12 hacks on how to boost students' motivation in the ESL class

How to encourage unmotivated students to learn English? 12 practical tips and exercises

How to encourage unmotivated students to learn English? 12 practical tips and exercises


  • Teaching qualifications
  • Activities
  • Tips & Strategies
  • Methodology

Do you remember yourself as a schoolboy or a schoolgirl? Did you always want to go to school, do homework, and prepare for exams? Probably not. 

Sometimes your students feel the same way. Lack of motivation is a common state for many people, not only for students. 

However, it is possible to cope with it. In this blog, you will find useful tips and practical exercises to keep students motivated in English classes. Also, you are going to find an answer to the question of why your students lack motivation. 

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The common reasons

Low self-esteem

Students with low self-esteem often avoid activities that they feel are too difficult. 

Such students do not even try to do something because they are afraid to fail and feel even worse about it later.

Lack of support

The lack of support is definitely an underestimated problem.

If students do not receive adequate support and encouragement from family, friends, and teachers, they come to believe that education is not of much value and that they lack competence and the ability to learn.

Too much pressure

Many unmotivated students react negatively to pressure.

Whether the pressure is imagined or real, they resort to procrastination, laziness, and avoidance to protect themselves from the discomfort of the pressure.

However, not everything is as terrible as it may seem at first glance. We are here to learn how to overcome a lack of motivation. 

Possible solutions

1. Emphasis on gains

When your students are confused or don't understand something, teach them to explain it in different ways. How to do it? 

Apply the rule: no expressions like “I can’t” or “I don’t know.” Instead, ask them to identify their progress. 

For example:

  • “I discovered two methods that do not work and am still trying”
  • “Here’s what I have found out so far…”
  • “Here’s what I’d like to ask you…”
  • “I have two questions at the moment…”
  • “I’m confused about this part…”

2. A motivated teacher

As a teacher, you must lead by example.

Nurture your own interest in the art of teaching: learn, explore, get out of your comfort zone, challenge yourself to use more technology in the classroom (or learn how to diversify lessons without technology), and learn about different teaching methods. 

In general, change your teaching habits and keep your finger on the pulse of educational innovation.

Want to get even more ideas on boosting motivation?

3. Students’ interests 

Take the time to learn more about your students and their interests

For example, at the beginning of the semester:

  • make a survey about students’ hobbies;
  • take note of the key moments when students discuss their own interests;
  • introduce activities that allow discussion of interesting issues (iOS vs. Android, hiking or kayaking, backpacking, hitchhiking, or all-inclusive, etc.);
  • plan written and spoken tasks on topics chosen by students;
  • involve famous pop culture characters to practice grammar.

In addition, the content of your classes should be related to the problems and events of real life. Look for examples that would be relevant to students outside the classroom. 

This will help with improving their understanding and motivate them to engage more in the context.

4. The right words

Sometimes you just need to find the right words for approval and encouragement. Students need to know that their achievements matter and that you notice and appreciate even the smallest efforts. 

Such feedback from the teacher works not only for young learners but also for older students. 

Support them more often, for example, like this:

  • “You’ve worked so hard.”
  • “You must be very proud.”
  • “I know it’s challenging, but you almost have it.”
  • “That’s a great suggestion.”
  • “Great remembering”
  • “You guys worked it out together!”
  • “You’re a creative thinker.”
  • “Thanks for working so hard.”
  • “You did it!”

5. “WHY”

What do we study for?

At the beginning of the lesson, write the purpose on the board and explain why certain topics are being studied. At the end, review the objective again to show your students what they learned and what activities contributed to it.

This approach provides a guide on the way to global goals and tracks progress, which is very motivating!

6. Setting goals

You can get great motivation by setting and achieving your own goals.

This works especially well for adult students. Their goals should be individual and realistic.

For example, the main goal is to be admitted to a Canadian university in two years. Now it needs to be divided into the smaller semester and monthly goals. Track progress step by step and introduce rewards for each goal.

Become a real motivation guard!

7. Clear instructions

Not understanding is frustrating and demotivating.

Therefore, students should receive clear instructions before completing any task. 

Be sure to give examples and answer all additional questions from students before starting the activity. 

Make sure all students understand your explanations. ICQs can be applied for this purpose. 

8. The spirit of competition

Healthy competition can boost group morale.

Regularly add grammar games, board games, word games, or any others with a simple reward system to your plan to keep students engaged.

You can compete not only during games but also throughout the entire lesson or module. Create a success ranking for students, which will be measured by points or the number of rewards for each achievement. 

Follow the rating scale in the classroom on the board or create an online version.

9. Add activities 

Make your classes more varied.

Surprise your students — use videos and podcasts, go outside, sing songs, discuss current news and pressing issues, bring tools, or let them use their gadgets.

10. Changing the scenery 

Avoid routine. Variety is one of the most effective ways of stimulating motivation. 

Even if students like a particular teaching method, they will get used to it and lose interest.

The element of surprise will arouse students' curiosity. Allow them to work with their classmates in pairs, small groups, and as a whole class. 

Change these settings regularly, including occasionally arranging classes outside the classroom, such as in a museum. 

Also use a variety of teaching methods and techniques — videos, role-plays, simulation games, debates, or inviting speakers.

Are there any classroom management tips?

11. Freedom!

Your students, like other people, want to have some freedom and control in everything they do.

Give them that opportunity. So, when the chance arises, give students choices in assignments, projects, or assessments.

By having students in control of the process, they will be motivated to complete the activity. Therefore, it's a good idea to give students some freedom in the classroom.

12. Right feedback

Refrain from overcorrecting during class, and don't draw too much attention to mistakes.

Instead, provide positive feedback along with comments that need to be worked on.

Also allow time for feedback and self-evaluation, where students can share with the class what they are proud of or what they have accomplished over some time.

Applicable tasks

You already know the reasons for the lack of motivation and what to do about it. Thanks to the tips, you can use different methods to engage students and come up with exercises to involve them in the learning process. 

Here are some more examples of tasks that will motivate your students to learn. 

1. Voting

Get your students thinking with a quick vote.

Write three learning objectives on the board for the next lesson and ask students to vote on the one they think is most important.

This exercise provokes curiosity in students who often look around to see who else thinks the same way. However, all three goals are good, and there is no wrong answer. 

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2. Quick notes 

In the middle of the lesson, ask your students a provocative question and tell them to quickly write down as many answers as possible. 

Then organize a kind of "Popcorn" game in which students get up whenever they want and express their ideas.

The advantage of this exercise is that it forces inactive students to follow the progress of the task because they have to listen carefully to their classmates since they do not know who will speak next. 

Failure here is unlikely because students have time for brainstorming and already have all the answers.

3. Group exercises

Take logical breaks in the middle of the lesson so that students can share ideas, brainstorm, or collaborate, and set a time limit for such activity, for example, 93 seconds.

Students are already used to the fact that the usual time limit of five minutes is stretched to seven or eight minutes. And so they will think that you really follow the time limit and will try to do it faster. 

4. Guess!

When presenting "boring" information, invite students to predict the answers. They will be interested to know if they were right.

This strategy is aimed at making students process information independently. Redirect this process specifically to students: they must think, speak, write, touch, build, and listen — that is, do something with the context.

You can find more useful ideas for diversifying your English lessons by watching the Grade University's webinars.

If you want a more extensive approach, contact  Grade University. Here, you will be able to acquire new professional skills in all areas of teaching and improve your qualifications. Develop with us and become a master of motivation for your students!

It is important to change the learning environment from time to time.

Article authors & editors
  • Veronika Syrotkina

    Veronika Syrotkina


    CELTA certified teacher of General English



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