Whatever gets them through the door (by Daniel T. Kirk)

Over the last twenty-three years, I have taught English to people in every demographic category other than homeless people. Over that time, the issue that continues to pique my interest is their motivation for carrying their feet across the threshold of my classroom. I have an idea about what gets my college students into class, but what about other hard working folks that don’t need a credit?

On most Tuesday nights you’ll find me with my Community College class from 6:30 to 8:00. Then another group from 8:10 to 9:40. They are there in all kinds of weather, through family loss, marriage, retirement, job changes, and personal illness. I admire them greatly for their initiative, but when I gauge the improvement in their English ability, I’m flummoxed.

For the majority their language ability improves slightly or remains unchanged. When I ask them if they pursue their studies outside of class, most of them reply that they do not.

The rare learner takes advantage of my suggestions to keep an interactive English journal with me, to read and listen extensively, or to make the most of DVD’s. Through informal questioning, my conclusion is that around 20% continue their learning outside of class, while 80% do nothing.

So I have to wonder what brings these people out to my classroom, and these are 10 motives. Some may have more than one when they start, and they definitely change over time.

1. Curiosity gets people into the classroom at least in the beginning. There’s no question that this is at least part of the equation at the start of everyone’s learning adventure.

2. Parents drive young people to start, and may replace all other motivators over time.

3. Social interaction is extremely influential, especially in classes that I teach at the Community College. When there is a break between sessions, they make arrangements to socialize during that period. In some cases, strong personal connections are formed between students.

4. Social requirements sometimes force learners into the classroom, especially retired people. Society expects them to take up hobbies in their free time, and “learning English” can be a low risk, comparatively low cost option.

5. The Boot Camp phenomena is where an employee of a company is going to be sent off to a country where he or she will need to use English, so they come to class to help them prepare. They don’t stay around long, but have been known to return to class after their assignment is finished. (See filling station below.)

6. Prestige is a motivator that I would not have considered as I studied to be a teacher, but in Japan studying English has a definite cachet.

7. New family situations bring a surprising number of people to class. Some have a new son or daughter-in-law that speaks English. Others have grandchildren born and raised abroad that don’t communicate well in Japanese.

8. A filling station pit stop is what some students who have lived abroad seek. They have acquired English after being transferred or studying overseas, and want to keep their ability from running out.

9. Intellectual stimulation through learning English keeps some of my students coming through the door. They enjoy discussing ideas, some even adopting a debating style of interaction for the sake of conversation. Especially in the advanced level class, people have told me that they enjoy a good conversation about weighty themes.

10. Habit has got to be one of the reasons a few people come. I think they just don’t know what else to do with their Tuesday evening, and don’t want to expend the effort finding another gig.

The metaphysical study of the coming and going of students in a classroom over time fascinates me. One night they come, we talk in English of our lives, and sometimes they continue many nights or years. For some our first class is our last. Sometimes they tell me a version of why they are there or why they are leaving, and as a teacher I can listen to what they tell me and learn, but in the end, why they are there and why they go will always be a mystery. These 10 motivations are the closest I can get to pegging down why some of them come so I can arrange learning experiences that will address their needs.

Note: This article by Dan Kirk originally appeared on Teaching Village, and is licensed under a Creative Commons, Attribution-Non Commercial, No Derivatives 3.0 License. If you wish to share it you must re-publish it “as is”, and retain any credits, acknowledgements, and hyperlinks within it.


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12 Responses

  1. Barbara says:

    I’ve always thought that in addition to English for specific purposes, we ought to offer classes called “English for no apparent reason.” I guess we actually do teach these classes–we just don’t call them by that title 🙂

    Since I’ve started teaching older people, I’ve run into another category for motivation–friends dragging friends to class.

    These tend to be women who hated English as junior or senior high school students–they didn’t do well and are afraid of the language and language teachers. Their friends tell them I’m a good, kind teacher, and because I speak Japanese they don’t have to worry about being able to ask questions, and then they drag them to class and encourage them to keep trying (when they discover that good and kind don’t mean easy).

    While it’s made for some huge level gaps in classes, it’s been an interesting trend to observe. And it’s an amazing feeling for all of us when these members (slowly) begin to regain confidence in their ability to learn.

    This is a great list, Dan! Thanks.

    • Dan Kirk says:

      Hey, another great motivator, but they end up staying because you are, as you said, “a good, kind teacher.”

      There is controversy concerning using the students’ L1 in the L2 classroom, but you certainly brought up a good argument for using it. If that helps people regain their confidence, well then, good enough.

      Thanks for the comment.

  2. I agree, great list.

    #11 – because everyone else is so it really must be necessary 🙂

    #12 – because they really need it for their jobs and they didn’t learn it despite 12 years of study due to non-communicative classrooms.


    • Dan Kirk says:

      Had to laugh at the “sheep” motivation. As for the need issue, I have to agree about not learning it at school, but what I would like to study is how much of their learning for their jobs actually happens on the job, with or without classes. My guess is that when English communication skills become necessary, they’ll really start to scramble to build them.


      • Yes – that is actually quite fascinating. I’ve just begun classes with a Russian student who has never ever studied officially in any kind of class capacity but self-taught himself over the last couple of years -mainly through work-related events. Fascinating levels of lexis and grammar clashes – really intriguing because I can’t really say that he’s an x or y -in fact it’d be impossible to say whether he’s false beginner or PreIntermediate – because he can read at PreInt but speaks almost zero and writes at Elementaryish… It’s a new student but am hoping to learn a lot more about learning from him.

  3. David says:


    Appreciate the list and reminder of how diverse our student’s needs and motivations are! I’m glad you mentioned “habit” – I might add also, “have to” or “because Dad paid”.

    I’m not sure what category it fits but I find more and more students motivated to learn English so they can “understand” the wider world culture/media. Whether that be to watch “Friends” or understand Eminem’s lyrics or just be part of the world community. This isn’t so much the case in Japan but I’m sure it will arrive in full force, as it has many places in the world. We all want to belong and that’s as powerful a motivator as there is.


    • Dan Kirk says:


      Didn’t even of “belonging” as a motivator. Certainly a significant force, especially here in Japan. I agree that belonging to an English-speaking group hasn’t come into its own here yet. So far, I’d say that the, “I cannot English,” membership is so huge that there will be some significant inertia built up to maintain the status quo.

      Would be great when the balanced shifts.

  4. Marta says:

    the “have to” might include that
    – they need to pass exams either at school (and not always possible to pass them after regular school classes) or
    – to add another point to their CV, English is almost a must on the job market in Poland.
    I also have a student whose dream is to visit Australia one day and he’s one of the most motivated students.
    However, after almost a year of teaching one group of adults I know that the main motivation for this particular group now is social interaction, fun and a kind of getting away from daily life, problems etc. I can really see that they relax during the class, laugh a lot and in fact they have 95% attendance. Most of them don’t have time to study at home, however, they apparently make progress.

    • Dan Kirk says:

      I’d have to say that the most proficient EFL learners I have come in contact have been Northern Europeans. Very successful, as a broad characterization.

      And you’re right, Marta, about people relaxing in class. Lazonov and loads of others have studied the effect that personas change when learners use their target language. If they feel comfortable

  5. Number 9 is a potentially fascinating one concerning learners from cultures with very different attitudes towards consensus (like Japan), voicing one’s opinions, or exploring personal or sensitive issues compared with mainstream Western cultures. It would be very interesting to look further into this, to see if learning English in a very communicative way could also function as a temporary escape-hatch from restrictive or formalized social norms, and whether this could be a real motivating spark for some people in these cultures.

  6. Dan Kirk says:


    It would certainly be worth looking into further, the relationship between restrictive social norms in the EFL learner’s L1 and their ability to explore topics of conversation that they would normally avoid.

    Have you ever seen any research on a similar topic?

  1. March 16, 2010

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