The Role of Motivation in Teaching English as a Foreign Language: Create an Effective Learning Environment

‘Tell me, I Forget
Teach me, I Remember
Involve me, I Learn’
Benjamin Franklin

Chrysovalantou Karvouniari


Motivation is a fundamental and important element in promoting second/foreign language learning as well as ensuring students’ success. Educators are constantly searching for efficient teaching methods to use in their classes in order to motivate their students to actively participate in English lessons and take control of their own learning, developing learner autonomy. In this paper, I will draw on my experiences as a young English learner, connecting them with L2 motivation theories. Moreover, I will discuss about what makes a classroom environment motivating as well as autonomous, making particular references to the role of the educators, teaching materials and strategies (e.g. ICT technologies, drama, storytelling), peer interaction and acceptance.

Keywords: English, foreign language, learning, motivation, learner-centred classroom, autonomy, ICT, drama, storytelling



It has been long considered that individual differences (IDs), that is the dissimilar and unique characteristics of language learners, play a significant role in language learning and can in a sense, predict success or failure in acquiring a second or foreign language. Dörnyei (2005) states that these personal characteristics differ by degree in learners and as a result some of them have difficulty in learning a language, while others can easily do it. The study of this variation among language learners undoubtedly constitutes an important research area in SLA and many researchers seek to discover how these variables are connected and how they interact with learners’ background knowledge and experiences, in order to better understand the mechanisms that humans use to learn. However, among these individual factors, aptitude and motivation are considered to be the stronger predictors of second/foreign language success (Dörnyei and Skehan, 2003). In my essay I will focus on motivation, which is a crucial affective variable for language learning and, as Dörnyei (2005) states, offers the stimulus to initiate L2 learning and at the same time the driving force to continue this often difficult process. Although many researchers have given a definition of motivation, it is impossible to come up with a single and comprehensive definition due to the complexity of this issue (Dörnyei and Ushioda, 2011). Moreover, Dörnyei (2000) supports that this complexity is the result of an attempt to explain the individual differences on human behavior by using one approach, but the real problem is the abundance of theories which endeavor to capture some of the facets of motivation (Dörnyei, 1996), as researchers have defined it from psychological, cognitive and constructivist perspectives.

Motivation is commonly thought as “an inner drive, impulse, emotion, or desire that moves one to a particular action” (Brown, 2000, p.152). However, Ryan and Deci (2000) believe that people can be motivated because they value an activity or they are moved to do something by external forces. What is more, it is possible that every individual perceives differently the concept of motivation. Williams and Burden (1997, p.120) define motivation in general as “a state of cognitive and emotional arousal which leads to conscious decision to act and which gives rise to a period of sustained intellectual and /or physical effort in order to attain a previously set goal (or goals)”.

In this paper I am going to analyze my experiences as a language learner of English, relating them to theories of L2 motivation research as well as learner autonomy and independence in language learning. Next, I will move to discuss some useful implications of motivation on classroom practices as well as propose some particular motivating teaching methods which could be implemented in class.

My experience of learning English

My personal experiences of English language are diverse and I have now realized that my different positive or negative responses and reactions to its learning are also related to my degree of motivation during the learning process, as nobody would dispute that this variable is the second most important predictor of success after aptitude (Skehan, 1989). Firstly, I started learning English, through private lessons at home, at the age of 7 years old. In fact, at that time, my first exposure to English was due to my parents’ decision to acquire a language of high prestige which would help me to survive in the contemporary competitive world. It could be stated that I was extrinsically motivated to learn the new language as at this young age I had not developed any interest in this language and culture. However, extrinsic motivation can vary to the extent its regulation is self-determined (Ryan and Connell 1989; Vallerand, as cited in Ryan and Deci, 2000). My situation could be characterized as an externally regulated motivation because I had no choice but complying with the idea of learning English. Ryan and Deci (2000) indicate that whenever a person tries to promote certain behaviors in others, the other’s motivation for this behavior can result in complete unwillingness or active engagement. My parents’ attempt to foster within me a positive attitude towards English had a beneficial impact on me. Indeed, I was actively engaged in the learning process from the first lessons and as a young learner I enjoyed the interactive activities and games as well as the friendly atmosphere created. My English teacher and her way of teaching also played a central role in my “love” for English language (Pinter, 2006). At this stage, my motivation was internally driven and I was intrinsically motivated to learn as I enjoyed the actual process of learning for its own sake and the activities that I took part in were attractive and pleasant. Intrinsic motivation is another type of self-determination theory and according to Ushioda (2008), intrinsically motivated students are likely to show high levels of active participation and employ many problem-solving strategies and techniques.

At the age of 10 years old, English as a subject was introduced in state school. Looking back on my experience, I can remember that I was happy and self-confident as I would have the opportunity to improve my skills and participate in learning due to my knowledge of the language. Moreover, at this time it was my decision to continue my private lessons and become a skillful learner, as the tasks were really interesting. My reward for this was a feeling of satisfaction and competence (self-efficacy) in doing the tasks (Bandura, 1997). Nevertheless, motivation is not static and changes depending on the time and context of the learning process. Nikolov (as cited in Pinter, 2006) reports in her study that extrinsic motivational factors in L2 learning seem to appear at the age of 12, when children begin to think of their future career and goals. Indeed, Gass and Selinker (2008, p.429), explaining Dörnyei and Otto’s model of motivation, agree that “different motives may be involved at different points in time and these motives can be reassessed and modified during the process”. This can be related to my situation because I started thinking that the successful learning of English would help me to pass examinations and would provide me with useful qualifications for my career development. Furthermore, it would provide ample opportunities for finding a job and improving my CV. In this case, I was no longer intrinsically motivated as I learnt the language in order to achieve other external goals, not related to the activity itself. However, although I was extrinsically motivated, this whole effort was directed by my own belief in the value of English as an international language, which constitutes an internal factor as it emerged from within (Williams, Mercer and Ryan, 2015). Therefore, my motivation was both extrinsic and internal. According to Noels, Pelletier, Clement and Vallerand (2000) extrinsically motivated behaviors are those actions carried out to achieve some instrumental end, such as earning a reward.

Some years later, having already an L2 proficiency qualification, after the Greek Final Exams, I decided that I desired to study English Language and Literature and get a Bachelor Degree. After all these years of learning English, I was eager to learn more about the culture and the people of England as well as enhance my skills for business development. This could be described by Gardner and Lambert’s definition as both integrative and instrumental motivation (Gardner and Lambert, 1972, p. 46-49). Particularly, they state that people with integrative motivation have a desire to understand the language and culture of another group for the purpose of interaction, while people with instrumental motivation learn a language because of a practical reason such as finding a good job or getting a high salary. Cook (2008) believes that these 2 terms are central and effective for L2 learning and learners without these types of motivation will have difficulties in acquiring new knowledge.


Teaching Implications for Classroom Practice

Thus far, I have examined my own experiences of learning English as a child, adolescent and adult respectively. I have related all of my personal experiences to some concepts and theories that affect successful second/foreign language learning. All of these are related to the foreign language classroom context and as a result, have many implications on classroom practice.

Firstly, it could be stated that a long-term and continuous L2 learning can take place when the learning context offers “in addition to cognitively adequate instructional practices”, sufficient pleasure and inspiration to construct a motivating classroom climate (Dörnyei, 2007, p.719). Teachers’ abilities and skills in creating and then increasing learners’ motivation are considered to be crucial to L2 language learning as well as to teaching effectiveness. However, the majority of L2 teachers desire to know how they can intervene during the learning process, motivate their students as well as sustain this motivation (Dörnyei, 1998). One of the Ten Commandments for motivating language learners proposed by Dörnyei and Csizer (1998, p. 215), is that it is important for teachers to “create a pleasant, relaxed atmosphere in the classroom” where all students will feel comfortable as members of the class. This positive context will enable them to feel safe to express their opinions without stress and will undoubtedly encourage their active learning as well as their emotional development. A relationship of mutual trust will be created between students and teacher.

Moreover, one of the roles that teachers play in L2 classes is that of the model as their behaviors and actions constitute a powerful tool of learner motivation. Particularly, showing enthusiasm and genuine commitment towards students during the lesson is an effective technique for increasing learners’ motivation (Dörnyei, 2001), as enthusiasm seems to be contagious in classrooms. This means that if students see their teacher’s enthusiasm and hard effort during the lesson, they will also be enthusiastic, will try harder to learn and work together with the teacher to realize their goals (Dörnyei and Ushioda, 2011). Furthermore, teachers should help learners to develop their self-confidence, identify their own strengths and weaknesses and find strategies to solve any potential problems. According to Brophy and Wentzel (2014), when students are successful, teachers should help them attribute this to their own effort, while failures should be attributed to their inadequate effort. As a result, learners will be motivated to seek the strategies that best work for them so as to surpass any obstacle, with teachers’ support when needed. They will assume in a sense responsibility for their own learning and will actively participate in the learning process.

Another important motivational factor is cultivating a good relationship among learners and creating a cohesive learner group. Learners will learn to respect each other, a sense of community will be created, while positive interactions and collaborative learning will be promoted. Dörnyei (2007, p.721) relates cohesiveness to “the closeness and ‘we’ feeling of a group”, that is, an internal force that keeps them united. It is true that uncooperative learning may have a negative impact on learners’ motivation. Hence, teachers should give them the opportunity to share their personal experiences and stories so as to acquire a sense of acceptance towards the different (Dörnyei and Murphey, 2003). For increasing and maintaining motivation, it is also important to establish from the beginning group classroom norms and assign roles to students. These norms should not be explicitly imposed by the teacher but as Dörnyei (2003) indicates, teachers should involve students in building these norms, agreeing on them and explaining their purpose.

Moreover, it is quite important, for generating students’ motivation, to “make the teaching materials relevant for the learners” (Dörnyei, 2001, p.62). McCombs and Whisler (1997) point out that some teachers believe that their students do not care for their learning, but the latter have a different opinion and, what is more, the support which they receive from educators is not sufficient. So, the crux of the problem is that the materials do not meet the learners’ needs. Therefore, teachers should incorporate a variety of teaching methods in their lesson as well as stimulating activities, relevant to students’ needs, individual characteristics and interests, which will cater for all learning styles. All classroom topics, content and activities should be related to their background and linked to their real life experiences. Dörnyei (2001) suggests that teachers should always supplement the textbooks with engaging activities, which later could be applied to real life situations. He also comments that they should orient their students towards particular agreed goals in order for them to try hard to accomplish them. It is crucial for their motivation to understand the real purpose of each activity and why they are doing it. According to Hadfield, “defining and agreeing aims is one of the hardest tasks that the group has to undertake together” (as cited in Dörnyei, 2001, p.60).

Moreover, the use of ICT, drama activities and story-based lessons may have a positive impact upon students’ motivation and creation of positive attitudes towards the target language. Firstly, ICT is nowadays part of our life and, when wisely exploited in education, can promote students’ critical thinking as well as independent learning. According to Klimova and Poulova (2014), ICT can make learning more personalized, varied and dynamic. Altun (2015) also states that technological tools are more powerful to effectively teach, to motivate and make English lessons more enjoyable and interesting. Furthermore, collaboration and interactive communication are promoted in this context of learning (Kudaibergenova, Karbozova, Suyuberdieva and Bulekbaeva, 2015). Particularly, teachers can use a variety ofwebsites for improving students’ language skills (e.g.,,, etc.),give children the opportunity to communicate with non-native speakers (e.g. via Skype, email or blog) as well as incorporate a number of motivating applications to actively engage students (e.g. Popplet, EDpuzzle, Quizlet, Dvolver, Thinklink, Fotobabble, Voki, Vocaroo, Spiderscribe, Padlet, Brainshark, Coggle etc.). Secondly, the use of drama as a teaching method can also motivate students to learn the target language as it provides meaningful, purposeful and relevant contexts for multiple language encounters (Kao and O’Neil, 1998) as well as opportunities for students to experience learning in a genuine and creative way. Apart from language, movement is another aspect of drama to foster motivation. Students are both physically and mentally engaged while they are participating in drama lessons and are more stimulated to learn in a safe and friendly learning environment. According to Maley and Duff (2005), students are also prompted to take risks in language learning in order to experiment with their knowledge of the target language as well as to discover their gaps. Thirdly, stories are also an effective and enjoyable learning medium as they arouse children’s curiosity and motivate them (Ellis & Brewster, 2014), exercise their imagination and creativity (Wright, 1995), engage their emotions and intellects, promote cultural enrichment and students can apprehend abstract ideas or universal issues of human significance. Moreover, they provide an authentic context for students to encounter and assimilate the language holistically (Gerngross, 2001) and integrate all four skills (Kirsch, 2008).

According to Dörnyei (2007, p.728) “It is one thing to initially whet the students’ appetite with appropriate motivational techniques, but unless motivation is actively maintained and protected, the natural tendency to lose sight of the goal, to get tired or bored of the activity, and to give way to attractive distractions will result in the initial motivation gradually petering out”. One way to maintain motivation is to create learner autonomy or alternatively self-regulation (Dörnyei, 2001) which is “the ability to take charge of one’s own learning” (Holec, 1981, p. 3) in a learner-centered classroom. In other words, teachers’ responsibility is not only to motivate students but mainly to help them motivate themselves (Ushioda, 1996). She also states that there is a close relationship between motivation and autonomy that can lead to self-regulated learning, which constitutes a goal of most education systems. One of the factors to achieve self-motivation, in small steps, is learners’ involvement in organizing their learning process as well as in decision-making processes. It is important to give learners freedom to make genuine choices of classroom activities, learning materials and share the responsibility for their designing (Dörnyei, 2001). The classroom context should allow them space for making wrong decisions and developing their self-assessment strategies, which will make them aware of their own progress. Moreover, there should be always room for negotiation between students and teachers regarding all aspects of language learning to make the whole process enjoyable, challenging and personally meaningful (Ushioda, 2003).

Legenhausen (2003) adds that in an autonomous classroom the teacher should abstain from explicit instruction and use implicit techniques to attract students’ attention and allow them to discover, with the teacher’s support, the features of the target language. This active participation in the day-to-day processes will develop their personal autonomy and lifelong successful foreign language learning (Benson, 2007). He adds that successful learners are seen as individuals who are able to instruct and train themselves (Benson, 2007), independent of their own learning. Finally, in order to encourage learner independence, a change in the teacher’s role is needed. According to Voller (1997), the teacher should act as a facilitator and helper who facilitates and monitors the learning process, gives students positive feedback, respects their autonomy and helps them learn how to learn. Ushioda (2011) considers that it is fundamental to encourage learners’ autonomy as we help them to experience a sense of personal agency and self-determination, crucial for the development of their motivation from within. She adds that teachers should “bring students to endorse and internalize curriculum goals and values including specifically the learning and use of foreign languages.” (Ushioda, 2011, p. 224). Little (2004) agrees that if students are involved in planning their learning in agreement with their personal preferences, they can exploit and develop their intrinsic motivation in order to achieve self-motivation.



Overall, in my paper I have examined the importance of the individual affective variable of motivation, a force “that moves people to make certain choices, to engage in action, and to persist in action” (Ushioda, 2008, p.19), in the successful or otherwise acquisition of a second or foreign language. As Corder (1967, p.164) states, “Let us say that, given motivation, it is inevitable that a human being will learn a second language if he is exposed to the language data.” Indeed, motivation has been an essential point in the field of second/foreign language acquisition research, although some of its aspects remain unclear. I have also considered the need for helping students to motivate themselves to achieve self-regulation, an area which requires continuous research. Finally, the teacher’s role is fundamental in promoting learners’ autonomy and, as Ushioda (2006, p.159) comments, “an important feature of all classroom settings, however, it is the unique capacity invested in the teacher (as an influential member of the classroom social microcosm) to develop her students’ critical awareness of the very barriers, constraints and ideologies in the surrounding social context that limit their autonomy and motivation”.



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Chrysovalantou Karvouniari entered the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens in 2011 and she obtained her BA degree from the Faculty of English Language and Literature in 2015. She has worked in private language schools in Greece teaching English as a Foreign Language to preschoolers, young learners and adults. She is currently studying a Master’s programme in Drama Education and English Language Teaching in the University of Warwick. More specifically, she specialises in teaching English through drama and storytelling, as key teaching tools of promoting foreign language learning in more creative and personalised ways. A main area of research interest is how drama can motivate students, create confidence in speaking, use language in meaningful contexts with purpose, construct non-threatening classes and improve teacher-student relationships.


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