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Examining Extrinsic and Intrinsic Motivation in ESL Students

extrinsic and intrinsic motivation kidsLet’s be honest, friends- learning English is no smooth sail. It truly does take quite the impressive amount of gumption to not only attempt learning a new language, but to stick with it, no matter how rocky the road gets. It is not uncommon for students, regardless of age or demographic, to become frustrated with their educational progression at some point throughout their journeys. We, as educators, must maintain a sense of compassion and understanding towards these inevitable circumstances by empathizing with each individual’s purpose(s) as to why they began their studies of the English language in the first place. The first step in fully deploying that empathy is to know why the students are your students. Why are they there? What drove them to take the time out of their day, fasten on a set of headphones, and fire up Zoom for yet another lesson? For our purposes, we will indicate extrinsic and intrinsic motivation as two terms that distinguish the motives behind why a student wishes to succeed and what drives them in learning the complicated language that is English.

Intrinsic Motivation

Intrinsic motivation rests entirely within the students’ self-conscious desires to succeed or produce. With intrinsic motivation, no external factor determines their productive capabilities. A student may feel the need to achieve academically through their own satisfactory determination and fulfillment of self-worth. In other words, a student wishes to excel because they love the material! Intrinsic motivation is not entirely self-manifested. I have learned that the development of intrinsic motivations stems directly from the influence of extrinsic motivations, particularly at an early age.

extrinsic and intrinsic motivation teenExtrinsic Motivation

Extrinsic motivation is based in socio-psychology. The ambition to produce or persevere in academia stems from the acquirement of a given reward or understood punishment. A student may feel the need to perform exceedingly well in the classroom not out of pure fascination, but for rewarding promises, pressures, or imposed expectations of either the teacher, their parents, rigorous college entry requirements, and so on. Despite the potential for extrinsic motivation to falter once the reward or punishment has come and gone, it remains a prominent component as to the development of individualized academic pursuit.

So, what’s the difference?

As we have all become well aware, online ESL tutoring caters to a pretty wide variety of students. At ALO7, our students range from five-year-olds learning their A-B-C’s to more seasoned high school exam prep pupils. And, each age bracket has certain demands and expectations not only from the class and us but from themselves, as well. Children who are in the beginning stages of learning English surely derive great extrinsic pleasures from the cheers of “great job!”, to the smiles of their parents looking on from the couch, or through the promise of a few extra minutes of TV time should they sit still. Young adult students (middle and high school aged) may or may not experience the same satisfaction from complimentary expressions and gestures, but instead rely on corrective feedback and constructive criticisms in order to bolster their own skill sets for coming college exams or job markets.

I believe, through my experiences, younger students (elementary level) thrive extrinsically. The majority are still quite young to have a set-in-stone idea of which career field they wish to pursue. Whereas, older students are more intrinsically motivated by the passions they developed through their formative years. A student may have been resistant to learning English at the elementary level, but, through the fulfillment of extrinsically motivating promises or punishments, they may have developed a sincere, intrinsic passion for the study as they mature. With this, it is vital to be able to differentiate between the motivational needs of each student in order to promote a unique and holistic ESL learning environment.

How can we inspire our students?

According to Teacher William T. Lile, of the Nagoya International Senior High School, in Nagoya Japan, the ultimate purpose of academic “motivation is to capture the child’s attention and curiosity and channel their energy towards learning.”¹ An important aspect of conjuring any sort of motivational energy from the student is to develop and implement “associations”- discover what inspires them and relate it to the material. Through the art of connecting the topics and lessons to relevant experiences within the students’ own lives, they are more cognitively receptive to the lessons at hand, which, in turn, increases focus and absorption. To form personal associations with the lessons and course materials is an opportunity to generate greater interests, being that the student can decipher the relevance of the materials through their own terms. However, this is not a one-and-done type of approach.

Each student has unique motivators that determine, each to their own extent, the willingness in subjecting themselves to the necessary rigor that accompanies any academic pursuit. “Student A” may not necessarily feel passionate about their English studies but is motivated more by familial pressures to succeed. Whereas “Student B” does not place much motivational emphasis on family expectations, but rather, studies for the sole purpose of fruitful self-satisfaction. With this in mind, it is no wonder that there has been a recent “shift of emphasis from instructional techniques to developing learning techniques.”² There is no such thing as a perfect, encompassing ratio of motivators; therefore, it is our job as educators to pinpoint these motivations within each student to best engage with them to maximize the relevance from the lesson to their individual wants and desires.

I often uncover the various professional aims of my older students through engaging on a more complex level. It is not uncommon to learn of older students wishing to become doctors, lawyers, computer programmers and even teachers, themselves. I try to utilize the extrinsic knowledge of why they want to be what they chose (money, prestige, and other various influencers) and apply it to the very lesson at hand, all to spur a sense of motivation within themselves.

extrinsic and intrinsic motivation happy kidsMaking connections to prompt extrinsic and intrinsic motivation

Unsurprisingly, I rarely find my students needing any sort of help in the self- motivational department. I recently conducted a more advanced group class, ages 13-14, in where I happily learned one of my students, A. had a love for English literature, B. wished to become a history teacher, and, C. enjoyed all things comic book related. In other words, he was basically me when I was his age. Purposefully, I deviated from the lesson and, instead, talked about the new Spiderman movie and exchanged informational tidbits regarding some of our favorite authors (his was the American sci-fi author, Issac Asimov… yes I know, my jaw dropped a little, too). Throughout our little conversation, I realized the main commonality between his three interests was based on an intrinsic love for science-fiction. When we eventually segued back to the task at hand, I made sure to draw associations between the lesson and his interests. Through doing this, I noticed my student was much more talkative and excited to share his thoughts and opinions. By taking the time to invest within the student’s unique interests, primarily towards things he was passionate for and why, I was able to see first-hand the effects utilizing associations has on both extrinsic and intrinsic motivation as it pertains to classroom engagement. I also believe the student was much more receptive to me since we had many similarities. His participation was even more enthusiastic once he was immediately reminded of the benefits learning English could provide to his own personal aspirations. Extrinsic and intrinsic motivation go hand in hand.

What about us teachers? 

By inspiring our students, we are allowed a unique opportunity to not only lastingly influence them in their own academic pursuits but are permitted, ourselves, to examine why we do what we do. Let’s be honest, that alarm clock can smack us a wee bit too early sometimes. To stay off the drudgery that accompanies anything done over a long stretch of time, it is essential to, at least once in a while, re-examine our own sources of motivation, extrinsic or intrinsic. Like our students, we are sure to have a mix of extrinsic and intrinsic motivation. For myself, I was reminded of the very same youthful, intrinsically motivating passions I had at 13 by talking to my student who reminded me so much of myself. Again, everyone is different. For some, it may be peeking in and seeing your own sleeping child and, at the same time, reiterating to yourself what a wonderful example you are setting. For others, it may be taking the time to remember all the hard work and sacrifice you have endured over the years in order to build your hard-earned career. Regardless of what drives you, all of the motivation we need to keep us doing what we love is to simply remember why we love doing it.

What are your thoughts on extrinsic and intrinsic motivation? Share them with us in the comment section below.


1 Lile, William T. “Motivation in the ESL Classroom.” The Internet TESL Journal VIII, no. 1
(January 2002): np.
2 Theroux, Priscilla. “Intrinsic Motivation.” David Institute for Talent Development. 1994.

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