How to Motivate the Un-Motivated

Out of the Mouths of Students

Debbie McCorkle, French Teacher, Unioto High School, OFLA Secondary Language Learning Committee Chair

The World Wide Web is a wondrous place for World Language teachers. It is a place to find authentic resources, to discover innovative teaching strategies, to explore new technologies and to read about the glories and the trials of the classroom. I find in this last place, the place where I read about the wonders and the difficulties of the classroom, a subject most worthy: motivation.

One of the largest challenges facing the world language teacher community is trying to teach, to reach, the student who is unmotivated. As teachers, we all have our methods, but for this article, I decided to ask a group of student volunteers to assist my colleagues understand motivation from their point of view. A volunteer group of students who are studying French II and III met with me for two hours after school over two days. This group brainstormed these questions: 1) What does a teacher need to do to create motivated students? 2) What does the classroom environment need to look like to create motivation? 3) What does a motivated student look like? 4) How do you motivate the un-motivated?

Please note, these students do not understand why a student would be taking a World Language (WL) class if they didn’t want to learn it in the first place. At our school, a WL is an option for completing Ohio’s Honor Diploma requirements. I explained that in some cases a WL is required for high school graduation, for special diplomas or to complete college entry requirements.

I’ve not arranged their answers in any particular order nor changed their voice. In parenthesis you’ll see some of my clarifications. Now, out of the mouths of students!

Question 1: What does a teacher need to do to create motivated students?

  1. A teacher must respect her students. Students will in turn respect the teacher.
  2. A teacher should understand what students are capable of learning. (Are you teaching them age-appropriate material? Are you using age-appropriate methods?)
  3. A teacher needs to set high expectations for learning.
  4. Vary the themes.
  5. Focus on the whole class, not just a single student. If a student is struggling, teacher should offer a tutoring session during lunch or before or after school. (Do not allow a student who is struggling to dominate a class session.)
  6. Try to include side vocabulary that goes along with the theme being taught which interests the students. (Side vocabulary are those words that organically appear during lessons.)
  7. Speak the language being taught most of the time. (I aim for the 90%.)
  8. Make sure that each day is a little different. Knowing that you’re going to class to do the same thing every day is depressing.
  9. Not rely on the textbooks so much. Demonstrate that you are proficient in the subject that you teach.  Knowing that my teacher can speak French as well as most native French speakers makes what she says more credible. (What a compliment!)
  10. Teach your students to actually speak the language, not just give them what they need to pass the test. (Sadly, this group discussed that for the majority of their classes, they get a study guide before the test, memorize it and regurgitate the information on the test!)
  11. Teachers must be patient with students.
  12. Use a variety of tactics for interacting with students.  Each segment of the lesson should require some sort of student practice.

Question 2: What does the classroom environment need to look like to create motivation?

  1. Make sure that students see their proficiency goals and what they need to/should accomplish for that month or year. (I have the ACTFL Proficiency Goals and the Ohio WL Standards posted in my room.)
  2. Make sure that student knows what is going on and are aware of upcoming quizzes/tests.  (There should be a calendar posted in the classroom and the teacher should make use of some sort of homework platform like Progress Book to help keep students organized)
  3. The teacher should create “An evolving environment (bringing in new stuff)” that reflects the culture. Bring in items/photos. (Realia)
  4. The walls should be filled with posters with simple words and phrases.
  5. Students should not be afraid to ask questions. They should feel comfortable in talking to the teacher.
  6. Put cell phones in a container.  Students could earn a prize for compliance.
  7. Sitting by a partner who participates and puts in the same effort as you is motivation itself.
  8. Being around fellow motivated students helps. Motivations spreads through osmosis.

Question 3: What does a motivated student look like?

  1. A motivated student will, if they don’t understand something, work around it or make it relatable to herself. (Circumlocution, drawing or use gestures.)
  2. They stay focused when they are “turned loose.”
  3. They participate in the class activities.
  4. They speak as much of the language as they are capable of doing.
  5. They will make an effort to understand difficult concepts.
  6. Students will show a willingness to learn new topics.
  7. Organized, prepared, not afraid to ask questions and take plenty of notes.
  8. Motivated students will bring other students up with them; they, the motivated, need to lead and establish a motivated culture in the classroom.
  9. A motivated student usually displays a sense of confidence in whatever they do. They are not sluggish. Their grades reflect their motivation.

Question 4: How do you motivate the un-motivated? We tried to define what makes a student unmotivated.

A. How do you motivate that student who is fearful to participate?

1. If a student is hesitant to speak, make him/her understand that what they say, no matter how simple, is of worth.
2. Break down tasks into manageable chunks, leading to an ultimate, achievable goal with a reward system.
3. Use motivational videos. (Students suggested creating a video that shows a student’s struggle up the proficiency level.)
4. Connect with a person who has succeeded in learning/using language in their personal/professional life.
5. See what former students are doing with language.
6. Demonstrate to the student how is language useful in daily life.

B. How do you motivate that student who came in motivated but over time stopped being motivated?

1. Ask her why did you begin your study of WL  in the first place?  Remind them of their original goals.
2. Create a sort of IEP for the unmotivated that breaks the goals into attainable chunks. Set dates to achieve these goals. Monitor their progress.

To conclude, my students are also very aware that there are some students who are beyond motivation. There are students who, because of their character or home environment, will never have the motivation to learn a WL. My students would encourage these students not to pursue a WL.  Because, as Connor May says, “Motivation shouldn’t be the teacher’s job, it should come from within the student.” Out of the mouths of students!

I am a lucky teacher!  I hope to encourage some of them to be future WL teachers. If you have any comments or questions for the students, please contact me at my school e-mail:

Students: Standing left to right: Caitlyn McKell, Jada Lewis, Phillip VanHooser, Connor May, Zach DeCamp, Andy Anders. Second row: Morgan Steinbrook, Kaylee Valentine, Halle Elliott
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Students: Left to right:  Caitlyn McKell, Kaitlyn Ellison
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This entry was posted in Committee News, Vol. 53, No. 2 - Winter 2015. Bookmark the permalink.