Teaching ESL for Teens? 4 Ways to Ensure That Your Lessons Don’t Fall Flat

I remember the first time I stood in front of a classroom full of teenage ESL students.

They were apathetic, tired and clearly didn’t want to be there. Every day, my students would come to class with the same listless attitude.

It wasn’t until I changed the way I taught them that they became more receptive to the learning process.

It’s no secret that teaching English to teenagers comes with its own unique set of challenges. The way to successfully teach English as a second language in any classroom is to make the students want to learn. Unfortunately, this is often the most difficult part of teaching ESL to teens.

Here are some reasons why your ESL lessons for teens might not be taking off, as well as some great ways to revitalize your lessons and keep students engaged.

How to Change Your Approach to ESL for Teen Students

Remember, teenagers are going through a unique period of growth in their lives. They’re trying to make sense of the world around them. They enjoy learning and solving problems, but typically on their own terms.

Teenage students tend to have their own learning styles which differ from those of children and adults. Kids like activities and games, and they’re more likely to complete assignments just for your praise and recognition. Adults take a no-nonsense approach to learning—they’re learning English for a clear-cut reason, and they’d prefer that their time and money not be wasted.

Unlike children and adults, we often need to put in a bit more effort in order to motivate our classes of adolescent learners.

These are some excellent steps that help capture the attention of teenage ESL students:

  • Build rapport — Even if they never admit it to you, adolescents are looking for a safe learning environment where they can feel comfortable and secure. They also greatly appreciate getting a sense of familiarity and belonging from their teachers, peers and surroundings. Help create such an environment by getting to know them and what they like. Have a look at this video clip by Cambridge University Press to learn more.
  • Learn their interests — Build lessons based on their hobbies and interests to gain their undivided attention and make English class feel relevant. One of the easiest ways that I got teenage boys to speak more English was to have them talk about their favorite soccer players. Another great option is to use pop culture and media. With a FluentU account, you’ll be able to discover the full power of authentic content when teaching adolescent learners.

    FluentU takes authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language lessons.

    Teaching with their favorite TV shows or film is a fantastic way to maintain interest in the classroom.
  • Use multimedia — Nobody, least of all a teenager, wants to read from a textbook all day. Excellent ESL lessons for teens involve videos and other exciting media involving technology, flashy visuals, fun topics and pop culture. Check out British Council’s LearnEnglish Teens YouTube channel for ideas.

Many teenagers need to be sold on the idea that learning English is right for them. After all, many of them would rather do something more entertaining with their time than learning a new language.

Understand your students’ goals and objectives. Are they dreaming of studying certain subjects in college, or pursuing certain careers? Do they long to travel the English-speaking world? Try to create lessons to help them succeed. You can work in some great activities for students who are looking to learn survival English, and even more for students trying to boost their conversational skills.

How to Make the ESL Classroom More Comfortable for Teens

Learning a new language can be intimidating for anyone. It takes a lot of courage to overcome your fear of looking silly as you mispronounce or misuse a word in front of your peers. Imagine how intimidating it must be for a teenager who’s more concerned with looking cool than properly pronouncing words like “rural” or “Worcestershire.”

Teenagers may look like they’re always annoyed or bored, but they’re really not—they just need to be engaged. Find out what drives them. Learn their goals and help them reach those goals. Develop meaningful lessons based on their hobbies and interests. With proper preparation, any topic can become an English lesson.

Creating a classroom environment that works best with ESL for teens doesn’t have to be hard. The trick is learning how to connect with them without being too juvenile or too serious.

Teaching ESL for Teens? 4 Ways to Ensure That Your Lessons Don’t Fall Flat

It takes a special type of teaching method to engage with and inspire teenage students. Successful lessons require significant preparation and consideration, and should never be thrown together in a few minutes—your students will notice.

Fortunately, there are a number of ways that you can structure your lessons to better suit teenagers’ needs, which will help you create a dynamic learning environment for them.

Here are three tips to make your lessons a smashing success among teenage students.

1. Create a safe space

If you’re not making your classroom a safe space where everyone is able to practice English free of ridicule or pressure, you’ve already lost your lesson before it even started.

Don’t worry! It’s not hard to create a welcoming learning environment.

Try being friendly, getting to know your students and letting them know that everyone makes mistakes, including yourself.

If you don’t speak their native language perfectly, learn a little bit and speak it in front of them—smile, let them laugh at your mistakes and stay poised and relaxed. This will help them see that mistakes aren’t the end of the world.

Be friendly with your students, but set clear boundaries and stick to them. Create a clear list of classroom guidelines and hand them out or hang them on the wall on day one, so they know what to expect and how to behave. That way, they’ll respect you but not fear you.

2. Stick to a routine

Routine is important in any learning environment, especially one like the ESL classroom, where students are expected to overcome shyness and speaking insecurities in order to improve their English capabilities.

They may encounter unexpected embarrassments and language mishaps, but as long there’s a routine, they can always feel like they know what to expect in class. And that’s a great feeling!

Creating a routine is beneficial for the following reasons:

  • It provides some order in a sometimes chaotic setting.
  • It gives students something to expect and look forward to.
  • Teens usually feel more comfortable in familiar settings.

If you structure your lessons in a specific format that students know and expect, they’ll be able to follow the classroom pace much more easily.

So, do everyone a favor and stick to a routine. You might open every single class with a joke or a music video, or you may opt to allocate a set number of minutes to speaking, listening, reading and writing in each class.

Alternatively, you can make each day of the week cover a specific skill, like “Vocabulary Mondays,” “Conversational Tuesdays” and so on. The point is to create a predictable blueprint and build your lessons around that.

3. Make use of group work

There’s no doubt that teenage students love social interactions. Give them a chance to socialize and work with one another in the classroom as often as possible.

When it’s time for an activity, put your students into groups and give them an objective to complete together. Make sure to add a sufficient number of stronger, average and weaker students to each group, so that every group is balanced.

Teamwork is great for ESL learning for the following reasons:

  • It can be used to simulate random social interactions.
  • Students feel more comfortable when they work with their friends.
  • It takes pressure off of shy or self-conscious students.

Remember, one of the biggest gripes that students have about group work is that some learners end up doing more work than others. Prevent your students from resenting particular group arrangements by varying the groups each class.

Furthermore, try to make group exercises an opportunity for your teenage students to explore and have fun with the language. Instead of grading them on how well they perform, give them participation points for practicing their English.

4. Get feedback from your class

Feedback is a powerful tool that can help you improve future lessons. We value the opinions and suggestions of our adult students. Why not do the same for teenagers?

Teens have a lot to say, and more often than not, they’re looking for a way to engage with you and with each other as equals. Give them a platform to express their thoughts and feelings, and let them know that you take their opinions and concerns seriously.

Have a group discussion at the end of each class period, have one-on-one meetings with individual students on a regular basis or hand out surveys every once in a while. Ask your class what they enjoy about each lesson, as well as what they can’t stand. Learn more about their goals, strengths, weaknesses and interests. Armed with this knowledge, you’ll be able to create lessons that are designed specifically for your students’ needs and desires.


As you can see, building an optimal environment that teaches ESL for teens requires patience, brainstorming and, above all, building relationships with your students.

By demonstrating that you value their opinions and want to help them achieve excellence, you can ensure that your teenage pupils will become much more enthusiastic and engaged in your lessons.

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