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How to Manage Unmotivated English Language Learners

If you’re an English language teacher, you’ve probably encountered learners who do not seem too excited about learning.

If it happens in a group class, it can impair the dynamic of the classroom. If it’s a one-on-one class, it could turn into a grueling experience for both the learner and you. So, what can you do about it?

How can we, as teachers, work toward improving this situation? Today’s blog will be a step in that direction.

We’ll present possible reasons why learners could be unmotivated. Then, we’ll share with you how you can try to improve the class member’s attitude toward developing their English skills.

So, let’s start with first things first: possible reasons why class members are unmotivated.

Possible Reasons Learners Are Unmotivated

Knowing possible reasons for a lack of motivation can help us as teachers try to make sense of the situation.

If we have a better idea of what the reasons are, we may be able to approach the situation with more strategic classroom management.

The following are possible reasons that may cause students to be unmotivated.

1. Bad Days

We must remember that our students, both young and adult, come to us from life outside the classroom.

For this blog, we’ll focus on adult learners, however. That means they have their own troubles, struggles, battles, disappointments, let downs and the like. So there may be days when they come to us in a somewhat down mood.

That being the case, the lack of motivation may only be transitory. So, we can leave them be. They just might snap out of it. Just try not to make a big deal about it in class and embarrass them.

2. Things We Do not Know

Sometimes there are class members who regularly attend class with seemingly low or even zero interest in learning.

I use the word “seemingly” here intentionally. As teachers, we don’t always know what’s going on behind the scenes, in the minds, or in the lives of our learners.

As such, we need to take a step back and accept that this learner may not want to be there. Or they are dealing with something pretty heavy for them at this time.

Now there are teachers who feel a sense of responsibility to reach their students (with the possible benefits of English).

This is absolutely understandable, but not always advisable. I’ve seen times when teachers overstep their roles and it became a little awkward for everyone.

If you feel strongly about it, you can simply pull him or her aside after class and bring it up. If they are willing, they’ll share it with you. Otherwise, don’t press the issue.

3. Other Perspectives to Approaching a Student

On the other hand, if a learner is not motivated, we can simply accept that and move on without embarrassing them.

In the course of the lesson or class, they may actually become more motivated. Read the ‘How to’ section below to see what I mean.

Having said that, in my opinion, we shouldn’t have to reach students. We are not hired as social workers and our learners should be adult enough to understand that they enrolled in English language courses for their own purposes.

Because of that, they have a responsibility to meet us halfway. That may sound harsh, but keep in mind that if it’s a group class, there are others attending who do want to learn.

So, we have a responsibility to them also. If it is a private lesson, you can be more direct (of course with tact) and seek to address the concern head-on.

4. Bad Learning Experiences

On the other hand, perhaps our unmotivated class members are victims. They may have had classroom experiences where the teacher simply focused rigidly on the lesson.

Consequently, the learner didn’t get the opportunities he/she was seeking. We mustn’t forget that many of our learners want to use English, not just hear about it.

As a result, they may become demotivated in this type of learning environment and think every class and every teacher is the same. I’ve encountered this particular reason far too many times with new class members.

But once you demonstrate that you aren’t a typical English language teacher (hopefully because you’ve read these blogs or gotten quality OnTESOL training), they may just get more engaged.

5. Over-correction

A fourth reason is that some teachers may over-correct their students. As a result, students may feel they can’t say anything right, and just remain quiet, giving little effort.

Try to be more strategic in your feedback. Wait until your learners finish their thoughts, then tactfully provide feedback. We have a blog or two about how to give feedback. You may want to check them out.

6. Culture

A fifth reason learners may seem unmotivated can be cultural. There are cultures out there with a tendency to be more reserved than others.

That being the case, our perception of an unmotivated learner may well be a mistaken one. Seek to understand the culture of your learners and you may discover that they’re actually eager to learn.

As mentioned earlier, knowing what might be behind a learner’s lack of motivation may help us make sense of it.

If we can understand it better, we might be able to apply practical steps to help them discover motivation for learning English in your class.

However, there will be times when the reasons are not clear. So, the following ideas will help you manage those times.

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Managing Unmotivated Learners

Now that we’ve seen why learners may be unmotivated. Let’s look at things you can do to help them gain a little motivation.

1. Share the Benefits of English Language

First and foremost, unmotivated learners may simply need to know why they are in your class.

Sometimes, companies will require their employees to attend English classes. This is becoming more prevalent in my experience.

As a result, many people just don’t want to have to deal with it and are upset that they do. Others may need English lessons for career advancement, but know it’s going to be a long difficult road.

By helping them see the value of learning English, they may just catch a little bit of fire.

Possible reasons for learning English include improved work performance, the ability to communicate better with customers, promotions, being able to understand and participate more in meetings, and just plain old watching Hollywood movies and enjoying them.

2. Help Them See Improvements

A learner may become unmotivated because he/she does not see any improvement.

Well, examining themselves every day will not reveal a lot. But as teachers, we can either keep a mental record or written record (much better) as to where they were and where they are now.

Periodically, show them how they’ve improved.

It can be a matter of simply saying: “You know Sheila, before, you couldn’t tell me about your travels. Now, you can use the past tense accurately to share your travel experiences.”

3. Encourage them to Answer

By politely encouraging learners to answer questions with more detail, you may bring them out of their shells.

Sometimes learners lack self-confidence. So, a little encouragement goes a long way. It can be as simple as, “I’d love to hear your thoughts about this.”

4. Be Quiet

Simply being quiet enough to let learners speak is a big deal. Perhaps class members appear unmotivated simply because they need more time to think and speak.

When teachers talk too much, they may figure, “what’s the point.” Be quiet long enough to give class members time to prepare what they want to say, and they may just come out of their shells.

5. Allow Them to Respond Without Interruption

But it doesn’t stop there. They must be allowed to respond without interruption. We must find a way to provide non-disruptive, discreet feedback.

For online classes, I use the chat feature to accomplish that. For traditional group class environments, I write it down or list it on the board.

Instead of interrupting them while speaking, they can see where they can improve (or even incorporate it into their responses).

6. Find Their Interests

When you encounter learners with a lack of motivation, you can look for their interests. Try to find something practical to talk about, whether it’s branching off from their introduction or asking about their interests.

And perhaps to the surprise of some teachers reading this, they may even actually be interested in the lesson topic, not free-talking. So, that may become another de-motivator to include in our reasons above.

Other times, learners have prepared for and are looking forward to talking about a planned topic because it’s interesting to them, only to discover the teacher changing the lesson to free-talking.

Being aware of these options when handling unmotivated learners may just give you a foot in the door that leads to a motivated student. But remember, each learner is different.

So what works for one may not work for another. It’s kind of a hit or miss approach. Try each one, and you may discover the one that works for your particular situation.

Read: TEYL Approaches For Effective Learner Engagement

Closing Thoughts

Now that you have a little better idea of what might be behind a class member’s lack of motivation, you can work toward managing it. What about you? Do you agree or disagree with these ideas and tips?

Share your thoughts about why learners may be unmotivated. Maybe you’ve encountered reasons not listed here.

Or, you can share your experiences with unmotivated learners and how you handled things differently.

Even if you’re a teacher with a certificate, you can benefit from our supplemental training courses such as online teacher training, business English training, teaching young learners, and more. Message us at admin@ontesol.com to discuss your options.

Recommended Reading:

Three Ways To Engage And Empower Shy Adults

6 Ways You May Be Teaching English All Wrong

Techniques To Foster Participation In The ESL Class

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