Learner Motivation

Yesterday, my students did a practice essay test.  They had to write, basically, one paragraph that made some sense and try, if you can please, to limit the grammar errors.  The topic was, “what is your dream? How do you obtain your dreams?”  It sounds a bit abstract for middle school students, but it was a topic from a chapter in the book.  At the very least, they could have simply gone with what was in there.

I was pretty surprised by the results.  I graded the essays first and I noticed that my 3rd graders are either at the high end or the very low end of language profiencency.  A good ten or so students did very well on the essay, wrote 10-12 sentences that followed logically.  Another fifteen students essentially wrote nothing at all or wrote in Korean.  There was little middle ground.

Here’s one example, that was written solely in Korean:


“I don’t have a future hope yet. I don’t know what I want to do I don’t know what to say probably because I’m not good at writing English also I haven’t decided on my future dream yet. I think I should try to learn English more I cant write English essay in Korean anymore .. at least I will try to speak English .. I’m gonna study the last exam hard.”

It is a bit heart-breaking.

Note that this student started off the essay with “My”, but quickly crossed it out and wrote the above in Korean.  The student is quiet, she sits in the back and doesn’t normally participate.  But I often see her busily scribbling English words in a notebook, memorizing vocabulary, and studying for what I assume are the standardized tests.  She’s doing what she believes she can.

Not what she can do, I am sure. — I give that anecdote to now tell this one:

Yesterday, I went to my first Korean language class.  It is a small, informal group of friends that meets with one of our Korean friends who has a little more experience using Korean Inter-language.  We have a textbook.

I showed up yesterday with the intention of being happy, upbeat, positive and extroverted.  Those were my intentions.  And they still are.  I am a language teacher, I know how important intrinsic student motivation is to the learning process.

Within the first 10 minutes of the class, everyone introduced themselves to me and I fumbled through a couple of things I can half-assedly say.  We are all friends here.

The teacher tells me that since I am new, haven’t had a chance to go over the book (got it the day before), it might best if I just watched for that day.  I said ok.

Let me now describe my motivational state– I had done next to nothing yet and still I was:












— (If you are reading this Sean, it’s not you! or the class! this is just me)–

Now, remember what I intended to feel.  Positive, extroversion, happy.

I won’t qualify or explain any one of those emotions.  I don’t know that I have the poetry of language to do so, nor the insight.  I simply had the presence of mind to think, “what am I feeling, right now” and then record my thoughts.

– I thought about my 3rd graders and that little girl who sits in the back and scribbles word after word after word during my classes.

– Or the boy who talks to me everyday, or tries to, and yet never even lifted the paper to write an essay.  Just put his head on the desk for 45 minutes.

I also thought about the boy whose English is so poor that I sincerely don’t understand hardly anything he ever says to me, who wrote some 10 or so sentences, with colorful word choice, in syntax that was completely opaque and incomprehensible.  But you could see him trying.

motivation 2

And I just wonder, what is different about him and the girl in the back?

Or what is the difference between him, and me?

2 thoughts on “Learner Motivation

  1. I feel your pain, Mark. I’m an ESL teacher in Andong, and have a few students who struggle so much it makes me hurt! At the hakwon I teach at, we are doing speaking and writing tests this week, and looking through the few who’ve turned their essays in so far, I can tell I’m going to use lots of red ink. As far as motivation goes, I try to use games, free time or humor to encourage my students to keep learning. I also use encouraging words, too! 🙂


  2. I love your questions at the end. Why is it that one person can make huge mistakes and still feel good about the process and another can’t handle the possiblility of making mistakes so it’s better to not try at all? Why do negative emotions take over the positive ones? What can a teacher (or parent) do to make the classroom a safe place to fail? I don’t know the answers….I do think though, that your personal struggles with language will make you a better teacher of language.


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