The Role of Motivation in Teaching Students of Different Academic Levels and Learning Styles

One of the situations that many ALTs have experienced teaching in Japan is teaching at multiple schools. On the one hand, this affords us the opportunity to interact with a wide variety of personalities and styles – both as it relates to students’ personalities and learning styles, and Japanese teachers of English (JTEs) and their teaching styles. On the other hand, this poses a challenge for planning lessons to suit the varying needs of both JTEs and students. As a trained teacher, I recognize the importance of acknowledging different students’ learning styles and trying as best as possible to accommodate their needs in lesson planning and instruction. As an ALT for the past four and a half years, I’m cognizant of the important role JTEs play in the type and level of English lessons that students get to benefit from.

Motivation plays an important role in creating a balance in meeting the needs of both students and JTEs. Some students get naturally excited about learning certain subjects, based on their interests. For other subjects, based on their importance in future applications or jobs, students find the motivation to learn them in the absence of a genuine interest. In Japan, understanding and speaking the Japanese language is one such subject area. It is absolutely necessary for everyday life in Japan, so students know that there’s no way around it. When it comes to English, however, it depends on the particular student, whether s/he has a genuine interest, or needs it based on their career or travel plans. So what happens with those students who don’t have any interest in learning English, don’t plan to travel abroad, and won’t need it for their future career?

“Motivation plays an important role in creating a balance in meeting the needs of both students and JTEs.”

As a team teacher of English in the Japanese school system, I sometimes get the opportunity to observe my students whenever my team-teaching partner leads an activity. I get to observe them individually as they operate from a broad spectrum of abilities. I see how they interact with different English lesson activities, how they relate to each other, and how they respond to questioning and prompting. It’s also interesting observing how they interact outside of class. This allows me to understand them better and engage them in a way that accommodates their interests, unique learning styles and special needs. It gives me the necessary tools to motivate them.

It is well known that Japanese students are generally shy for fear of making mistakes. To counter this, teachers have to emphasize that it is okay if they make mistakes – a natural part of the learning process. I usually use my level of Japanese as an example to my students that mistakes are natural and nothing to be ashamed of. I make a lot of mistakes but I still try to speak to them using Japanese sometimes to demonstrate. They usually never judge me, but are happy that I’m using their language. This helps to get them relaxed and more open to speaking English and participating in the lesson and class activities. I also give cute stickers to those who participate, so that helps too.

Now, this is in no way a novel realization for many teachers. Still, native English teachers and JTEs alike are always trying to come up with new ways to elicit more enthusiasm from students who are either too shy, too afraid or not interested enough to try speaking English. Hence, for us, it’s an important issue. For the years that I’ve been at it, I’ve identified a few points to consider in order to motivate Japanese students and help to build in them enough confidence that will make them want to speak English.

Know how students learn

Knowing the purpose for which they’re studying English is very important. My students attend different types of schools with specific areas of focus in their curricula. These range from academic, to technical, to special needs; all senior high schools except for the special needs school which combines elementary, junior high and senior high. Over the years, I’ve learnt a lot about working with these students, and most importantly, how to motivate them, bearing their needs in mind.

Know their end goals

As the academic students, in general, are being prepared to enter university, they tend to have a high level of English reading and speaking ability, which is necessary for entrance examinations they must pass in order to enter university. Technical students focus on specializations such as electrical engineering, designing, business, and agricultural science. They are being prepared to enter into specialized areas – sometimes straight out of high school – hence, the English curriculum is tailored specifically to those needs and need not be as high a level as that of academic students. The curriculum for special needs students is mainly centered on basic vocabulary and simple sentences, but varies depending on the special need.

“While many of my students learn from repeating words, speaking or writing, for some, they can only fully grasp ideas and concepts if they can apply it and create something based on what they have learned.”

Plan with the students in mind

When I first started teaching in Japan and at multiple schools, I realized that my students had vastly different needs, hence, I had to modify my lessons; change their structure, format and topics – even abandon some altogether – in order to reach as many of them as possible. Howard Gardner’s (1983) theory of Multiple Intelligences (MI), which identifies different ways in which students interact with new information and ideas, is one of the methods I considered during that process. For instance, while many of my students learn from repeating words, speaking or writing, for some, they can only fully grasp ideas and concepts if they can apply it and create something based on what they have learned. Understanding kinesthetic learners, therefore, has helped my creative students a great deal.

Be flexible

I had an experience with one class at an academic high school that was particularly difficult to engage. What I wasn’t aware of at that time was that those students were not on a strict academic course like the other students at that school were. Before realizing however, I had had several lessons which were less textbook-based and involved them doing projects and collaborating with each other in groups. Those were some of the only classes during which they became really focused and engaged. Hence, after having some discussions with the head of the English department, it was decided that it was best to modify the curriculum to fit the needs of those students. These were the kinesthetic learners I mentioned above.

Make the lesson fun

There’s a reason most Japanese teachers like when we transform ourselves into clowns for the students. It’s fun for them, not so much for us, but it keeps them awake to achieve the lesson goal. No, we shouldn’t have to resort to juggling and funny faces in order to reach our students, but a healthy balance is necessary. Incorporating music and games into the learning activity help to facilitate a relaxed learning environment that can boost students’ confidence to participate in class activities.

“Teaching students of various academic levels require understanding how students learn and how to best motivate them and engage them in the teaching-learning environment.”

In conclusion, overcoming the challenges of teaching at multiple schools and teaching students of various academic levels require understanding how students learn and how to best motivate them and engage them in the teaching-learning environment. This can help to minimize the uncertainty inherent in the various ALT-JTE dynamics, putting the students’ needs at the center. This not only helps ALTs and JTEs to reach their teaching goals, but also helps to build confidence in students regarding their capabilities.

*Published in: 英語部会報, 平成293, 岡山県高等学校教育研究会英語部会 (2017 Journal of English Study Group of High School Education, p. 80-82)


Gardner, H. (1983) Frames of mind: the theory of multiple intelligences. New York: Basic Books.

Copyright © Larisa McBean

1 Comment

  1. Interesting article. Motivation is truly one of the most important factors that influence learning. Thanks for sharing.


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