By Erica Harris & Julie Vorholt

Part I


Imagine the following scenario:

In your English language class, small teams of students are speaking enthusiastically to their peers about the project they created for a class assignment. When you attempt to interrupt their discussion to move on to the next step in the activity, nobody moves. The students are completely focused on presenting the results of their projects. Their total engagement reflects that this unit is a success. The students tell you the topic is interesting and they feel that their English skills have improved as a result of working on this project.



This example of a successful class activity comes from a class we co-taught on the topic of entrepreneurship.  We developed a project-based learning experience connected to our course textbook on the subject. Students were very motivated to learn the material, develop and use the language, and incorporate it into a project and final presentation. At times, motivating students in a language classroom can sometimes feel daunting. Our own research into motivation and the use of authentic materials revealed that it is worth the effort to take time to develop lessons around these resources.   


Research on the importance of motivation in language learning has been well-established in the literature (Fidaoui, Bahous, & Bacha, 2010; Gilmore, 2011). Researchers distinguish between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, the former stemming from a learner’s internal desire to learn a language for its own sake, and the latter indicating a desire to learn in order to reach an external goal (e.g., a better job). ESOL learners who demonstrate both types of motivation have a higher likelihood for continuing language study and accomplishing long-term goals (Rubenfeld, Sinclair, & Clément, 2007; Wang, 2008).


Furthermore, research shows that the use of authentic materials and content can encourage motivation in language learning (Dooly & Masats, 2010; Fidaoui et al., 2010; Gilmore, 2011; Rubenfeld et al., 2007; Wang, 2008). Technology has made it easy to access authentic materials to supplement textbook units in lesson planning in order to enhance lessons and increase motivation. Gilmore’s  study (2011) suggests that using authentic materials allows students to better develop communicative competencies through “rich input” and “drawing learners’ attention to useful features through careful task design and follow-up practice activities” (p. 810). If instructors work to ensure that materials fit well into the language objectives of the course, merging language and authentic content can greatly enhance students’ learning and motivation (Dooly & Masats, 2010).

It is also important that students’ motives are congruent with their goals (Rubenfeld, et al., 2007). This can help ensure interest and success. Project-based Learning (PBL) uses authentic materials to merge  content and language. By integrating language, technology, and media education through PBL, instructors can encourage students to reflect on their own learning and focus on language that will help them reach their goals (Dooly & Masats, 2010). Instructors using PBL can better teach real-world skills and language that will be used in the workplace and other authentic environments (Tsai, 2012). To this end, we used the tools of PBL and incorporated authentic materials into our intermediate communications course during the unit on entrepreneurship.

As we reflected on our PBL unit on entrepreneurship, we concluded that it was successful because students found it motivating. The mix of authentic materials that merged language and content was interesting for the students, and the topic of entrepreneurship was connected to their personal goals (even those who didn’t want to start their own business felt the content was applicable to them). The students felt that the language they learned and practiced would benefit them in their futures, and they demonstrated this with their engagement and enthusiasm for the project they completed in the class.   

How do you encourage motivation in your classroom? What motivates you as a student? Share your experiences in the comments below.

Read more about the entrepreneurship project we used in our classes: Shark Tank: A Project-Based Activity.


This blog entry is adapted from “Entrepreneurship and Student Motivation”, an article that we wrote for English Teaching Forum, a publication by the United States Department of State. The article describes an innovative three-week unit that inspires students to think and communicate like businesspeople.

Interested in more details? Read the full-length article here.

Erica Harris and Julie Vorholt are core instructors in the Academic English Studies Program at Lewis & Clark in Portland, Oregon.