Published 18th November 2020

adult learners

If you’ve ever had to press your snooze button or had to force yourself to put your running shoes on, then you’ll know that motivation is a complex issue. Even though you want to do something and you know it’s really important to you for some reason, that doesn’t always translate easily into action. If you’ve ever tried to learn a language you’ll know this is the same for the language learning classroom, which means it’s the same for your students in your classroom, especially adult learners. Even if your students want to learn English and they know it’s important for them, they might not always be as motivated as you’d like them to be. Let’s look at the best ways to motivate adult learners to learn English.

Motivate adult learners to learn English

With Young Learners, motivation is usually not a problem. Young Learners are generally excited to be in the classroom, as long as the lessons are interesting and engaging – in other words, as long as there are loads of games! But adults are another kettle of fish entirely.

Read more: 6 Differences between Teaching Adults and Young Learners

Considering that many of you could end up teaching English as a Foreign Language to adult learners, let’s look at the role of motivation in EFL learning and how to motivate adult learners to learn English as a Foreign Language.

The role of motivation in learning English as a foreign language

Motivation is essential for learning. Motivation determines your goals and the choices you’ll make and the steps you’ll take (or not take) to achieve those goals. In the case of language learning, motivation is what drives you to sign up for those language lessons or download that language learning app. Motivation leads to increased effort and dedication to the goal at large and the tasks at hand – in other words, the in-class language practice activities and the self-study at home. Plus, motivation is what determines our attitude towards learning. This particularly affects us as teachers because it’s the difference between a happy, engaged student and a distracted, unhappy student.

In a nutshell, motivated learners will work more effectively towards their goal of learning the language – and this is what we want in our classrooms.

Of course, there is a difference between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation – engaging in an activity for its own reasons versus doing that same activity for a reward or to avoid punishment – but you should find a combination of these motivations at play in your EFL classroom. Adults may learn a language for their own pleasure or so they can travel more easily, but they are equally as likely to study a language because of their studies or their work.

Adult learning

How to motivate adult EFL learners

So now that we know why we need to motivate our adult learners, we need to be clear on exactly how we can do this.

First of all, adult learners need to know why they are doing what they are doing and how it will lead them to their goal. Not only is their time precious but they are able to think logically about the learning process. Understanding how their classroom activities relate to their goal will help them develop a good attitude towards whatever they are doing.

Then, adult learners need their classroom activities to be a real reflection of the outside world. It is of no use for learners to write a story about a princess when they could be doing a role-play at a restaurant. Let’s face it, unfortunately, our learners are more likely to be dealing with ordering food than princesses! Since adults are likely to put their English into practice as soon as they can, we need to provide them with authentic material and recreate realistic situations in which they are likely to participate in real life.

Read more: Authenticity in the EFL Classroom

Make it personal

Also, learners bring with them a wealth of knowledge, opinions, and curiosity. They naturally want to interact with their classmates (and their teacher) on a personal level. They want to share their experiences and ideas and communicate those. After all, this is a large part of what they will be communicating and how they will be communicating in English in the outside world.

Being listened to and your ideas and thoughts being appreciated is a great motivator for any person. Personalising activities make them more meaningful for learners and, as an added bonus, makes the language more memorable.

Finally, don’t forget that your adult learners bring more than just knowledge into the classroom. They bring work stress and family responsibility and fatigue. Our adults might not be motivated to learn English on any given day simply because they are tired or distracted or stressed. We need to help them forget about the outside world and its problems for the duration of the lesson so they can focus on learning.

Read more: 5 Ways to Make Language Learning Meaningful

Motivational activities for EFL learners

  • Always make sure your learners understand the learning process. When you first meet your students, make them aware of the teaching principles and theories that your methods are based on. You don’t need to give them an entire lesson on the history of TEFL but as you do activities, point out their significance – for example, Now that we’ve looked at the form, meaning, and pronunciation of the language, we’re going to do a few activities to practice the target language before you use the language freely.
  • Communicate the goals of each lesson clearly. This can be done verbally or written on the board.
  • Include a moment or an activity for reflection after each lesson or each unit. This allows the students to assess their learning progress and to see in a very practical sense what they have achieved.
  • Use authentic materials whenever you can. You can use materials that are available locally (menus, newspapers, news reports) or there are a million and one resources available to you online. Just be sure to check that the materials are appropriate and relevant.
  • Personalise your activities. Make sure there is an opportunity during each lesson for your students to relate the material to their lives and give them a chance to connect with their classmates personally.
  • Bring elements of your own life into the lessons. Letting your students get to know you a bit better will bring them closer to you and build great rapport in your classes.
  • Be sensitive to your learners. If you notice they may be a little bit deflated or out of sorts, make sure your own energy levels are high so that it rubs off on your students.

And yes, combining all of this with all the learning theories and teaching methods and lesson plans already running around your head is tough, but motivation is the foundation of learning, so to say it’s important is an understatement.

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