Teens get a bad rap. Ask anyone to come up with an adjective to describe a teenager and they are likely to come up something fairly negative like ‘moody’, ‘uncooperative’, ‘loud’ etc. There are also plenty of positive adjectives to describe teenagers: ‘curious’, ‘passionate’, ‘independent’, ‘creative’ to name but a few.
There’s a lot going on in a teenager’s head as their brains are developing towards maturity. The frontal cortex, in particular, develops rapidly during adolescence. This is responsible for executive functions and cognitive flexibility including the ability to direct our attention, to plan future tasks, to inhibit inappropriate behaviour, and to keep more than one thing in mind at once (Blakemore & Frith, 2005).
Whilst these changes can cause some of the undesirable characteristics already mentioned, there are some positives. An adolescent’s brain is adaptable, it can be ‘sculpted and shaped’ as neural connections are ‘eliminated and pruned’ (Geidd, 2002). It is, in fact, an optimal time for learning. For more of the research on teenage brains, follow this link.
Clearly this has huge implications for teachers of adolescents regarding their approach. Teachers need to think carefully about suitable activities and resources; learners’ interests; classroom management; language presentation; and of course motivation.
Here are some top tips from experienced EFL teachers currently teaching teenagers.
Corinne’s top tip focusses on actively finding out about the students’ interests.
Some ways to do that:
- Use class discussion activities, mingles and surveys about how they spend their free time.
- Ask the students to do some written work about their interests.
- Create an online survey using a free resource such as SurveyMonkey.
You can then use the results of all of this to inform your planning.
- Can you find any interesting resources, articles or videos related to their interests for use in skills work?
- What topics might stimulate actual discussion or debate?
- Most teenagers these days are interested in technology, embrace this and exploit it. A very simple but effective activity is to get them describing photos taken on their smartphones. This can stimulate a huge amount of speaking and can also be useful exam practice.
Remember, your students are the best resource you have in the classroom. Use them!
Suzanne spoke about resources to use with teenagers.
- Use current, up-to-date material, and where possible, authentic material to increase motivation and personalisation. Let them bring their world into the classroom.
- Show an interest in teen culture but don’t try to play teenager and be one of them! The teacher represents authority and this distinction needs to be kept clear.
- Exploit natural communication as it emerges in class and respond to this. A Dogme approach can work well with teenagers.
Some sources of material
- Lessonstream has some excellent ready to go lessons, many based on short YouTube videos. There is some really great stuff on there. Check it out.
- Similarly, Film English has hundreds of really great lessons based around videos, and many on teen-friendly topics.
- LyricsTraining is a great one to recommend your students try out at home. It really gets them engaged with listening to their favourite music and working on the lyrics. A good one to encourage learning out of class.
Lizzie discusses the importance of challenge.
Challenge provides engagement, and under-challenging the learners therefore can can create disengagement. Quite often this lack of challenge is one of the causes of poor discipline in the adolescent classroom.
Providing challenge and maximising the the learning potential of the students is one of the key areas of Demand High Teaching. Have a look at Jim Scrivener and Adrian Underhill’s Demand High blog for more on this, and my earlier blogpost on one simple demand high technique.
Anthony advises us to use songs with teenagers
With some of my past groups of teenagers, songs were quite simply the one thing that engaged the students the most. Music can be a window into the soul and it would be foolish not to exploit this in class.
Some ideas for songs
- Find a song which tells a story or sends an important message and use it as you would use any other text in a listening lesson. There are a couple of examples in the ‘Something Authentic‘ corner on this blog.
- Some songs can be used as a contextual vehicle for language work.
- There is of course, the clichéd gapfill – an easy thing to do, but difficult to get right, choose the gaps wisely.
An alternative to the gapfill is writing the lyrics wrongly, with students correcting the text.
- You could cut the lyrics up into lines or verses, with students listening and putting them into the correct order.
- Find forums discussing the meanings of song lyrics for students to read and discuss, and write their own comments (warning – many of these forums contain inappropriate language so cutting and pasting from these is often better than going directly to the websites).
Jenny suggests role-play as an activity for teenagers
Teens want to express themselves but often fear embarrassment. Role-play allows teens to express their inner, conflicting feelings in a safe manner. Teens may be more comfortable expressing opinions of other people rather than their own opinions.
Using topical or slightly controversial (but not personal) issues can stimulate lots of speaking in a role-play. Some of my students recently performed very successful role-plays on animal rights, for example.
For more tips from Jenny on teaching young learners, see her guest post on ‘Routines with Young Learners‘.
Rupert highlights the importance of rapport.
In my experience teaching and observing teen classes, the number one thing that makes a difference is rapport. If the teacher has established a good rapport with the class, there is mutual respect, cooperation and negotiation.
Many factors contribute to creating rapport:
- Take time to get to know the students – use getting to know you activities and make a conscious effort to learn and use their names all the time; take an interest in their lives.
- Get down to to the level of the students and remove any physical objects between you and the class. Think about the arrangement of the furniture, the class dynamics in one recent class I taught changed dramatically the day I moved the desks into a horseshoe shape.
- Respect them and treat them as individuals, foster a sense of personal identity.
- Empower them and get them involved in class decisions.
- Vary groupings – Lewis (2007) highlights “while friends are still very important, group identity loses some of its imprtance, and is replaced by individual relationships”
- Let loose a little and have some fun with them. Let your personality shine through.
Richard talks about using competive games
Many teens are highly competitive in the sense that they want to show off. Exploit this and give activities a game-like challenge.
- Get students working in teams and winning points. This can be an effective way to promote positive behaviour in a class. The team with the most points at the end of the lesson could get some type of treat – perhaps deciding on a game to play or a song to listen to.
- A variation on this is to give students a loyalty card in which they collect points for language production, participation, task completion etc. When they reach ten points they can receive a treat.
- Games can provide a change of focus and pace, particularly if they involve physical activity. However, they should be short and snappy and have some linguistic aim.
- My favourite competitive game to use with teenagers is Kaboom!
I didn’t feel that it was fair to point cameras in the faces of the teachers without volunteering to do the same myself, apologies for the unfortunate camera angle!
I spoke about creating a classroom contract to help with discipline
- Consider drawing up a classroom contract early on in a new course.
- Elicit rules and consequences from the students. They can also draw up rules for the teacher.
- This can all be negotiated together, and signed by the students. This builds up mutual respect and makes the students responsible for their actions.
- This should then be placed on the wall so it is available for reference for the entire course, and simply pointing to it can remind students.
- See my example from a class of teens I taught in Argentina. —>
- When dealing with discipline, being consistent and treating everyone equally is the key.
The adolescent classroom requires a specific teaching approach due to the
multifaceted and changing nature and needs of the learners; an approach
in which a heightened awareness of classroom dynamics, rapport building
and creating motivation are of high importance.
It is the quality of teacher-student relationships that makes the biggest difference in teaching this age group, and motivation is key. As Allen (2006) states, it is “as important for teenagers’ school success as the ways teachers deliver the subject matter”.
With thanks to the teachers of International House Language Centre Palermo for their invaluable contributions.
- Allen, J . (2006). Cited by Bromley (2006).
- Blakemore, S. & Frith, U. (2005). The Learning Brain. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing Ltd.
- Bromley, A. (2006). What teenagers want. Inside UVA Online Volume 36, Issue 12.
- Giedd, J . (2002). Interviewed on Inside the Teenage Brain (Spinks, S. 2002).
- Lewis, G. (2007). Teenagers. Oxford: Oxford Univer sity Press.
- Spinks, S. (2002). Inside the Teenage Brain. Front line TV programme. Boston: Spin Free Production.