TAKE AWAY CORNER 2 – motivating YLs

TAKE AWAY CORNER 2 – motivating YLs

This is the second of a series of articles* for teachers of very young learners, linking highly-practical, tried-and-tested activities by Ola Komada (Teddy Eddie) and ELT methodology background notes by Grzegorz Śpiewak (deDOMO Education).


PART 1 by Ola Komada

In the last few years I have come up with a lot of different tricks to motivate young learners in the classroom. Proper motivation allows for brilliant lessons that are not only enjoyed by young students but also let us teach successfully. And what is more, proper motivation cuts down on disciplinary problems. Today I am going to share five ideas that as a great teacher of YLs you may want to  keep at the back of your head, whenever you feel that the motivation is not as strong as you would wish for.


 However trivial it may sound, the best kind of motivator is… a truly interesting lesson itself. To be genuinely interesting, lessons  must be adjusted to suit your students’ level, age, and needs. They must be fun not only for pupils but also for you. Young learners would sense your dishonesty so do not do anything that is against your character or current disposition.

Spend some time planning each lesson so that you will feel confident and comfortable during every minute of it:

  • avoid writing your lesson plans on little pieces of paper that may be easily lost or confused. The best way is to memorize what you want to do, or to write the plan on the board before the lesson, so that you can refer to it whenever you need.
  • make sure the activities you planned are not too difficult but at the same time not too easy, they must offer a reasonable challenge.
  • make sure you mix static and dynamic elements, too much time on the carpet may be boring and too much TPR may be tiresome for your pupils.
  • plan your lessons in a way that allows for easy change of the order of activities. Sometimes when you plan a slow and calm beginning it appears that your students are very excited and active and then it is good to start with something vigorous and finish off with more quiet exercises.
  • be flexible! Sometimes when you prepare a great game, spend hours rethinking it and preparing materials, your students will start walking around, yawning and/or saying they do not want to do that. You must pass on that game and accept that sometimes your plan is not their plan…
  • ask your students, even those very little ones, to evaluate the lessons and the activities you have prepared for them. Ask them what they did, what they liked most, and what they would especially like to do next time. Everybody likes to have a choice, even 4-year-olds!


 Make your students feel safe but not too safe! They should not feel bored or believe that every lesson is going to have the same structure. From time to time, it’s great to surprise them. It is easy to achieve when you keep a healthy balance between the familiar and the extraordinary.

To this end, set some routines – not only the “hello” and “bye-bye” songs at the beginning and at the end of your lessons but also some other routines to use in the meantime. Let’s say that in the middle of each session you will ring a bell. When pupils hear it they need to sit in one corner of the classroom and answer some questions that you will ask (it may be a simple revision of a new structure, but the strange ritual will keep students engaged and interested).

One of the teachers I observed this year introduced a great routine to keep students on their toes and always ready and eager for the next activity. Whenever they got too excited or started wandering around she would sit down, cover her head with her arms and count slowly and loudly “ONE, TWO, THREE.” Students were so used to this routine that when she opened her eyes they were always sitting in front of her in a neat row, and she always acted very surprised to see them do that, which ended up in bursts of laughter.

Having introduced your main lesson routines you should try to surprise your students during every lesson, preferably by offering something new every time. I may be a new game, a new song, or if you do not have any new, surprising material,  build some extra suspense yourself: “Wow! Look at that! We’re going to play a wonderful game! Who will join me?”

Here are a few such surprises from my treasure chest. Hide the class mascot and let students look for it. Put something in a “magic box” and let students take it out and guess what is there to be done. Do some “abracadabra” and change one song into another or one set of flashcards into a different one. When you modulate your voice properly, whisper and act surprised, students will quickly follow that mood. And these simple tricks will make every lesson special.


You are a great teacher! Seriously! Do you know how I know that? You are reading this article because you are interested in developing your teaching skills and that is great!

How did you feel while reading the two lines above? Good? I‘m pretty sure you did. We all like being appreciated and praised. We all act better and try harder when someone pats our shoulder and says “well done!” Children are the same. That is why you should praise them as much as it is possible during each lesson. Words such as “great!” “well done!” “beautiful” should follow every performance that is acceptable to you. However, remember that complementing must be honest and sincere. Do not praise students when they behave badly or when their performance is worse than usual (let alone unsatisfactory). Tell them honestly that you feel they could do better, repeat the activity if needed.  And if their performance is better the second time round – praise them!

Do not always praise your students as a whole group, appreciate individuals as well:

“Bartek, I could really hear you singing, well done!”
“Zosia, I like the way you coloured this picture, very thoroughly!”
“Tomek, you are a great friend, you helped Zosia with this exercise, thank you!”
“Maja, I see you understand everything well, because you were showing all commands with not even one mistake! Great!”

There are always tons of reasons to express your appreciation, you must not forget to point them out.


In your young learners’ classroom you should not forget about “traditional” motivators by which I understand small prizes that pupils can get from you every time they behave well or perform really satisfactorily. The most popular kind of such prizes are stamps that are stamped on students’ little hands or stickers that are stuck to their T-shirts. While I would certainly not abandon stickers and/or stamps, I do believe that this kind of materialistic, mechanical motivator should be an extra thing at best and should never be used as a kind of blackmail, which unfortunately often happens: “you will get your stamp(s) only if you are quiet!” Especially that it is really difficult to be consistent with these. Worse, at the end of the lesson a pupil who has not won his/her stamp or sticker may end up in tears and lose all motivation whatsoever. So, be careful with stamps!

Some teachers try to be too good, as I see it, and motivate students by giving them sweets, little toys, some extra rewards, that are costly and have nothing to do with motivation. Rather, they teach  kids that they learn in order to get a reward, not for themselves. And as young learners do not know marks and grades yet, let’s leave it this way as long as we can.


Young learners love collecting things! So when you reward students with stamps or pluses, establish a rule that will let students get something special when they collect a certain number of them. Recently I have talked to a teacher who does give students stamps after each lesson but stamps them on the last page of their books. She does not distribute the stamps evenly, but always according to each student’s performance. The students is to collect, say, ten stamps and then they can get a sticker. If some of them gets fewer stamps (or none) during one lesson, they tend to try really hard next time, as their road to the final reward feels longer and not that obvious.

Another idea to give students little pieces of a picture after each lesson  – in order to build the whole picture they need to collect five different pieces . They end up with a kind of a jigsaw puzzle that they can colour as an extra self-reward.

I often introduce a routine with first graders that at the beginning of the course we make a poster and outline their hands. After each lesson I draw pluses or smileys in each hand. The posters grow fuller and more and more colourful and we analyse them from time to time. I always try to point out that all those marks mirror the knowledge that they are gaining and I show them how much they already have in their heads.

Of course at the end of the course we always count the pluses or smileys and if students exceed the magical number of one hundred (or any other we set at the beginning) after a great deal of praising and after informing parents how much they learned I take them to the nearest ice cream shop.

Plan your lessons thoroughly, offer your students new and fresh ideas, praise them and let them earn a stamp or two during the lessons and I am sure that their motivation and eagerness to take part in activities will often surprise you!


PART 2 by Grzegorz Śpiewak

Motivation with a small case „m”

The activities as well as pedagogical strategies and tricks that Ola Komada offers in the practical section of this article make strike the reader as being placed more towards the external (extrinsic) rather than the internal (intrinsic) end of the motivational spectrum. This is worth noting at the outset as the former, external motivators, often referred to metaphorically as “carrots”, have had some rather bad press recently, with just about everyone praising the merits of internal/ intrinsic motivation. Two notable advocates of the latter are Daniel Pink (2011) and Alfie Kohn (1999), both of whom argue very forcefully against external motivators as at best ineffective – and possibly damaging long-term.

Given the intuitive usefulness of the activities described above, I hope that the small case “m” in my title sends a very clear message as to where I stand. I wish to climb down from the high horse of Motivation with a capital “M” – and not just because I only have a very small amount of space here.

In my view, backed by years of experience observing young learners and their language teachers at work, the grand debate about motivation in education is only indirectly relevant to foreign language learning and teaching. Before we take a radical ideological stance one way or the other, it’s good to take into account at least two key factors: who the learners are and where the learning/ teaching is to take place.

Little Poles learning English in Poland

The title of this section says it all, does it not? Young learners are “small people” – and so is the amount of motivation that we can initially rely on when it comes to their foreign language learning. Make no mistake: I do not mean motivation to engage in language-play activities, explore and discover new words and meanings. Of course they will be willing to do all those – simply by virtue of being kids.  In marked contrast, they need a really good reason to ever open their little mouths in English. This is a direct consequence of the fact that they are in Poland, where all their fellow learners can speak Polish, and so can their parents, siblings, grandparents, as well as their English teacher (who is most likely Polish, too). Even more importantly, young learners initially lack a convincing reason to repeat their early attempts to speak in English. And yet, in view of everything we know about language learning at present, they need to repeat such attempts very frequently, even though at first glance this may seem to make no sense to their young brains[1].

Or, to put it yet another way, effective foreign language learning is in large part about forming desired linguistic habits of use, very much like those that help us accomplish any other important change in our lives (cf. Duhigg 2013 on the beneficial power of habits). Those linguistic habits in L2 will not be born of themselves – in marked contrast to first language acquisition, where internal motivation to develop language is biologically determined. In the case of L2 taught in an environment such as Poland, it falls to a great teacher (and/or mum and dad, as I argue in the deDOMO approach) to help kids gradually develop internal motivation by … doing the only thing that one can do – and that is act from the outside, i.e. externally.The practical activities described above go a long way towards achieving just that, regardless of current educational fashions or trendy pronouncements.



Duhigg, C. (2013). Siła nawyku, Wydawnictwo PWN
Kohn, A. (1999) Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise and Other Bribes, Houghton Mifflin
Pink, D. (2011). Drive. Kompletnie nowe spojrzenie na motywację, Wyd. Studio Emka
Śpiewak, G. (2012). „Pochwała powolności. Język obcy udomowiony”, Języki Obce w Szkole 4/2012: 26-31

[1] An attempt to overcome this fundamental lack of a child-relevant reason to use a foreign language in a country like Poland lies at the heart of the deDOMO approach (cf. Spiewak 2012)




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