Motivating Children to Learn English: Going beyond Bribery

How to Motivate Children to Want to Learn English

I'm sure you've all been there.  You're standing in front of a class of glassy-eyed children, or, even worse, a class of students who are just plain ignoring you.  How can you motivate the children and get them back "into" your class?  One sure-fire way to get your students to be motivated is to offer then small prizes or treats to do the task at hand.  Oh yes!  You will have a class full of highly motivated, participating children.  They might even learn something from the activity.  However, by giving the children prizes and treats to motivate them you'll end up with an empty pocketbook and a class full of students who are only motivated for the material prize, not because they want to learn (which means they probably aren't getting much out of the activity in the first place).  There are many other ways to motivate your students and you won't have to keep a stash of "prizes" in your classroom to do it.

Be More Than Just a Teacher  

No matter what your class demographics are, there is one sure way to motivate your class into participating:  Get them interested in you as their teacher and the interest in your subject matter and class activities will soon follow.  

You're not just a teacher, you're a person too.   Sometimes children tend to have the mentality that teachers are just teachers.  They exist in school and nowhere else.  However, if you let them see you as a person and not just a teacher, you might see a change in how they react to your class and class activities.  If they respect you, they will respect the class and be motivated to participate in whatever it is you have for them to do.  Of course, that is so much easier said than done.  Here are some things you should think about when trying to figure out how to show your human side:
    
Keep Yourself Motivated 
Think back to what classes you like best and why.  If the teacher was bored and didn’t make the subject interesting, then the children often didn't like the class either.  To keep yourself motivated, change your activities to things that you are excited about.  If you’re not excited and motivated about the activities you have planned for your students, it’s time to get some new ones.

Be an Individual
Don't be afraid to talk about your interests outside of school.  Look for commonalities between you and your students and capitalize on them.  For example, if you like the same types of music as a lot of your students, bring in some CD's and let them listen to music when they are working on projects.  Make sure the words are in English so that the children can take in some English language into their subconscious.

Have fun and be silly
Seriously.  Talk in a crazy voice or be daft and make them wonder what you'll be up to next.  Some teachers frown upon the idea of playing the clown and having fun because they think it is time-wasting and that it is not their role to be an entertainer.  If it is not in your personality to be a big kid, then you cannot fake it, and that is OK.  If you use fun games and ideas your classes will still be enjoyable.  However if you are a big kid at heart then you will find that joining in, playing with the children and generally acting up and being enthusiastic will come naturally to you and is all part of the fun of teaching.  It is not clowning around for the sake of it, it servers to keep a fun and happy learning environment, and this alone can motivate your students.  If your children can laugh with you, and if they LIKE you, they'll be interested in what you're doing up there in front of the class.

Encourage  
When you're frustrated with your class because they don't seem interested in participating, it's quite easy to forget that even when they do something small, you need to keep encouraging and to stay positive. The number one way to demotivate children is to have a negative or neutral attitude.  If the children do not feel encouraged and good about learning then they will not feel motivated to learn.

Make your students Active Learners 
Think back to when you were in school.  Did you like to sit at a desk and listen to the teacher drone on and on.  This type of passive learning is BORING and demotivating.  Active learning doesn't mean the children need to by physically active throughout the class period – it just means that you design your class period around having them actively participate in the learning process.  There are lots of things you can do:

Play Games
Implement games that have the same outcome that you might have them reach by doing a worksheet.  For example, if you might normally give them a worksheet to write the correct verb next to the picture illustrating the action, have them instead practice their verbs by doing the action for the word you say or the word on a card that you hold up.  Likewise, you could do the action and have them write down the word.  You may access free samples of fun classroom games in the resource box below.

When you play games, you can use points and competition as a motivator, but not for kids under six who may find the competition too stressful.  For them, just playing the game is motivating enough.  You can also sometimes award extra credit, but use it sparingly so that it remains "extra" and a special reward.  Also if you use it too much, children can have so much extra credit that it sways the actual grades too much.  

Get Them Moving
Movement is a vital component to motivating children.  The best way to prevent children from zoning out is to get them up out of their seats at least once each class period.  Even if you just require them to come up to you instead of you going to them for help, the movement can help get them out of the trance that they sometimes get from sitting in one spot too long.  Grouping the children for study projects and activities helps as well.  If you can, let them move the desks around or sit on the floor to change things up as well.  Many games involve movement without the children needing to leave their seats, such as miming, moving certain body parts and passing things around as part of a game or race.  Therefore even teachers with large classes and no space to move can use this technique, albeit to a more limited degree.  

Get Their Hands "Dirty"
Well, not literally, but the more hands-on activities you can do the better they will learn and the more likely they will stay interested in the activity.  If you're talking about the words to describe fruit, have each student bring in a piece of fruit and use the fruits in games.  It is much more motivating and effective to be handling real objects, or learning with pictures than copying down lists of words from the board. If you are discussing how to put a sentence together, have them construct their own sentences (alone or with a partner) and write them on the chalkboard.  You can also intentionally make mistakes to encourage them to look for the "right" way.  If you do this you should warn the children so that they are on the look out for your deliberate errors, otherwise you could do more harm than good.   

Stick to a Schedule
Creating a schedule for your students help them know what to expect in the class and will help them stay organized as well which will lower the frustration level for children who sometimes struggle in school.  It is very difficult for frustrated children to stay motivated.  If they know that every Friday is a vocabulary quiz, then they won't have to wonder on Thursday if they were supposed to study last night.  If they have weekly assignments due on every Wednesday, then you don't have to spend the majority of the class time reminding them that the weekly assignment is due.  This schedule should be clearly explained to the children as well as posted in the classroom.

You can also have a mini-schedule that outlines how each class period will go.  For example, each class period you might do vocabulary exercises and games for 15 minutes and then move on to the main activity of the day.  It also helps children if you post a daily "plan" on the chalkboard so they know what will be expected of them each day when they walk into the classroom.

Variety is the Spice of Life! 
With that all said, it's also important to change things up within the schedule.  For example, if you spend the first 10 or 15 minutes each day doing vocabulary activities, make sure you vary these activities so they don't get boring and stay motivated.  If you see that the children of one class don't respond to an activity, avoid it in the future and stick to the ones they like.  It's also important to realize that some groups of children will be motivated by certain activities that the next group of children will literally detest.  For example, one group might really like role playing activities while another group would rather have a tooth pulled.   

Another way to create variety is to keep changing the pace.  Play a game that wakes the children up and follow it with a calm game so that the students do not get too excited.  Then play a fast game so the children do not become so calm that they start to become restless and misbehave or drift off.

Give Them Options
If you spend long periods of time with your class, or if you have a mixed ability class and have to split your teaching time between groups, then the following ideas may help when the children have some free or unsupervised time in your class.  Having a collection of fun learning activities for them can motivate children that like to waste time and be a time-filler for children that like to make trouble.  

Get a variety of activities for the children such as educational board games, crossword puzzles, sudoku puzzles, art projects… anything that they can learn something from that they would also find fun.  For older kids, you can make a competition to complete a packet of activities to get extra credit points or put them on a team to be the first to complete a series of tasks.
If you have a facility where you can send children to watch a film in English that would be most beneficial.  Otherwise have suitable English reading material such as comics, or teenage magazines about cars for the boys and dating and makeup for the girls!  If discipline is a problem then the children will have to work individually at their desks in silence, but at least they will be engaged in the activity.

One Last Idea…  This really motivates younger classes of children up to age 12, but it can work with all ages.  Plan an end of the term program so the children can show off what they've learned to their parents and anyone else who attends the program.  You can do it right in the classroom and have the children play games, recite poems, whatever you can come up with to have them showcase what they've learned to their parents.

Because this is such a successful strategy you can even put on two performances, one in the assembly hall in front of the whole school, and one in front of the parents, perhaps in the evening or immediately after school.  You should find that your head of school is very open to this as it gives him or her an opportunity to show off too!  

So, there you have it.  There are lots of ways you can motivate your students to WANT to learn and to pay attention without bribing them with tangible gifts that become more important to them than learning the material.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Shelley Vernon has inspired thousands of esl teachers with her games. Get her free games now to find out how to enjoy your time in class more, make your teaching fun so your students stay motivated. Receive the free games now! Fun ESL Games for children

Header image: