PDST - Primary Language Curriculum e-Bulletin 9: Motivation/Inspreagadh

What is Motivation?

Psychologists have been studying motivation for years and there are numerous theories to try to explain motivation.

Motivation is as individual as DNA. What satisfies or motivates one person may have the opposite effect on another and what motivates you today may not motivate you tomorrow.

Emotions can impact our motivation. Think about a child who has struggled with a particular area; if they associate negative emotions with an activity they may avoid it due to fear, even though it could be enjoyable or beneficial.

Not only does the outcome 'Motivation and Choice' feature in all three strands of the Primary Language Curriculum (PLC), it is integral to the whole Primary School Curriculum.

Overview of the Learning Outcomes from the Communicating Element (PLC, 2019, p. 19)

Motivation is not something I can hand someone or teach them - it is a disposition which may be modelled and nurtured. As teachers, we can create the conditions in our classrooms which support children's motivation.

This e-bulletin highlights various factors that impact motivation. It offers research based information and practical suggestions that could be used as a springboard for teachers to explore and enhance children's motivation to learn. Emphasis is placed on the key role that motivation plays in language learning and the ideas could apply across the curriculum.

There will be a subsequent e-bulletin which will focus on choice as a vehicle for fostering motivation.

The Big Picture

Before we delve into some of the nuts and bolts of motivation, let’s consider the big picture.

Take a moment to reflect on these questions:

  • Is your school/classroom a place where individuality is accepted and celebrated?
  • Do all the children feel like they belong?
  • Is it is a safe space where children are actively listened to and encouraged to try new things?
  • Are children’s thoughts and opinions valued?
  • Are there opportunities for children to take charge of their learning?
  • If you’ve answered yes to any of these questions, how do you know?

Humans are inherently motivated to communicate and this predominantly occurs through social interactions. This is why, as teachers, we must be mindful of the variety of ways in which children communicate. The desire to interact and be part of a group is referred to as integrative motivation (Gardner & Lambert, 1972). This is reinforced by research which suggests that collaboration can be motivating.

Optimal learning takes place in classrooms where all children, together with the teacher, feel a sense of relatedness and belonging as part of a community of learners. This facilitates safe social connections which foster motivation while celebrating individuality.

We know that children arrive at school with prior experiences and interests that influence their motivation towards learning. Influences may include family, friends, community and the media. An interesting study by Guthrie et. al (2001) found that children’s achievement in reading was more impacted by their engagement with reading than their family background.

Let's not underestimate the potential of a positive classroom culture in overcoming effects of challenging contexts.

Bubbling under the surface of Irish life is a great polyglot stew, a profusion of tongues unlike anything in our history. And here’s the thing we need to grasp – this is a fabulous resource for indigenous culture. It is turning a monochrome screen of words to a glorious technicolour (O’ Toole, 2019).

Learning Languages

The Irish context is quite unique in relation to language acquisition as we have three official languages: Gaeilge, English and Irish Sign Language.

Additional language learners may include children learning English as an additional language (EAL), páistí ag foghlaim Gaeilge mar dara theanga as well as children for whom Gaeilge is their third or even fourth language.

As the following quote details, motivation is a key ingredient in effective language learning: ‘If the learner is not motivated, doesn’t see the need to learn the language, or is not developmentally ready for the particular feature of the language he/she is being exposed to, then learning may not take place’ (Larsen-Freeman, 2011).

What motivates children to learn languages in your classroom?

A school and classroom culture which promotes language related values and attitudes can have far-reaching consequences in motivating L2 learners (Dorynei, 2005).

Other important considerations include providing adequate exposure to the language(s) being learned and opportunities for authentic and purposeful use of that language (Cummins & O’Duibhir, 2012).

What ‘real life’ opportunities for language learning do/could I provide in my classroom?

The downloads below highlight some ideas to further explore and celebrate languages in your classroom.

The Role of the Teacher

In this Ted Talk, Rita Pearson discusses the impact of a positive relationship between a teacher and their class.

By developing a personal relationship with your pupils, you can learn about their likes, dislikes and interests. This knowledge can be used to create conditions which may motivate pupils.

We’ve all met someone whose enthusiasm is infectious. We may have had teachers ourselves who were very passionate about a particular subject and this had an impact on us. The power of your own enthusiasm can inspire and motivate (warning: negativity can work in the same way!)

In this excerpt, the well-known playwright and teacher Bryan MacMahon sparks curiosity and motivation in his pupils through his own enthusiasm.

Children have a natural propensity for curiosity and a desire to find out about the world. Teachers who tap into and foster this natural curiosity in the classroom can unlock intrinsic motivation and encourage lifelong learning.

Below you will find a Ted Talk by Ken Robinson and some ideas on how to nurture curiosity in the classroom.

Fuelling Motivation

Intrinsic & Extrinsic Motivation

Teachers often offer rewards or incentives in an effort to motivate children, e.g. sweets, stickers, starting lunch early, contests. These practices appeal to extrinsic motivation, as the impetus to engage is coming from an external force. This can jump-start children to apply themselves in that moment, but it can be short-lived.

The article below describes extrinsic motivation and how it can be used effectively.

Alternatively, intrinsic motivation is internally driven by a belief in the value of the pursuit in its own right. Interest, enjoyment, feelings of self-worth, mastery or challenge may be at the root of this belief. For sustained effort or developing positive dispositions, intrinsic motivation is preferable.

Consider how you appeal to children’s intrinsic and/or extrinsic motivation.

Research suggests that using celebration rather than incentive may have a more lasting impact on intrinsic motivation.

For example, you celebrate work after it is completed as opposed to using the celebration as an incentive.

  • Incentive: “We’ll have a party on Friday if you work hard.”
  • Celebration: “We are going to have a party because you worked so hard.”

The Power of Words

Language exerts hidden power, like the moon on the tides (Rita Mae Brown).

Have you ever tried recording yourself teaching? Becoming more cognisant of the words we use in our classrooms - the things we say (and don’t say) - can have surprising consequences on what children learn and their perception of themselves as learners. What we say matters!

Consider the language you use in the classroom. Do unconscious biases and personal preferences sometimes creep in? Are you positive with regard to all school subjects? This could have a big impact on pupils' motivation.

Feedback is an integral part of teaching and learning and the language we use to this end has significant impact.

Feedback can be given by teachers, peers or even the children themselves on their own learning. Children need time to respond to feedback and mistakes made should be viewed as learning opportunities. Effective feedback is shown to enhance children’s learning and motivation.

According to Hattie & Clarke (2018), teachers can use praise to make the students feel worthwhile as learners, but if they wish to make a major difference, it is best to leave praise out of feedback about learning.

Open-ended questions are motivating for children as they allow for more varied responses and remove the fear of being wrong. They facilitate children sharing their opinion and making connections to their lives as well as promoting reflective thinking.

In the Zone

Your perception of the accessibility of a task is another factor that can impact motivation. Building upon Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development Theory, Hattie & Clarke (2018) refer to three learning zones: the comfort zone, the learning zone (where children are stretched just beyond their ability and scaffolded by the teacher) and the panic zone.

Take a moment to think about how these zones might influence children’s motivation to read.

Children need the opportunity to read at their instructional and independent levels which correspond to the learning and comfort zones. When children are reading beyond their ability, they are at a frustrational level and operating in their panic zone.

The link below will support you in calculating instructional and independent reading levels.

Differentiation, assessment and knowledge of the children allow the teacher to identify their learning zones and cater to all needs and abilities. Additionally, if children are encouraged to play an active role in identifying their learning zones, they will have a greater sense of ownership over their learning. There are many ways to do this and one way is explored in the next task card.

Taking Control of your Learning

Self-assessment facilitates children in identifying the next steps in their learning. By providing daily opportunities to practice this, children can develop strong self-assessment habits. To support children in becoming independent and motivated life-long learners, these practices should begin from an early age.

WALT (We are learning to)/TAFF (Táimid ag foghlaim faoi): Sharing the intended learning with the children can ensure they are more focused as they have a better understanding of the expected outcome.

You could add a ‘W’ to the end of the ‘WALT-W’ (‘W’=Why). Research by Anderson suggests that ‘explaining the why’ can enhance motivation. It allows the children to see the value of the learning and creates a stronger sense of purpose.

WILF (What I'm looking for)/TAL (Táim ag lorg): Teaching children to interpret the WILF and how to apply it to their work can support the development of self-assessment skills, a sense of ownership and autonomy.

Goal Setting: Setting short term learning goals based on self-assessment can help students stay motivated by making it easier to monitor and judge progress.

Motivation through the Process

When the children in your class identify as writers, readers or communicators (in any language), they take ownership over the process and products of their learning. This can lead to more motivated and independent learners.

Ideally, children should be aware of what they want to achieve in their learning. However, if the product of learning is their sole focus, they may disregard the process and the key learning that happens therein.

In writing, the focus is often placed on the finished, published work and children may not be aware of the work involved.

Authors set goals, collect, organise, draft, edit and revise before finally publishing. Novelists might stretch the process over many years, bloggers sometimes go through it in a day and when we tweet/text we go through the process in a minute (Calkins & Ehrenworth, 2016).

Do we encourage children to value the process of writing?

Cremin (2010) maintains that teachers often model the process having already prepared the product. “Here’s one I made earlier!” However, authentically modelling the process - the uncertainty, risk-taking and decision making it entails - is more true to life. Then, children see that struggle is a normal part of the learning process.

We would love to see some of this work in action so please tag us in any work you share on Twitter.


Many of the articles referenced are free to access through your registration on the Teaching Council website.


Created with images by Ankush Minda - "Lets bring our child out once again.." • Brett Jordan - "untitled image"