How to Keep ESL Students Motivated

Teaching ESL comes with many challenges, but one of the most common is keeping students’ interest levels high. This is something that almost every teacher has to deal with, but in the world of ESL (or IELTS) it can be a huge challenge. Cultural and linguistic barriers often come into play, and make the task more difficult for you.

Have you seen a student look this bored?

In today’s article, I’m going to look at why ESL students may lose interest, and what you can do to keep them interested, or rekindle their interest.

Are they really disinterested?

The first question you should ask yourself is whether or not your students have actually lost interest in your lessons (or in English). This may sound a little obvious, but it’s actually something important to consider.

You may find that students are very interested in English, in your lessons, and even in you as a teacher. However, perhaps they are shy, lacking in confidence, or even perhaps rather culturally removed from you. Any of these factors may cause the appearance of disinterest.

Sometimes you may just lack self-esteem and become too critical of your own class. Perhaps your students love your lessons but the school administrators or the students’ parents have decided that the kids aren’t motivated enough. You need to figure out for yourself what sort of interest level the students have.

Why aren’t they interested?

If you are sure that your students are losing, or have lost, interest in your lessons, then it is important to first ask why. You should be totally honest and open with yourself, and try not to take it personally. As an experienced teacher, I have faced this problem many times. In the beginning, I felt hurt that my lessons bored my students, and later I felt angry at myself for not doing better. But these are both inappropriate responses.

You should find out what it is that bores them and try your best to change that. Don’t feel insulted if they find your lessons uninteresting. It is not a comment on you as a teacher. Try instead to view it as a challenge. It is, after all, your job.

I find that there are many reasons why an ESL student may lose interest in his or her lessons. One of the most common reasons is simply that the lessons are too difficult. Learning a new language is hard! It’s easy to forget that when you’re teaching it, but it really is something important to keep in mind. Gaining proficiency in English or any other language requires learning thousands of words and countless grammatical structures. Unless you are really passionate about it, you’re probably going to find it frustratingly difficult at times.

Conversely, some students find their lessons boring because they are too easy. This is of course going to be the case with big classes. All too often, you are assigned a group of students, some of whom are at a far higher level than the others. You try to balance the classes and teach everyone, but unfortunately a few students will be utterly baffled by 90% of what goes on. Even the most motivated ones will try and fail and ultimately lose interest in the lesson.

Other reasons include a general dislike of languages, problems at home, personality clashes within the student group, learning difficulties, and being forced to attend classes against their will. The list is endless, really. The important thing is that you invest time and effort into finding out what is wrong, so that you stand a reasonable chance of solving the problem.

What can you do about it?

Ok, so you have figured out why your students are lacking interest in your lessons. Maybe it is just one student, or maybe a few. It could even be that your whole group seems bored with your classes! It’s time to figure out a solution, and get them back into the right mood.

Scenario #1: The Whole Class

Let’s say the whole class seems bored. Chances are that you will need a big change. If this is the case, I generally find that we have slipped into a dull routine of textbook work and doing similar tasks. The best thing then is to create a lesson plan that is completely different from anything you have done before. Preferably, you can include a game or some other activity involving kinetic learning. This will jolt your students out of their funk and – at least temporarily – get them interested in the lesson.

Having a whole class of bored students can seem an insurmountable challenge, but you have to keep your chin up and make the effort. Once energy levels start to drop in a class, I find that they drop like a stone, and recovery can be a long, hard route.

One of the best things you can do in restoring interest is to implement some games, as I mentioned a few paragraphs ago. You can also bring in any number of fun activities that will shock your students out of their boring routine. If you can avoid tedious textbook work (see below), then please do. Also avoid long monologues, as any teacher should really aim to keep Teacher Talk Time to a minimum.

I personally like to leave a suggestion box in my classroom and encourage students to anonymously leave feedback for me. I realize that this may be off-putting for new teachers who lack confidence in their lessons, but it’s a really good way to find out what your students do and don’t like. In some cultures, your students may be reluctant to offer any criticism, even anonymously, but if you encourage them carefully, you’ll get some useful ideas.

Here are some fun lessons to try out:

Scenario #2: Just One or Two Students

In the case that you are dealing with just one or two students who lack interest in your lessons or material, you should take the opportunity to speak with them privately. Ask them what’s wrong, or what you can do to help them. Hopefully they will be honest with you and give you helpful information. I find that in most of the cases, as I mentioned above, the material will simply be too hard or too easy. If this is the case, you will need to figure out a way to help these students. If the material is too easy for them, you can find something more challenging, and if it is too difficult, you will need to offer extra assistance, or pair them up with someone who can help them.

You may find that you need to build rapport with a particular student by finding out what interests them and incorporating it into the lesson. I’ve found some students who care deeply about music can be assimilated better into a class activity if that activity revolves around music. Others are really into computer games, and so you can create a lesson plan that involves computer games somehow. This may be just the thing to get them involved and encourage their full participation.

Challenges in the classroom

We all know that teaching is a difficult job and that there are any number of annoyances we have to deal with. ESL is particularly difficult because you so often find yourself working for schools where the management are not trained in the latest teaching methodologies, and they may have very misguided ideas about how to organize lessons.

One of the most common problems is having a poor quality textbook, or simply having to rely too heavily upon the textbook. Textbooks are great for structuring a lesson, but if you for some reason need to use one too much (perhaps to complete it within a certain timeframe) or your book is intended for a totally different level of student, then you may find it causes real problems for you.

The first thing to do here is to talk with your employers and see if they are willing to swap the books or let you pick and choose only the most useful parts. If you can, you should avoid having the students look at their books too much. Language is about communication, so make sure they are talking with each other or with you, rather than staring at the pages of a book.

A typical lecture hall. Not ideal for teaching language.

Seating arrangement can be a massive issue, too. In almost any school I saw in China, the chairs were lined up and pointed at me, the teacher. This seems quite sensible from their perspective, but as we ESL teachers know, this is not a good way to arrange an ESL classroom. You want your students looking at each other so that they can interact. Chairs that are fixed to the ground make for a very difficult situation. In this case, try getting your students on their feet and moving about the room. This should shake them out of that bored and get them learning on their feet for a change.  

Head Teacher
I'm the founder and editor of Beatdom Literary Journal, author of Scientologist! William S. Burroughs and the 'Weird Cult' and World Citizen: Allen Ginsberg as Traveller. I'm also a teacher and operate the popular website, TED-IELTS.

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