How to Keep Online Students Motivated When Teaching ESL

How do teachers keep online students motivated, especially when shifting from the classroom to the virtual setting? One of the most difficult things to achieve while teaching English online is reaching the same levels of engagement you reach while teaching live in the classroom. Use this 10-strategy-checklist in your virtual classroom to maximize online student motivation.

1. Have you set goals with your students that will keep them learning?

Goal setting is fundamental for any ESL lesson. Goals give students a purpose, they give the lesson and course direction, they help improve a student’s self-esteem and confidence, and students who set their own goals tend to achieve more.

The same goes for online classes, and even more so since it’s sometimes difficult for students to get into their learning zone while studying at home. When teaching in a live classroom, the learning mindset is activated the minute you walk into the classroom and it’s easier for your students to focus on what needs to be done. When your online ESL students are studying from home and at their computer, it’s very easy for them become distracted, though. Setting solid goals will keep your students more focused, remind them of why they are taking the time to study, and make the learning experience more relevant.

Setting goals with older students

Goal setting works best with older students. A teenager or an adult can help direct their learning by taking actions towards reaching their goals. Adult learners are highly motivated to learn English since the language is often a stepping stone to a promotion, a new job, or moving to an English-speaking country.

Setting goals with children

Children, however, are much more focused on their immediate situation. That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t set goals for young learners though. They may just look different from the goals your older students set for themselves.

Set goals together with your students and help them keep track. You can ask your students to keep a daily learning log or a similar reflective tool that will help them achieve these goals.

2. Are you planning and organizing your lessons together with your students?

In order to motivate online ESL students, good planning and organization of each lesson is crucial. You want to avoid downtime or delays due to technical problems. You also want to break your lessons into smaller sequences, allowing for breaks, especially for young learners.

Listen to student feedback

You can involve your students in the lesson planning by including their opinions and decisions. Listen to their experiences, and ask students how they feel about their lessons. These are ways to give your students a voice in their learning.

Ask younger students lots of questions and tailor your teaching toward their needs and preferences. If you are teaching very young children, this can mean finding ESL songs, video clips, or online ESL games that meet the language requirements but also interest the students. Also, ask frequent concept checking questions (CCQ) along the way to ensure you and your students are on the same page.

Online teacher playing a game with young student

Online English teacher, Juicy Mae, playing ESL games with her young student


Actively involve older students in planning

The best way to engage adult students is to provide useful and relevant lessons. You can actually get them to help you select their lesson materials. An adult may have a big presentation they are planning at work; you could base multiple lessons around the grammar and vocabulary needed for that. When the student sees the immediate relevancy and benefit of what they’re learning, their motivation is much higher.

3. Are you using a variety of instruction methods to keep online students motivated?

Using different technologies, tools, and resources, as well as a variety of instruction methods, such as video, text, audio, or realia, will help you keep your online students motivated and engaged. In the online classroom, you can tailor your methods to your private students, depending on the technologies they prefer.

Ensure accessibility for ALL students

You want to keep your methods flexible and interesting, but at the same time, you need to make sure that all the tools and software you are using are accessible for all participants of your course. Student engagement can be reduced when course content is provided in a way that causes web accessibility problems, or when you use a software that requires advanced computer skills. Having course materials that are easily accessible is an ongoing need for students in online education.

Learn more about the tools and technology for the virtual classroom in the Bridge Foundations of Teaching English Online Specialized Certificate Course.

Incorporate collaborative learning

It can be difficult to engage in methods that include online group work, especially if you work for a school that provides mainly one-on-one lessons. However, you may have groups of students who are of a similar age and ability. If this is the case, you can ask them to work on collaborative tasks outside of class. Collaborative whiteboard apps allow students from different locations to work on the same whiteboard. The students can work in real-time together and they can keep on their own time after your classes. Be sure to check with your school about their policies.

If you are working as a freelance teacher and you have a class with a group of students, you can always encourage group work to mix things up. You can set creative tasks for them, like poster making, and then ask them to share their creations with the group using a shared Google Drive or Dropbox folder.

group of students with teacher on a video chat class

A group English class taught be online teacher, Jhonny, in Chile


4. Are you communicating with your students on multiple platforms?

In our modern world, it is important to keep your lessons up to date and interesting. The same goes for how you communicate with your online students. Keep the communication interesting and use multiple platforms and formats.

Luckily, online education provides you with a wide range of ways for communicating with your students. Course email and discussion forums are the standard communication tools, but you can also consider embedded audio and video, chat rooms or instant messaging, broadcasts, text messaging, and home page announcements. Explanatory screencast videos tend to be well received by students, and are easy and inexpensive to create.

Build community through social media

You can also join the trend of making learning more social. Many global teachers are looking at social media as ways to spice up their courses and engage their students in topical learning. Consider adding a Twitter badge to your course homepage, or you can create a private Facebook group for your class. Social platforms, if used effectively, can help build a sense of classroom community that keeps your online students motivated.

5. Have you established a reward system to keep online students motivated?

Reward systems can be created and adjusted for each language level and age group. Reward systems appeal to extrinsic motivation and they can also help students nurture intrinsic motivation.

Intrinsic motivation: Appeal to sense of purpose

Intrinsic motivators drive a person forward. You want your students to have a sense of purpose that fuels their course participation and engagement and that compels them to keep doing even difficult tasks, like juggling an online course with other responsibilities. They should know that what they’re doing here matters.

Remind your adult students how their new knowledge and skills will help them make a difference in the world, even in small ways. Talk about how this new expertise helps them improve or contribute to their company, industry, or profession, or how it impacts their customers or clients.

Extrinsic motivation: Gamify your lessons with badges and certificates

Extrinsic motivators like certificates and digital badges remind your students of what they know and what they can do. They increase confidence and self-esteem. Plus, rewarding your students, especially young learners, with these prizes helps them view learning as a game and stay motivated.

There are many ways that you can add gamification elements to your online classes (without having to build a full game-based learning course from start to finish), but adding badges to your course is an easy and popular way to recognize your students’ accomplishments along the way and to keep them engaged and eager to keep learning with you.

Learn more about digital badges you can earn for Bridge TEFL/TESOL courses.

6. Are you creating and revising active learning opportunities?

A common misconception about online learning is that students only sit in front of their computers. That might be true if the course is designed that way, but one way to engage online learners is to get them away from the monitor and get them involved in active learning.

Get students practicing in the real world

One definition of active learning is “hands-on learning.” Assign your adult online students to interview people working in the field, or to otherwise bring their learning out into the community where they live.

A few of the many examples of active learning are:

  • Case studies
  • Group projects
  • Gathering and analyzing local data

Utilize TPR with kids

The Total Physical Response method, or TPR, works very well for younger children. They need to move and engage their bodies in order to process and retain knowledge. Give your students ample opportunity to sing, dance, jump, bring things from around their house, or otherwise move around, and they will love your lessons!

Teaching English Online

Juicy Mae using TPR with her student


7. Have you established assessment strategies that allow student autonomy and accountability?

To engage your students even more in the learning process, provide ample opportunities for self-assessment during or after your classes and allow your students to take responsibility for their own learning. Encouraging your students’ autonomy and accountability in almost every aspect of your lessons will increase their willingness to participate and stay focused on the content.

Grading their own discussion posts, or providing input for their own grade can be a motivating experience for students. A course-based e-portfolio can be used to encourage students to build their own personal learning plans while identifying their preferences for multiple assessment methods.

Embed informal assessments throughout the class

Assessment should be embedded in the learning. When used appropriately, embedded assessment, in which teachers evaluate if students are learning what has been taught, can enhance student achievement. Examples of this kind of informal assessment can include strategic questioning or observation during an activity.

Many online schools already have regular assessments built into their curriculum at specific intervals, but you always add your own assessment tasks. It’s best to do these informally and as part of a game. Simple question-and-answer games work well, but you can also make use of more interactive online tools and software. Some teachers have even created their own quiz shows that multiple students can take part in.

8. Are you providing frequent feedback?

Giving timely and useful feedback to students about their performance is extremely important in the effort to keep students engaged and motivated. Quick responses to discussion posts and email questions can help students stay on track for the next assignment or activity. The time you take on grading their assignments can have an impact on your students’ future efforts. Students should never have to start the next assignment without receiving feedback on the previous one. Feedback that is detailed and positive in nature is most effective.

Use tech tools to give feedback 

Technology is highly helpful for online teachers, and you can make use of various programs to give feedback when your students require it. You can:

  • Share verbal feedback with students via a simple audio podcast,
  • Provide video feedback with screen captions
  • Arrange video conferences with Zoom to discuss important issues and give virtual feedback sessions

Students should be challenged in their learning, and even young children can use higher-order thinking skills to work in the online classroom. Children are curious by nature, and the online classroom offers them the chance to ask their teacher questions such as why and how. Your response as a teacher can help your students think more deeply about the question and to come with parts of the answer by discussing the problem.

9. Do you know your students’ interests?

To connect with your online ESL students, show interest in their lives and do research on their favorite pop culture topics, music, and games. Try to engage them by letting them tell you about themselves during class. Once you know your students well enough, you can always relate the lesson content to their interests and lives, thereby providing relevant context for their learning.

Encourage your students to create

Another great way to increase student engagement is to encourage them to produce their own content, according to their interests, using their choice of technology and online tools. These are a few of the fun, interactive projects your students can create:

  • Video diaries and vlogs
  • Infographics
  • Memes
  • Gifs

These are fun and engaging, students can take responsibility for their learning, and producing content activates higher-level thinking. Plus, they work for both children and adults.

10. Do you let your students feel your passion for teaching English?

Even though this comes last on our list, this is one of the most important things to do to keep online students motivated. Your enthusiasm, your smile, and your own motivation will affect your students on many levels and encourage them to learn with you.

Stay current

Make sure that you stay on top of recent developments and methods, and that you use modern and regularly updated course content. You can also start a reflective journal as a teacher to improve your own performance. For your own professional development, consider enrolling in the Bridge Specialized Certification in Teaching English Online course.

Express your interest in your students

During lessons, take notes, get back to students on questions, give individual attention and feedback, and smile! If students can see your passion, they will join you without hesitation!

Are you ready to take the challenge?

There are many new challenges for global teachers who are transitioning their classes online. However, with new challenges come new opportunities to improve our methods and provide the excellent English classes that our online ESL students deserve. Hopefully, this 10-strategy checklist helps you keep your ESL students motivated!

New to teaching English online and considering a Specialized Certification course to prepare for the virtual classroom? Find Out What to Expect in the Specialized Certificate in Teaching English Online.


May 29, 2020