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Teaching English to Teenagers

Teenager

Terrible teens. 😉

There are 3 approximate (and overlapping) groups when it comes to TEFL: adults, teenagers, and young learners.

This article is all about teaching English to Teenagers, possibly the most likely scenario for new teachers and arguably the most difficult… but also quite possibly the most rewarding!

Who Are Teenagers?

Teenagers are students in your class from about 13 to 18 years old. Obvious really!

But it’s not just an age thing. Think for a moment back to when you were a teenager. In all likelihood you were bored with school and more interested in sex/football/music than schoolwork. You may well have thought anyone over 20 had one foot in the grave and you could not wait for the bell to ring so you could hang out with your friends.

On the other hand, like most teenagers you were passionate about lots of things.

Teenagers have strong opinions and they want to voice them. English as a school lesson might be a bit dull for them, but they will often be fighting to use English as a language in order to tell you something important to them.

And now you as a teacher can use all these traits to your advantage in the ELT classroom: the trick is harnessing this energy and passion and putting it to good use.

Why are they in your Class?

But before getting down to brass tacks, you need to ask why teenagers are in your English class.  These are most likely scenarios:

  1. They are taking a short course in an English speaking country; a couple of weeks or so for some intensive English preparation.
  2. They have just immigrated to an English speaking country with their family and need English to attend a local state school.
  3. They are taking a regular class in in their own country (in a state or private school) leading up to an exam like FCE when they’re 16 or so.

In the first case above they’re almost on holiday. They’re motivated, they’re enjoying themselves, they’re making new friends and probably each afternoon the school takes them on an excursion to a local attraction and keeps them excited about their time there.

In the second case they are motivated to learn; like all teenagers they want to fit in so they will want English to do this.

But the third group is often the most problematic. They are the ones who do not necessarily want to be in the classroom; they would rather be elsewhere! Perhaps they are at state school where English is on the curriculum; or they’re taking lessons in a private school after regular school hours; or it’s a one-to-one lesson at home to help them catch up with their English.

In any case, for teenagers in this third group the biggest problem is motivation. They didn’t decide to study English but it was just part of the system in their country and something which needs to be done.

And this is the group which you are most likely to teach and the group which is hardest to handle… but also most rewarding!

The Keys to Teaching Teenagers

There are two keys to teaching teenagers. The first one we’ll look at is discipline and the second is motivation. Both of these apply to all groups of students no matter what their age, but while discipline is slightly less important with young learners and even less important with adults, motivation is needed whoever you teach.

discipline

Teenagers need to have boundaries. You may well want to be their “friend” but it does not work. From the outset you need to establish how the class needs to be run and who is the boss. Note that we’re not talking about being an authoritarian bully of a teacher but simply having ground rules for classroom behavior and sticking to them.

Although some 16 year olds may look like adults they are not; they need boundaries as much as a 7 year old.

Without discipline the class will simply not work. With discipline it will. It’s as simple as that.

For more on this, see the links below.

motivation

It is vitally important to keep teenagers motivated if you want them to learn.

To do this they need to be interested in what they are learning. They need to have a vested interest in the lesson itself otherwise there is no reason for them to sit there and take anything in.

This means keeping the lessons real and relevant.

How do you do this? Simple. Make the subject of your lessons apply to your class. Find out their interests and passions and introduce them into the lesson. Instead of following the dry old textbook and talking about stuff from years ago, bring it up to date and talk about issues which your students are passionate about.

In other words, use English as a medium, not an end in itself, and use it to talk about issues and subjects which your teenagers want to talk about.

In a lesson with business executives learning English to deal with contacts abroad you would prepare lessons on likely scenarios they will face; that is their motivation. Since teenagers often aren’t learning English for such a specific goal you need to internalize the motivation and make it what the teenagers find interesting.

So right at the beginning make sure you do plenty of activities where you can find out about them: their favorite movies, music, tv shows, film stars, sports, reading material, outside interests and so on. Once you have these bring these passions into class and use them in your English lessons.

Suppose your EFL textbook is looking at conditional sentences and to do this it’s using a text based around the subject of charity aid to Africa. And suppose you know that your class aren’t really interested in this subject and would rather think about something more relevant to their own lives. Simply change it so that you look at conditionals in relation to the upcoming finals of X-Factor/Pop Idol which they’ve all been watching avidly for the past couple of months!

Quick Story: I once had private lessons with two brothers who barely spoke a word during the first few lessons we had. Then I discovered that both of them were passionate about wrestling (the proper kind, not the WWF). I then found I only had to mention it and they would come alive and it was hard to keep them quiet as they tried to tell me everything about it. I learned a lot that summer!

Your Attitude in Class

Here are a few tips on how you as the teacher should behave during the lesson.

  1. Be interested. If your class of 14 year old Korean girls are passionate about K-Pop then find out what it’s all about so you don’t come across as some out-of-touch alien. When they tell you in excited enthusiasm about Girls’ Generation’s you should at least have a vague idea so you can respond intellligently to their questions. This allows them to relate to you more and want to speak with you more; if you show boredom and no interest in the subject they’ll stop talking which cuts off one of the most important routes to mastering a language.
  2. Be respectful of their opinions and passions. While you might feel James Joyce to be the greatest writer ever, your Japanese teenagers may well have the same level of passion for their manga. Who is to say who is right? Don’t put anything down in the same way that you would not want your passions disdainfully dismissed.
  3. Be fair. Nothing annoys teenagers worse than unfairness (adults can accept it as a way of life; young learners won’t know yet) so make sure you treat every student in the class the same.
  4. Never lie. If you promise something then stick to that promise whether it’s punishment or reward.
  5. Never mock. Teenagers more than most are affected by their peers and if the class laughs at them because of your actions then they will find it hard to forget. Make the class a safe place where no one is ever teased because of mistakes they make.
  6. Share. Teenagers are interested in the outside world. You may be the first foreigner they’ve every met so be prepared to let them into your life… a little. Don’t make the lessons about you and don’t hog the talking time but you can’t expect to be let into their lives without letting them into yours.

And Finally

Check out this BBC comedy video: this is what happens when a young man turns into a teenager.

Useful Links

Classroom Motivation & TEFL –  how to motivate your class

Discipline‏‎ in your TEFL Class – ideas on making sure the class runs smoothly

Teaching English to Adults – for when teenagers get older

Teaching English to Young Learners – where teenagers come from

KPop – here’s an introduction in case you’re an old fogey

Old Fashioned Teachers & Music – don’t give your teenagers old fashioned music; you might think it’s timeless, they probably think it’s rubbish

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