Life is pretty complicated for teenagers, even without throwing classes into the mix.
That’s why it’s so important for English educators to keep lessons for teens engaging and motivating, so language learning doesn’t become just another layer of stress in their lives.
Wondering how to do that?
In this post, I’ll show you 14 fun ESL activities to get teenage students listening and chatting in English. No matter what level you’re teaching or how many students you have, you’ll find options below.
- Teaching Teenagers Can Be Fun!
- Great Resources for Teen-friendly ESL Material
- Online Activities
- Group Activities
- One-on-one Activities
Teaching Teenagers Can Be Fun!
Sometimes it feels like your only choice in the field of ESL education falls under teaching business English to adults or teaching children the basics. No one seems to think of teenagers when looking at ESL job prospects!
Of course, teens come with their own challenges. Due to all their stressors, they can often come across as moody. And if you get a big group of them, there’s guaranteed to be a lot of chatter and goofing around.
But teaching teenagers can also be incredibly rewarding. When teens respond well to an activity or a lesson, it can have a big impact on them.
It’s rewarding to watch any English learner succeed—but helping a teenager master a skill that prepares them for college or their dream job, or simply helps them to communicate with the world, is an especially magnificent feeling.
Plus, teaching teenagers basically forces you to think outside the box! They’re too old for simple vocabulary games and they don’t typically have the internal drive and focus that many adult ESL learners have. Getting creative with your lessons and discovering what motivates your students will make you feel like a super-teacher!
Great Resources for Teen-friendly ESL Material
If you’re the type of teacher who’s always looking for more but has hit a wall when it comes to teaching teenagers, then you’re in luck. There are so many wonderful resources out there!
Here are some of my favorites:
- If your students have a formal language exam coming up, then you need to check out the British Council’s section on teenagers. The page contains activities, lesson plans, short stories and more teaching tools to help make your classroom the best it can be. You can’t fail with their guidance.
- If there’s one thing teenage students love, it’s movie time in the classroom. Of course, for teachers, the risk is always that movies can give students an excuse to zone out for a class period. Instead, you can use FluentU, a tool that gives you all the fun and entertainment of a movie, but with built-in language learning features.
- And of course, I can’t leave out Dave’s ESL Cafe! With a wide range of topics from games to lesson plans, you’re bound to find material here that your teen students will love.
Activity planning for teenagers can be a challenge. To make things easier, we’ve sorted these activities based on whether you can use them online, in a group or during one-on-one teaching.
And don’t worry if you’ve got a mix of beginners and advanced speakers—there’s something on this list for every learner.
Level: All levels
Focus: Vocabulary, spelling, grammar
Warning! Playing Kahoot! with your teenagers and young learners will result in them begging you to play it every time you have class.
To get started with this addictive game, I recommend signing up and exploring the platform a little bit. This will allow you to get familiar with the layout of the and practice creating your own Kahoot! quiz. Once you have a handle on the program, it’s time to get started!
In a nutshell, Kahoot! is a program for creating quizzes to play learning games with your class.
You can also choose from a massive selection of pre-made quizzes to make your lesson planning a little easier. However, I personally love to create my own quizzes because you can add images and videos, and make them more relevant to what your students are currently learning.
The Kahoot! experience is very similar to a fully personalized game show. After joining a video conference with the students (or setting up the screen if you’re doing a live class), the teacher (or game show host, if you will) presents the game on their screen. Students see the questions on the teacher’s screen, then enter their answers on their devices, using a PIN code that connects them to the game session. Scores are then tallied in real time on the teacher’s game show screen.
The end result is something like a football match crossed with trivia night at your local bar. As you can expect, things can get pretty noisy pretty quickly, so be prepared for some rowdiness!
I usually use Kahoot in the following way:
- First, plan an ESL class as usual.
- Then, create a custom quiz on Kahoot! with questions based on key lessons and ideas.
- Optional: Add some fun images and videos!
- Finally, wait for the inevitable pestering in the coming weeks of “Can we play Kahoot!?”
I almost always end a class with a round or two of Kahoot! so I’m sure to have one prepared for pretty much every class. By concluding the class with a game of Kahoot! I can summarise the lesson, finish on a fun note and reward good behavior.
You can even keep an ongoing leaderboard throughout the teaching term and even challenge other classrooms for a bit of extra fun. To keep the learning going after class is over, you can even assign self-paced kahoots to be completed in the students’ own time.
Level: All levels
Focus: Vocabulary, listening comprehension
The FluentU program includes quizzes, flashcards, a robuse video library and more—all based on real-world video content.
To use FluentU for teenage learners, I recommend using the video library to target the content you know your adolescent or younger students would enjoy. You can do this by keeping an ear to the ground to stay up to date with the latest YouTubers, video games and films that they’re interested in.
You can assign specific videos or flashcard decks for your students to study, and track their progress. Or, you can let them choose what content interests them, and allow for a completely self-guided learning experience.
The FluentU program is set up in a way that students will never get stuck—or bored. Every word is clearly defined, so all students have to do is hover their mouse over a word (or tap, on mobile devices) to get a definition, memorable image, example sentences and part of speech. If they want to study the word later, they can add it to their vocab list right from the video player. After each video, students are tested on their understanding of key words from the content they just watched.
The best part of this kind of video learning is that it’s addictive: Students can easily go down the rabbit hole of content. All videos are followed by additional recommendations, so it’s easy to click from one video to another. Videos can also be filtered by level, type and topic, making it easy to consume the kind of content that interests each individual student.
Finally, each vocabulary word (or phrase) has video examples of it in use—so if they want to see the word in use in another context, they can easily hop over to the next video that features it.
You can request a demo of the FluentU schools program to see if it’s right for your classroom.
Level: All levels
Focus: Vocabulary building, word association
Flashcards are undoubtedly one of the most popular and trusted methods of learning vocabulary in another language.
They’re like bread and butter for an ESL teacher and can be a fantastic tool to introduce and summarise English vocabulary, grammar rules and more.
On the Quizlet website, learning with flashcards is relatively straightforward. After signing up, you’ll have access to millions of flashcard “packs,” which are pre-made and cover the standard subject areas in a high school curriculum. Be aware, however, that these flashcards are user-made and answers should be thoroughly checked by yourself before you share the quizzes with your students.
Of course, you also have the option of creating your own flashcards to target particular learning areas. In addition, you can tweak the flashcards to make them more teenage or kid-friendly and save your packs for later use. One way you might do this is by creating packs on video game vocabulary or YouTube phrases, for example.
You can also set up a Quizlet live game, which is similar to the Kahoot! program discussed above. After creating your custom flashcard deck, you can invite your students to a round of Quizlet to add a little bit of competition to the classroom. I’ve found this to be an excellent motivator, and it can really help bring students out of their shells.
Level: Intermediate to advanced
Focus: Vocabulary building, word definitions
I promise you one thing: Once your students start playing Knoword, it’ll be nearly impossible to get them to stop. And if you decide to have a round of Knoword yourself, you might become what I can only describe as a “Knoworder” for life.
The strength of the online game Knoword lies in its simplicity. Students can get started with this game almost immediately and practice their reading, vocabulary knowledge and spelling. Basically, the program will provide random word definitions and students must type the missing words as quickly as possible.
To use this game for teenager learners, I recommend that you give them a class code and pit students against each other for some healthy competition. You’ll also have the option to assign individual tasks and track the student’s progress.
The game can be challenging, which is why this is recommended for intermediate leveled students. Similar to Quizlet above, you can also create your own customizable learning packs should you want to test your students on a specific area or make the coolest exam ever.
Interview with the Stars
Level: Intermediate and up
Focus: Speaking and question forming
I’m always on the lookout for new twists on classic ESL games to give the students something they haven’t done before. This game is somewhat similar to the popular game 20 questions only with a few slight changes, making it extra fun.
The teacher will put the names of famous people or characters into a container. These names can be real, fictional cartoons or any characters you can think of (as long as the students know who it is).
Students will then draw out names and must assume the character. Instruct the students to answer the questions as if they were really that person or character.
If you’re teaching a lower-level class, you can model with an example and write some sample questions on the board to prompt the students. You can also do the question and answer one-by-one by having one student come up to the front of the class at a time.
If the students are slightly more advanced, I like to do a kind of “cocktail party” style approach where the students will mingle throughout the room and ask each other questions.
Just make sure you move around the classroom and check that the students are practicing their English.
At the end of the party, students can do a vote-style assessment of who they think each of their fellow classmates was.
Grab the Ball
Level: Beginner and up
If I had to choose one “tool” for the rest of my ESL teaching career, it’d have to be a ball. From introductory activities to summary games, you can incorporate a ball into almost any activity.
Plus, I’m a big believer in action and movement in an ESL classroom. There’s something about it that relaxes the students and gets them a bit fired up. And when it comes to teenagers, a little competition never hurts.
For this group game, you’ll need a ball (or several) and some space. This game works great outdoors in a big open grassy area.
After placing the students into groups, they’ll then be equally spaced away from the ball in two teams. Of course, you can also play one-on-one, depending on the amount of space and number of balls you have!
The teacher will make a true or false statement. This statement can be an English-related statement, such as the word happy is an adjective or a statement related to skills you have been teaching in class.
If the statement is true, the students must rush to grab the ball before their classmates, but if it’s false, they must leave it be. Students or teams will receive a point every time they correctly snatch the ball before the others on the true statement. However, they’ll lose a point if they grab the ball on a false statement.
For a smaller (and possibly safer) version, you can play at the student’s desks with a small ball or object to snatch.
Level: Beginner and up
Focus: Listening, language structure and team collaboration
This a go-to activity to create a fun and party atmosphere in the classroom. That being said, it does require a little bit of preparation.
Start by choosing some popular songs with clear singing and simple lyrics. Contemporary music and pop songs are always good choices, especially songs that your students might have heard before.
Next, print the lyrics on either one large page or smaller pages, depending on the size of the class. The next step is to cut the lyrics into lines and mix them up before handing them to your class or groups.
Inform the students that they’ll be putting the lyrics back together again in the correct order. You can also turn the activity into a competition to see who can put the “jigsaw” together the fastest.
What I especially like about the game is when the students catch themselves singing along to the lyrics. It’s like a sudden realization that they know more English than they think!
I Mustache You a Question
Level: Beginner and up
Focus: Speaking and listening
For some reason, the mustache is the “in” thing right now. I’ve seen t-shirts, phone cases, backpacks and more decorated with quirky little mustaches. Here’s a way you can incorporate this trend into your classroom. All you need is a stick, some paper and pens and chatty students.
Gameplay is simple. After cutting out a mustache and taping or pasting it to a stick, pass the mustache around. Whoever’s holding the mustache under their nose gets to ask the class a question. Students take turns answering and then passing around the mustache.
Questions can be as simple as “What’s your favorite color?” or as complex as ethical debate prompts. You can write a few sample questions on the board to get things going. If your class is usually shy, you can introduce this activity the day before and have them prep some questions as homework.
Of course, you can replace the mustache with any item, if you’d prefer students to just hold an item in their hands (rather than putting it up to their faces. Grab a ball from the “Grab the Ball” activity, for instance, and pass it around!
If your students aspire to travel the world or move to an English-speaking country, this is a fantastic way to practice listening comprehension and asking/responding to questions. This game can sharpen communication skills, preparing them for a job interview or coffee with an English-speaking friend.
Level: Lower intermediate and up
Focus: Writing, listening and speaking
If you ever had a ton of fun with “Mad Libs” around a campfire, why not share that fun with your ESL students? This game tests their knowledge of grammar and parts of speech, and the results are hilarious.
Here’s how it works: Each “Mad Libs” story has blank words for you to fill in, usually parts of speech (you’ll be choosing “nouns,” “adjectives,” “emotions,” “places,” etc.) and you only get to read the full story after you’ve picked your words.
Writing.com has pages upon pages of “Mad Libs” puzzles that are great for teens. Or, if you’re tech-savvy, you can download an app onto your classroom device. The official “Mad Libs” app can be found on the Apple store.
Then just sit down with your students and go around the table asking for nouns, verbs, adjectives and more. For ways to get your students more involved, have them write the words down themselves or spell them out for you.
With more advanced students, you can even encourage them to write their own stories, then remove a certain number of words for their classmates to fill in.
“Apples to Apples”
Level: Lower intermediate and up
Focus: Reading, speaking
A game that took the world by storm in the 2000s is the party favorite “Apples to Apples.” This game is a great way to go more in-depth with parts of speech by doing word association using adjectives. And you can either buy your own box online or you can make your own cards that focus on the vocabulary you’ve been teaching in class. Genius!
You’ll want a group of three or more students to play this game with. Cards are split into two types: green for adjectives and red for nouns.
Students get seven red cards and then one green card is put into the middle by the “judge,” who rotates each round.
Students then choose a red card from their hand that they feel fits the green card best, and place it face-down on the table. Once everyone’s made a choice, the judge reads all the cards out loud and decides which is the best of the bunch.
The winner of that round gets to keep the green card. Whoever has the most green cards at the end of the game is the winner.
Of course, that’s the standard way of playing. You can mix “Apples to Apples” up a bit by playing opposites (they put in the card that least fits the adjective) or change things up completely by giving them several green adjective cards and one red noun card with the objective of matching a variety of adjectives to that noun.
“Apples to Apples” can also be a great way to get your more advanced speakers debating. For example, go around the table and ask whether the students agree with the winning card that the judge picked, or justify their own card choice for that turn.
Level: Lower intermediate and up
Focus: Listening, speaking
It was the first day of classes, and I’d gotten my first group of teenagers. Our books hadn’t yet arrived. What did I do? I came up with a
As I found out, “Jeopardy” is a great way to review old information that may have been tucked away during the summer.
Not to mention that the possibilities for quiz categories are endless. Some “Jeopardy” categories you might use include US vs. UK English, the present tense and superlatives. You can go into easier categories for lower-intermediate students or harder ones to really challenge your teenagers’ advanced grammatical skills.
Focus: Speaking, listening
If you thought Jeopardy gets students excited, then you ought to see my students when I tell them we’re going to play Werewolf. This party game gives a hilarious twist to your everyday role-playing exercise. Your teens will have to focus on banding together to either beat the Werewolf or outsmart all the others.
There are different variations of the game, but the most basic one has one moderator (in this case, the teacher) and a werewolf, while the rest of the players are villagers.
Werewolf has “daytime” and “nighttime” phases. During the nighttime phase, everyone closes their eyes. The moderator asks the player with the werewolf role to open their eyes. The werewolf silently selects a villager to “kill” by pointing, then closes their eyes. No talking is allowed during this phase!
Once a villager has been selected, the moderator begins the daytime phase by asking everyone to open their eyes. The moderator now spins a tale about a werewolf attack in the night, and announces which villager has been “killed.”
Students must now discuss who they think the werewolf is, while the person with the werewolf role must try to throw attention away from themselves. This phase requires some smooth talking skills and clear communication!
At the end of the discussion phase, the villagers eliminate one player, who they think is the werewolf. If they’re wrong, the game continues for another round. If they’re right, the game ends.
You can also try a more involved version of the game, which includes a seer and a doctor. The doctor awakens in the night after the werewolf and chooses a player to “heal.” Then, the seer opens their eyes and takes a (silent) guess on who the werewolf is. If they get it right, they can then try to convince the rest of the villagers to vote that person out.
Stellar Factory has an excellent guide for this version of the game if you think your students are up for the challenge.
For a lighter version, you can always just stick to interrogating with a Good Cop/Bad Cop narrative, which targets similar defending and questioning skills that give your students that fun twist to the average role play.
There are plenty of activities that teenage students can do during one-on-one lessons. These lessons are more about catering to the student’s interests, and once you find something that grabs their attention you can focus on fostering their love for learning English.
Focus: Speaking, reading, listening
There are tons of board games you can play one-on-one with teenage students. They’re great for sparking English communication in a fun environment.
- “Guess Who” is perfect for those who are just learning how to distinguish characteristics and talk about how a person looks.
You can even go beyond how a person looks and work on what a person does. For example, if you print out a page of sports stars your students can ask questions such as, “Do they play tennis?” Or if you print out a page of people in their job environment they can ask, “Do they wear a uniform?”
- “Scrabble” is also a classic game that teens enjoy. You can use the game to focus on vocabulary and spelling. If you get bored playing the old-fashioned way, you can tweak the rules. For example, allowing your student to choose one letter in any word on the board can be a fun way to get them thinking outside the box.
- For more vocabulary, you can always play “Word Battleship.” The gameplay is the same as regular “Battleship,” except instead of using boats you use letters to form words. It’s a great way to review words and focus on spelling, especially when the student is making their own board.
And there are so many possibilities! You could do colors, foods, animals or even unit vocabulary from a book for more advanced learners.
Person, Place, Action
Level: Lower intermediate and up
Focus: Writing and reading
A lot of teenage students really dislike writing. However, some are keener on the idea if you give them the freedom to write what they want. While the list of possibilities for creative writing exercises can seem endless, one of my favorite games that my private students really enjoy is called Person, Place, Action.
The student is given nine pieces of paper. On three of them, they write a person, on another three they write a place and on the final three they write some sort of action.
These can vary from short answers to long answers. Lower intermediate students could write “runs a race” for one of their actions, while a more advanced student could elaborate with “runs a race through the desert during the hottest day on record.”
These sheets of paper are then folded and sorted into their categories, and then the student picks one from each category. The student then unfolds their paper and writes a story with the given prompt. I generally join in with writing on nine slips of paper with my student to give them more variety, and you can get some pretty wacky results with a little bit of brainstorming.
Teaching teenagers can be a big challenge. But just like any other student, if you get their attention and cater to things they’re interested in, you can make their language learning experiences fun and enjoyable.
These activities are sure to inspire your students to love the English language and encourage them to strive for fluency.