Quotations for Motivation in the ESL Classroom

Summary: A look at how quotations can be used in the ESL classroom to motivate students.


Motivation has long been a major problem for most teachers of English as a Second Language (ESL) not only in India but also elsewhere. One of the successful ways, if the teacher is resourceful and judicious enough, to overcome this problem, is to use quotations appropriately. The present author employed quotations at the beginning of every semester and also of every class in a semester. He found to his satisfaction that most students are immensely motivated to learn English as also to live their life meaningfully. This paper presents some of the strategies and successes achieved at the College of Engineering, Anna University with the second semester students of B.E. Electrical and Electronics Engineering during December 2002 – April 2003.

Dr. P. Dhanavel
Assistant Professor of English
Anna University

“When the student is ready, the teacher will appear” – An old saying.


Most teachers of English in India would agree that to motivate their students to really learn English is a Herculean task. Many students do not buy textbooks and notebooks. Even if they do, they may not bring them to their classes. Some of the students may not even attend classes regularly. Under these circumstances, the English teachers’ life is unenviable. Some teachers use their ingenuity and some others their authority and somehow they pull on hour after hour and year after year.


The first step in tackling the problem of motivation is that the teachers need to understand and appreciate the role and importance of motivation in any learning. In the context of second language learning, William Littlewood (1987: 53) observes:

In second language learning as in every other field of human learning, motivation is the critical force which determines whether a learner embarks on a task at all, how much energy he devotes to it, and how long he perseveres. It is a complex phenomenon and includes many components: the individual’s drive, need for achievement and success, curiosity, desire for stimulation and new experience, and so on. These factors play a role in every kind of learning situation.

The teacher has to activate these motivational components in the students but that is the precise problem. How can it be done in every class everyday?


One interesting and useful way of activating the motivational components in students is the use of a quotation a day in the classroom. What is a quotation and how can it be used then? A quotation is a pithy and profound statement that can be cited by a speaker or a writer to convey his ideas effectively. Jacob M. Braude (1994: 19) comments on quotations thus:
Many people sprinkle their everyday conversation with quotations. These familiar sayings answer a special need of orators and statesmen, who search for quotations with which they drive home a point or sum up their speeches. Often the fruit of many years’ study is brought together into a single sentence, and nothing adorns a composition or speech better than a fitting quotation. It backs up one’s own beliefs. At the same time, it shows that those beliefs have been shared by other minds.

Undoubtedly, quotations have several uses for the language user. It is the responsibility of the language teacher to draw the attention of students to the beauties and benefits of quotations. Clearly then both language and content are important in every quotation, especially for use in the ESL classroom.


The teacher who has to teach English language through some worth while content has no better resource for motivation than catchy quotable quotes. For instance, “ Give me the right word and the right context, I will move the whole world is a quotation from Joseph Conrad, who adopted as his third language and became a great story teller in English. For another instance, “ The limits of my language are the limits of my world” is from Ludwig Wittgenstein, a pre-eminent philosopher. Conrad was a Pole and Wittgenstein was an Austrian but their quotations on the possibilities of language are greatly useful to motivate the students and thus get them interested in English language.


A one - hour and a two – quotation motivation exercise alone will not suffice. The motivation generated in the students has to be sustained for a long period of time, say a semester or a year but ideally for whole life. That is where a quotation on the board a day comes handy. To begin with, the teacher can give the quotation for a few days and influence the students to expect a quotation a day. Then the teacher can identify a student or a group of students, if possible, to undertake the task of collecting and writing the quotations on the board everyday for the whole semester or year.


It is possible that this exercise can become monotonous and mechanical. However, the teacher can bring life to these quotations and his students with his relevant comments on the quotations. In fact, if the teacher has adequate linguistic sensibility, he can use the quotations to teach synonyms, antonyms, sentence structures, pronunciation of words, and a host of other language aspects. These are not unfounded imaginary claims but practicable in actual classroom situations.


The great Dr. Samuel Johnson made use of quotations in A Dictionary of the English Language (1775) and ushered in a new dimension to dictionary making. He reasoned in his Preface to the Dictionary thus: “ Every quotation contributes something to the stability or enlargement of the language” (Partington 1996: 367). Similarly, for a language teacher every quotation contributes something to the teaching and learning of the target language. In addition, the teacher brings “ the wisdom of the wise and the experience of ages” to use the words of Isaac D’ Israeli, to the young students as signposts for their life.


The present author had been using quotations sporadically to motivate the students for quite a long time. Recently he started employing quotations systematically for the first year second semester students of B.E. Electrical and Electronics Engineering (CD Batch), College of Engineering, Anna University, Chennai during December 2002 – April 2003. Initially the teacher gave the quotes for a few days. Thereafter, he assigned the task to a particular student who was also to keep a record of the activities, including the comments from the teacher, on a separate notebook. The result is satisfactory for both the teacher and the taught.


Here are a few inspirational quotations, which will ever be useful to the students and to every person for that matter.

  1. “Vision is the art of seeing things invisible to others”. – Jonathan Swift.
  2. “Keep your face to the sunshine and you cannot see the shadows”. – Helen Keller.
  3. “A hero is no braver than an ordinary man, but he is braver a few minutes longer”. – Ralph Waldo Emerson
  4. “Two simple rules for life: Know Thyself: Take nothing in excess”. – Socrates
  5. “Imagination is more important than Knowledge”. – Albert Einstein

Whatever knowledge the teacher had of these authors and their writings, he shared with the students and inspired them to set goals for themselves in life and achieve them against all odds.


On some occasions the teacher himself composed quotations on seeing the quotations on the board written by the student. Here is a list of such sayings along with the teacher’s own.

1. “The ultimate aim of life is to get acquainted with truth”
a. If you are alert to your purpose, you won’t alter it.
2. “Honesty once pawned is never redeemed”. – Thomas Middleton
b. If a man does not hesitate to pawn his property, he may have to pawn his own person.
3. “Nothing shows a man’s character more than what he laughs at”.
c. Laughter is the daughter of joy.
4. “ The way out of trouble is never as simple as the way in”.
d. Russians are in trouble, as they don’t have enough Rouble.
5. “The only good is knowledge and the only evil is ignorance”.
e Ignorance is not so much an evil as irresponsibility is.

These self – composed sentences (a, b, c, d, & e) show a way to the students for their own meaningful play with words. It is heartening to note that sometimes a few students came up with their own sentences.


Only one student was writing the quotations on the board everyday. However, the teacher thought of a plan to get all students actively interested in quotations. Therefore, he gave an assignment on quotations to all students. Each student was asked to collect at least thirty quotations of their choice theme wise or in an assorted way. The teacher was happy to see topics like leadership, education, wisdom, success, proverbs, ability, imagination, character, life, man and mankind, happiness, habit, religion, humility, self-confidence, woman, beauty, love, courage, friendship, knowledge, justice, belief, creativity, death, and many others. One student prepared a list of websites, which have resources for quotations, wise sayings, aphorisms, and so on, in addition to his thirty quotations.

Here is a selection from the assignments submitted by the students.

1. “The great man is he who does not lose his child’s heart”. – Mencius
2. “Success does not come to you. You go it.” – Marwa Collins
3. “Adversity introduces a man to himself.”
4. “Do not push the river; it will flow by itself.”
5. “The roots of education are bitter, but the fruit is sweet.” – Aristotle
6. “Wisdom is knowledge which has become a part of one’s being.”
7. “Be your own friend and others will befriend you.”
8. “All our knowledge brings us nearer to ignorance.” – T.S.Eliot
9. “A candle loses nothing of its light by lighting another candle.”
10. “The greatest risk in life is not taking a risk.” – Sabeer Bhatia
11. “Truly respecting others is the bedrock of motivation.” Dale Carnegie
12. “The woman cries before the wedding and the man after.” A Polish Proverb
13. “The greatest glory in living lies not in never falling, but in raising every time we fall.” – Nelsen Mandela
14. “Nothing will ever be attempted, if all possible objections must first be overcome.” – Dr Samuel Johnson
15. “It is the supreme art of the teacher to awaken joy in creative expression and knowledge.” Albert Einstein

The quotations included here will be helpful to both teachers and students. First, the teachers have to realize that these words of wisdom and inspiration have enough potential for exploitation in the classroom. Next, they have to implement this strategy as soon as possible. From informal interactions, it is learnt from colleagues that they find it an interesting and usable idea. It is hoped that many others will also adopt this technique to motivate themselves and their students for joyful and meaningful English classes.


The problem of motivation in the ESL classroom can be overcome, among others, by the use of inspirational quotations on the board every day. The experience at the College of Engineering, Anna University, gave ample scope for motivating the students both intrinsically and extrinsically. The students would surely find the quotations useful in their speaking and writing. When they get some guidance, especially with moral values, for their life, they have intrinsic motivation. These moral values and linguistic skills are very much necessary for their personality development without which they cannot become effective and efficient professionals, let alone leaders and communicators. Consequently, the task of motivating the students becomes easier for the teacher who can teach the lessons hour after hour and year after year with pleasure and profit.


Braude, Jacob M. 1994. “Quotations”. In The New Book of Knowledge, Vol. 16. Editor-in-Chief. Gerry Gabianelli, pp.19-20. Danbury,CT: Grolier Inc.

Littlewood, William. 1987 [1984]. Foreign and Second Language Learning: Language Acquisition Research and Its Implications for the Classroom. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Partington, Angela., ed. 1996. The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations. Rev. 4th edn. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Copyright © 2006

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