Second Language Teaching


Second Language Teaching

There has been a lot of research on the role of motivation in language learning and teaching, and significant studies have been done to look into the aspects of learning motivation and English attainment. Wang (1993) stated that motivation is one of the factors affecting EFL learners' language acquisition. Besides that, Pierson, Fu and Lee (1980), Deci & Ryan (1985), Strong (1984) and Richards (1993) all found that there is a strong positive correlation between Hong Kong students' intrinsic motivation and their high English attainment. Based on the above-mentioned, it is undoubted that students' motivation plays an important role in their learning. Thus, in order to facilitate students' learning, it is necessary for teachers to understand the factors affecting students' motivation in learning.

This research paper shall investigate and analyze the possible factors affecting EFL students' motivation through a comprehensive literature review, and hence deriving useful implications for Hong Kong teachers in bid to enhance the language teaching and learning in local secondary schools.

Literature Review

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Since we are going to research on the factors affecting motivation, it is a must for us to know what motivation is first. Gardener (1985), a researcher on motivation, has proposed the idea of three interrelated dimensions in defining motivation, they are ‘the desire to learn the language, intensity of effort and attitudes towards learning the language' (Gardener, 1985; as cited in Richards, 1993, p.5). In addition to the interrelated dimensions, motivation is also generally divided into four types. They are intrinsic motivation, extrinsic motivation, integrative motivation and instrumental motivation.

Intrinsic motivation

Intrinsic motivation is defined as something ‘occurring when an activity satisfies basic human needs of competence and control' (Lepper & Henderlong, 1999; Ryan & Deci, 1999; as cited in Harackiewicz, 2000, p.444). However, other scholars may have slightly different ideas. Sansone (1998) has defined it as ‘something occurring when individuals are motivated to experience interest' and suggested that ‘a variety of goals maybe associated with interest for different people and / or in different contexts' (Sansone, 1998; as cited in Harackiewicz, 2000, p.445).

Extrinsic motivation

Extrinsic motivation is ‘based on something extrinsic to the activity' and ‘something extrinsic to the person' (Harackiewicz, 2000, p.445).

Integrative motivation

Integrative motivation refers to ‘a sincere and personal interest in the people and culture represented by the other language group' (Lambert, 1974, p.98). The goal of this motivation is to ‘learn more about the target-language group and identify with it' (Abu-Rabia, 1996, p.590).

Instrumental motivation

Instrumental motivation refers to ‘the practical value and advantages of learning a new language' (Lambert, 1974, p.98). The focus of this motivation is different from the focus of integrative motivation. Instrumental motivation focuses more on the ‘utilitarian value of linguistic achievement' (Abu-Rabia, 1996, p.590).

After having a better understanding of the meaning and types of motivation, it is now time for us to investigate what factors may essentially affect students' motivation in learning. According to various researchers and scholars, the factors below do play a role in affecting students' motivation.

High linguistic achievement

High linguistic achievement is a factor affecting students' motivation. According to the study done by Wu (2004), students with high motivation are students with better English proficiency. Therefore, it has been concluded by Wu (2004) that ‘high motivation is related to high actual and perceived linguistic achievements' (p. 18).

Support & Interest

Support and interest are also factors affecting student's motivation too. According to Wu (2004), students in the study got a low motivation at the beginning of the course. But then there were new motivational factors, namely support and interest, which broadened students' motivation during the course.

Classroom behaviour & climate

Referring to Gliksman (1982), Naiman (1978), and Hardre, Chen, Huan, Chiang, Jen & Warden (2006), it is believed that classroom behaviour and climate can affect students' motivation. As pointed out by Hardre, Chen, Huan, Chiang, Jen & Warden (2006), students who perceived their classmates and teachers as supportive were more motivated in learning. Yet, it has also been found that ‘teacher support in the classroom was less important than peer support and the teacher's interpersonal style' (p. 202).

Gender difference

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Gender difference is also a factor affecting students' motivation. According to Niemivirta (1997), gender difference might lead to different levels of motivation. The study has pointed out that girls have lower expectations of success and less confidence in their ability to learn than boys (Niemivirta, 1997). However, in another study done by Skaalvik and Rankin (1994), it has been found that girls were more motivated to study language than boys. Also, as reflected in Hardre, Chen, Huan, Chiang, Jen & Warden's (2006) study, it has been reported that female students have ‘higher overall motivation and more positive and adaptive goals goal profiles' and ‘higher perceptions of environmental support and choice' (p. 202) than their male counterparts. As a result, one should not ignore the significance of gender difference in affecting students' motivation.


According to Margolin's (2000) study, ‘family' has been ranked as the most important factor which can motivate students to learn. As reflected by students involved in the study, they have found their families highly related to their motivation in learning because they always share their school life with their families and think their families are ‘“concerned and connected” to what was happening in their lives at high school' (p.45).


Based on Margolin's (2000) study, career has been ranked as the second most important factor affecting students' motivation to learn. Most students have revealed that the goal of securing a career in the future has been motivating them to learn better in high school.


Again, as shown from Margolin's (2000) study, self-satisfaction is another factor influencing students' motivation. It has been found that students feel satisfied and motivated when they know they have ‘tried their best, completed their homework assignments and achieved a reasonable measure of success in their classes' (p. 46).


Margolin (2000) has found out that teachers also play a vital role in motivating students to learn. The students involved have expressed that the teachers, who can motivate them to learn, are those who have ‘the ability to effectively communicate a love of the subject', are ‘caring competent' professionals truly respecting all their students, and emphasize ‘hands-on' projects with lots of class discussions (p. 47).

Acceptance to college

Getting accepted to college has been found to be another possible factor affecting students' motivation in Margolin's (2000) study. It is discovered that the students have been motivated to learn harder because of their goal to get a place in the college.


According to Margolin's (2000) study, friends are also considered to be a crucial factor affecting students' motivation. It has been reported that students' motivation is being enhanced through ‘healthy competition between groups of friends to see who would get the best grades on assignments, papers, and tests' (p. 48).


With reference to Margolin's (2000) study, students have been motivated to learn because of their desire to get good grades.

Love of learning

In Margolin's (2000) study, students' pure joy of learning has also been found effective in motivating students to learn. According to Margolin (2000), some students have regarded education as ‘a pleasurable activity' (p. 49).

Winning a scholarship

Apart from the above-mentioned, Margolin's (2000) study has noted that students' desire to win a scholarship is also positively related to students' learning motivation. Students are motivated to learn harder in order to win a scholarship because the scholarship can ‘help to pay for part or all of the costs of attending college' (p. 50).

Medium of instruction

Referring to Salili & Lai's (2003) study conducted in Hong Kong, it has been found that the medium of instruction in schools can actually affect students' motivation to learn. This study has revealed that students in CMI schools (i.e., schools using Chinese as the medium of instruction) ‘generally used more strategies' and ‘showed more increase in positive attitude and motivation towards learning English' (p. 69) when compared to the students in EMI schools (i.e., schools using English as the medium of instruction). Salili & Lai (2003) has concluded this phenomenon by saying that ‘the use of Chinese language in instruction appeared to be more beneficial in promoting the use of learning strategies and motivation in students' (p. 69).

Ability grouping (banding)

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The ability group (banding) imposed on secondary schools in Hong Kong has also been found related to students' motivation in Salili & Lai's (2003) study. It has been discovered that ‘students who attended upper band schools (i.e., lower ability groups) used fewer strategies in learning, had lower self-efficacy, higher surface goals and lower attainment scores' and ‘they also had less positive attitude, lower levels of motivation and were more anxious in learning English' (p. 68).

Individual differences

Hardre, Chen, Huan, Chiang, Jen & Warden (2006) have pointed out that students' individual difference can directly affect their learning motivation. For instance, it is found that students who prefer ‘deep thought and complex questions' (p. 202) and have more confidence in their learning ability will have greater learning motivation and be more willing to work hard in school.


In this session, the factors mentioned in the literature review will be examined with reference to the EFL learners in Hong Kong secondary schools.

Factors related to Individual Differences

Factors related to individual differences include individual differences, gender difference, and high linguistic achievement.

As shown in the literature review, various scholars have suggested that individual differences can directly affect motivation of students. This has been observed to be true in the Hong Kong context. For example, when students have more confidence in their learning ability, they will have a higher learning motivation. Apart from confidence and learning ability, gender difference will also affect students' motivation. Since students of different gender will have different expectations and confidence in learning, which is supported by the scholar, Niemivirta (1997).

Moreover, according to a study done by Wu (2004), students with better English proficiency, will have a higher motivation. Since students who have a high English proficiency, they will have more confidence and motivation to do better in order to achieve a higher standard. This will in turn enhance their motivation.

Factors related to Individual Learning Interests

Factors related to individual learning interests include interest, self-satisfaction, and love of learning.

In the literature review, scholars have pointed out that individual interests affect students' motivation. And it is observed that this is true in the Hong Kong context. As students have interests in learning, they feel satisfied with their studies in school. They will be motivated to work harder. This is supported by Watkins & Biggs (1996) as they have pointed out that interest is also a factor affecting motivation (Watkins & Biggs, 1996; as cited in Walker & Dimmock, 2002).

Factors related to Goals

Factors related to goals include career, acceptance to college, grades, and winning a scholarship.

According to the researches reviewed by Margolin (2000), it should be noted that students do have a desire to obtain good grades and achieve academic or career success, and this can affect students' motivation. This factor is observed in Hong Kong as well. The importance of exams and academic success for career enhancement in Hong Kong is highly recognized (Kennedy, 2002). In Hong Kong secondary schools, students are striving hard to get good results in public examinations and to get accepted to universities. These factors are believed to positively influence students' motivation in learning. This is supported by a study conducted by Kennedy (2002), who has pointed out that Hong Kong students want their courses ‘to be both interesting and to provide an appropriate preparation for their future career and 40% of the interviewed students commented on both intrinsic and career motivation' (Kennedy, 2002, p. 5).

Moreover, it is observed that parents in Hong Kong believed that having a good career is important and this social value is usually passed on to their children, which will in turn motivate them to work hard in their study.

Furthermore, students are often motivated by reward, such as winning a scholarship in school. This is especially true in the Hong Kong context when compared to other Western countries, as there is a Confucian saying that “there are golden houses and beautiful girls in books” (Lee, 1996). Based on this saying, it is observed that the value of reward is a factor affecting students' motivation in learning.

Factors related to External Support

Factors related to external support include support, family, and friends.

Both Margolin (2000) and Wu (2004) have suggested that external support, like the support from family and friends, can help enhance students' learning motivation. It is believed that this is also true when it is applied to the Hong Kong context.

Concerning ESL learners in Hong Kong secondary schools, those who have a higher level of motivation are usually the ones who have got greater support from their family. For instance, if parents know English and are willing to practise or study English with their children, the students will have a great interest to learn the target language. This saying has been supported by Wagner (2002), who has pointed out that family has got an important role in motivating students' to learn as parents are the children's first teachers. Also, it can be easily observed in Hong Kong that students who have good communication and enjoy a good relationship with their parents are always more motivated in learning. This is because these students can share their successful learning experience or learning anxiety with their family.

Besides, based on our own learning experience and observation in the local classrooms, peer support or peer influence does affect students' motivation in learning. Like the subjects in Margolin's (2000) study, most Hong Kong ESL learners in secondary schools enjoy completing with their peers for the highest scores in tests or exams owing to the exam-oriented learning culture in Hong Kong. This will in turn motivate students to study harder. For example, some students are then motivated to join tutorial schools or form study groups with their classmates after school.

Factors related to the Classroom Environment

Factors related to the classroom environment include classroom behaviour and climate, and teachers.

As shown in the literature review, various scholars have suggested that classroom climate and behaviour can affect students' motivation. In regard to Salili & Lai (2003) who have conducted a study about factors affecting students' motivation in Hong Kong secondary schools, the classroom environment, such as ‘the classroom structure and atmosphere, teaching and assessment methods, and student-teacher interactions', has ‘a significant impact on student motivation and achievement' (p. 52). This finding should be generally true in the local language classrooms. Except for the exam classes, most of the language classrooms in Hong Kong can provide a positive learning atmosphere which encourages students to learn about the target language and there is a close rapport between students and teachers. So, students' motivation to learn is always enhanced as a result. Yet, it is a pity that the backwash effect of the public exams often destroys this harmonious learning atmosphere, leading to a decrease in students' motivation.

Apart from this, it has been found that teachers also have a role to play in enhancing students' motivation. Based on our own teaching experience and classroom observation, it is a common phenomenon that students' motivation to learn is usually enhanced if their teachers possess effective teaching strategies, interpersonal and communication skills, and they are able to care about the individual learning needs. This finding actually agrees with those obtained from the study conducted by Hardre, Chen, Huan, Chiang, Jen & Warden (2006) in Taiwan.
Factors related to Educational Policies

Factors related to educational policies include medium of instruction, and ability grouping (banding).

According to the researches reviewed, educational policies like those about the medium of instruction and ability group (banding) can influence students' learning motivation as well.

Since Salili & Lai's (2003) study on the medium of instruction and ability group (banding) was conducted in Hong Kong just a few years ago, it can certainly reflect the real situation in Hong Kong. In fact, what we have observed in the local language classroom in a CMI secondary school does comply with the findings obtained from Salili & Lai's (2003) study. One can easily see that students in CMI schools are more motivated towards learning English as suggested in Salili & Lai's (2003) study. This is because they have fewer chances to learn and practise their English when compared to their counterparts in EMI schools as most of their lessons are conducted in their mother tongue --- Cantonese. However, further research has to be done next year as there will be a new educational policy about the medium of instruction. The Education Bureau has decided to fine-tune the current policy which divides schools into CMI and EMI secondary schools, and let schools decide which medium of instruction should be used by basing a set of criteria proposed by the Education Bureau related to students' language proficiency. (HKSAR Education Bureau, 2008)

Besides that, based on our own observation in various local schools, the adverse labeling effect of the educational policy about ability group (banding) does have a have great influence on students' motivation as shown in Salili & Lai's (2003) study. Students in upper band schools (i.e. schools for students with a weaker learning ability) are usually less motivated as they are perceived as low achievers and sometimes as ‘useless' or ‘rubbish' by parents or teachers. On the other hand, students in lower band schools (i.e. schools in which students are more capable in terms of learning ability) are more motivated in learning as they usually enjoy a greater sense of achievement in their studies and are often perceived as ‘the pillars of the future' by parents, teacher and the society. Thus, this in turn drives them to work harder in school in order to meet the high expectations from family and teachers.


After examining the factors that affect EFL learners' motivation in Hong Kong secondary schools, here are some useful implications derived for teachers.

Firstly, as discussed above, individual differences can directly affect motivation. Therefore, in order to enhance students' motivation, teachers should be sensitive to students' individual differences, such as their learning abilities, confidence, etc. It is suggested that teachers should do a diagnostic test or a questionnaire survey with students so as to know more about students' learning styles and individual needs. Based on the information obtained, teachers can then cater for individual differences and better their teaching in the classroom.

Secondly, it is undoubted that learning interest is another factor affecting students' motivation. It is suggested that teachers can arouse students' interests by conducting interactive and fun activities in the classroom, which in turn can increase learners' motivation. This is supported by Wu (2004) that students' interests can be raised by conducting activities. It is also recommended that teachers may integrate English learning into students' favourite subjects like Geography and Liberal Studies.

Thirdly, as it is observed that the desire of achieving goals can positively affect students' motivation, it is suggested that teachers should help students to set their own goals. By setting goals for themselves, students can keep track of their own learning progress and strive hard to achieve their goals, which will result in an increase in their learning motivation.

Fourthly, it is observed that support from family and friends is a very important factor that affects students' motivation. Based on this observation, teachers should encourage parents to give support and encouragement to learners and foster peer support in class so as to enhance students' positive attitude and motivation in leaning.

Moreover, it has been discussed that the classroom environment is also a factor affecting students' motivation since Crookes and Schmidt (1991) pointed out that motivation is the feeling nurtured primarily by the classroom teacher. In order to create an enthusiastic and harmonious environment in school, teachers should conduct more interactive activities in the classroom such as having group discussions. Also, teachers should design more communicative tasks for students in order to get them involved actively in class. So, with this active classroom environment, students' motivation can be enhanced.

Lastly, the educational policies in Hong Kong do influence students' learning motivation. It is suggested that education policies in Hong Kong are somewhat not specific enough to cater for individual learning needs. Thus, English teachers in Hong Kong should use their professionalism to decide what kinds of teaching strategies or medium of instruction should be adopted. They should treat the education policies given out by the Education Bureau as guidelines but not rules that must be followed. In short, teachers should cater for students' learning differences in a flexible way.

Suggested areas for further research

Although more than fifteen factors have been found related to students; level of motivation, it is believed that some other factors like ethnic identity (Flowerdew & Miller, 1995), traditional Chinese Confucian value (Flowerdew & Miller, 1995), and family structure (e.g. the number of children in a family or the presence of siblings) may also affect students' motivation to learn. Thus, further research in these areas can be done in the local context to see how they can affect students' learning motivation.


This paper has given us a valuable opportunity to research on the possible factors affecting students' motivation in learning. As shown in our literature review, more than fifteen factors have been found capable of motivation students to learn. Based on our analyses, these factors can be applied to the Hong Kong context and are actually influencing students' learning motivation.

It is sincerely hoped that the teaching implications derived can help enhance students' motivation and engage them in more fruitful and joyful learning in the local language classrooms, and that more research can be conducted to figure out how teachers can mange these factors in order to motivate students to learn better.

Finally, we will definitely try our best to contribute what we have learned from this paper to our teaching in local schools, which will in turn benefit our students' learning.


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