Encouraging English in teen classrooms (an #eltchat summary)

Picture the situation.

A hard-working English teacher walks into a teen classroom. They are confronted by 15 (or more, or less!) faces with whom they will spend the next ninety minutes. Ninety minutes later they have heard ten sentences in English, along with torrents of L1, despite spending the whole class trying to encourage their learners to use as much English as possible.

What to do? Have no fear, #eltchat have the answers! This is a summary of the 9p.m. GMT discussion which took place on Wednesday 19th January, 2011.

The discussion followed various strands which I have tried to group loosely together. There are lots of ideas for you to try, but don’t forget that some might have negative effects on certain learners (this was a point raised a few times). Feel free to add further suggestions in the comments.

Throughout the year

  • Spend time to give them tools for communicating in English.
  • Teach set phrases “How do you spell…?” Also, ways to interrupt, appropriate ways to answer yes / no questions…
  • Have an English-only policy (there was some debate as to whether this is necessary / desirable / possible to maintain)
  • Treat them like adults. Make them aware of why they are learning a language.
  • Create an atmosphere where students are happy to talk together and listen to each other.
  • Teenagers have strong views and ideas. Meet them on an equal footing and they will respond.
  • Listen to what they have to say. Maintain eye contact and encourage them to speak.
  • At the beginning of the year set up a contract / list of rules generated by the students, including about L1 / L2 usage. Make sure you stick to it! It gives the students ownership and a sense of responsibility.
  • Negotiate the balance of L1 / L2, rather than dictating it.
  • At the beginning of term, hand out ten L1 vouchers with their names on them to each student. Every time they speak L1 to the teacher, they hand over a voucher. When they’ve used all of their vouchers, no more L1!
  • At the beginning of the year, do a survey of your students to find out why they’re there, what their hobbies and interests are…
  • Create ‘England / the USA / Scotland / Australia…’ in your classroom. Tell your students that when they walk through the door, they’re in Country X, so they have to speak the language! (Inspired by a teacher who ‘created’ Italy in her classroom – music, objects, etc)
  • Discuss why it’s a good idea to speak English in class.
  • Work hard at building a relationship with the class – this will make a big difference.
  • Encourage them to support each other, as well as seeking support from the teacher.

Throughout the class

  • Use a timer such as http://www.onlinestopwatch.com or the one included in the downloadable Triptico suite (www.triptico.co.uk). Set the timer for 5 minutes. For every 5 minutes students speak only English they can leave class 30 seconds earlier. Every time they speak L1, the timer is reset. You can choose a different reward if this wouldn’t work at your school.
  • Alternatively, 5 minutes in English, 5 minutes in any language – they use English when they don’t have to.
  • Alternatively (part 2!), for every 5 minutes in English they get 19 minute in L1.
  • Divide the class into two groups. Half can only use L1, half can only use L2. Then swap.
  • Each student pretends they are a different nationality and they each have their own interpreter.
  • Set students up in “triads” – 1 spokesperson, the other 2 SS just help them out.
  • Designate certain activities “English-only”, giving them time to prepare beforehand and reflection time afterwards.
  • Have a stuffed toy which is passed around the class as L1 is spoken. The person who has it at the end of class has to help tidy up.
  • Tape an adult class using English only (if you have one!) and play it in the teen class as a discussion starter.
  • Have a basket of sweets. Every time L1 is spoken take away a sweet. At the end of the class there are less sweets for everyone.
  • ‘Fine’ the students when they use L1 (there was a debate about whether this might have a negative effect).
  • Threaten to put teens in with adults if they speak L1!
  • Ask your students to stand up for a minute.
  • Try introducing an element of competition, for example a football-style league table.
  • Give them the option to take on a different identity. Or ask them to choose roles in a speaking task and take part with the appropriate stance / voice etc.
  • See who can go the longest without using L1 or who can have the longest turn in English – like holding your breath for the longest.
  • Joke with them: “If you can’t say it in English, don’t say it at all!”
  • At the end of the class ask them to guess what percentage of the lessons was L1 / L2 – remind them of the figures the following week and see if they can increase L2. You could also get them to think about what each language was used for.
  • For older teens: Give each student 10 beans. Teachers and other students can take away beans when they hear L1. The person with the most beans at the end of class can go home slightly early (1-2 minutes). All SS with fewer beans have to do one ‘forfeit’ for each missing bean – I normally get them to define one word from our vocabulary box for each bean.
  • Ask lower level students to imagine they are explaining things to a younger brother / sister – it gives a purpose for the simpler style of their language.

For individual tasks

  • Give sufficient preparation time, model the task, do a “test run”, then repeat the same topic a second time.
  • ‘Thinking time’ is very important. You could give them 5 minutes to come up with ideas and ask for any words they need.
  • Set up tasks very clearly, ensuring you provide all of the language they will need.
  • Before a discussion get them to list the kinds of words they think will be useful.
  • Make the students use specific vocab in their discussion. Other SS should guess which words they were.
  • Play bingo. Each student chooses 5 words. They should cross them off when they hear / use them during the class / during a specific task.
  • Walk around during pair / groupwork – although there’s an art to not stopping discussion completely.
  • Wait to correct until after the speaking has finished – allow it to be open discussion time.

Discussion topics that have worked (a.k.a. Make them forget they’re speaking English!)

  • Ask the students! The topics they are interested in tend to work best. “It is only when you use language to say things which are true about you do you start to ‘own’ the new language” J. Harmer. Allow spontaneous discussion to happen.
  • What methods of cheating do you use? When? Why?
  • Which ‘group’ do you belong to? Or do you? e.g. chavs, emos, goths
  • Wedding planning (with an all-girls’ group!)
  • Travel: plan a trip, ‘meet’ people…
  • Read reviews of books / films /music etc and discuss whether they agree with them or not (especially with 14+)
  • Gossip. SS chat to each other, then switch partners to pass the gossip on.

Tech tools

Ideas for specific activities

  • Get students involved in global collaboration projects which give them a reason to speak English (if you need help with this the best person to ask seems to be @shellterrell!)
  • Use project tasks to make them feel involved.
  • Blog. Gives them a real-world purpose.
  • They love doing multimedia projects in English, such as making a film /advertisement in English.
  • Teach them how to do ‘cool’ things through English, such as making mashups.
  • Get the students to record themselves doing a task on their phones. Then they make a transcript and look at where they could have used more English.
  • Don’t stop them from gossiping, as long as it’s in English.
  • They love exploring English music and the cultures behind it, e.g. hip-hop, rap…
  • Ask SS to write their own songs.
  • Do karaoke with them.
  • Ask the SS to think of ideas – their solutions will quite likely be more imaginative than ours!
  • Bring ‘real’ English into class – travel brochures, job ads, lyrics, magazines – and try to convince them that they WANT to speak English!
  • Record the SS doing tasks (with their agreement) and watch it with them – they’ll (hopefully!) be surprised at how much English they can use.
  • Play word definition and miming games, then encourage students to use them for peer teaching.
  • Live listening. Retell the story with pictures. Listen again. Retell again. Works very well as lots of exposure to L2.
  • Start with a picture and elicit what they can see / who the people are etc. Then tell them that is the middle of the story. Half of the group will come up with the beginning, half will come up with the end (in secret). Then they have to work together to make one coherent story without really changing the parts that they came up with.
  • If possible, take them on field trips.
  • Get them moving – physical activities help them forget the pressure of speaking English.
  • Play games in class – they love their PS3’s and wii’s! But board / card games work just as well.
  • Timed conversations – give them a place to start and a place to finish and 2 minutes to get from A to B. After 2 minutes, change the people.
  • Play ‘Just a Minute’ – give them a topic to speak for a minute about. It’s based on a British radio show. Wikipedia: http://bit.ly/gkyFNO; an example by Paul Merton: http://youtu.be/UrVlKKTTOiM
  • Break down a PC into pieces – SS want more information about hardware names etc.
  • Negotiate things in English that they wouldn’t normally do in L1 e.g. sell greeting cards by phone (in a language lab), enquire about an English course, take part in an interview for a flatmate.
  • Any kind of “How to…” – download films, use online games…
  • Have a teacher’s press conference. They interview you, then use the same questions in pairwork.
  • Have a speed-dating session!
  • ‘Onion ring’: students stand face-to-face in two concentric circles and get opinions on something.Clap your hands; the outer circle students move two steps right two change partners. The teacher can take part too.

Use of L1

  • Not always a problem, providing clear boundaries are set.
  • Research suggests that discussing writing in L1 first can lead to better results.
  • Write some classroom phrases on the board in L1. Ask them to translate. (e.g. “How do you spell…?” “What do have for…?”
  • SS discuss something they are very interested in in L1, then other SS summarise it in English.
  • Let students chat in L1 at the beginning of class. Then ask them to summarise it in English.
  • Help the students to express what they said in L1 in English.
  • When you hear things in L1, ask them “How do you say…in English?”
  • Decide what percentage of L1 is acceptable for each level – more for lower levels?

Possible contributing factors to overuse of L1

  • Too much emphasis on using English might put students off – they are under too much pressure.

Some issues

  • What should do with lower-level classes? Is it possible to ‘discuss’ things with them in the same way as you would with higher levels. Also, many lower-level students are concerned about sounding childlike due to non-complex grammar / vocabulary.
  • What should you do when you want students to use specific vocabulary?
  • What do you do if students were forced to enrol by their parents and they don’t really care?

Further reading

Hopefully this will be the result:

Teens speaking

17 thoughts on “Encouraging English in teen classrooms (an #eltchat summary)

  1. Hi Sandy,

    Thanks a million for the very detailed summary. I was only able to catch the discussion on and off on Wednesday as my connection kept breaking and so your summary has been of great use to me.
    Thanks again,


    1. Hi Sofia,
      Glad to help! Thanks for the comment 🙂 It was all the work of a great group of teachers from all over the world. We meet on Twitter at 12pm and 9pm GMT every week to chat about 2 topics which we select each week. Would be great to see you there!


  2. Great advice for new and veteran teachers. The debate about allowing L1 in the classroom depends on your approach and facilities. Unless you are going to develop a system of bilingual instruction where knowledge is cultivated in BOTH and EITHER language through a carefully planned curriculum, language isolation is very important.
    Students must get to know each other as the people they are in the target language. Anyone who has tried to speak to their best friend in another language knows how weird and creepy it feels. It is important to address that obstacle as much as possible at the beginning of the course to get over the uneasiness.

    PS: Thanks for including a link to the Class Struggle on this blog 🙂


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