Promoting Engagement in Language Learning

In order to keep your students from “dropping out,” mentally and/or physically, you need to make language learning meaningful and enable your students to succeed at it. Along the way, you may also find that you and your students are actually having fun.

Making Learning Meaningful

Students’ motivation for learning a language increases when they see connections between what they do in the classroom and what they hope to do with the language in the future. Their attention will increase when classroom activities are relevant to their other interests and when you show that you take their goals and interests seriously.

To make these connections, begin by having students list the ways they may use the language in future. Have them include both the ways they plan to use it and other ways that might arise. Ask them to be as specific as possible. For each way of using language, ask them to list specific communication tasks that they will need to be able to do. Use these purposes and tasks as the basis for task-oriented classroom communication activities.

Some lower level students will respond that they don’t plan to use the language—that they are taking the course to fulfill a university language requirement. Encourage these students to develop an imaginary scenario for themselves in which they have some reason for using the language. In doing this, some students may think of ways in which they really might use it, and others will come to understand that purpose is an integral part of language learning.

Sample Reasons for Using a Language and Related Learning Tasks

  • When traveling in a country where it is spoken

Tasks: ask for directions (and understand responses), purchase tickets and book hotel rooms, read signs and informational materials

  • To study at a university in a country where it is spoken

Tasks: understand lectures, take notes, read academic materials, talk with other students (social and academic talk)

  • To become knowledgeable about the history and culture of a country where it is spoken

Tasks: read about history and culture, understand plays, movies, and other performances, interview people from the country

  • To provide legal assistance to native speakers who are immigrants to the United States

Tasks: gather personal statistical information, explain legal requirements, explain social and cultural expectations, describe procedures, understand and answer questions.

Another way of making language instruction relevant and interesting to students is to find out what topics they are studying and draw materials for reading and discussion from those fields. However, remember that reading and discussion do not always have to be about serious issues or academic topics. Students enjoy talking about movies and television programs, vacation plans, famous people, and other popular culture topics.

Finally, don’t be afraid to drop a topic if students’ interest begins to fade. Ask them to suggest alternatives. When students know that they have some control over what they do in the language classroom, they take ownership as engaged learners.

Enabling Students to Succeed

Whatever language you are teaching, at whatever level(s) of proficiency, your students are likely to be a diverse group with a variety of strengths as learners, skills in the language, and reasons for learning it. Attitude, aptitude, prior experience, personality type, and cognitive style are among the many factors that can influence your students’ engagement in the language learning process. There is no unified profile of a successful language learner, and no single definition of what a successful language learner is, because success is defined by each learner’s individual motivations and goals. (See the resource by Earl Stevick below for an interesting study of several successful, and widely different, language learners.)

Research on learners of all ages has demonstrated a clear relationship between success and persistence: students who see themselves as successful learners are more likely to continue their studies, while those who experience little success are more likely to drop out. If you want your students to stay engaged in learning the language, you need to open up opportunities for success.

Your way of doing this will depend on your definition of the successful language learner.

  • When the successful learner is one who can pass tests and make good grades by mastering rules and forms, learning becomes nothing more than memorization. With this definition, opportunities for success are limited to students who are good at memorization. Students who can accomplish communication goals, even with error-filled utterances, are excluded from the “successful learner” group and are likely to become discouraged. In addition, you as the teacher have only one strategy–memorization–to share with your students.
  • When the successful learner is one who can achieve communication goals, using strategies to avoid or rectify miscommunication and compensate for vocabulary and grammar forms that are not yet controlled, the “successful learner” group expands and so does all students’ hope of developing communicative competence. Also, you as the teacher have full access to the repertoire of strategies for using and learning the language.

Successful experiences with using the language, even in small things such as differentiating between two similar sounds or controlling an idiomatic expression, will build your students’ self-confidence and encourage them to keep working. To help ensure that your students experience success and see themselves as successful language learners, you can do several things:

  • Use activities that allow for different ways of demonstrating proficiency, such as listening activities that involve drawing a diagram or performing a specific action to show understanding
  • Teach students to do mental dry runs in which they define successful task completion and then imagine themselves using the language to complete the task, envisioning possible turns that the communication might take and how they will handle each possibility
  • Encourage students to use the language spontaneously to communicate ideas, feelings, and opinions
  • Identify informal out-of-class language learning experiences
  • Ask students to evaluate their progress in terms of increases in their functional proficiency


Resources on Successful Language Learners

Rubin, Joan. What the “good language learner” can teach us. TESOL Quarterly 9 (1975).

Stevick, Earl. Success with foreign languages: Seven who achieved it and what worked for them. New York: Prentice Hall, 1989.

Wenden, A. How to be a successful learner: Insights and prescriptions from L2 learners. In A. Wenden & J. Rubin (Eds.), Learner strategies in language learning. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.


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