INTRINSIC MOTIVATION FOR YOUNG LEARNERS
By Ben Sugiyama
So how do we get young learners into a state of being intrinsically motivated to study English?
I want to stress that this is a process. It isn’t something that will happen overnight. There
are things you can do that will have an immediate impact, but for the most part the key is to
Start with the learning environment
The children need to be in a place where they feel comfortable and feel free to express
themselves. They need routines and patterns, but they also need to feel that they are not
constricted. For example, in my classrooms, the kids come in, they put their books in the
book pile, they put their bags in the bag place, they put their drinks and snacks in their
places and then they come to the middle of the room where they can play with a puzzle or
blocks or a toy for a short time. Once everyone is in and has put their things in the correct
place, then I give them a 1-minute warning until clean up time. I get the agreement of every
child in the room. This is important. Get the agreement of the children up front and you
rarely have problems. Get their agreement throughout the lesson. “So today we’ll do this
first and then after that we’ll look at this book.” Some kids want to know the entire lesson
plan upfront and that’s fine, I’ll tell them. “Yep, today we’re doing this, then that, then this.” I
even give them the option of changing the order of events to a certain degree. It gives them
a great sense of control over their own lesson.
What happens when a child doesn’t agree? When you say “1 minute until clean up, OK?”
And the child looks at you and says “No!”
Fantastic! Treat it as a negotiation. Acknowledge their feelings and make a counter offer.
What you’ve then done is 3 things:
1. You’ve let the child know that their voice is important, over crying, sulking, tantrums or
whatever else, you’ve let the child know that by speaking, they’ll at least be listened to.
2. Secondly, you’ve given them an opportunity to use English to discuss what they want to
do (what they want to do = intrinsic motivation) – give them the tools to have the
negotiation with you. Help them to say “No, I want to play longer”
3. And the third thing you’ve done is you’ve steered the conversation to when , and not if ,
the play time or the fun activity will stop.
Build trust with your students.
Trust comes in many forms, but it is so important for children to trust the adult they are with.
I’ve known teachers in the past who have tapped into that desire that children have to be
correct and to tell others they are wrong. The teacher will purposefully make mistakes
hoping that the children will correct him or her and therefore produce the target language.
No doubt, this works. Pointing at an apple and saying banana will leave you with a room full
of four-year olds screaming “apple” at you. It works, I get it. But I believe it devalues you as
the only adult in the room to put yourself in the position of being the idiot in the room. I’ll talk
about using characters later, but for now I recommend having a bad, or foolish character
and use them to elicit the same response from the children, only this time you, as the
trustworthy adult get to be on the same side as the children. In Jimmy’s Magic House there
is a naughty character called “Bad Dog”. Poor old Bad Dog, the children love to call him out
on his mistakes or his misdemeanors.
The children also need to trust that you will listen to them if they speak, no matter what they
are talking about. Again, going back to parenting advice, they say that when a child lashes
out, the best thing we can do is to empathize with them first. We should help them to
express themselves clearly and then talk through the problem. Obviously, in a foreign
language, this is much harder to do, but it is possible. In certain situations, using Japanese
is fine, but if possible, I treat every situation as a chance to have a natural conversation
with a child in English. I’ll help them to say what they want to say in English.
Just last week, we were standing and singing an active song and out of the blue, this little
boy twirls around, arms flailing everywhere and catches a girl in the head. I stopped the
music and asked her if she was OK, she said she was. I made a big deal of checking her
head was OK. First of all, I genuinely cared for her well-being and it builds trust with her that
I’m there for her when something like that happens and secondly, I knew the boy was
watching me, gauging my reaction and by focusing on the girl first, I’m showing him that the
consequences of our actions are important and that the feelings of others are important.
Then I sat down next to him, not in front of him, that can be confrontational and set off fight
of flight mode, especially in little boys and I empathized with him. “I saw what you wanted to
do, you wanted to spin around and throw your arms out like this didn’t you. You didn’t mean
to hit her in the head, I know that. But it hurt her. When you’re in a small room like this, you
need to be careful of your body, you can hurt people. Do you want to say sorry to her?”
Trust goes both ways as well. Another teacher told me they don’t let their students go to the
toilet during class as the kids use it as an excuse to mess about and to skive off for 5
minutes. That got me thinking, “Hang on, why don’t I do that?”, but I quickly realized that
I’ve never had a problem with kids taking too long to go to the bathroom or messing about
on the way there and back. I hope it’s because my lessons are so riveting and fun that the
students can’t wait to get back, but I think it’s simply because I trust them.
In part three, I will talk about building a sense of curiosity in a lesson to capture the interest
of the students.