Are our teenage students learning English for today or for tomorrow?

At the school I work for, we have a large teenage population. If you’ve taught this age level, you know the challenges they pose to us every day, but you also cherish the lively interactions with them once you’ve established rapport. It is true that in order to establish such rapport, we have to be acquainted with the topics they like to talk about, the songs they listen to, the TV shows they don’t miss, the stars they worship, where they like to hang out, what they like to do, etc. However, to what extent should “their reality”, as teachers like to put it, be the focus of our classes?


In teachers’ meetings about what course book to use, how to assess students, and what types of supplementary activities to carry out with teens, I often hear sentences such as, “This is not related to their reality” or “We have to bring readings and listenings on topics that teens are interested in.” Otherwise, they will be bored. Everyone is afraid of boring their teenage students because they know far too well how all hell can break loose when these creatures are not being entertained. Teachers question why teenagers have to read and talk about “Time and Money” or “Archaeology”.  Why not just focus on topics they enjoy, such as pop/rock bands, sports, computer games, comic books, fashion, and the like?


We, EFL teachers, tend to think that we have to keep our students entertained the whole time and that entertaining them means only focusing on what they know and like. However, if we take this “pleasing teens” to such an extreme, aren’t we running the risk of perpetuating a vicious cycle in which we only talk about what they know and like and they only know and like what we talk about? Are our teenage EFL students learning English for today or for tomorrow?


With the exception of the more well-to-do teenagers who travel to English-speaking countries regularly, I would say most teenagers only use the English they are learning today to read what they like, play games, listen to songs, and watch the TV shows they are into at the moment, if they use English at all. Nevertheless, this “here and now” English is certainly not why they spend time and money taking extracurricular English classes. The English our students are learning today will be truly useful to them in the future, to help them reach dreams such as studying abroad or getting a good job. If this is really the case, should they talk about, read, listen to, and write about only what they enjoy at the moment? Also, don’t these teens go to school and learn history, geography, biology and the like, subjects in which topics such as “Time and Money” and “Archaeology” certainly come up?


The English we teach our teenagers today has to be useful to them in the future, when they’re older and their interests are completely different from today; a future when they will indeed have to talk about time and money and use English in more formal situations to get a job or in academic settings to get a degree. Thus, they will need the low-frequency words that don’t usually appear in what they currently like to read and listen to, the discourse markers that make them sound more fluent and knowledgeable, or the ability to write in genres other than text messages or teenage blogs. We are doing a disservice to our students if we focus on the here and now when we develop our curriculum.  We need to give our teenage students not only the tools they need now, but also the ones that they don’t know yet that they will need in the future. Our students are beginning their English studies earlier and earlier and, consequently, reaching the advanced level at an earlier age. The advanced level requires the ability to sustain conversation on less familiar topics and to use low-frequency words and discourse markers. Focusing only on topics that are familiar to teenagers will not take them to this next level – it might be more fun, but it is also more ineffective.


Our greatest challenge as educators, thus, is to bring more “mature” topics to the teenage classroom but treat them in a way that will motivate students, spark their curiosity, and encourage them to want to learn more. And this is done much more by way of how the teacher plans and carries out the activities than how “related to students’ reality” the topic is. When appropriately stimulated, teenagers do like to explore the unknown, to become more knowledgeable, to go beyond the “here and now”. Any topic can be stimulating if the teacher is stimulating and uses the wealth of interesting and appealing resources available today. Teachers also need to explain more explicitly to teenagers how what they’re learning today will be useful for them in the future. Let’s not underestimate the capacity of our teenagers and let’s break this vicious cycle of mediocrity!


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Isabela Villas Boas

Isabela Villas Boas holds a Master's Degree in Teaching English as a Second Language from Arizona State University and a Ph.D. in Education from Universidade de Brasília. She has been at Casa Thomas Jefferson for 33 years, where she is currently the Corporate Academic Manager . Her main academic interests are second language writing, teacher development, ELT methodology, and assessment. She also supervises MA dissertations for the University of Birmingham. She has recently published the book “Teaching EFL Writing - A Practical Approach for Skills-Integrated Contexts.

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