Michael Rost, Series Editor, English Firsthand

Every language teacher knows this contrast: Some students sit silently in the classroom and feel overwhelmed and even oppressed by the activities the teacher presents. Because of the anxiety they feel, these students tune out quickly, show little or no engagement, and perform poorly – and then, of course they feel even worse about learning.  Other students feel activated by virtually any activity the teacher presents, welcoming the engagement and the challenge. These students have no trouble tuning in, getting into the flow of the classroom activity, giving their best effort — and they usually make progress with seemingly minimal effort.

These two types of students represent the poles of affective involvement in learning. What makes someone want to engage, to learn? What makes someone else avoid engagement and learning?  There is now a growing body of research on the interaction between motivation and personal engagement and learning results. And of course, the trending results are of little surprise to most teachers: there is a clear interactionbetween the kinds of activities a teacher chooses, the way that the teacher presents these activities, the type of guidance and feedback that the teacher provides, the opportunities that the teacher provides for improvement and the ultimate success of the students. 

The authors and editors of the English Firsthandseries have all experienced this contrast in teaching – between students are easily motivated and students who are noteasily motivated.  The English Firsthand series has been designed — and developed through five editions — to   motivate students to wantto learn and to experience the positive effects of successful language learning.  We have consciously incorporated key findings in educational research on motivation in five different areas: 

The impact of motivation on learning

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Motivation is thekey factor influencing the rateand success of second language learning and the level of engagement a learner is willingto undertake. Strong motivation can even compensate for weaknesses in language aptitude and for a scarcity of learning opportunities. We all know stories of amazing learners, like Mawi Asgedom, the Ethiopian refugee turned business leader, who overcame daunting life circumstances and found a way to acquire a second language at the highest level, against all odds. Motivation is a cognitive force that allows the learner to maintain attention and focus (Asgedom, 2014).  As a kind of fuel in the learning engine, motivation has been shown to amplify intensity of effort, intellectual curiosity and self-confidence(Aragao, 2011). Increases in motivation have also been shown to defuse anxiety and aversion to risk-taking, two factors that tend to impede language acquisition (Gardner, 2008).

What has this research directions meant for the development of the English Firsthand series?  It is actually very straightforward and very consistent in our design:   Stimulating eachlearner’s motivation in each learning taskis essential in promoting active learning. Active learning is triggered by affect: how the learner feelsabout encountering the new language, his or her level of confidence or anxiety about making an effort to learn.  Each activity in each section of every unit is designed with active learning in mind: we aim to personalize every activity to allow students to feel connected to the learning process.  

  • The importance of the instructor 
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We have all had teachers in various subjects who have helped us “come out of our shell” through the force of their personality, their passion for their subject, or the way they invited us to approach learning. The influence can be short-term, assisting the learner to perform better on a specific day or in a specific task, or it can be long-term, leading the learner to make strategic changes to their learning style (Williams and Burden, 1999). Classroom studies have shown that learning outcomes can indeed be influenced by several of what we call “pedagogic agents”, factors that are under the control of the instructor(Ko, 2010). 

One set of factors is very specific to teacher-specific choices  – decisions about the syllabus, teaching materials, teaching methods, learning tasks (Ahmed, 2009). Another set of pedagogic factors is teacher-specific performance– ways that the teacher shows enthusiasm for learning, ways of giving feedback, ways of building relationships with students, ways of structuring learning activities that enhance group cohesion and group support (Imai, 2010).

How this set of research findings has impacted the development of the English Firsthand series is also very powerful:  We treat the instructor as essential to active learningwe view the success of the teacher to be linked to the success of the students!  We know that the instructor’s expertise and personal and professional qualities are vital for creating enthusiasm for learning.  The transparent structure of each unit, the clear support provided in the Teacher’s Manual, and the abundance of teaching choices allow teachers to impact their students’ learning in a positive way.   And the overall experience of teaching with the English Firsthandseries allows teachers to experience the success, satisfaction, and recognition they deserve.

  •  The value of goal orientation
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Tasks pitched at the right level– not too difficult and not too easy – often lead to active engagement and active learning. Appropriately challenging tasks are likely to activate optimal levels of both emotion and cognition (Swain, 2010; Schwartz, 2016). Success with appropriate challenges also fuels “internal competition” and expectations of further success, and helps learners to actively participate in setting their own goals (Guilloteaux and Dörnyei, 2008). When learners understand and participate in content selection and evaluating learning outcomes, they will exert additional attention, greater effortand persistence towards achieving the goals (Williams, Burden and Lanvers, 2002.) This effect is what we all as teachers work for!

This cyclic relationship of motivation and effort has come to be known as the active learner hypothesis(Oxford, 2010). Goal-oriented learners in any field, not only language learning, tend to experience an absorption that psychologists call “‘flow”, a deeply focused immersion in learning that contributes to a higher level of performance (Csikszentmihalyi, 2002; Ericcson & Pool, 2016). 

This direction of research has impacted the design of the English Firsthand series in a very pervasive manner.  How?   Each activity in the series provides a set of core steps and optional steps so that teachers can adjust the level to fit their students.  In addition, because most teachers work with students of varying levels in the same class, we provide options for the more advanced students to challenge themselves.   

  • The effect of learner awareness 
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Successful language learning requires persistence – and a sense of resilience.  Only truly motivated learners will be willing to face the long-term challenges involved in becoming a competent L2 users – challenges that require dealing with temporary setbacks and frustrations. Research focusing on successful language learners has identified one key attitude that predicts eventual language learning success. This attitude is an acceptance of a bicultural identity, one that necessitates a growing sense of self-awareness and utilization of “positive psychology.”  

As learners aspire towards a positive bicultural identity, their motivation becomes a powerful force for sustaining effort in and enthusiasm for language learning (Dörnyei and Hadfield, 2013; Helgesen, 2016). Some language educators advocate directlyexploring issues of identity as the students become active users of the L2 (Norton, 2010; Morgan and Clarke, 2011). Why? Because as a student develops more awareness of the learning process, he or she is much more amenable to considering new strategies – conscious ways of practicing and improving in the L2 (Oxford, 2016; Rost, 2016).  

In the new edition of the English Firsthandseries, we provide more directed activities in the area of learner awareness.  In many of the interactive content sections – Pair Work, Group Work, and Real Stories – we give students real opportunities to explore their “bicultural identity” and work with “positive psychology.”  We help students understand that developing a high level of proficiency in English does take a long time, and does require a long-term commitment.  At the same time, we lead students toward the positive realization that growth in the language on a daily basis, coming to be able to express themselves with greater confidence at any level of proficiencyis a sign of success, and a significant personal achievement.

  •  The power of learning styles
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Author Barbara Prashnig has argued that learners of all agescan learn virtually anythingif allowed to do it through their own unique styles, their own personal strengths (Prashnig, 2006). Many L2 researchers and language educators have embraced this notion, especially given the diversity of students who undertake L2 learning. Howard Gardner’s seminal work in the 1990s established that individuals possess different kinds of intelligence and, therefore, learn, remember, perform, and understand in different ways (Gardner, 1991). Several distinct learning styles have been identified: linguistic (verbal), logical-mathematic, auditory (musical), kinesthetic (tactile), visual (spatial), interpersonal (social) and intrapersonal (reflective). 

In Gardner’s framework, each style involves a fundamentally different type of interactionwith input (Jones et al., 2009). For language instruction, it has been proposed that engaging in multiple processing styles and consciously departing from an emphasis solely on the traditional  learning styles (verbal and mathematical) may have a stimulating effect on students, particularly those who have never experienced success with language learning (Lightbown & Spada, 1999). For example, numerous educators contend that kinesthetic learning can be transformative for many students, assisting them in engaging their emotions in the learning process; kinesthetic learning is seen as including learning through humor and laughter (which evokes positive chemical changes in the brain), drama   and creative movement (Martin, 2007; Maley & Duff, 2005;  Bell, 2009).

The research on learning styles has deeply influenced the design of the English Firsthand series, particularly the new edition. As teachers of the series will attest, Firsthandprovides an abundance of activity types involving different learning modalities.  With an inclusion of kinesthetic modalities (many activities involve movement and tactile objects), visual modalities (all activities have a strong visual reference – with over 50  photos and illustrations in each unit, and now with three video segments for each unit as well), auditory modalities (all eight main  activities in each unit have an auditory model, with a wide variety of speakers), interpersonal modalities (all main activities have steps for interacting with a partner or a small group to complete a specific task), and also intrapersonal modalities (in this edition, we have included additional Assessment for Learning tasks to allow students to reflect and review their learning). And finally, in this edition, we have added an abundance of options in “online learning modalities”, via our new MyMobileWorld website (pearsonelt.com/englishfirsthand).  

In summary, there is a robust connection between the notion of active learning and the English Firsthand series in five key areas:  (1) focusing on and amplifying learner motivation as a key to active engagement in learning, (2)  building the role of the instructor in creating a positive learning environment, (3) structuring units and activities in short steps to assure the right level of difficulty and offering choices to personalize learning challenge, (4) building learner awareness and positive self-image to activate learning commitment, and (5) incorporating a full range of learning styles to assure that all learners can achieve optimal engagement in learning. 


Aragao, R. (2011). Beliefs and emotions in foreign language learning.  System, 39,302– 313.

Asgedom, M. (2014).The Five Powers of an Educator.  Chicago: Mawi Learning.  

Bell, N. (2009).  Learning about and through humor in the second language classroom. Language Teaching Research, 13,  241– 258.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2002) Flow: The classic work on how to achieve happiness. London: Rider.

Dornyei, Z. & Hadfield, J.  (2013)  Motivation.  New York: Routledge. 

Ericcson, A.  & Pool, R. ( 2016).    Peak: Secrets from the new science of expertise. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. 

Helgesen, M. (2016). Happiness in ESL/ EFL: Bringing positive psychology to the classroom.  In P. McIntyre, T. Gregerson, & S. Mercer (Eds.) Positive psychology in SLA.  Bristol: Multilingual Matters. 

Gardner, H. (2008). Multiple intelligences: New horizons in theory and practice. New York: Basic Books.

Jones, B., Liacer-Arrastia, S. & Newbill, P. (2009).  Motivating foreign language students using self-determination theory. Innovation in Language Learning and Teaching, 3, 171– 189.

Rost, Michael; Wilson, J. J. (2013-11-04). Active Listening (Research and Resources in Language Teaching) (Kindle Locations 5917-5918). Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition.

Lightbown, P. and Spada, N. (1999). How languages are learned,2nd edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Maley, A. and Duff, A. (2005). Drama techniques in language learning, 3rd edition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Martin, R. (2007). The psychology of humor: An integrative approach. London: Elsevier.

Morgan, B. and Clarke, M. (2011).  Identity in second language teaching and learning. In E. Hinkel  (Ed.) Handbook of Research in Second Language Teaching and Learning, 2, 817– 836. New York: Routledge.

Norton, B. (2010).  Language and identity.  In Hornberger, N. and McKay, S. (eds) Sociolinguistics and Language Education.Bristol: Multilingual Matters.

Oxford, R. (2016). Teaching and researching language learning strategies, 3rdedition. New York: Routledge.

Prashnig, B. (2006). Learning styles in Action. London: Network Continuum Publications.

Rost, M. (2016).  Teaching and researching listening, 3rdedition.  New York: Routledge.

Williams, M., Burden, R., Poulet, G. & Maun, I. (2004).  Learners’ perception of their successes and failures in foreign language learning.  Language Learning Journal, 30, 19– 29.

About The Author

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Michael Rost, principal author of Pearson English Interactive, has been active in the areas of language teaching, learning technology and language acquisition research for over 25 years. His interest in bilingualism and language education began in the Peace Corps in West Africa and was fuelled during his 10 years as an educator in Japan and extensive touring as a lecturer in East Asia and Latin America. Formerly on the faculty of the TESOL programs at Temple University and the University of California, Berkeley, Michael now works as an independent researcher, author, and speaker based in San Francisco.