Questions about teaching Teens (aged 12-19) (useful links!)

(All links working as of 18/8/2022)

On the CELTA course I tutored on back in August 2021, I ran a session on teaching under 16s. As part of it, I asked the trainees to create a list of questions they wanted the answers to. I promised them a blogpost with answers, but it’s taken this long to get round to it!

It’s actually ended up as three blogposts, divided into:

The age brackets may seem a little arbitrary – I selected them as they reflected to some extent the age ranges at schools I’ve previously worked for. The posts themselves are mostly a selection of links to answer the questions, rather than my own answers. Please feel free to add extra links in the comments, and let me know if any of the links are broken.

How is it different from teaching adults?

Helen Chapman has a useful introductory post: What do teenagers need.

Henrique Zamboni talks about how the teenage brain affects the learning process.

Teaching Teens 101 is a beginner’s guide by Elly Setterfield.

How can they practice fluency if they usually answer all the questions “yes/no/I don’t know/maybe/I don’t remember/ etc.)?

If this happens regularly, I would suggest audio recording part of a lesson or asking somebody to observe you, and making a note of all of the questions asked during the lesson. Do the questions lend themselves to longer answers? If they do, have learners been given enough preparation before the task to be ready to answer the questions? For example, have they had any thinking time? There are ideas for activities to work on preparation time in Richer Speaking, my ebook (which costs less than $1!)

I do understand that at this age they are not very talkative in general (in every language) so is it better to focus on accuracy rather than on fluency?

I don’t have a clear answer for that, but I suspect that if you only focus on accuracy, students will become even less engaged in the lesson and switch off more. How would you feel if somebody made you do everything correctly without making a mistake? I think it’s important to let out learners be creative, and if they feel comfortable in the lessons, sharing their creativity will hopefully encourage them to speak more. It’s also important to ensure they feel comfortable in lessons (see links connected to atmosphere and classroom dynamics below).

How do I keep them engaged?

Whatever age group you teach, I recommend reading this:

Engaging Language Learners in Contemporary Classrooms front cover

I think it’s fantastic (and I’ve been meaning to write a review of it ever since I finished it a few months ago…) I think I’ve referred to it in every workshop or training course I’ve done since I read it. Buy it from the independent bookshop BEBC or, if you’d like to give me a few pennies when you buy it, here are affiliate links for Amazon and Bookshop.org (in the UK).

Sofia Leone has ideas for how to get teens on side online (20 minutes):

I know it’s a good idea to use their interests, but they either don’t want to share their ideas or just simply say that they don’t have any hobbies and they do nothing in their free time. What do I do?

One idea is to flip everything. Rather than asking them what they do in their free time, ask them to list all the things they don’t do. Ask them to list the hobbies they don’t have. Ask them to say three things they didn’t do at the weekend.

You could also play around with the questions you ask and the tasks you set in other ways. Here are some zero prep ideas from Monika Bigaj-Kisała.

How can I help them to be more open and less reserved?

Fiona Mauchline talks about the idea of The Twilight Zone:

a teen’s sensitive area; for example, asking students to describe their house or holidays exposes them to comparison, leaving them potentially vulnerable

She suggests ways of working on the atmosphere in the classroom.

When discussing personalising topics, Fiona suggests how you can do this, because as she says:

When would a teenager describe his/her house to friends? They may describe a new house – if it’s ‘amazing’, to the whole tribe; if it’s a dive compared to the previous one, to parents (criticism) or intimate friends (confidential complaint) – but do they ever sit around, describing where they’ve always lived? Do they even think about it? Is it even a place they want to think about? Is home-life all sweetness and light when you’re 14? 

I teach teenagers at a public school. A lesson lasts 45 min – how should I allocate time?

Without knowing more about the context it’s difficult for me to say. I’m also not sure if the problem is time management (which this might help with) or deciding what to include as routines in your lessons. I’d suggest setting up some kind of starting / ending routines with the groups to make the most of the time. For example, you could have a 5-minute revision routine at the beginning of every lesson. Apart from that, I’d suggest aiming for variety across the year. If you’re using a coursebook, you’re unlikely to be able to work with more than one page in 45 minutes, so look carefully at your book and the page and prioritise the things you think your learners most need to work on. Include as much pair and group work as you can to maximise opportunities for speaking – I tend to reduce open class work as much as I can, as this is often a recipe for a lot of teacher talk (compared to student talk) and/or one or two students dominating discussions. If anybody who has more experience with this than I do has useful ideas, please do share in the comments!

How do I make them use cameras when having online classes?

I don’t think it’s possible to ‘make’ anybody do anything. We can discuss the benefits of using cameras during online classes, making sure it’s an open discussion and you acknowledge the disadvantages of using cameras too, not just lecturing the students (something I’ve definitely been guilty of!) We can have a mix of camera on / camera off activities, so that students get some privacy during the lesson, but also benefit from cameras at other points. We can also do activities which only work with cameras on, for example show and tell or ‘spot the difference’ based on what’s around them in the room. You can read more about how we worked with Zoom at IH Bydgoszcz during pandemic restrictions – there are links at the bottom of this post.

Here are a five possible online tasks which should get students talking, though I can’t guarantee they’ll switch their cameras on!

How do I deal with mixed-level classes, where there’re some teens, who are almost beginners, and some of them are ready for CAE, taking into consideration that a group might be quite large including up to 18 students?

Laura Miccoli talks about multi-level classrooms in two posts: part one and part two.

Naomi Epstein shares a tip from Penny Ur’s book 100 Teaching Tips, from a section about teaching heterogenous classes. [If you’d like your own copy of the book, here are links: non-affiliate BEBC, affiliate Amazon and Bookshop.org (UK)]

Pete Clements uses options on his materials to encourage learners to choose how much support / challenge they will get.

Here are some activities Hana Ticha has used with her groups to help her manage mixedabilities.

Mark Trevarton shares alternatives to fast finisher activities.

Penny Ur presents a 90-minute talk on teaching mixed-ability classes:

What do I do if they struggle to understand? What if they start crying because of it? Should I focus on productivity or empathy?

I’m sorry to hear that this might have happened in a lesson. Empathy is incredibly important, because if the students don’t feel you understand why they’re struggling, they will probably mentally ‘check out’ of your lessons, and productivity will never happen. Communicating aims and objectives clearly, helping students to understand why they’re learning, training them to become independent, and using some of the mixed ability techniques in the previous section should hopefully help too.

At the other end of the scale, here’s what you could do if your teenage students are better than you at English.

How do I work with multilingual groups of younger students?

I couldn’t find any specific resources about this (please add them to the comments if you know any!)

Here are some activities for making the most of all of the languages in your classroom.

How do I manage a classroom of teens?

Henrique Zamboni lists 5 things every teacher of teenagers must do to excel in classroom management.

Estelle Helouin talks about class contracts in this 12-minute video:

Hana Ticha describes a situation when a bee came into her classroom, and what she did about it that and other situations she couldn’t control. She also has a post called They are a pack of wolves, but you may well survive.

This is a three-part story of working with a ‘difficult’ teenager, shared by Edmilson Chagas: part one, part two, part three.

How can I motivate them and make them care?

Talk to them like they are humans and remember things they tell you about, be fair with discipline, create rules together with your students and make rules for the teacher too .

Ways to ungrumpify and motivate teenage learners by Rachel Hunter

Motivating teenagers by Jo Budden

Elena Peresada has tips for gamifying your English classroom and using project-based learning, including examples of activities she has done with her students.

Pete Clements describes a lesson he did to help his learners become more autonomous.

How do I work on group dynamics?

You could read this blog post and watch the video there for some ideas.

Anka Zapart has ideas to help you deal with teens joining a group mid-year.

Some of the teen activities on the free Cambridge Life Competencies cards could help learners to get better at working together.

Jade Blue recommends ways of helping teens to feel more socially connected to other learners. It was written during the peak of online teaching, but is relevant in any kind of teaching.

How do I encourage them do homework?

First, make sure you’re clear on why you’re giving them homework. Is it just a routine? A tick-box exercise? Or do you have clear purposes in mind? Do they know the purposes too? Anya Shaw’s slides encourage you to rethink your homework routines.

Hana Ticha asks ‘Homework or not?‘ – there’s an interesting discussion in the comments section too.

Klara talks about a whole class following a mini series together as homework, as a kind of alternative to a reading circle / book club.

Naomi Epstein asked her students to find words from their vocabulary list in the computer games they were playing.

This TEFL Training Institute interview with Penny Ur includes some homework activities, and also talks about why homework gets forgotten. There’s also a transcript if you prefer to read rather than listen.

One thing I’ve tried with young adults (16-18 years old) which could also work with younger teens is ‘5 minutes a day’, which you’ll find in this post. I tell learners I don’t mind what they do, as long as they do it every day, there’s some variety, and they’re pushing themselves (not just listening to the same music or watching the same series).

If you’d like learners to be in control, you could try the Homework Machine for Language Learners, by Svetlana Kandybovich. Along the same lines (and featuring some of the same tasks!) is the idea of a homework choice board.

If you have to use a coursebook / workbook for homework, try allocating a certain amount of ‘stars’ for the learners, rather than having them complete everything on the page. That encourages them to make choices for themselves. Many workbooks already have a star rating for each exercise. For example, on a page with 1 x *, 2 x ** and 1 x ***, I might ask learners to do 4 * worth of activities.

Checking homework – how do I make it effective and not boring?

Hopefully if homework feels more purposeful, homework checks will also be more engaging. If learners are sharing personal experiences or something creative, then they are more likely to want to check their homework.

If you’re checking exercises, try tips like:

  • Make one student the teacher. They have the answers for everybody else.
  • Ask one group to be responsible for the answers for each task. They write the answers on a piece of scrap paper, as big as they can to fill the page. Everybody else uses that key to check the answers.
  • Display the answers on the board. Ask students to find your mistakes (add challenge by not telling them how many are there).

If you have other tips or resources for this, please add them to the comments.

What blogs can I read?

I added this question 🙂 You’ll notice that a lot of the links come from a limited range of sources, because they’re the blogs I follow which deal with this age group. Please let me know about others!

  • Rose Bard’s Teaching Journal documents how she uses games and projects with her students, many of whom are young teens.
  • Fiona Mauchline doesn’t normally post any more, but her back catalogue is a mine of useful information, including about materials creation, and working with teens in Spain.
  • Hana Ticha also doesn’t post much any more, and also has an extensive back catalogue about working in a Czech secondary school.
  • Monika Bigaj-Kisała has loads of activities and ideas on her blog, That is Evil.
  • Helen Chapman has lots of ideas for teaching all ages of young learners.
  • The IATEFL YLT SIG (Young Learners and Teens Special Interest Group) blog has a very wide range of posts.

2 thoughts on “Questions about teaching Teens (aged 12-19) (useful links!)

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