One simple thing to do to make language learning intrinsically motivating for students

Grammar is not unimportant. But if in the long process of learning a foreign language,
all we do is to make sure that everything we say or write is 100% grammatically
correct, then we are equating language learning with learning algebra and
calculus. But there is one fundamental difference between English, a language,
and algebra and calculus.

Our knowledge of the world, our experiences, and our need for social
communications, are mostly embedded in language. Through language, we can trace
the thoughts of Confucius, record our exhilaration on seeing the first smile of
our baby girl, and cheer each other up on Facebook. Language is part of our
human psyche. We derive infinite intellectual and psychological satisfaction
through using language.

But if when we learn a language, all we focus on is grammar, we turn language learning
into a very dry business. If people will only judge my grammar when I speak or
write, instead of trying to understand what I want to say, I will not have the
needed self-confidence to try to express myself. I will remain silent.

I want to argue that it IS possible to make language learning an intrinsically
satisfying activity, because I believe that human beings have the basic
psychological needs of finding out about the world, expressing themselves, and
connecting with each other. Now, the key to that should be obvious: in our
teaching, let us pay more attention to the aspect of meaning in whatever we are
teaching: grammar, vocabulary, listening, speaking, reading, and writing.

To illustrate, I cite the experience of Miss Eunice Tang who, at the time, was having
her first stint as a substitute teacher. Eunice had not received any training
in TESOL when she took on the substitute teaching. She was faced with a class
of 40 Secondary Two students with zero motivation. Eunice had only one
objective: to make English learning more interesting and meaningful for her
students. She recalls:


Imagine you’re a year 2 university student, with no teaching experience, knowing
nothing about the school where you are going to do substitute teaching, and the
students that you’re going to teach. You’re now facing a class of 40 students,
some lying on the desk, some talking to each other, some looking out to the
window… and you’ve to stay there for one month. How
would you feel? What would you be doing?

I was kind of frightened. I knew nothing about teaching, and the students knew
virtually nothing about English. There were already too many WHYs on my mind,
so I thought I had better not ask WHY they were not interested in English, but
WHAT I could do to motivate them.

 For example, in the first lesson I asked them to tell me what they enjoyed doing
outside class, as I was thinking about how to link their interests to my
lesson design, and how to make my teaching “useful” to them. Then, as they liked online games, when I taught vocabulary about shapes, I asked them to describe some of the weapons in the online games using the words that they had learnt. Towards the end of the unit, they even played the role of sales assistants and did a group presentation in English to sell the weapons to me! There were of course a number of errors in the talk, but I emphasized that mistakes were not to be feared and they should feel good for what they had
achieved. Also,
I would wrap up an activity with suggestions for improvement and asked them to re-try it. Just like football players who spend hours practising before they could
they also had “rehearsals” before giving their best presentation. And they liked
this metaphor.


Eunice’s vignettes have all the 3 elements I mentioned above: the students were using
language to learn more about the world (virtual weapons), to express themselves
(talking about their online weapons), and to connect with others (selling
weapons to each other).

This is not to say that grammar is not important. Grammar allows us to express our
ideas more accurately. (The other day, I had a long discussion with Eunice on ‘I
love it’ vs ‘I’m loving it’.) But an exclusive focus on grammar, especially on
language form (eg., ‘complete rubbish’ or ‘completely rubbish’), will only be
of interest to the serious linguist. We don’t need to abandon grammar teaching;
in fact, we mustn’t. But we can easily make language learning a much more
intrinsically motivating activity for our students if we will pay more
attention to the meaning dimension of what we are doing with students.

Now, let us look at another example which I have made up, for teaching the Present
Perfect to a class of P.4 students.


Teaching Vignette A


The teacher writes two headings on the board: Present Perfect, and Past Simple. She then
says to the students:

“Class, you have learnt the Past Simple. Can you give me some sentences in the Past
Simple. (Lukewarm response. She writes a few sentences on the board under the
heading ‘Past Simple’. OK, look at these sentences. Are they in Simple Past?
(Yes.) Now, look at the first sentence, what is the verb in the sentence? …….
What do we use the Simple Past tense for? ……. OK, now let’s look at another
tense. It’s called Present Perfect tense. (Teacher writes 3 sentences on the
board, and underline the main verb in each sentence.) Look, this is called the
Present Perfect tense. It begins with ‘has’ or ‘have’, and is followed by a
past participle. ……What is a past participle? …… When do we use the Present
Perfect tense? …… “


Teaching Vignette B

The teacher has two pictures ready. Picture 1 shows a messy sitting room and a
frowning mother. Picture 2 shows a tidied-up sitting room with the same mother,
but smiling.

Teacher shows Picture 1 to the class, and says:

“This woman is Mrs Wong. She has three children. Mrs Wong goes to work in the
morning, and is back at home at seven o’clock in the evening. When she goes
home, this is what she usually sees. Now look at the picture. Will Mrs Wong be
very happy? (Invites answers from SS.) Why isn’t she happy? (Invite answers
from SS; encourage SS to speak in English, but let less able SS answer in
Chinese if they want to offer suggestions, then say it in English for them to repeat.)

But today is Mrs Wong’s birthday. And the children want to make her happy. So they
tidy up the sitting room. When Mrs Wong is back home at 7 o’clock, this is what
she sees. (T shows Picture 2.) Now, look at the two pictures carefully. …. Will
Mrs Wong be happy? (T invites answers from SS.) Yes, I also think Mrs Wong will
be happy. Why? Now, let’s look more carefully: Oscar has swept the floor. Now
the floor is clean. Adrian has tidied the book shelves. Now the book shelves
are tidy. Suki has …

OK, why is Mrs Wong so happy? Say after me: Oscar has swept the floor. Adrian has
tidied the book shelves. Suki has …

Right, why is Mrs Wong so happy? You tell me again .

Now, let’s look at these sentences carefully. (T writes the sentences on the board, and
guides SS to deduce the structure of the Present Perfect tense.)



The major difference between Vignette A and Vignette B is that the latter is also taking
care of the meaning dimension of the Present Perfect tense, whereas the former
treats grammar as manipulation of language form only.

There is in fact nothing magical about Vignette B. In fact, most trained ESL teachers in
Hong Kong will be familiar with the approach. But we can also see that Vignette
B requires more preparation, in terms of coming up with a teaching idea, and
preparing the needed resources. And the meaning dimension does not only involve
grammar teaching. It also exists in the teaching of vocabulary, listening,
speaking, reading and writing. Good language teaching, therefore, requires a
lot of preparation. When teachers are hard pressed to deal with one thousand
and one duties at hand, all they can do is to resort to chalk and talk.

Luckily, in Hong Kong, we still have many energetic teachers who, under the circumstances, will make every effort to make their teaching interesting and meaningful for their students. (For example, see the teaching blog of Miss Janet Law at
But note that Janet hasn’t updated the blog for a while as she has been very
busy with teaching and admin work.)

In sum, teachers can make language learning a more intrinsically satisfying experience for
students by paying more attention to the meaning dimension of whatever they are
doing with their students. But they need to be given more time for preparation,
and allowed to concentrate on the part of their work which will give them the
biggest job satisfaction: language teaching.



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