How to Maintain Motivation in Students Who Are Running Out of Steam

It’s been busy, busy, busy, in Gabon of late as the language school I came here to run has started, well, running and I am about to embark on the Trinity Dip TESOL course. I have plenty of blog posts to write about all that but hardly anytime with which to write them. So, in the meantime, I shall keep this blog active with my first guest post in a while, courtesy of Paul Mains, an English language teacher based in Argentina, who has a few tips to share about keeping motivation levels up. Over to you, Paul…

It’s the bane of every language learner: after the initial excitement of learning a new language starts to wear off, the harsh reality of language-learning sets in. Indeed, picking up a brand new language isn’t easy; the path to fluency is long, winding, and fraught with challenges and frustrations. However, as teachers, there are some measures we can take to make our students’ journeys less taxing. If you have a student – or students – who are running out of motivation, steer them back on track with these pieces of advice:

Image via Marvin Lee (flickr)

1. Be honest with your students about the reality of language learning

Many people think that they’ll become fluent in a language simply by being exposed to it. This makes sense, as it’s how they undoubtedly learned their native language. As a native English speaker, I didn’t have to learn about phrasal verbs or memorize how to form the third conditional: it just came naturally to me.

Unfortunately, as anyone who’s learned a language later in life can confirm, learning a second language does not work the same way. Indeed, there is a stark difference between the way that a child acquires language and the way that an adult learns language, and the latter is much more difficult. If your students are feeling down about their progress, tell them to not feel discouraged: remind them that learning a second language is a slow process, and by doing so, they’re slowly but surely overcoming a huge challenge.

2. Engage with your students’ favorite target-language media

All foreign language teachers know the importance of using fun, interesting material in order to catch the attention of their students. But sometimes it takes a while to discover what really makes a student tick. Is it the slapstick sitcom humor of Friends? The intense drama of Desperate Housewives? The passionate music of Beyoncé? Spend some time getting to know your students and their interests, and whenever possible, incorporate their personal favorite series, movies, or musicians into your lesson plans.

3. Help your students find a pen pal

Having a personal connection in the target language is a great way to stay motivated and practice target language skills. Even in places where native speakers are not readily available, websites like Conversation Exchange make it easy to find a pen pal with whom your students can correspond through email or through video-chat.

Image via pixabay

4. Encourage your students to use the language while exercising

This may seem a bit far-fetched, but studies have shown that exercise provides a double advantage for language learners. First, it releases endorphins that improve mood and motivation, which will give your students more confidence and enthusiasm in their language skills. Second, recent research has linked exercise to increased memory, which will help your students retain what they’ve learned in class. So give your students some suggestions for target-language songs and podcasts, and tell them to listen to them while walking, running, lifting weights, or playing soccer.

5. Keep your eyes on the prize

Too often, learning a foreign language can seem like a series of random steps: today you’re learning about the present perfect, tomorrow you’re reviewing phrasal verbs, and while you’re certainly learning something, it’s not clear how exactly this will help you get to your end goal: fluency.

Take some time with your students to really think hard about where they want their language skills to end up. Imagine being able to hold a conversation with a native speaker, without hesitating, stuttering, or asking “What?” Or visualize what it’d be like to watch a target-language movie without having to pause and rewind. By envisioning the final product, your students will be reminded why they’re taking language classes in the first place.

6. Track your students’ progress

Learning a language takes a long, long time. Very rarely is it possible to consciously note the linguistic progress that you make in a single day, or even a week. For that reason, it can be easy to lose sight of the progress that you’ve made.

To prevent your students from feeling like their efforts are in vain, occasionally check in with them and help them see the progress they’ve made in clear, concrete ways. For example, perhaps you have a student who at first needed to use subtitles when watching a particular target-language TV show. Show her the same TV show without subtitles to prove to her that she’s made substantial progress. Alternatively, administer a language level test to your students every few months. This will enable them to monitor their own progress on their journey from A1 to C2.

Motivation ebbs and flows. As language teachers, we experience the joys of helping super-motivated students reach their goals, but we also have to be there for our students who find themselves discouraged, exhausted, or even bored. Hopefully, the advice in this article will help lift your students’ spirits when the going gets tough. Teachers: what are your favorite strategies for motivating your students? Share your favorite tips and tricks below!

Paul currently lives and teaches English in Buenos Aires, Argentina. He writes on behalf of Language Trainers, a language tutoring service offering personalized course packages to individuals and groups. Check out their free listening tests and other resources on their website. For more information, feel free to visit their Facebook page or contact with any questions.