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10th November 2015

November 2015

By Kate Cory-Wright Associate Consultant    

Award-winning author of "Our World" (National Geographic Learning)

Teacher trainer
ELT consultant



         Motivation and the Inadequacy of the “Quick Fix”

It always fascinates me at ELT conferences to note which talks draw the biggest audiences. Well-known speakers aside, the most packed out sessions are invariably the ones that offer songs and games, fun activities, or a new technique like “brain gym” which promises to motivate students.

Given that motivation is one of the key factors determining success in language and a constant challenge, the interest is understandable. Everyone wants the answer to the billion dollar question: how can we motivate others? Indeed, the most common question I receive on training courses is: Can you teach us some games and activities that will motivate our students? I know that they will enjoy the “fun” activities. So why do I feel uneasy when teachers ask me this?

Two things bother me. Firstly, games, songs, movies, and other activities are potentially very valuable in learning, but they are not solutions in themselves. The same applies to technology, like IWBs, iPads, and gaming software. What we do with them is far more important. That’s why, for me, recommending a game in isolation is a “quick fix”.  

Time permitting; the best solution I have discovered is to demonstrate some motivational games, but to provide a follow-up activity in which teachers evaluate them according to specific criteria. In Ukraine, where I trained this year, the teachers provided their own criteria, evaluated the activities, and then shared opinions.

The other reason I feel caught between a rock and a hard place is because I don’t know the students concerned. As trainers, we can’t offer a “one size fits all” solution for unmotivated students any more than a doctor can offer a prescription for a patient she has never met. Just as the doctor would check the symptoms before providing a cure, surely we should be checking what is demotivating students?  

                With my Chinese teachers, it was difficult to demonstrate real classroom activities due to the limits of a webinar course, so we approached the “symptom-cure” method using “case studies” together with Zoltan Dornyei’s ten micro-strategies for motivating language learners.

The case studies were my own. Although far from scientific, they enabled us to enter the mind-set of unmotivated students. The case studies themselves involve two methods: an interview and a gap-fill letter. The aim was to find out from students what they feel about English and why. The first was Natalia, a teenager who sits in the classroom fed up, rolling her eyes, and huffing loudly. Read what she said.

Natalia (17)

I hate English. There’s too much writing.

I’ve been learning the same things since I was a kid and I still can’t speak English.

I hate the USA.

The teacher should give us more speaking and vocabulary, less boring grammar.


Natalia’s reasons for lack of motivation seemed fairly logical to me. What struck me most, though, was how her eyes lit up when she told me what she had enjoyed:

I enjoyed a project on cooking. Projects are good, as you learn how to “defenderse” (have control over the language).

We did a portfolio once.  I dedicated it to my dad. I drew really bright flowers on the box, put computer graphics on it, and added some lyrics from Shakira’s songs. But I didn’t include any photos of myself, because I look horrible in photos.   

According to the Chinese teachers, her responses indicate that while a fun game or an activity with cool technology might boost Natalia’s motivation for one lesson, they merely act as a Band-Aid. Her real needs are much more profound, starting with the syllabus itself!  The Chinese teachers felt that Natalia would undoubtedly benefit from these micro-strategies: Increase the learners’ linguistic self-confidence and familiarize learners with the target culture.

                The next two case studies concern: (1) Amy, a young girl whose teacher insisted “did not want to learn” and (2) a man, who, by his own admission, kept dropping out of language courses. Both completed a gap-fill (adapted from Cambridge English for Schools by Dr. Andrew Littlejohn and Diana Hicks). Check out their responses.


Amy (9)

My name is Amy and I am 9 years old. In class, I like to sit near Jenny because she is very funny. To tell you the truth, I feel board [sic] in classes, because we only have to write.  I am the kind of student that teachers usually get angry with because I am naughty. You will see that I rarely pay attention and that is because I am board… [sic]


Marcelo (50+)

My name is Marcelo and I am joining your class. In class, I like to sit near someone who is not as capable as me because I feel more secure. To tell you the truth, I hate being asked questions in front of others in classes, because I make mistakes. I am the kind of student that teachers usually ignore because I am very quiet. You will see that I rarely look interested and that is because I don’t want you to call on me.

This year I want to improve my grammar. If you go at the right pace I promise not to drop out.

This time the Chinese teachers proposed the following:

Amy is in need of a challenge. Since her level is above that of her peers, differentiation is required. She needs, above all, a “young learner” version of these two micro-strategies: Promote learner autonomy and Increase the learners’ goal-orientedness.

Marcelo, whose shy behaviour incidentally reflects that of many Chinese students, needs a teacher who will: Increase the learners’ linguistic self-confidence and Create a pleasant relaxed atmosphere in the classroom.

One final point about motivation... The Chinese teachers, faced with large classes and little time to get to know their students’ needs decided to create their own gap-fill letters, which they planned to give students at the start of term. A good idea!



Dörnyei, Z. (1998) ‘Ten Commandments for motivating language learners: results of an empirical study’ Language Teaching Research 2,3: 203-229.

Littlejohn, A. and Hicks D. “Cambridge English for Schools” (Cambridge University Press)

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