Motivational connections in language classrooms

Gästbloggare Alastair Henry, Professor i ämnesdidaktik, Högskolan Väst

Source: Henry, A. (2021). Motivational connections in language classrooms: A research agenda. Language Teaching, 54(2), 221-235.

The first time that I entered a language classroom as a teacher was at an eikaiwa kyōshitsu (English conversation school) in Tokyo. It was the 1980s, and like many other native-speaking university graduates, it was easy to get job teaching English in Japan. I taught small groups of students and was paid by the hour. It didn’t take me long to realize that engaged students equaled more hours, and that the best way to keep students engaged was to work with topics that were personally meaningful. So, every spare hour was spent finding materials about things my students were interested in talking about – which could range from golf and high-end shopping, to human psychology and business acumen. Although my career in Japan was not a long one – I was there for a year – insights from the eikaiwa remained with me, and have shaped my thinking about language teaching.

Like the pioneering language educator Earl Stevick – who famously stated that success in learning a language “depends less on materials, techniques and linguistic analyses, and more on what goes on inside and between the people in the classroom” – I am a firm believer of the need to understand learner psychology. Echoing motivation researcher Zoltán Dörnyei, who once confessed that as a language teacher, test-constructor, and textbook writer, he had had far more use for “relevant psychological knowledge” than linguistic theory, it seems to me that positive relationships and meaningful interpersonal interactions are the bedrock upon which successful language teaching can be built.

In a systematic overview of the motivational dimension of language education published in the journal Language Teaching, Martin Lamb argues that it is “responsiveness” – a capacity founded on empathy, and developed over years of practice – that is the defining characteristic of teachers who are successful in creating engaging classroom environments. What, though, does responsiveness entail? How does it develop? And what are the characteristics of teaching that is relationally oriented? These were questions that were central in a project I carried out with Pia Sundqvist and Cecilia Thorsen (Motivational Teaching in Swedish Secondary English, MoTiSSE). In this project we first identified 16 teachers who were successful in generating engagement. We then spent several weeks with each teacher, observing the things that took place in their classrooms.

Pulling together findings from our research in an article entitled ‘Motivational connections in language classrooms: A research agenda’, and which is published in the journal Language Teaching, I have argued that “responsiveness” translates into three dimensions of practice in which connections are central. Drawing on a model developed by Martin and Marsh (2009), I suggest that in successful motivational practice, students are able to connect with the content of teaching, with the working practices employed in the classroom, and with the teacher as a person.

For the first of these connections – ‘connecting with content’ – we found that engagement was generated when learning activities recognized and drew on students’ cultural experiences outside of school. For example, in a unit in a seventh grade class, students investigated prejudice and stereotyping in advertising. By exploring these abstract concepts in the context of everyday popular culture, they developed skills of intercultural interpretation in a manner that was meaningful and relevant.

For the second connection – ‘connecting with working practices’ – we could see how students responded positively to methods of working that supported creativity and autonomy, and which enabled students to work in ways that legitimized the types of interaction often found in digital environments. Engagement triggered in this way was most evident when students created digital artefacts – films, podcasts, and blogs – and in projects that encouraged creative use of multimodal media. In one project, students blogged about travelling in an English-speaking country. In another project, students created videos about different tourist destinations. In one class, students made a video introduction of the school for beginning students.

For the third connection – ‘connecting with the teacher as a person’ – we had become quickly aware of how the teachers in the project were highly empathic as individuals. We could also see how they were skilled in perspective taking, how they followed up on students’ initiatives, and how they adapted their teaching to students’ interests, ideas, and concerns. They were also very good at creating positive teacher–student relationships through close and warm personal interactions.

A particularly interesting insight was that students are very much aware of their teacher’s concern for them as individuals, and how their teacher’s engagement in creating meaningful activities and enjoyable working practices shaped their own responses to learning. Of course, it is hard to know how an engaged teacher influences the motivation of individual students. However, as is clearly documented in John Hattie’s synthesis of international research findings, positive relationships with teachers matter a lot, and are among the most influential factors impacting on academic outcomes. In our ethnographic project, of course, ‘evidence’ took another form; we observed students’ responses following close personal interactions with their teachers, and we listened to what students had to say about their feelings. For example, when asked to describe motivation during an essay writing lesson, one ninth grade student described how he often thought about his warm, caring, and trusting teacher:

När man skriver, så tänker man på, alltså instruktionerna innan, följer dem och när man gör det… det är ju hon som har skrivit vad man ska göra, så gör man det, så är det ju som att lyssna på henne när man skriver till henne. Jag tror att det är lite både och, där faktiskt. Och att man tänker på [Läraren], också där hur man skriver. För när man skrev, man skriver bara mer och mer. Det är roligt och man vill uppnå något. Som [Läraren] vill att vi också ska göra. Så [uppgiften], det är en bra sak. Man vill ju nästan inte sluta skriva.

Generating engagement should be high on the list of priorities for all teachers. Without engagement, learning is tiresome, and the classroom is an uninspiring place. For language teachers, engagement has particular importance. If a language is to be learnt, it needs to be used. Thus, as language teachers, it is important that we not only think about motivation in general terms, but, as Ema Ushioda has put, that we develop an awareness of “how processes of motivation evolve through day-to-day interactions and events in the classroom”. With this challenge in mind, the three connections presented here can provide a useable framework for teachers who are interested in exploring their own motivational practice.

Alastair Henry, December 2021