One of the tougher variables to account for when seeking out the best avenues to learning is motivation.

Motivation is talked about everywhere. Conference abstracts promise new ways of motivating students. Publishers sell their textbooks with new and improved tasks or culturally relevant material. Teaching offices are filled with lamentations regards the lack of motivation in the classroom along with plenty of prescriptive advice from colleagues.

Students need to be, at least partially, intrinsically motivated to successfully learn languages.

This post will argue, however, that motivation alone will not do the trick. Motivation, like a delicate flower, will bloom and wither away or be crushed without the appropriate care (or input). I myself have attempted to learn a number of languages and had all sorts of intrinsic motivation to do so. Each time ended with a whimper and frustration.

In my own failed attempt to learn language, I often lacked direction, which (by the way) is where a good teacher comes in really handy. Who knew?

I also lacked any way of interpreting the contextual nuances of the language I was attempting to learn. As any teacher knows all too well, Google translate is not yet meet the standards of the Babel Fish that helped Arthur Dent navigate the galaxy with his trusty towel.

As Google translate proves, understanding the nuts and bolts of a language (vocabulary and grammar) does not bring forth useful or often even understandable communication.

Considering that linguistic knowledge alone is insufficient, what is a teacher to do? To begin, it is critical to understand grammar as more than mere form. Diane Larsen-Freeman has a very useful article titled ‘Teaching Grammar’ in which she describes how linguistic grammar can be taught via a three dimensional understanding of grammar as: form, meaning and use.  Rather than merely focusing students on grammatical form, Larsen-Freeman advises that students be exposed to the meaning and social contexts in which different grammatical elements are utilized.

This idea of a semiotic understanding of language was developed by Michael Halliday’s. Halliday’s systemic functional linguistic (SFL) model of language sees language as a system. By seeing language as ‘a meaning-making system through which we interactively shape and interpret our world and ourselves’, (Derewianka & Jones, 2012) the systemic functional model demands far more of learners than merely becoming acquainted with the pieces of a language.

Context is critical. In order to understand linguistic context an interlocutor needs to understand the channel of communication (mode), who is involved and how that affects linguistic choice (tenor), and what is happening in the interaction and how the external environment may be playing into it (field) ((Derewianka & Jones, 2012). Considering the fact that mode, tenor and field are constantly shifting in the real world, how might a language learner possibly begin to account for the seemingly infinite variables that may affect their choices?

I believe that this complexity is exactly what feeds learner motivation. Teachers need to help learners lean into the challenge. Learners need an appropriate guide that can help dissect and analyze linguistic encounters. By not shying away from the complexity and assisting my learners in disassembling the language they encounter, I have found engagement in the language learning process far easier to cultivate and maintain.

Engagement = Motivation * Context 2


In an ESL world, finding meaningful interactions and experiences for students is a bit easier. The EFL world, however, is a far different story. EFL students learn English as an abstract concept. Teachers, parents, school administrators and governments impose English on them. Often this occurs without students ever really understanding why they are learning the language. The amount of times I have been forced to ask some variant of “Why do you want to learn English” and heard the canned response (almost verbatim – across two continents and multiple age groups) “because English is a global language that I need to blah blah blah” is depressing.

If students don’t know why they are learning, how will they maintain whatever motivation they have? If learners are working with decontextualized and meaningless linguistic knowledge how can they be expected to engage and succeed in the difficult and complex process of language learning?

One of the most difficult tasks (especially) for a native speaking English teacher in the EFL world who does not speak the learners L1) is communicating effectively and gathering enough input from the learners to know how to connect their language learning with their lives outside the classroom. If I do not know the how or why or what about the English speaking world my students are interested in, how can I expect them to stay engaged with such a process as mentally taxing as language learning?

In an excellent interview titled “How Teachers Can See Students’ Identities as Learning Strengths“, Dr. Christopher Emdim talks about his idea of ‘reality pedagogy’. He states that, “the fundamental principle of co-teaching in reality pedagogy is that the neoindigenous student is the expert on the best way to deliver information to others who are part of their culture.” Reading this, I couldn’t help but be reminded of my friend Alex Grevett (who has a wonderful blog that can be found here) and his 2012 presentation entitled “Make Your Students the Experts“. In other words, hand over the classroom to the learners and let them use the language being worked with to explain and/or discuss matters of personal interest to them and their lives.

Mind Map 2.0

Another way of working with meaningfulness and context is to think about content. What will the learners need the language for in their immediate and daily lives? What are their goals and interests that might lead to motivating them to learn now for the future?

The picture to the left is the result of a conceptualization exercise I did prior to beginning a course. I took what I knew (generally) about the students I had worked with at my school in the past. I then envisaged a window. I pictured myself as one of my students. How might they see the English world.

Home became a metaphor for the comfort students feel in their own language and culture. The window to the ‘English World’ outside became a passage through which they had to navigate the multiple stakeholder demands of their education, as well as an indicator of the skills they would need to successfully immigrate to ‘the English World’ on the other side of the window.

The ‘English World’ included everything I knew that interested my former students about the English World outside. At the moment, I teach only male students, so football and cars are always dominant and popular themes. Twitter is a large and ever present influence in their daily lives. As is TV and movies, travel, future employment, family obligations, etc.

By completing this exercise I had a platform from which I could draw meaningful content. I also had a good idea of how much more I wanted/needed to know about my students!

Knowing what pupils are interested in is critical to making the language presented to students meaningful, thus providing a reason to be motivated to learn it. Further, being aware of the contextual scenarios students will or might encounter provides the necessary information to help pupils develop pragmatic understanding (i.e. what are the appropriate [or less-than-appropriate] linguistic choices available to them when confronted with such scenarios).

When students are provided with content that is meaningful and the contextual understanding necessary to make informed choices, their engagement with their learning is usually more sustainable.