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Reflections on motivation

May 24, 2009

Hello again,

Language learning is not a quick and easy process. In a world in which instant gratification is expected, the time and effort needed to learn a language can seriously demotivate learners. This is a trend that I think will deepen ...

...as educational methods in general seem to reflect this quick-fix approach. It seems that school children prefer to do a quick Google search and download some information from the Internet rather than do solid, book-based research. I have no objection to short cuts but I think the process of learning must also involve deepening understanding and this can only happen by a slow process of digesting information.

But I don’t want to digress too much on the shortcomings of modern approaches to learning. What can teachers do to keep learners on track in the laborious process of language learning? This month’s recommended book has excellent ideas and insights and many of the author’s tips from other writings are worthy of consideration.

As teachers we need to acknowledge our importance in the process. We have a great deal of influence. We can set an example by our own attitudes to the classroom. Properly prepared lessons are themselves an example of how effort is needed for anything worthwhile to be achieved. And our attitudes are crucial. I have met so many teachers who are cynical and world-weary. Yes, I know that we are underpaid, overworked and often faced with difficult classes. But why do we want to teach? If we can’t be enthusiastic about our subject and students, we should not be teachers. I remember vividly a teacher who was beset by health and personal problems. Yet she rose above them in her teaching. She was dedicated to giving her best in every lesson and her students made outstanding progress. In contrast, another teacher was often late, sloppily dressed, ill-prepared and short-tempered. His classes grew sparser and sparser. Teaching makes heavy personal demands on us and we need to understand that before we embark on a teaching career.

Dornyei also emphasizes the climate in the classroom. We need to help students enjoy the process of learning. Humour, games, competitions: these are the elements that help to create a pleasurable learning environment. Of course learning has its heavier side too but getting a balance between the hard work and the fun is important.

Two other factors worth mentioning are interest and personalization. One of the reasons I find course books restricting is that they predetermine the subject matter for the classes. I prefer to find out what interests the students and build lessons around that. Many years ago when Bulgaria was still a Communist country I taught a group of Bulgarian teachers. I was astounded to find out that they had an unquenchable thirst for information about the British Royal family. I found I could teach all sorts of structural and lexical lessons using information about this unique group.

And personalising the lessons means helping students understand how each lesson is a piece in their own learning jigsaw: show them how it will contribute to their goals. If necessary draw mind maps and learning trees to show how it all fits together.

Nowadays, more than ever, I think we have to help students understand how to learn in order to maintain their momentum.

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  1. Franklin Orosco Says:

    I read this with great interest and found my EFL experience matching yours. I sometimes quote Scrivener in telling students that language learning is a long and messy process. I urge them to realize this and not to measure their progress against our language school's 'learn English in five months!' mentality. Right, I know I'm not loyal, but I'd rather sacrifice company loyalty for being truthful to students. So many schools here in Turkey make outrageous claims of speedy learning that of course, students feel incompetent at the process when they see they're failing level tests and still can't speak much after three months.

    Thank you for sounding the warning once again that we might share this with our students and colleagues.

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