MATSDA July 2013 Presentation – Is enjoyment central to language learning? A snapshot of M.A. student materials developers’ perspectives (The write-up)

Before I finally consign my cue cards for this presentation to the bin, I thought I’d write up my talk from July this year… 

Is enjoyment central to language learning? A snapshot of student materials developers’ perspectives.

My small-scale project and presentation both emerged from a combination of ruminating on the conference theme, Enjoying to learn: the best way to acquire a language?, and doing a materials development module as part of my M.A. in ELT at Leeds Met. Being an annual two-day conference of the Materials Development Association, the conference theme gave rise to a few questions in my mind:

  • Is enjoyment central to materials development and learning?
  • If it is central to learning, how much control do materials developers have over it?

I decided to focus on the materials development perspective, thinking that it would be interesting to see what lesser-heard materials developers’ voices had to say, since the views of the great and good in ELT are already widely known,  and contrast this with what I could find in the literature.

My intuition told me that the themes of motivation, affect and engagement would feature prominently in my exploration of the issue and this was backed up by the data I collected. Thus, I decided to focus on these themes for my literature review, in addition to the theme of enjoyment itself.


Dornyei (2005; 2013) coined the L2 Motivational Self System. This consists of 3 components:

  • Ideal L2 self: This refers to a learner’s future self image, hopes and aspirations in relation to using the foreign language.
  • The ought self: This refers to the attributes a learner believes he or she ought to possess, in terms of using the foreign language. So this relates to someone else’s vision with regards a learner’s foreign language usage.
  • The L2 learning experience: This refers to “situation-specific motives related to the immediate learning environment and experience (e.g. the positive impact of success or the enjoyable quality of a language course)”

Enjoyment, then, fits into the third component of this L2 Motivation Self-system: The “enjoyable quality” of a course may motivate learners to continue learning, as may success. Of the three components, this third is the only one that relates directly to the current learning environment and the effect this has on motivation, and we can draw the conclusion that enjoyment may be a factor in motivation. However, it is worth noting  it’s an “or”, rather than an essential component. How essential a component it is will depend largely on the learner’s personality and learning goals.


Krashen’s affective filter hypothesis aims to account for lack of acquisition in the face of appropriate input. Within this theory, the affective filter is “a metaphorical barrier that prevents learners from acquiring language even when appropriate input is available” (Lightbown and Spada, 2006:37). Where does enjoyment fit in with this? If we enquire in to what makes the affective filter go up, we find that “a learner who is tense, anxious or bored may ‘filter out’ input, making it unavailable for acquisition” (Ibid). Thus, lack of confidence, worry, insecurity, nerves, or as mentioned by Lightbown and Spada, tension, anxiety or boredom, may all contribute to the affective filter going up and preventing acquisition. This being the case, the learner would certainly not be enjoying him or herself.

However, enjoyment is not the opposite of all of these things, though it may emerge if the opposites are cultivated. The opposites themselves are confidence for lack of confidence/insecurity, interest for boredom, calmness and relaxation for anxiety/worry/nerves. These enable learning by lowering the affective filter. Do they arise from enjoyment? Possibly, but not necessarily.


Engagement appears with high frequency in the literature. It often collocates with ‘cognitive’ and ‘affective’:

Cognitive Engagement:

“Thinking while experiencing language in use helps to achieve the deep processing required for effective and durable learning (Craik and Lockhart 1972)” (Tomlinson, 2010:88-89)

 Affective Engagement:

“Affective engagement with language in use also has the considerable advantage of stimulating a fuller use of the resources of the brain (Bolitho et al. 2003:256)

The argument for engaging learners cognitively is that the increased depth of processing that results leads to a greater degree of learning taking place. It requires the transfer of higher level skills such as predicting, connecting and evaluating.  An example of a cognitively engaging activity would be a consciousness-raising grammar-based task.

The argument for engaging learners affectively is that this fires up neural pathways, which enables the multi-representation of language that is required for deeper processing of language and more meaningful learning.

It is widely agreed that both of these are central to language learning and acquisition. Now, one could argue that affective and cognitive engagement equal enjoyment. However, enjoyment does not necessarily equal affective and cognitive engagement. As an extreme example, a learner could be sat in the back of class happy as a clam, daydreaming about the hot date they have planned for that evening – they’d be enjoying themselves but they would not be engaged.


Having explored the above three themes, I also investigated the role of enjoyment itself in the literature. A search, using Evernote’s search function, of Tomlinson (2012)’s literature review of Materials Development for Language Learning, only identified a single allusion. This was to Grant (1987) and was being used as an example of a poor evaluation criteria. Questionability of criteria aside, this was a case of appropriacy to context/age/level of learners that would be the design goal rather than ‘enjoyment’ per se. Enjoyment may emerge, but not necessarily.

I also searched a few other key articles (see list of references) and then did a database search of the ELT Journal. I looked for “enjoy” and “enjoyment” and limited the search to titles/abstracts as key words should be mentioned in these. This gave me ten results. 8 were related to reading and listening, 1 related to writing and 1 related to strategies, recommending that learners try to enjoy performance anxiety.

There are obvious limitations to this exploration – I did not search all the articles that have ever been written and my database search was only of one journal. However, I felt that if enjoyment was important for materials development, then it would have been mentioned in Tomlinson’s 2012 literature review. I also did not search for synonyms of enjoyment, but this was deliberate: synonyms are tricky and can mean subtly different things. For example, engagement. I found in my study that people often associate enjoyment and engagement, using the two interchangeably in some cases, and of course engagement is prominent in the literature, but they are different.

To illustrate this difference, one need only look at the definitions of each term in the Oxford Dictionary. This clarifies that enjoyment can be passive but engagement is always active. Enjoyment can and might emerge from engagement but it is not necessary for it. For example, that cognitive consciousness-raising task might not be at all enjoyable but learners may be very engaged and learn from it.

In summary:

  • Learning plus enjoyment = fantastic.
  • Learning minus enjoyment = fine, especially in certain contexts.
  • Enjoyment, minus learning = arguably pointless?
  • None of above = the learners will probably not be returning to class tomorrow, given the choice.

When might there be learning but no enjoyment? As per the previous example, the CR grammar task – analytic learners may enjoy it but experiential learners probably will not. Both types of learners, however, may be engaged and learn from it, if they understand the purpose and view it as useful. There could be parallels drawn between this and musicians who practice their scales in order to play beautiful music. A hobby musician like me may not bother with this but the musician who wants to play in a top-class orchestra or pass a grade 7 music exam will. It’s not enjoyable, but it can be worth it. This is where motivation comes in – it affects what is considered important.

The Study

The context for my study was Leeds Metropolitan University’s M.A. in ELT Materials Development module. I had 4 participants – 3 students and 1 tutor – and I had one research question: Is enjoyment central to the development of language learning materials? My hypothesis was No, because I didn’t recall it being prominent in classes, individual tutorials or informal chats with colleagues. Of course, this could have been a flawed recollection, so I decided to explore my course mate’s perspectives on the role of enjoyment in learning materials, by interviewing them and looking at a sample of the materials they produced for the module assessment. I also interviewed our tutor in order to gauge the possible effect of her influence over their answers by looking for similarities and differences and tutorial input vs tutorial take-away. The interviews were all 1-1 interviews, and I asked each course mate the same set of questions. I asked my tutor a similar set of questions but slightly adapted so that they were relevant to her role.

The limitations of my study are, of course, it’s size, imposed by the number of willing participants. However, it still provides a snapshot. I believe the interview effect was not present in either the interviews with my course mates, or that with my tutor – my course mates and I have a symmetrical relationship and they had nothing to gain by trying to impress me, while my tutor and I have an asymmetrical relationship, but in which she is superior to me, so again nothing to gain by trying to impress me.

When I presented this project, before showing and discussing the results, I showed a sample of each respondent’s materials, together with the set of questions used, and asked the audience to confer to infer possible answers.


I organised my results around the themes I used to conduct my literature review, using colour to differentiate between ideas that arose from my course mates (blue) and ideas that arose from my tutor (orange). I used a 50% split of colour for the ideas common to both. Perhaps unsurprisingly, as our tutor’s views were bound to be very influential during the course of this module, there is a substantial amount of overlap. However, my classmates did express ideas of their own that weren’t echoed in the answers given my tutor. Here is a summary of the results:


Screen Shot 2013-09-17 at 10.13.02

Results slide 1: results related to motivation

These are the ideas relating to enjoyment that I thought were linked with motivation. Some relate to intrinsic motivation, some to extrinsic motivation (or the ideal self/ought self) and some relate to the L1 learning process leading to motivation. So, motivation is certainly important, according to both my respondents and the literature.


Screen Shot 2013-09-17 at 10.15.01

Results slide 2: results related to affect.

Enjoyment was also linked to positive affect. Thus, relief, relaxation, interaction, camaraderie, confidence and connection with topic all contribute to the lowering of the affective filter, and if these are present then it is safe to say that enjoyment would not be far behind.


Screen Shot 2013-09-17 at 10.15.08

Results slide 3: results related to engagement.

Enjoyment was also linked strongly with engagement. My respondents seemed to agree that enjoyment emerges as a result of engagement. Thus, interest, challenge, the learning process, studial activities, concepts and games/competitions were all associated with both engagement and enjoyment – possibly because if a learner wants to be engaged in these ways, then when the need is met, their enjoyment will likely emerge.


Screen Shot 2013-09-17 at 10.15.16

Results slide 4: results related to enjoyment

This is what emerged with regards to enjoyment itself:

  • The importance of it depends on context (age, purpose of learning etc.) and personality (it’s subjective, important to some but not to others).
  • It doesn’t necessarily mean learning.
  • It probably means happy students, unless they are more interested in learning than enjoying themselves and feel that enjoyment is being promoted at the expense of learning.

Materials design/development

Screen Shot 2013-09-17 at 10.46.21

Results slide 5: what’s important for materials design/development?

This is what emerged in terms of what is important in the design and development of learning materials. The three factors listed at the bottom of the slide in a different colour from the rest were put forward as factors that make learning materials enjoyable. What also emerged is that for young learners, “fun” and “enjoyable” activities may be more important, as this engages them. It was also agreed by all participants that the role of the teacher is very important, perhaps more so than the materials.

Discussion of results

1. Design implications:

Trying explicitly to build enjoyment into language learning materials may backfire; it may be better to let it emerge from other elements, e.g. cognitive/affective engagement and interest.

2. Goal implications:

Enjoyment can make learning more pleasurable, can emerge from and contribute to the motivation needed to continue learning but it does not CAUSE learning, and language learning is goal of language classes. It could of course be argued that this goal could be better achieved if enjoyment is present.

3. The issue of subjectivity:

As enjoyment is so very subjective, perhaps it is better to cater for different learning styles, embody principles and theory that are widely considered most effective, aim to engage cognitively/affectively and to motivate learners.

Returning to goal implications, you could argue that enjoyment is an indirect goal of language learning and learning materials development: We want it to be a by-product, because we do not want miserable learners. However, there is a problem inherent in this: In Gilmore, 2004 we see: “As Cook (1997) points out, terms such as ‘authentic’, ‘genuine’, ‘real’ or ‘natural’ and their opposites ‘fake’, ‘unreal’ or ‘contrived’ are emotionally loaded and indicate approval or disapproval whilst remaining ill-defined. I would argue that, from the classroom teacher’s perspective, rather than chasing our tails in pointless debate over authenticity versus contrivance, we should focus instead on learning aims, or as Hutchinson & Waters (1987: 159) call it, ‘fitness to the learning purpose’.” – if we substitute enjoyment and it’s supposed opposites in here, then perhaps the same applies, and if the issue of emotionally loaded terms does apply equally to enjoyment, then perhaps it is equally important in this respect to focus on fitness to the learning purpose.

Who would say, “I don’t want my learners to enjoy themselves. No.” If somebody said this, they would probably be labelled the wicked witch of the west. BUT, how about enjoyment at the expense of learning:

Scrivener and Underhill believe “we may have misinterpreted ‘humanistic’ and ‘facilitation’ as a bland ‘being nice to students'” i.e. not doing anything students might not enjoy. Meanwhile, Dellar, in the comment thread of a blog post dated June 9th 2013, remarked on “classrooms full of clowns with their bags of tricks, fun in large neon lights, and loads of hot air. Signifying very little indeed.” One respondent of this blog post quoted their learner as saying “games are fine but they won’t help us enough”. Perhaps, then, it would be more effective to focus on the learning aims and fitness to learning purpose. Therefore, aim for engagement, interest, effective and principled activities and worry less about ‘enjoyment’ as an end in itself. The enjoyment that emerges as a result of these is the type of enjoyment that is surely most conducive to language learning, as distinct from the enjoyment of dreaming about a hot date, or, indeed, playing a particularly pointless game with no pedagogical purpose.

Provided materials engage learners cognitively and/or affectively, and of course there may be more of one than the other and vice versa at various points in a sequence of activities, then enjoyment of the right sort should emerge,  also catering for the learners alluded to in results slide 4, who do not care about enjoyment and probably do not want it rammed down their throats. This approach is likely to be more successful than aiming for enjoyment itself, which is hit-and-miss due to the subjective nature of it, and may be downright annoying, for example if learners did not come to class to be counselled or play games etc. but to learn English. (See Gadd, 1998, for  a criticism, in this respect, of some humanistic language teaching approaches)


The conclusions of my study are that, for my participants

  • Affect, motivation and engagement ARE central to language learning and to materials development, as materials can aim to stimulate these.
  • Enjoyment may emerge from these, or be generated by a range of factors, not necessarily relating to the materials in use, e.g. rapport with classmates and teacher, but it is not the central goal: learning is.

As Swan famously quotes his learner in saying:  “I don’t want to clap and sing, I want to learn English”

As our tutor said to me: “I’m more interested in whether students are going to learn language from these materials than whether students are going to enjoy them.”


A list of references referred to in the talk and in this write-up can be found here.

This was an interesting project to undertake and I much enjoyed the opportunity of presenting my findings at the MATSDA conference. Many thanks must go to my participants for giving up their time to be interviewed and contributing samples of their work for me to show in my presentation, to Brian Tomlinson for allowing me to present, and to my tutor for all the help/support/advice she gave while I was planning and preparing my presentation for the conference. 


One thought on “MATSDA July 2013 Presentation – Is enjoyment central to language learning? A snapshot of M.A. student materials developers’ perspectives (The write-up)

  1. Pingback: MATSDA Conference 2013 Presentation: Is enjoyment central to language learning? A snapshot of student materials developers’ perspectives. | Reflections of an English Language Teacher

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