M is for Motivation

Ken Beatty  Dr. Ken Beatty

“Daddy, can I please help take out the garbage?”

Now that my sons are teenagers, it’s been a while since I’ve heard requests like that. But when they were young, even the most mundane events and tasks seemed to appeal to them as exciting experiences and learning opportunities.

What changed?

All children learn, but some learn better, faster, and more easily than others. Certainly some learners are more able or less able, but a key difference in any learner’s acquisition of knowledge is motivation.

Motivation can be intrinsic or extrinsic. Intrinsic motivation, or internalized motivation, is one in which learners find their own personal reasons for learning. Extrinsic, or externalized, motivation is when learners are driven by others’ ideas of what to learn, how to learn it, and how success in learning might be measured. A challenge for teachers is how to move extrinsically motivated learners to become intrinsically motivated ones. Achieving this shift fosters better attitudes toward learning and develops a culture of lifelong learning.

The young language learner

Young learners tend to approach learning as a natural outcome of their innate curiosity. In many cases, they see learning as a game and language learning in particular as an exciting code-breaking skill. This is a time of intrinsic motivation, and teachers harness it by setting learning objectives behind a façade of play. Games, songs, chants, and other gambits help get across key language points subversively, without the young learners realizing that they are internalizing vocabulary, grammar, pronunciation, and discourse structures.

To use a grammar point as an extended example, the passive voice is a structure that the Pearson Global Scale of English (GSE) sets at B1+, Level 57. The GSE says the passive voice is something students should understand in an academic text, but even at a young language learner level, it’s possible to teach the passive voice if it is cloaked in a guessing game similar to Simon Says:

Teacher: Peter broke the cookie jar.
Who broke the cookie jar?
Students: Peter did! Peter broke it!
Teacher: The cookie jar was broken.
Who broke the cookie jar?
Students: Hmm. We don’t know.

This might not be the most engaging game, and suggesting the utility of the passive voice—concealing blame for breaking a cookie jar in this case—isn’t important. The students will probably attend to, understand the difference, and internalize the structure for later use when it begins to appear frequently in books they read. The intrinsic motivation of participating in a game and solving the puzzle of the passive voice serves them at a level appropriate to their age.  

The teenage language learner

“Is this going to be on the test?” “Do we have to learn this?”

For teachers, the teenage years are marked with these and other disheartening questions and comments that inexplicably crop up in the middle of the most engaging of talks. Students’ loss of intrinsic motivation is not universal, nor is it necessarily replaced by apathy. Often, when intrinsic motivation drops off, students move toward extrinsic motivation. The drivers of extrinsic motivation tend to be the opinions and pressures of peers, parents, and teachers, all of whom may appear to the teenage student to be more concerned with grades than actual learning.

Teachers usually try their best to motivate teenagers by whatever methods possible. As a personal example, when my eldest son was pleading to give up the piano, I turned to the Internet and found the advice of an older piano teacher. She pointed out that she’d met countless of adults who said they wished that their parents hadn’t let them give it up—but she had never met a single student who was glad to have quit. Her advice was to employ a variety of strategies to goad students through their piano lessons by any means possible, including bribery.

Language teachers might be reluctant to resort to bribery, but during the teenage years, it is more necessary to show students how their language learning will provide them with useful and exciting opportunities throughout their lives. It also helps to contextualize learning. For example, one strategy in teaching grammar would be to find situations in which teenagers’ cultural icons (e.g., from music and film) have used the passive voice. 

The adult language learner

A false belief is that adults only learn a new language for one of two reasons: money or love. Certainly learning a second language in order to work at a local or international job that requires it is important. So is the opportunity for building relationships that a second language brings. But adults have other reasons to learn as well. Also, unless they are in a post-secondary institution, they are also less motivated than teenagers by grades.

Adults are usually less patient with the non-communicative aspects of language learning. They are more likely to reflect on the usefulness of grammar, including the passive voice, questioning whether it meets the needs of their everyday interactions. If they find that it does, they tend to engage to a greater degree. Teachers need to find ways to interest adults intellectually about the issues related to the passive voice. For example, ask yourself where the passive voice is used most. Francis & Kucera (1982) used corpus analysis tools and came up with the following breakdown (rough percentages):

  • Press 12%
  • Religion 12%
  • Popular lore 12%
  • Skills and hobbies 14%
  • Academic 22%
  • Government documents 25%

A follow-up question is, “Why do academics and governments use the passive voice so extensively?” In most cases, there are three main goals, including the already mentioned one of concealing blame:

  • To conceal blame: “While we’re still seeking all the facts, it’s obvious that the execution of these policies was flawed and mistakes were made,” Reagan said. (U.S. President Ronald Reagan and his government were responsible, but he chose not to point this out.)
  • To emphasize: The dock was destroyed this morning by Hurricane Doris. (The sentence could have been written as Hurricane Doris destroyed a the dock this morning, but dock is foregrounded as being the more important part of the statement.)
  • To ignore the unimportant and the unknown: The secret of Linear A was lost. (No one specific lost it, nor is identifying a person or institution important, as it is understood that the language of ancient Crete simply fell into disuse at some point.)

Does knowing the reasons for using a tense make language learning more motivating? Probably, for the simple reason that it makes it more memorable. As is the case with young learners, it satisfies the curiosity of how things work.

There are countless ways to motivate students of all ages; finding the ones that address their needs is the challenge teachers face.

Tasks for Teachers

1. Explain how the passive voice works and ask students to rank which of the following types of writing are prone to use it from most (1) to least (6). Share the answers from the above article and discuss why the passive appears more in some types of speech and writing than others.

__ Academic

__ Government documents

__ Popular lore

__ Press

__ Religion

__ Skills and hobbies

2. “The Canterville Ghost” by Oscar Wilde contains the following two paragraphs, the first spoken by a person using British English and the second by someone using American English. Ask students which uses the passive voice more and why. (The passive phrases are indicated in bold, but students could be asked to identify them as an additional task.) Ask why the passive is used in each case. Is the passive more typical of British English than American English? Why?

The old woman smiled and answered, “It is the blood of Lady Eleanore de Canterville, who was murdered on that spot by her husband, Sir Simon de Canterville, in 1575. Sir Simon disappeared seven years later. His body has never been found, but his ghost still haunts the Castle. The blood-stain is a tourist attraction now and it cannot be removed.”

“That is all nonsense,” said Washington, the eldest son of the Otis family, “stain remover will clean it up in no time,” and he took a bottle of stain remover out of his pocket and cleaned the spot. But as soon as the bloodstain had disappeared, a terrible flash of lightning lit up the room and a fearful peal of thunder made the whole building shake.

Tasks for Learners

1. Take a favorite song that features the word I and try converting the lyrics into the passive voice. Can you still sing it?

2. Collect examples of the passive voice from things you read and hear. How common is the passive in advertisements? Why?


  • Francis, W. N. & Kucera, H. (1982). Frequency analysis of English usage. Boston: Houghton Mifflin
  • Wilde, O. (1887) The Canterville Ghost. East of the Web. Retrieved from: http://www.eastoftheweb.com/short-stories/UBooks/CanGho.shtml

Dr. Ken Beatty, teacher trainer, writer, and TESOL Professor, has promoted best teaching and learning practices from primary through university levels in 300+ sessions in 28 countries. Ken is author of 130+ textbooks, including books in the Pearson series Learning English for Academic Purposes (LEAP).