and not just constant addition to their mental inventory of words and grammar structures – is what they need.

Hairy situations can arise when students come with the second understanding and the class format is more suited to the first, or when a class includes a mix students with different interests, and the teacher is in the position to set the agenda. What can you do about this? Make some effort to figure out how things go at a particular school before you get a job there (granted, this is not always straightforward). I also think it is ideal to orient students to which end of the spectrum this class is on at the beginning so there are not big surprises as the class progresses. Sure, generally they know, but better to start out clear.