The ups and downs of teaching beginner young teens

So, it’s your first class with a group of beginner 12-ish year-olds. You just leaf through the course book and teacher’s guide because all the class is about is the verb to be and adjectives. You know the drill: a couple pages filled with yes-no questions and perhaps a list of cities and countries that might require some work on pronunciation. Oh, and there may be a tic-tac-toe or perhaps a suggestion of musical chairs towards the end of the lesson. We’ve been there, we’ve done that. Right? Wrong. Teaching pre-teens can be challenging even for experienced teachers. Why?

According to the Center for Disease Control website, young teens are beginning to become self-conscious and some may be overly critical towards others. This is a difficult phase in their lives in that they need to cope with their parents’ and teachers’ high expectations and their lack of confidence. On top of that, while they are able to express complex and symbolic thoughts through language, some of them might show early signs of depression and develop eating disorders.

Because they are concerned about their body image, looks, and clothes — as well as their weaknesses and strengths, pre-teens are prone to peer pressure, so helping them develop a sense of belonging is crucial to make them feel comfortable in their new environment with kids they don’t know(yet). Here are a few tips for dealing with beginner pre-teen classes:

Day 1:

1)    In the first class, talk to your students in L1 (or as much as possible), and invite them to talk about themselves in a meet-your-neighbor activity. Don’t worry too much about the fact that they are not using English. Remember that, differently from young learners, young teens are as focused on their peers as  as they are focused on you. Allow them some space to get to know each other. Make sure they also get to know you.

I usually bring some photos for them to guess where I live, what I do in my free time and what I like. You can ask them to draw these things for their partner to guess. Remember that they should be allowed to use L1 at this point;

2)    Teach them the ground rules for your class and make it clear that   teamwork and empathy are important;

3)    At the end of the class, play a game, such as musical chairs, hot potato, or tic-tac-toe for them to show what they have learned about each other or anything else including vocabulary and expressions;

From day 1:

1)    Teach them classroom language, for example: May I go to the bathroom? Can you turn down the A.C., please?, etc. By doing this, you will help them increase the amount of English they speak in class.  I usually have handouts with useful phrases for them to fill in the blanks and keep on their desks so they use them whenever they need;

2)    Allow them to play games. Pre-teens have a lot of energy and they still love  playing, drawing, coloring, building things with playdough, and doing silly things, so give them room for that;

3)    Don’t expect them to speak English all the time. Hold some discussions in L1, too. Not being able to say something in L2 can be very frustrating for them because young teens have a lot to say about themselves. If you dismiss that, they will feel they don’t have a voice and they will feel you don’t value their contributions and their experiences;

4)     Praise them when they get something right and let them know when they get it wrong. They are learning their first words, so they need just as much feedback as any other learner. Be gentle, though. Don’t put them on the spot.

5)    Last but not least, try to know your students and try to understand them rather than judge them. Young teens can be great fun to work with if you too are great fun to work with. Good luck and great vibes!



Teresa Carvalho

Teresa holds a B.A. in Linguistics from USP and Delta Modules 1 and 2 Certificates. She has been teaching for over 25 years and has presented at webinars and at both local and international Conferences, including ABCI, IATEFL, and the Image Conference. She also holds a Specialization degree in English Language from PUC-Rio. She is interested in visual literacy and in language development for teachers of English as a foreign language. She is currently pursuing a Master's degree in Language Studies and is conducting research in the role of images in the construction of identity.

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