Every teacher has different favourite age groups. I’ve met teachers of adults who are terrified of all children; kindergarten teachers who love screaming toddlers but don’t know what to do with more mature and sedate students; and teachers of all levels who have a particular problem with 7 year old boys to be very specific. However, the most common and more long term issue seems to be how to work effectively with teens.

There are many ways to target and be successful with teenagers, many ways which work to varying degrees with different people and which I myself can never claim to be a master of. Today I just want to give 3 points which help me. Three points which won’t guarantee a brilliant lesson but which, if carefully considered and implemented, will raise your game.

1. Keep up motivation

Sounds obvious, isn’t easy. Motivation is a large and complex field which if you are interested in delving into more deeply I would strongly recommend you check out the works of Zoltan Dornyei. At a simple level, motivation can be looked at in terms of extrinsic or intrinsic types. Extrinsic motivation is comprised of a large and shifting web of factors that as a teacher of a short term summer course you would have a difficult (though not impossible) time changing. Let us then look at intrinsic motivation.

Intrinsic motivation in a language classroom basically means students enjoying the class for the class itself, not for any external reasons relating to ambitions, dreams, society etc. If you want to keep your teenagers happy then make your class interesting for them.

Imagine you are 14 again, it’s a sunny day and you’re on holiday and you’re stuck in a language classroom. Maybe you love studying, but maybe you’re only there because your mum or teacher forced you to go. What would pull your eyes away from the window and focus your brain back into the room? A set of grammatical questions? A long reading task about some old English king? Or a competitive team game involving fast reactions using a set of relevant vocabulary?

If you can design (or steal) a certain number of games or activities involving your language that are interesting or fun enough that you would like to play them, then your students most probably would too. You don’t have to gamify your whole class, you just have to pepper your lesson with enough of them that the students can then hold focus and follow you through some of the more down to earth and studious sections.

Intrinsic motivation is especially important when working with teens (and children) as they are less able to modulate their extrinsic motivation than adults.

2. Lower the affective filter

Stephen Krashen’s ‘affective filter hypothesis’ states that a prerequisite for language acquisition to take place is that students must be as free as possible from anxiety, stress, indifference and other negative or distracting emotions.

Basically, if a student is scared and stressed they will be too busy focusing on other things to let language enter their brain and create new neural connections. The same goes if they just don’t care. And while these things are true for all learners they can have particular relevance for those going through puberty and insecure about a whole host of other things before speaking out in class is considered.

So what can you do? Well, make everybody relaxed and happy at the start of class. Begin with simple routines and exchanges and help everybody feel safe. Let students know that you care about and respect them and they will be much more likely to care about and respect your class.

Also, remember Think -> Pair -> Share

Many students won’t want to speak out in front of others if they aren’t confident. Give them time to process their ideas and practise talking about them to a partner before they have to talk out in front of the whole class. If they know you aren’t going to be suddenly putting them on the spot they may relax a bit more and be ready to trust you.

3. Relevance

If students don’t care about your lesson topic then they won’t want to be involved. It doesn’t matter how much they like you or how well structured you plan is. If they simply don’t want to know then you will find yourself having to drag them to where you want to go rather than lead them freely. Great intrinsic motivation can help in this case of course but it will be much easier overall if you start with a topic that they are interested in.

With a new class finding the right subject matter can be a bit tricky but as you get to know them you will learn more about what they care about. As a bonus, the more you find out what they care about, the more they will feel that you respect them.

If you can work with a topic that is relevant to the teenagers external lives it will mean that:

  • They might actually use that language in their external lives.

  • They will know what they are talking about in class, not have to spend extra time learning the content as well as the English.

  • They will want to find new ways to put across their opinions and make themselves heard.

  • They may have a stronger English foundation in the area due to TV, movies and internet.

  • They might actually do their homework.