Chronicle of the Month – February 2009

Posted in: Chronicles

Motivation: A Key Contributor to Success in the Language Classroom
By Selin Alperer Tatli

Among the factors that affect second language learning, motivation has been cited as a key contributor to success in language learning. The term is related to the psychological readiness and openness of the learner to learn the language. It also calls for an interaction between both innate and environmental factors (van Lier, 1996). The former implies a willingness to engage in the learning experience for the sake of learning and improving oneself, and is referred to as intrinsic motivation. The latter, in contrast, implies an external factor such as a reward, praise or grade for learners’ involvement in the task, named as extrinsic motivation in the literature. While both types of motivation interrelate and coexist in the language classroom, research maintains that success in learning is closely related to transforming extrinsic motivation into intrinsic motivation (Deci & Ryan, 1985; van Lier, 1996). So, even if you are taking language courses because it is required by your company, you could still see this as an opportunity for your self-development and value the experience for its own sake. The question is, how can we promote this intrinsic motivation in learners?

Research on motivation reveals many social and psychological factors that are influential on learner success. Task value is one of those factors. In general terms, it implies the importance attached to the task by learners, the pleasure in doing the task, and the contribution of the task to learners’ needs and future goals. Thus, students seem to manifest more positive attitudes towards the task, and the target language in general, when it is relevant to their lives, so that they can establish a relationship between what is being done in the classroom and their personal experiences.

Task value also has implications for task challenge. Students’ perceptions of efficacy and expectancy are closely related to the difficulty level of the material. Hence, students’ motivation can be adversely affected if there exists a discrepancy between the difficulty level of tasks and students’ level of proficiency. Activities that address low-achievers could become very frustrating for more advanced learners and there may be the risk of demotivating students who are ready for more challenging work. Similarly, tasks that attend to the needs of more advanced learners could have serious damage on the self-efficacy development of rather poor students. Tasks that students engage in should involve challenge to a reasonable degree without overwhelming learners and it is the teacher’s responsibility to maintain this balance. Encouraging cooperative learning could be helpful (Woolfolk, 1993), especially if students with different levels are matched, so that the interest level of more advanced learners is sustained and the motivation of poorer learners is triggered through peer assistance.

Another important factor that is considered to be positively correlated with motivation is allowing students some choice and control over the activities. Assor, Kaplan and Roth (2002) have proposed that providing students with choice, allows them to have freedom over choosing tasks that they believe are « consistent with their goals and interests. » This freedom also contributes to the development of autonomy in students’ learning experiences. While in most educational settings, goals are imposed on students by authority structures, teachers should be responsible for creating opportunities that emphasize « the availability of options » (van Lier, 1996) if intrinsic motivation is aimed at.

Choice includes not only some control over content, but also having the flexibility to decide on the manipulation of the content. For example, if students are taking a reading course, they could be given the opportunity to choose some of the readings that will be dealt in class. If they are encouraged to make selections for the materials, they will choose texts that are relevant to their needs and interests and that pertain their personal goals. This would most probably have positive influences on the development of their intrinsic motivation. Similarly, in such a case, students could be provided with the options to work on the task individually or in collaboration with peers. Introverted learners, for instance, feel more comfortable when they work on their own, whereas extroverts work better when they engage in group activities. If teachers allow students the freedom to work in the way they want, the needs of students with different learning styles could be met at the same time.

Considering the critical role of motivation in second language classrooms, teachers should be fully aware of the motivational factors that support a learning environment and be willing to employ any strategies that might contribute to the emergence of motivation in language learners. Learners, on the other hand, should be aware of such factors so that they could also contribute to the creation of a desirable learning environment for themselves in collaboration with their teachers. Learning a new language is a challenging task, but motivation can contribute a lot to the learning process and make the language classroom more fun and productive.


Assor, A., Kaplan, H., & Roth, G. (2002). Choice is good but relevance is excellent: Autonomy-enhancing and suppressing teacher behaviours predicting students’ engagement in schoolwork. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 72, 261-278.

Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (1985). Intrinsic motivation and self-determination in human behaviour. London: Plenum Press.

van Lier, L. (1996). Interaction in the language curriculum: Awareness, autonomy and authenticity. London: Longman.

Woolfolk, A. E. (1993). Educational Psychology. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

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