Five Tips to Keep Young Learners Motivated and Help them Gain Confidence

As primary teachers, what should we teach our students? Vocabulary? Grammar? We all know these form an essential part of language teaching, but teaching young learners is more about preparing them for the many years of learning English to come. Here are five things I do to motivate my students towards self-directed learning as a teacher at a private language school I run in Nagano, Japan.

1. Activate active learning – helping and learning from each other

Most schools place students into classes by their levels of English or school grades, but in reality every class is mixed-level because no matter how we group them, there will always be some differences in proficiency between students. Our challenge is to harness the differences to create a classroom where children help each other and learn from each other. In my typical group lesson, some students finish their tasks early and others take their time. I sometimes have to remind the faster ones not to blurt out the answers straight away and to help their peers instead – and over time, they become more comfortable supporting other students. In his book Active Learning Credo, psychologist Mel Silberman says,

What I teach to another, I master.
The famous Learning Pyramid method also suggests that learning is retained the most through teaching others. Once I gave my class a task where they needed to read aloud a picture book in pairs. One girl was paired up with a boy who constantly said “wakannai” (I don’t understand) to everything. She could have read the entire book to him, but she sat down with him and helped him learn to read the pages by giving him hints and pointing to previous pages he was familiar with. She was acting like, and was indeed, “a little teacher”. Towards the end of the lesson, the boy was proudly reading the book by himself! That was just one of the many memorable episodes that I see in my class on a daily basis. Kids need teachers and classmates who empower and encourage them. My students regularly motivate and inspire each other by teaching each other and setting a good example themselves.

2. Look for signs of self-efficacy

“Self-efficacy” means how confident you feel when you’re tackling a challenge. There are four ways to improving one’s sense of self-efficacy and gain more self-confidence that you can do something: make small successes; observe someone else who has a good sense of self-efficacy as your role model; hear words of encouragement that bolster your belief in your self-efficacy; be in a situation where it can easily improve. To be honest, I wasn’t at all familiar with the phrase “self-efficacy” before I heard it a couple of times at the JALT (The Japanese Association for Language Teaching) conference held in Tsukuba in 2017. When I looked it up later I was surprised to find out that it means something I had kept close to my heart when teaching English for a long time. I found it’s a spot-on representation of my purposes and my approaches in teaching English. I now see how self-efficacy plays out in my classroom and how it supports language learning: When a student starts singing as soon as I play a song, another student says to him, “Wow, how can you learn English songs so quickly? You must be really talented!” At other times, a student lacking in the confidence to speak up shadows her friend who is more vocal than most. Listening to how he speaks English, she feels motivated and practices at home using her CDs, which shows in her improved fluency in the following lesson. What are your stories of “self-efficacy” in your classroom?

3. Flip the classroom

I’ve read an article by famous educator Hideo Kageyama where he emphasized the importance of student preparation for class. At the language school I run, most students come to lessons having worked on their textbooks, workbooks or handouts as much as they like at home. I believe in the type of flipped learning where nothing students see in the lesson is new to them; they’ve pre-learned the materials that are going to be covered and/or listened to the CD before attending, and the teacher and classmates simply build on that knowledge, enhancing the learning in the class. To make that happen, I make a point of praising their efforts while checking the work they’ve done at home to instill the idea that they benefit from working hard outside the classroom. Those who have prepared the most naturally take leadership roles in the activities of the day. To some students who say they haven’t done anything, I pick up on any sign of preparation and comment on it: “Where’s the CD from your Student Book? Did you leave it at home? Good job listening to it to prepare!” Even if they really have done nothing, I encourage them to do any small thing they can for the next lesson and give them a lot of praise if they do.

4. Find opportunities for formative assessment

There are largely two ways of evaluating a student’s learning: formative assessment and summative assessment. Sometimes, strong students who appear to be doing well in class get a low mark in a summative assessment such as a mid-term test. It might be properly attributed to a lack of training in paying attention to instructions rather than not understanding the language tested on the paper. While summative assessments are important too, formative assessment can take place in our daily teaching. It doesn’t have to be formal evaluation that you have to set your mind to doing. It can be something as small as communicating each student’s strengths and improvements on any given day. Course materials nowadays even come with self-evaluation sections with “Can-Do” statements, so I use them to give students opportunities to reflect on their achievements alongside my feedback on their understanding per unit or per target language, saying “You’ve got a full mark in this exercise! Well done!” “You’ve mastered ‘do/does’ now!” On top of that, there is one thing I’ve been doing since I opened my school. Because most of my students come to class with their parents or guardians, I invite them all into the classroom and spend 10-20 minutes sharing with them how their kids did that day. Instead of giving vague comments like “Taro did really well today,” I’d be really specific in my feedback and say, “I see Taro completed a lot of assignments at home this week. He is now better at distinguishing ‘It’s/It isn’t’ in listening. I really appreciate his father working with him on his studies. His writing has improved, and he was able to correct his own mistakes!” Naturally, I say this with a lot of enthusiasm. To be able to provide detailed feedback, I always take a mental note of the moments when children shine. I do this on the spot or on the same day for the majority of students and when I don’t get to meet their parents, I use emails or a communication notebook. Unlike tests in summative assessment that are one-sided and one-off, formative assessment needs to be utilized and developed together with students. Through interactions with students, the teacher find what students are capable of now and what they need to work on, suggest a course of action, and elicit students’ own interest. This process also enables the teacher to reflect on their own teaching and leads to them being able to improve their lessons even more.

5. Live the Pygmalion effect in language teaching

It is said that the expectations of parents, teachers or people around you to do well influences your performance (the Pygmalion effect). With this in mind, I tend to communicate positive expectations to my students rather than pressuring them to study every day or imposing a heavy workload. So I usually say things like, “It won’t take you longer than 15 minutes to finish it all. You can do it!” instead of “You must finish it all or else…” I’ve even seen parents who come to my school express their admiration for good students because their children have been inspired by them and enjoying studying. I feel truly blessed to witness the synergistic effects in my classes – adults showing their genuine high expectations and kids responding well and improving their English. I believe the positive atmosphere in school or class nurtures the sense of self-efficacy in children, their motivation and self-confidence.


In closing, I’d like to remember that the time we teachers share with the same students is rather short. Our responsibility is to prepare them for the long, academic and work life ahead of them by helping them develop the self-efficacy that will empower them to overcome any challenges and keep learning regardless of the environments they find themselves in.

About Akiko Seino

Akiko Seino has been teaching K-6 students at her English school in Matsumoto, Nagano for over 10 years. She works closely with young learners and their parents by offering physically and mentally engaging lessons and individualized consulting. She graduated from Waseda University and holds an MA in TESOL from Teachers College Columbia University. Her special interests include how to involve parents in their children’s learning and the modern terakoya style hybrid teaching that integrates group dynamics with self-directed learning. In 2012 she won the Best of JALT award for her study on autonomous learning in young children. Ms Seino has worked as teacher-trainer for Shiojiri Board of Education, was supervisor of Worldwide Kids at Benesse, and is co-author of English Land (Pearson).

Related Links

English Land 2nd Edition
English Land – “Ask Akiko” Forum