By Daniel Pun, English Language Centre, The Hong Kong Polytechnic University


Jake is a hip-hop enthusiast. He loves English, but finds the English he learns in class not relevant to what he likes. Sarah enjoys classroom activities very much, yet she has an ambivalent feeling towards English lessons, for she doesn’t want to cope with the pressure from the assignments and assessments. Ronnie basically shuts his ears in English lessons, because he believes that this language is not important to him.

All these are related to students’ motivation – something that English teachers have to deal with every day. Many of us employ different motivation strategies in our classroom, yet they are not always effective. From the above cases, it is obvious that sometimes no matter how hard we try to motivate our students, we cannot motivate all of them because quite often it is not related to what’s happening in the classroom. Are there, then, any theories that deal with a wider societal context? In this blog entry, I am going to introduce investment and desire – two relatively newly invented models to look at students’ motivation.

Let’s first look at the desire model, which was proposed by Suhanthie Motha and Angel Lin in 2014. They frame desire on five levels: (1) desires of learners; (2) desires of communities in which learners are embedded, including parents of young learners; (3) desires of teachers, including their desires for students and their desires for themselves; (4) desires of institutions; and (5) desires of the state or government. They stress that this framework is intended not to represent desire in any symbolic way, but rather to support teachers to think about all these “circles” in an interconnected way.

The investment model on the other hand, put forward by Bonny Norton and Ron Darvin in 2015, is a bit more abstract. They propose that investment is in the centre of identity, capital, and ideology. Whilst the concept of identity is relatively easy to understand, the definition of capital and ideology is difficult to capture. To simply put, capital here refers to the cultural and social capital (Bourdieu, 2011), and ideology refers to the dominant ways of thinking that organize and stabilize societies. Different ideologies may collude and compete, shaping learner identities and restructuring opportunities to use English. Darvin and Norton (2018) believe that this model can provide a lens that calls attention to how structures of power work, while finding opportunities for learners to exercise their capacity.

Now back to the three students mentioned earlier. Their cases can all be analysed by either of the models. Jake is interested in hip-hop culture, he has a related identity that he wants to ‘invest’ in, so adding some hip-hop features into lessons could make him be more motivated. Sarah’s situation is best understood with the desire’s model. Her desire to learn English is not layered with that of the institutions or government. Ronnie’s case can be understood by both of the models. He pays no attention to class because he does not have an investment in this language. Also, it is the others’ desire to keep him in an English classroom.

As the two models suggest, it would be useful to understand what the students want, and the different circles surrounding them. Teaching and English in a classroom is a very “top-down” thing – very often teachers and don’t have rights to choose the materials, assessments, or class size. Perhaps it’s time to think about a way to make it “bottom-up” – first talk to the students, understand their investment and desire, then design tailor-made activities for them. “Communication” is the keyword here, I believe – through chatting, not only teachers can understand the students more, the students can also feel that they are cared for, be more open to different possibilities, and hence have the autonomy to learn.

These two models also remind us that EAP is not just about the interaction between learners and teachers. Looking beyond the classroom, we should be aware of the way in which the dominant ideology – or the desires of government, institutions, and communities – influences the WHAT we are teaching and HOW students are assessed.

Last but not least – a group of enthusiastic English teachers are very interested in motivation-related research here in ELC PolyU, and we formed a motivation SIG last year. Do join us and discuss the theories and / or practices on motivating our students!



Bourdieu, P. (2011). The forms of capital.(1986). Cultural theory: An anthology, 1, 81-93.

Darvin, R., & Norton, B. (2015). Identity and a model of investment in applied linguistics. Annual review of applied linguistics, 35, 36-56.

Darvin, R., & Norton, B. (2018). Identity, investment, and TESOL. The TESOL Encyclopedia of English Language Teaching, 1-7.

Motha, S., & Lin, A. (2014). “Non‐coercive rearrangements”: Theorizing desire in TESOL. TESOL quarterly, 48(2), 331-359.


About the author:

Daniel Pun is a Language Instructor at the English Language Centre, The Hong Kong Polytechnic University, teaching academic English and general English courses. He is as well a PhD candidate at Institute of Education, University College London. His research interests include sociolinguistics, political economy, L2 teaching and learning, learners identity, L2 motivation, and Bonny Norton’s investment.

  • Calum Page
    Calum Page

    Hi Daniel

    Thank you for this. Bonny Norton makes very convincing arguments for the need for both teachers and learners themselves to understand the wider sociocultural forces at work in language acquisition.

    Her papers “Language and Identity’ (2010) and ‘Language, Identity and the Owenershoipof English’ (1997) are enlightening and very eloquently written.

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