My high school years were the best years of my entire life. I would do anything if I could live them again.
My high school years were the worst years of my entire life. You couldn’t pay me a million dollars to go through that again.
Whether you agree more with the first statements or the second ones, odds are that whatever feelings you have about school during your teen years, they are strong ones.
Perhaps that is because of the huge amount of psychological development that happens in the years between childhood and adulthood. We go from being a child and under the influence of our parents to being an adult, or at least starting down that path.
But all that development can make things in the ESL class a bit of a challenge. How exactly do you get teenagers talking? Why are they so awkward/shy/reserved/you-fill-in-the-blank?
There is actually a reason behind this unique-to-teens behavior.
General Rules for Engaging Teenagers
Have you heard of the “invisible stage”? I learned this term when I was taking a class on working with teenagers, and I knew the invisible stage was as real as the nose on my face because I remember experiencing it myself in high school.
The “stage” in the phrase does not refer to a stage of life, but rather to a stage where someone performs. The term is used in psychology in reference to teenagers, and it describes the feeling that everyone is always looking at you, that you are on stage and everything that happens is because you are the center of everyone’s attention. (It is also known as the “imaginary audience.”)
Of course if everyone feels this way, it can be true for none, but that is not the way it feels for adolescents who are navigating the path from childhood to adulthood.
And while every ESL student can be a bit uneasy when it comes to speaking in front of peers or being put on the spot, those feelings go to a completely different depth when teens are involved.
With that in mind, there are some things you can do to decrease the stage fright that comes from this center-of-attention feeling and help your teenage students speak up in class:
- Give general feedback to the entire class instead of drawing attention to individual students. When you point out that one of your teens is making a mistake and you do this when the whole class can hear, you are making the spotlight that shines on that invisible stage as bright as day. So make your comments general, not isolating any one student or using their specific mistakes as examples in class.
- Don’t put them on the spot for answers. Again, this intensifies that feeling that everyone is looking at you, and that is a guaranteed hindrance to speaking freely in class. Give your teens time to think about and/or prepare their answers before asking them to speak in front of the class. They are less likely to make mistakes this way and less likely to freeze from embarrassment.
- Another significant factor in the psychology of teens is the importance of their peer group. The relationships teenagers have with their friends are arguably the most important relationships they have during their years of development. For that reason, encouraging small group interactions or peer-oriented talk can be extremely valuable to your teenage students and can make a big difference in how teens feel about themselves. When their peers accept them, they accept themselves, so you should encourage those relationships through small group interaction.
With those general policies in mind, here are some specific activities you can do with your teens in English class that will really get them talking.
4 Unique ESL Topics for Teenagers: Fight the “Invisible Stage” and Get Them Talking!
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Save Time in a Bottle
If you were going to make your own personal time capsule, what would you want to put in it? You probably have plenty of things you’d like your descendants to know about who you are now.
But what if the capsule was not just for you, but instead had to represent your entire generation? The answers don’t come as easily, do they?
To introduce this activity, show your students these great time capsules that were opened in 2015 to get them thinking about the topic. Ask them to think about what they would put in their own time capsule. Then take it up a level.
What would they put in a time capsule to represent their entire generation? If they had only five or six items or pictures they could put in a time capsule to represent what it is like to be a teenager today, what would they be? Put students in groups of four or five to discuss it.
The group should talk together to agree on five or six items or pictures to go into a time capsule that will represent what it is like to be a teenager today. Once the group has come to a consensus, have each person explain at least one item in their capsule—what it is and why they chose it—to another group or the rest of the class.
This activity is particularly interesting for teens because they share a culture, one that is different from that of other generations. And when they have to distill that culture down to just a few items, your students will have to discuss what they all have in common, thereby helping build relationships.
Crimes and Punishments
Every teenager can relate to what it is like to be in school, and your ESL students are no exception. But how much do they know about school punishments? (Hopefully not a lot!)
Put students in groups of three or four to brainstorm all the possible punishments students around the world might suffer for not doing what they should in school (For example, losing recess, writing lines, going to the principal’s office, getting paddled, etc.)
Once students have exhausted their list, have each group rank the punishments they have listed from least severe to most severe.
Give each group a list with examples of misbehavior in school; you can choose some from this list or come up with your own. Ask each group to choose the best punishment for each misbehavior. If students have been punished for any of the items on your list, encourage them to share with their group what punishment they suffered as a result.
The Debate on Smartphones in School
Should smartphones be banned in school? I know I have my own opinion on the subject, and your teenage students certainly have their own opinions as well.
A report by CNN says teenagers spend an average of nine hours a day consuming media, most of that via their phones, and another report says that fifty percent of teens say they are addicted to their phones. Obviously, that is not a very positive argument in favor of smartphones.
And yet the resources that mobile devices make available to teenagers—resources that can help them learn English—are innumerable. So are they good or are they bad?
Don’t answer the question yourself. Have your teenage students answer it.
Give teens a list of facts about smartphones. There are some great ones in this article on Science News for Students and there are more in these research findings by the Pew Research Center. Throw some fake “facts” into your list as well. (Seven real facts and three fake facts are a good mix.)
First, ask students to discuss with their group whether they agree or disagree with each statement. Then have them guess which facts are fake and explain their reasoning, before finally pointing out the false true statements. (Pun intended.)
Finally, ask students this question: Should smartphones be banned in school? Then hold a debate on the subject. Divide your class, designating one half to defend each side of the argument, and let the discussion begin. You can find more information on how to hold a debate in class here.
Words to Live By
Do you have a personal motto? Do your students? Since teens are transitioning between being their parents’ children and being independent adults, these years are a good time to talk about what is most important to them, and how they want to live the rest of their lives.
If you have a personal motto, share it with your students. If you feel comfortable, explain why you chose this particular motto and how it affects your life. For example, I might share with my students some of my personal words to live by: “Don’t make decisions based on fear,” “God comes first” and “Live by the Golden Rule.”
Give your students this list of personal mottos or find others of your choosing. Then ask students to discuss with one or two other classmates how each motto could have a positive and/or negative affect on a person’s life.
Undoubtedly, each person will relate to different mottos on the list and may even have their own personal motto already.
Now it is time to whip out some scissors and glue and make a “Words to Live By” word collage from those magazines you have sitting back in the corner of your room. While students are making their collages, encourage them to cut out mottos from the list you gave them, cut out words from magazines or write out their own phrases and include them in their collages.
Once the collages are done, ask each person to share their collage with a partner and explain why they included the words that they did. If any are willing, invite students to share with the rest of the class as well.
I cannot say whether the days your students spend in your class will be the best ones of their lives or if you couldn’t pay them enough to live them again, but I can tell you one thing: Your teens will appreciate the effort you give to make class the best it can be for them.
And whether or not they remember the activities you did, they will most definitely remember that you cared.
And One More Thing…
Want to keep your teen ESL students engaged? FluentU can help! FluentU takes real-world videos—like music videos, cartoons, documentaries and more—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons for you and your students.
It’s got a huge collection of authentic English videos that people in the English-speaking world actually watch on the regular. There are tons of great choices there when you’re looking for songs for in-class activities. You’ll find music videos, musical numbers from cinema and theater, kids’ singalongs, commercial jingles and much, much more.
On FluentU, all the videos are sorted by skill level and are carefully annotated for students. Words come with example sentences and definitions. Students will be able to add them to their own vocabulary lists, and even see how the words are used in other videos.
For example, if a student taps on the word “brought,” they’ll see this:
Plus, these great videos are all accompanied by interactive features and active learning tools for students, like multimedia flashcards and fun games like “fill in the blank.”
It’s perfect for in-class activities, group projects and solo homework assignments. Not to mention, it’s guaranteed to get your students excited about English!
If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to teach English with real-world videos.