Tips for teaching Teens

Teenagers are and will always be a strong presence in the ELT classroom, be it in the school system or in language institutes. However, they end up being the middle children of the English teaching world. A lot has been written about teaching adults and children, but I find it really hard to find materials on those at ages ranging from 13 to 17. Not surprisingly, they can become one of the most challenging age groups to teach.

Disruptive behaviour, lack of interest, faces that look constantly bored, the list of “problems” we teachers find is unfortunately long, so many just give up and end up teaching despite the students. What does that say about our roles as educators?

Personally, I’ve always loved teaching this age group and wondered at their ability to mysteriously pick things up, ask questions you’ve never thought of and simply have a good laugh. Here’s some advice on how to try to reduce stress (yours and theirs):

Cut them some slack

Adolescence is a moment where a lot is going on in our head, our hearts and our lives. Teenage students have to cope with a lot in their lives: pressure to make decisions on their professional lives; parents’ expectations; boyfriend’s or girlfriend’s demands; the stress of ensuring you have a spot in the pecking order of school’s social life; and the list goes on. They have to juggle all that without having the experience to allow themselves to rise above their problems or see things from a different perspective. Why not allow English lessons to be a joyful break from it all rather than one more bitter pill to swallow? Rather than spending so much energy trying to “control” them or ensure “appropriate behaviour”, consider planning and devising lessons that cater for their social and affective needs. If there is clear learning outcome, some healthy and respectful rowdiness can end up being quite productive.

Remember they are not children anymore

Teenagers just want to have fun and so do children. The way they have fun, however couldn’t be more different. While children love standing up and engaging in playful activities that use movement, dancing and singing, for example, teenagers may feel really self-conscious about their bodies, voice and looks. Losing face in front of peers or being put in the spotlight can become a really traumatic experience for some teens, even though others may actually love it. Remember that adolescents may be at different levels of development of their personalities, which makes them a really diverse group, with different wishes and needs. It is part of our job to understand and respect that, as well as design and deliver lessons that take those needs on board.

Don’t take it personally

It is not uncommon for teenage students to react to activities with long sighs and faces that scream “please get me out of here!” We’ve all been there! We try to understand their reactions by analysing their family background and personality, maybe even coming up with a disorder that may explain it. However, the reason behind the boredom in their expressions is probably because they find the activity…well…boring. Teenagers are very “good” at giving feedback, and we should take advantage of that rather than resent it. Don’t be afraid of changing your lesson plan if that means ‘teaching the students’ rather than ‘teaching at the students’. If you see eyes rolling when you ask learners to write five examples of unreal conditionals about actions that would help save the environment, why not stop everything and ask students for suggestions of topic that would be more relevant and fun?

Make it personal

Teenagers usually love talking about their friends, their favourite singers, bands and TV shows and doing this seems to help them better understand who they are. Therefore, personalisation of topics and language may be a very strong tool for increasing engagement levels and relevance of the work done in the classroom. We’ve all been in situations where we prepare an activity using a song and students react with cries of “that’s so old”, right? Teens seem outgrown things really fast and what is cool and relevant to them in August may not be so in October. Ask them first! Allowing teenagers to have a voice in the selection of topic, resources and activities can help us deal with that.

What about you? How do you make your lessons to teenagers more relevant?

Rubens Heredia

I'm a co-founder of the blog whatiselt.com and an Academic Coordinator at Cultura Inglesa São Paulo, where I'm responsible for course design, teacher training and e-learning initiatives. Having transitioned from a BA in Law to becoming a DELTA holder and a CELTA and ICELT tutor, I'm currently taking an MA in TESOL at NILE (University of Chichister). I'm also the proud owner of a whippet, a cat a fish and a rabbit!

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