Toward a Basic Needs-Supportive World Language Pedagogy: Four Illustrative Examples

William S. Davis, University of Oklahoma

Liam Printer, International School of Lausanne


Autonomy, competence, and relatedness—the three basic psychological needs of self-determination theory (SDT)—have consistently been shown to underlie language learners’ intrinsic motivation, engagement, and persistence in language learning. Synthesizing findings of recent studies in the world (i.e., “foreign”) language teaching and learning, this article presents a hypothesized framework for a “needs-supportive world language pedagogy” through which world language learners’ basic needs of autonomy, competence, and relatedness are satisfied in an interdependent and mutually-facilitatory way. To bridge theory and practice, we illustrate four examples of world language activities and strategies which could be classified as “needs-supportive” for the use and adaptation of world and foreign language educators in internationally diverse language learning contexts.

Keywords: Self-determination theory; world language teaching; foreign language teaching; intrinsic motivation; basic psychological needs; autonomy; language learning

As world language teachers and language teacher educators, we are dedicated to organizing spaces where our language learners can feel autonomous, intrinsically motivated, and psychologically well. Through our teaching and research, we have found the theoretical propositions of self-determination theory (SDT)—namely SDT’s basic needs of autonomy, competence, and relatedness and their influence on intrinsic motivation—to provide an accessible, practical, and impactful framework for bringing about these important outcomes for our students. In the past two decades, research at the intersection of world language learning (i.e., “foreign language”) and SDT has expanded from correlational analyses of motivational orientations (Noels et al., 1999) to the formation and testing of a motivational self-dynamics system (Oga-Baldwin et al., 2017; Noels et al., 2019) and practical extensions of how to enact it in diverse spaces for language learning (Davis, in press; Davis & Bowles, 2018; McEown & Oga-Baldwin, 2019; Muñoz-Restrepo et al., 2020; Printer, 2019; Shelton-Strong, 2020; Shelton-Strong & Mynard, 2020).

Central to the SDT motivational model is the dialectic relationship between the environment and self. Research has consistently shown how the language learning environment directly influences language learners’ satisfactions of autonomy (volition), competence (mastery) and relatedness (belonging), thereby bolstering and sustaining their intrinsic motivation, engagement, persistence, and well-being during language learning (Davis, 2020; Niemiec & Ryan, 2009; Noels et al., 2019; Oga-Baldwin et al., 2017). In this article, we take a step back and explore what comes before these feelings and motivations. Specifically, our focus attends to what exactly world language teachers in various contexts can do to cultivate a language learning environment that supports (rather than thwarts) students’ intrinsic motivation and development of target language proficiency through the satisfactions of their basic psychological needs of autonomy, competence, and relatedness.

The purpose of this article is to propose and portray an SDT-informed approach to world language teaching—a “needs-supportive” world language pedagogy—grounded in the concurrent and interdependent satisfactions of autonomy, competence, and relatedness. We take up the questions, “What does a world language pedagogy informed by self-determination theory look like, and how can teachers enact it?” Through this work we seek to foster intrinsically motivating spaces for language acquisition where learners’ well-being is prioritized. We begin by examining the basic psychological needs of autonomy, competence, and relatedness and the role they plan in autonomy-supportive teaching (Reeve, 2016). We then argue for a move beyond a sole pedagogical focus on autonomy by presenting a hypothesized framework for a discipline-specific needs-supportive world language pedagogy grounded in the findings of three recent studies. Finally, we exemplify this hypothesized approach to world language teaching by illustrating four teaching strategies that are likely to simultaneously incite the satisfactions of autonomy, competence, and relatedness.


SDT operationalizes autonomy as “the need to self-regulate one’s experiences and actions” (Ryan & Deci, 2017, p. 10) and is characterized by engagement in self-endorsed behaviors. The SDT conceptualization of autonomy should not be equated with independence; they differ in that one can act in correspondence with others while also acting volitionally in agreement with their own values and identities. In the classroom, autonomy satisfaction can occur “when students become the origins of their own behaviors and pursuits and when students experience a wholehearted self-endorsement of what they are doing” (Reeve & Cheon, 2021, p. 55). Students may feel the satisfaction of autonomy when they encounter genuine and meaningful choices in school (Shelton-Strong & Mynard, 2020) or even when they endorse a single option presented by their teacher (Ryan & Deci, 2020). Autonomy is developed in the classroom by seeking out students’ ideas and opinions, minimizing pressure, acknowledging students’ feelings about topics and nurturing their curiosity via activities that encourage students to seek their own solutions to problems (Niemiec & Ryan, 2009; Reeve & Cheon, 2021). To support world language learners’ satisfaction of autonomy, research has found that teachers can promote opportunities for students to communicate creatively and autonomously with others in the target language in ways which reflect their identities and interests (Davis, in press; Dincer et al., 2019; Yarwood et al., 2019) while tapping into their creativity (Printer, 2019).

Out of this critical need for autonomy in the school experience originated autonomy-supportive teaching (Reeve, 2016), an approach referring to the “adoption of a student-focused attitude and an understanding interpersonal tone that enables the skillful enactment of seven autonomy satisfying instructional behaviors to serve two purposes—support intrinsic motivation and support internalization” (Reeve & Cheon, 2021, p. 56). Those seven teacher behaviors include taking the students’ perspective, inviting students to pursue their interests, presenting learning activities in need-satisfying ways, providing explanatory rationales, acknowledging negative feelings, using invitational language, and displaying patience. Given the salience and influence of autonomy, autonomy-supportive teaching has been found to further incite learners’ satisfactions of competence and relatedness (Cheon et al., 2012).

Competence and Relatedness

In addition to autonomy, the basic psychological needs of competence and relatedness are essential to maintaining intrinsic motivation and well-being in the language classroom. Competence refers foremost to feelings of mastery and capability (Ryan & Deci, 2017). Educators can support students’ satisfaction of competence “by offering them an optimal challenge to strive for within a failure-tolerant environment” (Reeve, 2016, p. 140). Central to the notion of competence is that students will only engage in and personally value classroom activities that they can fully understand and potentially master (Niemiec & Ryan, 2009). In the context of language teaching and learning, learners’ satisfaction of competence has been associated with comprehension of spoken or written target language (Jones et al., 2009) in an environment conducive to risk-taking (Dincer et al., 2012) which provides regular feedback (Dincer et al., 2019; Yarwood et al., 2019) and clarity and rationale for expectations (McEown et al., 2014).

It is difficult to expect learners to care and engage in instruction when they feel an absence of love and community in their school. Teachers can encourage relatedness in the classroom by engaging in friendly and individualized communication with students and by promoting community and cohesiveness through collaboration and teamwork (Sparks et al., 2015). Roseth et al.’s (2008) meta-analysis reports that when students have an enhanced perception of relatedness, they are more likely to participate, exert more effort and show positive attitudes toward others. Teacher support is also crucial for enhancing students’ cohesion (Jang et al., 2016). By conveying warmth, care, respect and appreciation for students, teachers can help students to feel a greater sense of belonging (Niemiec & Ryan, 2009). In the world language classroom, relatedness has been associated with the implementation of dialogue journals (Fukuda et al., 2011), shared language experiences (Davis, in press; Yarwood et al., 2019), creative activities (Jones et al., 2009), debates (Davis, 2018), and participatory storytelling (Printer, 2019).

Why “Needs-” Supportive (Rather Than Autonomy-Supportive)?

While autonomy has clearly arisen as the most comprehensively examined basic need in both research and in practice, an exclusive focus on supporting language learners’ autonomy without consideration to their basic psychological needs of competence (effectance, mastery) and relatedness (belonging, love) may set forth an incomplete and problematic picture of how intrinsic motivation and well-being are supported during language learning. The omission not only conflicts with the theoretical foundation of SDT, but also, from a critical perspective, places a limiting ceiling effect on the positive psychological and linguistic outcomes all learners should experience in their language learning environments.

According to the SDT mini-theory basic psychological needs theory (BPNT) (Ryan & Deci, 2017), the three basic psychological needs of autonomy, competence, and relatedness are interdependent, inextricable, and arise concurrently. Each basic need facilitates the others multi-directionally, rather than autonomy acting as the sole instigator of relatedness and competence. This interconnectedness and inter-reliance of the three needs have been found repeatedly in various world language motivation studies (Davis, in press; Printer, 2019, 2021; Shelton-Strong & Mynard, 2020). The well-being sustained through the satisfactions of autonomy, competence, and relatedness together are characterized by Ryan and Deci (2017) like a “three-legged stool; pull out any of these supports and the stool will fall” (p. 250). They write:

… It is hard to derive competence satisfaction from a domain in which one is not autonomous or volitional, and, reciprocally, a person who feels little competence at an activity will not likely have a great deal of interest or willingness to engage in it. Similarly, in relationships that are controlling or non-autonomy-supportive, a person is not likely to experience a lot of closeness and intimacy. Reciprocally, within interactions or in groups in which one does not feel close or cared for, it is not likely that one will feel a great deal of volition or interest (Ryan & Deci, 2017, p. 248).

This conceptualization of basic psychological needs may conflict with the assertion of autonomy-supportive teaching that leveraging language learner’s autonomy satisfaction to further cultivate the satisfactions of competence and relatedness is enough to maximize and sustain a learners’ intrinsic motivation and well-being (Reeve, 2016; Reeve & Cheon, 2021). Given the mutually-facilitatory nature of basic needs, language teachers must consider how their interactions with students, their instruction, and their curricular choices, as a gestalt, reinforce learners’ relatedness, competence, and autonomy simultaneously, allowing each need to facilitate the others in their unique and complementary ways, thus maximizing these positive outcomes for all learners.

Hypothesizing Needs-Supportive World Language Pedagogy

Much of the SDT research exploring the pedagogical antecedents to basic needs satisfaction in language teaching and learning has examined and hypothesized basic needs as individual phenomena rather than parts of an interdependent system. These findings provide a developing understanding of what it means to support language learners’ basic psychological needs in the world, foreign, or second language learning classroom. To date, three studies have approached basic needs from an interdependent, balanced perspective (Davis, in press; Printer, 2019; Shelton-Strong & Mynard, 2020). Across each of the studies, students’ comprehension of and engagement in target language communication were vehicles for simultaneously satisfying their basic needs of autonomy, competence, and relatedness.

Davis’ (in press) qualitative study explored the environmental antecedents, both in and outside of the classroom, which supported the basic needs of American world language learners during their language studies. Themes from the interview data were identified representing pedagogical supports for each basic psychological need. Autonomy was associated with students’ self-endorsed use of the target language and perceived choice in the curriculum. Competence was characterized by effective target language communication, and the satisfaction of relatedness was associated with teachers’ investment in each world language learner and students’ engagement in a target language discourse community. The study found directional influences of each basic need on the others.

Similarly, Printer’s (2019) study found additional evidence for the interdependence and interaction of autonomy, competence, and relatedness in the experiences of learners of Spanish taking part in co-constructed storytelling. Contributing as individuals to creative stories in Spanish (autonomy) with their peers and teacher helped students to forge relationships with each other (“Every little bit was made by somebody […] with the class. I think that’s the motivator” [p. 11]) and build confidence (competence) in their capacity to communicate in Spanish (“I believe that through storytelling I improved a lot” [p. 9]). Printer (2019) writes that co-constructed storytelling “instantaneously satisfied all three of SDT’s needs and by doing so, each need positively impacted the others” (p. 11).

Finally, Shelton-Strong and Mynard (2020) found that the satisfactions of competence, relatedness, and autonomy were consistently present in Japanese EFL students’ explanations of their motivation to learn English. Relatedness satisfaction was characterized most frequently by feelings of caring or closeness with others, such as talking with friends, classmates, and teachers. Competence satisfaction was associated with feelings of success, achievement, challenge, and confidence in using English. Autonomy and volitional engagement with their language program permeated students’ satisfactions of competence and relatedness. They write:

Engaging autonomously in relational support and activities in which there is a reciprocally satisfying interaction based on interest, care and authentic communication has been shown to act as a conduit, where a ‘mutuality of autonomy support’ facilitates basic psychological need satisfaction for both parties involved (Shelton-Strong & Mynard, 2020, p. 12).

Across these three studies, language learners in three international contexts indicated that their satisfactions of autonomy, competence, and relatedness were inherently linked and reliant on each other. Through synthesizing the findings of the studies (Davis, in press; Printer, 2019; Shelton-Strong & Mynard, 2020), we present a hypothesized framework for needs-supportive world language pedagogy (Figure 1) highlighting the pedagogical, curricular, and interactional behaviors world language teachers can engage in to support the intrinsic motivation, engagement, and well-being of their students.

Figure 1. Hypothesized Framework for Needs-Supportive World Language Pedagogy

The framework highlights the multidirectional influence of each basic psychological need on the others during formal and informal language learning experiences. The framework hypothesizes that, when students feel they are communicating effectively in the target language (competence), they are likely to engage in further volitional target language use (autonomy) with their peers and other speakers of the language (relatedness). As students become closer with their fellow language learners (relatedness), they will be more likely to engage in communication with them and others (competence) and do so in a way that truly represents their identities and perspectives (autonomy), resulting in greater intrinsic motivation for language learning, engagement, and overall well-being. Similarly, when students are provided with opportunities to be creative and co-create materials (autonomy), they forge a sense of belonging with both their peers and the teacher (relatedness), resulting in increased attentive listening for understanding and a willingness to communicate in the language (competence). The framework nests well within the self-dynamics model of the SDT motivational process (Noels et al., 2019) by illustrating the relationship between pedagogical supports for basic psychological needs and, in turn, learners’ autonomous forms of motivation, engagement, and psychological capital (i.e., well-being).

Four Needs-Supportive World Language Activities

Many of the standard teaching practices and units in the world language classroom can, quite easily, be adapted to become more needs-supportive and therefore more intrinsically motivating for students. In this section we briefly provide an overview of four such world language classroom activities. While these strategies have not yet been empirically tested for their impact on basic psychological needs and language acquisition, the growing body of empirical research within SDT and language teaching provide strong evidence that they do satisfy the needs of autonomy, competence and relatedness while inciting the development of language proficiency. They have been employed in our own language classrooms across a variety of age groups on many occasions and we have found their needs-supportive characteristics to be highly engaging and motivational for language learners.

The “one word image” for describing people (beginner level)

Beginner classes often start by learning how to introduce oneself and talk about physical characteristics, likes and dislikes. Instead of the rote learning of long vocabulary lists, students could co-create an “invisible character” with their peers and teacher. This approach is often called the “one word image” (Slavic, 2008) as it begins by the teacher asking students to “look” at the invisible object in front of the board and then guess what it is using one word. The teacher then accepts and selects one of these student ideas and this becomes the basis for building the invisible character together. For example, in Figure 2, one student said in the target language that the object was a “piece of glass.” This was selected as it generated the most interest from the class. Together as a class, the teacher and students then co-create a personality for this object so that it has a name, characteristics and hobbies. The need of autonomy is satisfied through students’ ideas contributing to the building of the character by providing details about it, which are often highly creative. In this example, the students decided the glass was named “Patricioooo” because his their parents were called “O” and “O.” Patricioooo had two different colored eyes, curly green hair and only three teeth. He loved to sing and used to eat ice-cream every day as a child. The opportunities for creativity are endless.

Students feel competent as they are understanding everything and able to describe the invisible character, and they feel connected (i.e., relatedness) to both the character and their classmates because they have co-created it as a team. As the character is being built, students will further their acquisition of the target language structures through a variety of processing activities such as drawing and describing, writing true or false statements, making notes about the key characteristics of the character, questioning their classmates and, finally, reading a short co-created story that involves the character.

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Figure 2. Example of a Co-Created One Word Image

The “disgusting milkshake” for food items (intermediate level)

Learning about foods, drinks and how to order in a restaurant is a mainstay in most world language teaching programs. Some minor tweaks to how this is presented allow for the content to satisfy SDT’s basic psychological needs. The teacher presents new vocabulary through sharing the ingredients of their dream milkshake with students using visual aids (Printer, 2020). Students then identify the ingredients the teacher used that they dislike. At this stage, the teacher shares the phrase “How gross!” or “That’s disgusting!” with the class. Students are then asked to design their own “most disgusting milkshake” and are encouraged to be creative. Vocabulary is scaffolded by the teacher providing three to four rows (dairy, vegetables, fruits, meats for example) of five ingredients in each. Students select items from each row or come up with their own. Students of all ages thrive upon the ownership and creativity provided to them in this exercise, thus meeting the need of autonomy. Through the use of images, they feel confident and competent as they can understand each other’s and their teacher’s creations through the target language. Finally, the activity also satisfies the need of relatedness as students are learning about each other’s creations and favorite—or least favorite—foods, all the while building community and empathy for diverse perspectives.

The “special person interview” (all levels)

Across all levels of world language classes, a common and highly popular topic is one’s own identity, life, and passions. The “special person interview” (Hedstrom, 2016), or “star of the week” (Janczak, 2016) encourages lively conversations on these personally relevant topics by situating one student as the most interesting, special person in the room. The activity, which is suitable for all levels of world language instruction, can be continued regularly through the duration of the academic year as a way to foster growing empathy and connection between students and the teacher. The interview begins between one student (the interviewee) and the teacher (the interviewer) and slowly transitions toward small group discussions, larger full-class discussions and, later, individual writing tasks. The teacher asks leading questions about the students’ passions, desires and interests while all the time providing scaffolding of language to ensure it is fully comprehensible to both the student and the entire class. Some teachers choose to be the first interviewee themselves in order to build a sense of belonging within the group or by “interviewing” a stuffed toy or animal when dealing with younger students. This activity is directly supportive of autonomy because interviewees share only what they feel comfortable with while also leading the direction of the conversation. Relatedness and community are fostered as students learn about each other and discover what is important or interesting to them. Moreover, the exclusive use of the target language by the teacher and students during the activity, both in comprehensible spoken and written language, is highly conducive to the satisfaction of competence. Throughout the year, only a small number of students will be the star of the week as doing it with each and every student, particularly in large classes, would be too repetitive. Students can volunteer to be the next interviewee or teachers may select at random. Selecting which student goes next is down to the teacher’s own professional judgement. If one student is particularly enthusiastic to be the next star of the week, the teacher should accommodate this but then ensure they use other students in co-created class stories or other activities. 

“Picturetalk” (all levels)

Interpretive and interpersonal communication are key features of the world language classroom. “Picturetalk” (Stolz, 2015) is a flexible strategy which promotes students’ engagement within both of these modes in which the teacher and students write about and discuss an image. First, the teacher should find a compelling and highly relevant picture for students to examine, interpret, and discuss. The image might be tied to recent curricular themes or could represent ideas that are connected to the lives and interests of the students. Next, the teacher can choose to include visual supports such as target language words students may be unfamiliar with. The final step is flexible for the objectives of the lesson and needs of the students. The teacher may choose to first describe the picture and then engage students in probing inquiry questions. Another option is students first writing reflectively about what they see and then turning to a small group to discuss through teacher- or student-constructed guiding questions. To encourage this, teachers could use the “see, think, wonder” framework (Harvard Graduate School of Education, 2019), which prompts students to consider: What do you see? What do you think about that? What does it make you wonder? Picturetalk encourages students to interpret interesting and relevant images from their own perspectives and backgrounds (autonomy) in a comprehensible and scaffolding language learning environment (competence). Students will build relationships and community in class (relatedness) by communicating with their peers and teacher to build a shared understanding of what the image may represent. 


It is our intention for this article to act as a spark for further dialogue regarding the role of autonomy, in combination and interaction with SDT’s basic needs of competence and relatedness, in world language (i.e., “foreign language”) teaching and learning. While students’ feelings of volition and autonomous functioning are clearly critical to the language acquisition process and in encouraging intrinsic motivation and well-being, their self-perceptions of confidence, capacity, and growth (competence) as well as belonging, intimacy, and reciprocal care (relatedness) are additional necessary “ingredients” for bringing about these important outcomes. As is evidenced in the framework and SDT research, each basic psychological need brings about the satisfaction of the others.

It is important to note that the framework we have presented here for needs-supportive world language pedagogy (Figure 1) is a hypothesized framework for which there is some initial empirical support (Davis, in press; Printer, 2019, 2021; Shelton-Strong & Mynard, 2020).We hope that this framework can provide world language teachers with some inspiration, ideas, and a space for pedagogical and curricular self-reflection. In addition, we implore internationally diverse language researchers and teachers to engage in research to adapt, try out, and assess how a needs-supportive approach to world language teaching impacts their learners’ engagement, intrinsic motivation, persistence, and target language proficiency and performance. Specifically, more qualitative and mixed-methods research examining the pedagogical and curricular antecedents to basic psychological needs satisfaction and intrinsic motivation in language learning is needed.

Finally, we would like to acknowledge the weight and impact of autonomy alone in the language acquisition process. As language educators and teacher educators ourselves, we recognize the crucial need to relinquish control, surveillance, and prescription in the language classroom as a means to create an equitable space for all language learners to thrive.


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Notes on the Contributors

Dr. William S. Davis is an assistant professor of world languages education at the University of Oklahoma in the United States. His work examines autonomy and well-being in the world language classroom, the development of multilingual teacher agency, and critical approaches in teacher education.

Dr. Liam Printer is the Teaching and Learning Research Lead and world languages teacher at The International School of Lausanne in Switzerland. He lectures on the Postgraduate Certificate in Education with the University of Durham and the International School of Geneva. His research focuses on language acquisition and raising motivation.

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