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Motivating Challenging Language Learners

By Bonnie Billak

Learning a new language takes patience, perseverance, and lots of hard work. As a result, it doesn’t appeal to everyone. This sometimes becomes a problem in international school settings where all of the academic instruction is in English.
Young learners can be especially challenging in this regard since they don’t understand the importance or need for learning English. Teachers need to develop strategies to help them overcome this aversion to learning English.
As the saying goes “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.” The same applies to language learning. Unless the student has intrinsic motivation to learn, the teacher will be facing a difficult challenge. Thus, the following tried and true strategies are offered to help solve the problem.
These are especially effective with young learners, but will work with students within a wide range of ages. The listing is certainly not meant to be all-inclusive. It is hoped that these tips will spark even more ideas.
Tip One: If the student loves sports, for example, tell him or her that it’s important to learn English to be able to converse with newspaper or TV reporters once he/she becomes a professional player. Also, coaches often only speak in English so the student will need to be able to understand the play instructions.
Tip Two: Many students are great fans of English-speaking musicians, actors, sports stars, etc. Therefore, take advantage of this and have them write letters in English to their idols. Sometimes the idols will even write back! This can perhaps be done as part of the writing program at your school or as a short morning activity when students first arrive.
Students can also write to environmental groups connected with topics they are studying in science or social studies. Sometimes their work might be published in professional journals or children’s magazines. All of these activities show students that English is something they can actually use, rather than thinking of it as a torturous activity limited to school settings.
Tip Three: If students love math, have them chart their English progress/usage each day on a graph kept in the back of a notebook for privacy or posted on the wall. Even graphing the most minimal growth is inspiring for them. They see it as the visualization of great progress! Periodically, specific comments regarding the rate of growth and strategies for improvement should be discussed with students individually.
Tip Four: Students with fairly high English skills, but who choose not to use them, can be appointed assistant teachers and asked to work one-on-one with lower-level students, to help you at the front of the class, or even to teach the class for a couple of minutes. This gives a huge boost to their level of intrinsic motivation.
On the flip side of this situation, there are also strategies that should be avoided when working with challenging language learners. Never scold or make denigrating remarks to the student. This will produce a total shut down regarding language learning that may be impossible to correct until the next year when the student moves to a new class with a new teacher. It makes students feel that you don’t like them and have no faith in their abilities as language learners.
Also, favorite activities should not be taken away from the student as punishment, i.e., forbidding the student to play soccer. Actions such as this might make the student feel hopeless, depressed, and hate English. Parents should also be asked to be supportive of their child rather than very strict and to not sign their child up for tutoring five days a week.
Most importantly, neither the teacher nor the parent should let the child know the true depth of their concern regarding his/her lack of language learning. Students judge the seriousness of a situation by the reactions of the adults around them. Unwarranted stress and worry will hinder language acquisition. The child should only know that you want him/her to work harder to learn English and that you are going to help.
Every child is different, so the techniques you use to develop intrinsic motivation will need to be personalized to meet the needs of each individual. The process will take patience and perseverance on your part, but the end results will be well worth the effort. Plus, in the end you will be rewarded with the incredibly wonderful experience of watching a struggling language learner suddenly bloom and speak to you in English.
Ms. Billak is an ESL Specialist at International School Nido de Aguilas in Santiago, Chile. She also does consulting work in the field of ESL teaching and program design/evaluation.

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12/28/2014 - student1983
It's great to know so many websites provide platforms for e-learning.I am a big fun of innovative courses online.For past 3 years I studied like this with 3 different languages with great results.One course which is good for english and I can defenately recomment to everyone is 4 months I could improve my english skills a lot and it's pure fun to learn with this e-learning.



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