How to Motivate Chinese Students to Learn English?


Motivation is a crucial factor in determining learners’ success. To succeed in acquiring the relevant language skills, ESL learners need the environment in which they will feel encouraged to develop the said abilities. Therefore, the creation of the environment in which intrinsic motivation could grow is crucial to the positive outcomes of the learning process.

To encourage Chinese students to engage in self-empowerment, self-initiation, and self-regulation as far as the process of acquiring the relevant academic knowledge and skills, one should consider creating the environment that will be fun and relaxing for learners; thus, Chinese students will feel encouraged to engage in the communication process and remember the essential rules that will allow them to communicate in English (i.e., acquire the skills related to speaking, reading, and writing in English).

When considering the strategies used in the process of teaching, one should pay close attention to the specifics of the Chinese culture. Particularly, it is expected that Chinese learners are bound to have a set of culture-specific needs that may make the teaching strategies traditionally used with other ESL students not only lacking efficacy but also slackening the learning process. Furthermore, a deep insight into the characteristics of the Chinese culture, particularly, the culture of learning, will allow determining the strategies for cross-cultural communication that will help avoid conflicts in the context of the classroom. It is assumed that games, as well as the focus on a relaxed atmosphere devoid of conflicts, will serve as a solid basis for the enhancement of Chinese students’ motivation.

Apart from the active use of games as the means of enhancing motivation rates among the target audience, one should also consider changing the classroom atmosphere toward a friendlier and a more relaxed one. While a competitive environment may be useful for some students, it is not characteristic of the Chinese culture. Therefore, promoting a more relaxed attitude toward teaching should be recommended as the tool for boosting engagement and motivation rates among Chinese learners.

Intrinsic Motivation

Before considering the strategies that a teacher might want to adopt when working in the said environment, the concept of intrinsic motivation should be defined. According to the existing interpretation of the phenomenon, the subject matter implies that the learners should be guided by self-perception of the learning process, its importance, and the relatedness (Eseryel, Law, Ifenthaler, Ge, & Miller, 2014). In other words, the target population must develop a sense of belongingness in the classroom so that the learning process could commence successfully and that the students could acquire the necessary skills and knowledge (Eseryel et al., 2014). In other words, the environment in which all learners could feel satisfied should be created.

Herein lies the key difficulty. Even though the target population is characterized by their belonging to the Chinese culture, it would be wrong to assume that the audience will be very homogenous. Quite on the contrary, a teacher must take the unique properties and background of every learner into account so that the appropriate strategy could be determined. In the case in point, however, the emphasis on the specifics of the Chinese culture should be viewed as the point based on which a general approach should be designed. The framework can be modified later when it is applied to a particular scenario and will be used to meet the needs of Chinese learners from a specific background.

Chinese Culture and Learning

An overview of the current tendencies among Chinese learners shows that the overall attitude toward the learning process is quite convoluted and complicated among them. Seeing that the impact of religious philosophies, particularly, Confucianism, is strong in China, one must admit that the said philosophy defines the learning styles of Chinese students to a considerable degree. Particularly, the Confucian concept of humility and acceptance tends to encourage passivity in students (Tran, 2012). The identified phenomenon has an admittedly negative effect on the exploration of the learners’ potential and the further improvement of their performance:

This passive and reproductive learning style of Asian students has received massive criticism in the literature. Some scholars criticize teaching in Asian countries as a didactic, spoon-feeding approach where students are to believe that learning consists of memorizing. (Tran, 2012, p. 58)

Therefore, the traditional Confucian concepts of simplicity and humility do not approve of initiative among learners, compelling them to adopt a rather passive learning style. While the identified approach allows for sustaining the traditions and reinforcing the significance of the Chinese culture among learners, it also drives the motivation and engagement levels down due to a significant drop in the levels of excitement. Without a consistent challenge, students lose motivation gradually and, therefore, fail to develop the academic curiosity that they will, later on, need to excel in their ability to master English, as well as any other subject, for that matter.

One must admit, though, that there has recently been a significant shift toward the enhancement of learners’ role in the academic process. Particularly, the new principles of learning and teaching based on the enhancement of learners’ proactiveness during classes has been reinforced as a possible tool for improving the students’ scores and overall performance. For instance, a recent study pointed to the fact that Chinese students have shown the propensity to encourage and engage in the cross-cultural knowledge transfer (CCKT): “The participants tend to favor group activities in Chinese learning within classrooms, and believe such group activities tend to be more connected to CCKT” (Li & Wang, 2015, p. 493). The identified phenomenon proves that the target population is ready to accept new learning styles and open themselves to the opportunities that other learning styles based on a student-centered approach as opposed to the teacher-focused one open in front of them.

Characteristics of Chinese Learners

When it comes to determining the aspects in which Chinese students, one must mention that the propensity to follow very rigid discipline standards is one of the most typical characteristics. The identified characteristic can be viewed as both the advantage and the weakness of Chinese students. On the one hand, the ability to follow the existing standards precisely suggests that the target audience will have little to no difficulty in maintaining order and studying diligently. On the other hand, the tendency to comply with rules without any deviations from the standard may signify that Chinese learners have little to no agency of their own and, thus, may have difficulties developing motivation (Slik, Hout, & Schepens, 2015).

Furthermore, research shows that there may be significant differences among male and female learners as far as the pace of their academic progress is concerned. Although one of the studies conducted lately showed no difference between how male and female Chinese students developed the required skill (Liu & Shi, 2017), another research showed that Chinese men and women might have problems with specific language areas (Slik et al., 2015).

Existing Learning Strategies: Motivation

One must admit that the task of enhancing learners’ motivation is a complicated one due to the unique personal and cultural factors that may shape the learner’s enthusiasm and engagement levels. Therefore, exploring the conundrum of the said factors requires a significant amount of time and effort. That being said, the promotion of autonomous learning is often viewed as the key strategy allowing a teacher to increase the students’ engagement levels rapidly (Lee, 2015).

The use of metacognition is also viewed as an important strategy for increasing the learners’ motivation levels. By definition, metacognition implies that students should understand how they acquire skills and knowledge. In other words, their unique learning patterns should be discovered, identified, and analyzed so that the students could develop a unique learning style. And, thus, acquire the necessary skills as fast and successfully as possible (Shang, 2016). The metacognition approach must be credited for its universal framework that can be, later on, applied to any area in which students wish to improve their performance. Once the target audience members define the key stages and specifics of their learning process, they will be able to excel in any area that they deem worthy.

Furthermore, the principle of scaffolding as the means of developing the necessary abilities should be brought up. Implying that a teacher should support (Luckin & Boulay, 2015), i.e., scaffold the learners throughout the lesson, it helps students gain confidence and self-reliance. Consequently, students will feel empowered to achieve success in learning English. The identified approach may be combined with peer mentorship so that Chinese students could have the support of their peers (Luckin & Boulay, 2015).

Chinese Learners and Game-oriented Strategy

The introduction of game-based learning is crucial to the enhancement of motivation and, therefore, academic success among Chinese learners. The very concept of a game as the tool for engaging students, especially ESL learners, is not new. A recent study on the effects of the so-called serious games on learners’ proactiveness rates in the classroom has shown that, when meeting the criteria for a serious game, the identified tool should be considered a necessity: “The results on knowledge and cognitive skills suggest that training with serious games is more effective than training with conventional instruction methods” (Wouters, Nimwegen, Oostendorp, & Spek, 2013, p. 4).

The concept of a serious game, in its turn, is not significantly different from the traditional idea of a game in the academic context. As the authors explain, to be deemed as serious, a game must be interactive, follow a set of rigid rules, pose a challenge, and invite feedback from the instructor (Wouters et al., 2013). Therefore, when incorporating a game into the target environment, an educator must keep the identified elements in mind.

Another reason for including games into the set of strategies that teachers can use to enhance motivation among Chinese learners and compel them to train the required skills concerns the unique property of the identified tool. Unlike other approaches traditionally used by teachers in the academic environment, games are incredibly flexible for including culturally variable activities into the learning process. As a result, the opportunities for meeting the needs of a vast variety of learners can be created. Particularly, the unique needs of Chinese students can be met successfully by shaping the games designed for mastering a particular skill for advancing in English (Chou, 2014).

Furthermore, a game can be viewed as the tool for helping the target audience to memorize specific information fast and efficiently: “play can be seen as a means whereby children try to impose some structure or organization onto a task, such as exploration, practice, or repetition, and that it influences children’s attitudes towards learning” (Chou, 2014, p. 286). In other words, games may become the medium through which Chinese students will identify the patterns according to which the English language, particularly, its grammar and syntax, works. As a result, the target population can develop an intrinsic understanding of the language. The intuitive understanding of how the language operates is bound to serve as the foundation for building the learners’ independence in mastering the language.

Consequently, Chinese students are bound to feel more confident in the identified area. As a result, it is expected that their motivation levels will increase since they will no longer fear the threat of failing or making a mistake. As soon as the students realize that they can become proficient in the language, they will most likely become more enthusiastic about the idea of learning and engaging in classroom activities. Thus, the process of memorizing the essential rules and training the corresponding skills with the help of various exercises will occur at a much faster pace and with fewer hiccups on the way.

Chinese Learners and Safe, Secure Environment

As stressed above, Chinese learners are prone to the development of anxiety in the atmosphere that can be defined as competitive and strained. While the creation of a challenging atmosphere in which students will be compelled to learn under pressure might work for some cultures, the Chinese philosophy does not approve of the identified mode of learning (Wouters et al., 2013). Therefore, the teacher must consider building the environment in which the target population will feel relaxed and comfortable. The removal of time pressure should be viewed as the primary step in reducing the pressure experienced by learners in the class.

The significance of creating a relaxing atmosphere for Chinese students to engage in the learning process actively is very high. According to a recent study carried out by Zhang, Klassen, and Wang (2013), Chinese learners have the propensity to develop academic burnout due to the strain under which they are put during classes. The removal of the factors that cause the target population to experience distress, in its turn, is proven to have a tangibly positive effect on the learners’ motivation and engagement:

Results showed that the first cluster – distressed students – (n = 92, 12.6% of students) had high exhaustion, cynicism, and efficacy reduction, suggesting overall high levels of burnout, coupled with little confidence in their capabilities to ameliorate the situation. (Zhang et al., 2013, p. 135)

Therefore, focusing on the gradual acquisition of the required skills rather than on the immediate results, as well as the refusal from rushing the learners to produce answers and making them strive for the best achievements possible should considered as the primary condition for improving their motivation rates. It should be borne in mind, though, that the identified suggestion will imply not only changes in the curriculum but also close communication between educators and the learners’ family members so that the target population should not experience pressure from their parents.

Furthermore, the adoption of the teaching strategies based on games and similar types of interaction will help make the environment more relaxed. As explained above, Chinese students prefer to follow the established rules and regulations when it comes to academic activities. One might assume that the said characteristic conflicts with the idea of designing a relaxed environment in which learners may engage in a less formal type of communication and adopt a more casual manner of conversing with each other. However, it should be noted that games as classroom activities also have a rigid set of standards that the learners must bear in mind to meet the teacher’s expectations and accomplish the tasks.

Therefore, while creating a less formal environment and inviting the learners to feel more relaxed, games also suggest that very specific standards and guidelines should be met accordingly. Thus, the very nature of games as class activities meets the needs of Chinese learners as the concept that both mobilizes them to learn more actively and at the same time implies a more inviting and comfortable atmosphere.


To promote the active acquisition of the required English skills among Chinese learners and compel the target population to develop the qualities that are necessary for the identified process, one should consider using the teaching strategies based on games and the design of a safe and secure environment. It is essential that Chinese students should not be exposed to harsh criticism; otherwise, they will not feel inclined to engage in the learning process and, therefore, will lose the remnants of motivation that they might have. Thus, the emphasis on self-initiation and self-regulation as the basis for the development of motivation is a crucial step toward empowering Chinese learners.

One must mention that the emphasis on fostering the qualities listed above by inviting Chinese students to participate in game-based activities and creating a safe space in which they can interact is crucial for not only boosting their current engagement levels but also helping them explore their learning potential, in general. Particularly, the said approach is bound to help the target population develop the abilities necessary for accepting the lifelong learning philosophy. In other words, the students will be enabled to navigate their learning process and define its further course independently. As a result, the process of acquiring the relevant knowledge and skills, including the ones that are related to the English language, will become a possibility.

Therefore, the teacher must focus on the spatial organization of the class, as well as on how the activities for students are constructed. Particularly, an especially strong emphasis should be placed on the use of various types of media, especially the one that incorporates the elements of a game. As a result, the rapid development of enthusiasm in learning the language, as well as the motivation to acquire the relevant knowledge and skills, can be expected.


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