“Why do you want to learn English?”

Motivation in the ESL Classroom

Getting off your butt is not easy. For anyone who has ever taken a language course, or tried to learn a language, the first step is always the hardest. The learning process has to begin somewhere. And to someone who hasn’t been in a classroom since college, its a childhood memory we were glad to see the end of.


So, as an ESL teacher in adult continuing education, it is important to remember that those blinking faces on the first day of class have already fought half the battle. They showed up today. That was not easy. And not to make mountains out of molehills, but their whole lives have been prelude to this. At least that’s how the teacher should see it. They are not blank slates. Because everything that has led them to your classroom, everything they have experienced in their lives until that day. All of their decisions, their hardships, their circumstances, their passions, their demons. All of those things came with them to the classroom. Because all of those things are what brought them to the classroom. We call this motivation.

Motivation is a simple word to describe a complex web of factors, both rational and irrational, that compel humans to good and evil. Schools that provide placement testing for newly-registered students often address motivation. Usually as an ice-breaker in lesson 1: The question “Why do you want to learn English?” is a comfortable topic to help educators place the student on a scale of 1 to 5. But in reality, it contains a wealth of information. It is the first of many questions that will form the basis of your teacher-student relationship.

The riddle of motivation, once deciphered, can unlock the key to an optimal learning environment. But the number of factors is overwhelming. And for every driving force in a student’s background, there is a potential obstacle. The fragile string of events that led them to your classroom can snap in an instant, damaging the learning process forever. People are so complex. Can we not just do our best and hope for the best?

Its true. Getting into your students’ head and finding what ticks is an unrealistic goal. A few minutes of placement testing, if and when it’s provided, is wholly inadequate to assess a student’s needs. Just think of all the things that you can or cannot know: Age, language of origin, ethnicity, religion, time spent in country, family situation, financial situation, profession, education, the list can go on. Educators have tried it. In order to integrate non-English speaking students into US schools, a variety of studies has been carried out to tailor language programs to specific circumstances. Programs with multi-lingual platforms, mentoring programs, uni-cultural, multi-cultural, transcultural… They have all had limited success, because they are all bogged down in elaborate, exhaustive and sometimes invasive analysis. And then what do you do with the data once you have it? There is so much stuff to look at that it all becomes a blur.

The big picture is a little more promising. While these programs show that a broad range of factors can determine the outcome of a learning process, motivation is the key to them all. Thankfully, motivation, while complex in its own right, can be broken down into 4 basic areas.

We know that motivation can be either intrinsic or extrinsic. In terms of language learning, a student either wants to learn a language or needs to. But it’s not enough to just want to or need to. To get a student into the classroom, they have to either have investment or agency. That means they also have to be willing and able.


Finding a student’s motivation is the first step in figuring out how they learn. When a student is asked why they want to learn English, the answer should fall somewhere in this grid. What got them to class is a positive motivation. The job of the teacher is to find out what kind of motivation they have. Here are some examples of student profiles and where they fit in:

Positive Intrinsic Agency:

This student has learned other languages, and has a knack for it. They know how to learn, and have the time to do it. They will move very quickly, ask lots of questions, and feel very comfortable in the classroom environment. They like it easy and breezy, and need like-minded students in the class. Put them in with slower or unmotivated students, and they will become resentful.

Positive Extrinsic Agency:

This student needs English to advance professionally, or needs good marks to advance in school, or they may be the designated English learner in the family. They need instruction in vocabulary that is useful to their needs and basic communication skills. This is a crash course for them. They are not interested in the nuances of grammar, or idiomatic expressions. They are not here to make friends, they are here to learn. And while they are confident that others believe in them, without support, they quickly lose their drive.

Positive Intrinsic Investment:

This student has decided to not just learn the language, but to immerse themselves into the culture. They are tirelessly interested in grammatical perfection, pronunciation and handy colloquialisms. They need a careful balance between theory and “real-world” application of their skills. That means a native speaking teacher, lots of guided conversation, target language only instruction, and preferably nobody from their own culture in the classroom to break the spell.

Positive Extrinsic Investment:

This student may be learning a language for the first time, but they are dedicated. Often they are in a situation where they want to learn more than just how to get by. They have entered into an English-only relationship with someone, whether it is romantic, professional or with their English-speaking children. So they too need to learn the nuances of the language. This means a lot of listening comprehension, and explaining vocabulary. This student will also benefit from a more cross-cultural learning environment. Knowing that their teacher speaks their language, or that they are in it with others like them, will keep them coming to class.



Whatever got them to come to their first lesson is most likely found in one of the above categories. But each of these factors also holds the kernel of their undoing. When a student leaves a class never to return, teachers are left to wonder. What ever happened to my student? Is it something I said? Am I a boring teacher? Maybe. But we must not always blame ourselves. Why did they stop coming? Most likely also falls under one of these same categories:

Negative Intrinsic Agency:

This student was just not a language learner. Or at least that’s what they believe. They quickly became frustrated and alienated by their learning environment. Rather than ask for help, they preferred to just stop attending classes. This student may have done better with patient private tutoring or with a classroom with students from the same cultural background, but they really need to overcome the enemy within themselves before learning a new language.

Negative Extrinsic Agency:

This student meant well, but they just couldn’t work out the schedule. It could be anything from a shift change at work, to taking care of a family situation, to just simply not being able to get a lift into town on Tuesday evenings. Life happens. And it happened to this student. Not much you can do.

Negative Intrinsic Investment

This student may like learning languages. But English, it turns out, was just not their thing. Something about making that “th” sound. Or maybe English represents a threat to their identity. The language of the enemy. The oppressor. Is it possible to categorically and irrationally dislike an entire language and culture? Yes it is. They don’t like English.

Negative Extrinsic Investment

This student also suffered from an irrational aversion to the English language. They themselves are fine with the language. It’s just everyone around them that was giving them a hard time. Support, both moral and financial, from family, friends, and employers is crucial in any learning process. And if they see reaching out and learning a new language as a threat, they will force the student to make a choice between conformity and self-determination. A tough place to be, and a real obstacle to learning.

So don’t take it too personally. Sure, it may be that student just didn’t jive with your teaching style. But let’s not forget that they come with baggage. That baggage can hold the key to their motivation, but it can also burden them. Identifying what drives them can help us keep them going in the right direction. That is part of the job. It’s their job to show up. In many cases that is hard enough. As teachers, we have wisdom, experience and intuition at our disposal. We are instructors, but to our students we are also coaches and facilitators. They give us permission to trust our instincts.

So next time you ask a student why they are learning English – listen! You are not just checking for pronunciation and usage of the present perfect. There is a wealth of information that will make or break your students’ success. And you have the whole course to get it out of them.