Secret to ESL teaching success: Keep students motivated!

There is no shortcut to ESL learning.  Acquiring a new language requires a lot of time and effort; without motivation, ESL learners will not have any interest in spending the time and effort required.

Motivation is critical to a learner’s success.

John Keller’s (1983) Attention, Relevance, Confidence, and Satisfaction (ARCS) model explains how motivation can be maintained.

  • Attention: gaining and keeping of the learners’ attention.
  • Relevance: learners understand the reasons why they need to know something.
  • Confidence: the amount of confidence the learners have both in the effectiveness of the program and in their abilities to complete it.
  • Satisfaction: learners feel they have been rewarded by the learning experience.

As ESL learners gain more confidence, they are more motivated to learn. However, if they feel too confident or lose confidence in their abilities to complete an activity, their motivation begins to decrease. The balance of building confidence and presenting a challenge is critical to an ESL learners’ success.

The figure below depicts the effect of confidence on motivation. Motivation only increases with confidence to a point, and then it will decrease. To keep students motivated, they cannot feel overly confident.


The TALL ESL system uses the principles of the ARCS model to motivate ESL learners.


The TALL ESL system keeps the attention of ESL learners through its various activities, including peer practices, practices with the teacher, creative assignments, simulations, and interactive software lessons. The learners’ attention is also held within each of these activities because TALL materials are centered on thought-provoking situations and real-life applications.


One way the TALL ESL system helps learners to see the relevance of the material is through simulation experiences. This simulation is an opportunity to practice multiple tasks with a native speaker in a scenario that approximates real life. Having such opportunities motivates learners to prepare for the various real-life scenarios they will encounter outside class. This helps them to quickly realize the relevance of the things they are studying.


Based on the confidence aspect of the ARCS model, the TALL ESL system uses a principle called “stretch but don’t overwhelm.” Both the software and the in-class instruction of the TALL program are designed to adjust to each ESL learner’s ability. These adjustments give learners confidence in their abilities, yet keep them challenged, motivating them to continue to improve.


In the TALL program, ESL learners find satisfaction in many ways. Positive feedback from teachers and peers is one source of satisfaction. Learners are also provided with performance reports that show their progress. Mastering tasks and participating in simulations are additional sources of satisfaction, as the learners are able to actually use the things they have learned.

It is a well-established fact that students who do not feel motivated to learn are far more likely to end their ESL learning early and unsuccessfully.  Following a prescribed method for motivation, such as ARCS will lead to a deeper understanding of the content, which leads to a more confident English speaker.

Adapted from “The TALL Language System: An Integrated, Research-Based Approach to ESL Instruction”, by Dr. C. Ray Graham, and Dr. Kent Parry, both of Brigham Young University. Used with permission.  To receive a free copy of the complete document, click here.

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