Does this Shirt Make me Look Fat? Motivation and Vocabulary

I love the topic of motivation in language learning (past posts here, here, and here, for example). In the world of TESOL, however, it’s a little  like that old joke about the weather–everyone seems to talk about it but nobody does anything about it. In Japan, I often hear students voicing out loud how they wish they could speak English (even though they are students and even though they are enrolled in an English course at the present). They  sound a lot like the people I know who talk about losing weight or exercising more: vague, dreamy, and not usually likely to succeed. TESOL research and literature talks a lot about integrative and instrumental motivation, ideal selves, and willingness to talk, etc., concepts that just seem so far from the practical reality teachers and those dreamy-eyed students really need.  So  in this post I would like to focus on the positive and practical and provide a list of things to do that improve the chances of success, drawing on formative assessment ideas and general psychological ideas for motivation.The idea is to approach motivating learners the same way one would go about motivating oneself to lose weight or start and stick to an exercise program. Instead of talking about fuzzy motivations, let’s focus on just doing it. The enemy in my sights is much the same enemy that faces the would-be dieter or exerciser,  procrastination, a powerful slayer of great intentions.

First of all, let’s get one thing straight: you can’t do much about the motivation kids bring with them to your class on Day 1, but after that, you certainly can. What you and your students do together affects how they think and feel about language learning and themselves. That is, teachers can change attitudes by changing behaviors. And as a teacher, you have a lot of power to change behaviors. As BJ Fogg says, you shouldn’t be trying to motivate behavior change, you should be trying to facilitate behavior change.

Vocabulary learning is the perfect place to try out techniques for motivation success and overcoming procrastination because it is in many ways the most autonomous-friendly part of language learning. It can easily be divided into manageable lists, and success/failure/progress can be fairly easy to observe by everyone. It is also a topic I have to run a training session on this summer and I need some practical ideas for teachers to try out with their students.

OK, here we go. In addition to using teaching techniques that make the vocabulary as easy to understand and remember as possible, try the following:

  1. Make a detailed plan with clear sub-goals that are measurable and time-based. Break the vocabulary list into specific groups and set a specific schedule for learning them. This provides a clear final target and clear actionable and incremental steps, important tenets of formative assessment. Create a complete list and  unit-by-unit or week-by-week lists. Be very clear on performance criteria for success (spelling, pronunciation, collocations, translation, etc.). Make the plans as explicit as possible, and put as much in writing as possible.
  2. Provide lots of opportunities for learners to meet and interact with the vocabulary. Learners need to actively meet target items more than 10 times each (and more than 20 times in passive meetings) if they are expected to learn them. Recycle vocabulary as much as possible.
  3. Create a system that requires regular  out-of-class study (preview/review). Out-of-class HW assignments should start by being ridiculously small at first (tiny habits–see below), such as write out two sentences one time each. Grow and share and celebrate from there.
  4. Ensure success experiences. Success is empowering. The teacher’s job is to ensure that learners can learn and can see the results of their learning. Do practice tests before the “real” test, and generally provide sufficient learning opportunities to ensure success (“over-teach” at first if you need to). Lots of practice testing is a proven technique to drive learning, and students need to do it in class and in groups, and learn how to do it on their own.
  5. Leverage social learning and pressure. Have learners learn vocabulary together, teach and help each other sometimes, encourage each other, and just generally be aware of how everyone else is succeeding. Real magic can happen if a learning community puts its mind to something.
  6. Have learners share their goals and progress, publicly in class  and with friends, family and significant others. Post results on progress boards, challenge and results charts, etc. At a very minimum, the teacher and the student herself should always know where they are and what they need to do to improve.
  7. Remind learners of the benefits of success. Provide encouragement, especially, supportive, oral positive feedback at times when it is not necessarily expected.
  8. Make sure that sub-goal success is properly recognized and rewarded. This provides a stronger sense of achievement.
  9. Make 1-8 as pleasant (fun, energetic, meaningful) as possible.

You may already be doing these things and still not getting the progress you hope for because the students just aren’t studying enough outside of class. Products of their age, they are driven by distractions–the need to check their Twitter feeds, for example, and the pressing issue of  incoming LINE comments, or whatever. But they also suffer from the oppression of the same procrastination monster that we all suffer from. Oliver Emberton has a nice post on dealing with procrastination. For teachers, I would like to call attention to the last two items on his list of recommendations: Force a start, and Bias your environment. “The most important thing you can do is start,” Mr. Emberton writes. This is certainly true.


You can counsel them on the need to turn off their devices and “study more.” But unless you give them clear, doable, and manageable tasks and start them in class, and require and celebrate their use, it is unlikely they will get done. BJ Fogg recommends that you facilitate behavioral change by promoting tiny habits. His work makes the establishment of positive habits seem so much easier. You can watch an earlier overview of his method here, or a fun TED talk here. Much of what he describes can only be done by the individual learner, but as a teacher you can set the target habit behavior and you can help learners see the fruits of their newly established habits. Just choose a vocabulary learning strategy, reduce it to it’s simplest form, and provide a place to celebrate success. Then try to grow and celebrate the continued use of these positive habits. This modern world is a hard one to study in. There are really too many distractions too close at hand. It takes real strength, real grit, to resist them and start or keep at something new. Helping students to develop this strength and grit is now part of any teacher’s job description, I think.

If you are looking for more on how to teach vocabulary, including a nice section on web and mobile app tools that can help, Adam Simpson’s blog has a nice post on vocabulary. If you are looking for something that combines the latest in TESOL theory on motivation with practical techniques for the items I listed above, Motivating Learning by Hadfield and Dornyei is the best thing I’ve seen. It has 99 activities to choose from.

EFL Gamification 2: Triggers, Ability, and Motivation.

Gamification is a buzzword.  Gamification is being widely–and often mistakenly–deployed in business situations recently. But because of the haphazard way it is being deployed and the mixed results it seems to be achieving, it is often viewed suspiciously by many in the world of business, and most in the world of education, where the very mention of games seems to suggest an offensive lack of seriousness. There are good and bad reasons to be suspicious of gamification, and it is not surprising that many game designers have hesitations about it.

The main problem, as I see it, is that superficial features of gamification (especially points, badges, and leaderboards) are being applied without enough thought being given to the underlying cognitive and emotional constructs people –customers, employees, learners–bring to any situation. For education, gamification, game design, and user experience (UX) design present an opportunity to re-examine the mechanics and dynamics of motivation and behavior change. Yes, they apply to teaching, including language teaching.

The first post in this series looked at intrinsic and extrinsic motivation and rewards.  My main point was that depending on the type of task or behavior, the use of extrinsic rewards–like many of the the tools of gamification–can help or hinder the development of intrinsic motivation. This is a critical point, but motivation is not the only factor in behavior change. So this post will focus on behavior change and the other factors involved: triggers, ability, and context. Yes, we are still in theoretical territory here, I’m afraid. But I promise to get more practical in future posts.

B.J. Fogg, a professor at Stanford U., is someone you might not have ever heard of if you are an EFL/ESL educator. He does not do research on motivation in education. Instead, his research is in how technology changes human behavior. And his main audience is business people involved in Internet-related start-ups, trying to get people to give their ideas or services a try. EFL teachers are often faced with a challenge that is really not so different from these young entrepreneurs: how do we get learners to engage in specific behaviors, in our case, ones  that we know will help them improve in proficiency? High school students in Japan are limited in the number of classroom hours of English. They are limited by a lack of technology infrastructure in schools. They are limited by the priorities of schools that want more kids to pass certain university entrance exams. That means that a lot of lesson time is spent on teacher explanations of language that is too difficult for many learners in the room, and not enough level-appropriate input is given, and not enough meaning-focused output activities are attempted. One of the possible answers to this problem is in everyone’s hands–mobile devices. But learners have no idea of how to make use of them and teachers are really really reluctant to even try to get learners to do so, fearing accusations of unfairness, steep digital learning literacy curves, and chasms of technology coordination and control issues. And the whole undertaking would require a massive shift in educational culture to begin with. But, ah, if only it were possible…Teachers could flip lessons, focus more on engaging learners in tasks requiring language production, and concentrate much much more on giving good formative feedback on comprehension or skill development in class before  the final summative tests. What I would like to suggest is that by making use of better design–and that almost certainly includes some game design techniques, but will also likely include user user experience (UX) design knowledge–we can increase engagement, push learners toward being more active participants in language learning, create a better learning experience, and hopefully get increased time on task and increased effort, and (eventually) increased target language encounters outside of class. Seriously, who wouldn’t want their classes to be more fun and more effective at the same time?

But before we get into the specifics of how gamification might be able to help with behavior change, we need to look at what Mr. Fogg has to say about changing behavior. There are, of course, other researchers working on habit and behavior change. But I think Mr. Fogg has the easiest to understand and most usable of ideas. As an introduction, let’s listen to the man himself summarizing his work: a short video is available on this page (sorry, the video is not embeddable into this blog).

Mr. Fogg sees behavior change as habit formation. His lab has produced a wonderful  chart that  lists the different types of change by whether it involves starting a new behavior, stopping a current behavior, or increasing/reducing a current behavior. He also distinguishes the duration of the behavior change, whether it is to be temporary (dot), for a fixed period (span),  or lasting (path). For language teachers in Japan dealing with low-proficiency learners (in general, students at ‘lower-level’ schools tend to have poor study skills in addition to poor language proficiency), green span or green path behaviors are what we should be aiming at. Duh, you might say at this point. But wait, because the simplistic beauty of Mr. Fogg’s model starts now. For a behavior to change, 3 things have to be present: a trigger, the ability to do the behavior, and motivation. And the last two, motivation and ability, are trade-offs. That means if you have low amounts of ability, you need to have more motivation. If you have low amounts of motivation (which is usually the case for the learners in our target group), you need to make the behavior steps really small. According to Mr. Fogg, behaviors are always the result of sequences. But you need to think and plan them carefully to be sure they meet certain conditions. That is,  you need to have an appropriate  trigger while you target a doable behavior with sufficient motivation available. Here is another graph that visually represents this.

First, think carefully about the target behavior. Is it simple/easy enough? Do you have a trigger? Because you need one. In the classroom, triggers can be certain events. Set fixed activities in your routines that will act as triggers. One teacher I know has his students get out their dictionaries at the beginning of class for an activity that requires them. Like clockwork, the class starts and the students get out their dictionaries as the teacher writes the day’s three vocabulary items on the board. Target behavior: use dictionaries. Trigger: vocab activity at beginning of every class. Ability: getting out the dictionaries and looking up only three words is doable.  Motivation: the students want to improve at English and the teacher has convinced them that using dictionaries is important.

Think about the current motivation your learners have. Is the behavior in sync with the learners’ goals? If not, you’ll need smaller steps, like in the dictionary example above. Target behaviors in small steps (Mr. Fogg calls them tiny habits). You really can’t go wrong making your steps really really small. Once one is established, you can target a subsequent behavior. An established behavior can  be used as a trigger for another behavior. You can also go the other way and work on the motivation. Explain to learners why a behavior is important. Make the activity more desirable. Or make the behavior more attractive (fun, social, meaningful, etc.). But Mr. Fogg suggests focusing on ability and triggers. Keep in mind that although people will rarely do things they don’t like, it is sometimes the case that people come to like what they do, rather than do only the things they like.

Or leverage a context change. Changes of context are times when humans are more willing and able to lose existing habits or form new ones. So, plan your big changes from the beginning of the school year. Or if you are looking to establish some new behavior, such as pair or group work, reconfigure the classroom seating and move the desks.

Here is Mr. Fogg’s list of patterns for success. These points are well worth keeping in mind as you try to get learners to change behaviors.

“Help people do what they already want to do.”
“Put hot triggers in the path of motivated people.”
“Trigger the right sequence of baby steps.”
“Simple. Social. Fun.” (You must have at least two of these.)
“Harness the motivation wave to make future behavior easy.
“Simplicity matters more than motivation.”

Another presentation of his looks at common pitfalls of behavior change. I’ll embed it below for easier access.


Now that we have covered the theoretical ground, it’s  time to look at the actual application of gamification mechanics. That will be the topic of the next post.


Also in this EFL gamification series:

Part 1: Intrinsic and Extrinsic Rewards

Part 3: Mechanics

Part 4: The Downside and How to Avoid It

Part 5: The Whole Hog

Part 6: ARGs