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December 2022 - Year 24 - Issue 6

ISSN 1755-9715

How a Teacher-coach Can Instil Intrinsic Motivation

Emmanuelle Betham, M Ed (Applied Linguistics) is an Educator/Coach, Company Director, author of An Introduction to Coaching for Language Learning (2018, Amazon Publishing), the I Realise series (2019-21, Amazon Publishing) and numerous articles on Education and Parenting. She is a native French speaker who specialises in Language and Communication (for Business, Family, Self-Management and Performance), facilitating Confidence, Resilience and Growth – including in the acquisition of English and French as Foreign Languages. Email:  


Instilling intrinsic motivation may sound like an oxymoron, for intrinsic motivation is by definition self-directed, but this is exactly the point: too much external encouragement or praise can have long-term de-motivating effects. Although this is especially useful to remember when working with children, it is also interesting to keep in mind when dealing with adults who have generally already developed a habit of expecting positive reinforcement.

We have all heard the advice: “Ignore the bad, praise the good”. However, in reality it is not that simple.

First of all, ignoring, as in the refusal to notice a particular behaviour (such as bad pronunciation for example), can involve forcing ourselves to look like we do not notice what we clearly do. Doing so is being untruthful and therefore likely to spoil the honest and trusting rapport we want to maintain with learners. It also fails to provide crucial feedback and teaching that the learner needs, and it does not fully acknowledge the learner’s efforts to be well understood and to communicate successfully. Therefore, in some instances, ‘ignoring the bad’ may actually not be in line with our efforts towards a non-discipline-oriented, warm and healthy teaching style.

Secondly, although praising and rewarding are clearly preferable to condemning or sanctioning, they can both cause similar problems. For one, they do not foster the learner’s sense of agency and clouds their intentionality, by teaching them, or in the case of adults by reinforcing their tendency, to primarily seek approval. Additionally, both the worry of displeasing and the pressure to live up to the teacher’s praise may undermine a learner’s enjoyment and motivation for certain activities, which can lead to anxiety, risk-aversion and fixed mindsets.

The most effective reward we get from doing something is enjoyment and/or learning in the process. Your genuine interest in your learners will help them enjoy new challenges and feel in control of their own creativity.

Instead of praising, which is the expression of approval or admiration of someone or something, you can encourage, show interest or give support in these ways:

  • Comment or ask about the process and the effort (“I noticed you used the present perfect to express something done”), not about the result or the person (“Great job”, “Your English is great”).
  • Resist the automatic temptation to compare or compete (“You finished first”) which does not nurture intrinsic motivation. Instead, you may acknowledge they are finished and give them the choice of taking a break or doing another task until the others have finished.
  • Be genuine: Give interested, specific, descriptive feedback (“I thought this was a lively, engaging presentation because you were focusing on your message and using the vocabulary you have, instead of worrying about sounding perfect”, “You looked like you enjoyed doing this”, “The audience seemed to enjoy it…”) Learners can sense when praise is not genuine (“This was the best presentation!”). This sets unrealistic standards and has the undesired effect of lowering selfesteem.
  • Pass the control over to your learner: Be inquisitive (“Tell me how did this presentation go for you?”, “What did you do different than last time?”, “How much did you enjoy doing this?”)

Genuinely observant comments and interested questions focusing on the learner’s effort and process help learners gain confidence in their abilities and empowers them to try new things, to apply themselves and to enjoy solving problems and finding solutions.

Language teachers can coach learners to express themselves freely and with confidence, by guiding them to use the target language to do things they are interested in, and by helping them recognise their mistakes so that they can use them to learn. Pointing out mistakes is essential but it needs to be done sensitively, by prioritising what to address and addressing just the right amount. It is key for teachers to ‘pick their battles’ with language learners, and it need not be a ‘battle’.

The teacher may choose to address one or two issues at a time, giving them priority in the following order of importance:

  1. What could be misunderstood or misconstrued (this applies to vocabulary or cultural behaviour)
  2. Anything that may make it hard for the learner to be understood
  3. Beautifying language and expression (both in terms of fluency and accuracy)

And the teacher can be transparent and explain the nature of the issue and why they think the learner might benefit from the ‘correction’ offered to them. When the conversation between teacher-coach and learners is clear and honest, feedback is a lot less likely to be perceived negatively.

Again, learners are unlikely to feel criticized or disapproved of when teachers show support in these ways:

  • Comment or ask about the process and the effort (“I noticed you used the present to express something in the future, so I got confused with the timing”), not about the result or the person (“Wrong tense”, “Your grammar needs work”).
  • Resist the automatic temptation to compare or compete (“Class, which tense should be used?”) Instead, nurture intrinsic motivation, for example you may help the learner choose the correct tense, possibly by giving them the choice (“Which sounds right here ‘I do’ or ‘I will do’?)
  • Be genuine: Give interested, specific, descriptive feedback (“You seemed nervous and uneasy. I would like you to worry less about sounding perfect, and instead to focus on your message and use the vocabulary you have, so that you can really enjoy talking to us, and so that the audience can enjoy listening to you too”) Learners can sense when feedback is genuine and helpful. It empowers them.
  • Pass the control over to your learner: Be inquisitive (“Tell me, how did this presentation go for you?”, “What did you do that worked well or not so well?”, “How did you feel?”, “What were you focusing on?”, “What thoughts were you having?”)

When giving any feedback, encouraging or constructive, give your learners opportunities to acknowledge their self-determined reasons for engaging in a task, and to report any obstacles they met and how they may have overcome them.


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