3 Ways Teaching English to Teenagers Isn’t as Scary as You Think
It’s one of the biggest stereotypes in education.
And in parenting. And in the media.
You’ve probably been hearing it yourself ever since your 13th birthday:
Teenagers are just the worst.
There are a couple of commonly cited reasons for this belief, especially from a classroom perspective. You might hear that teenagers are apathetic—too cool for activities. They want to spend all of their time on social media. They’ve got enough on their plate and learning English isn’t a priority for them.
Well, in my experience… that’s simply not the case.
Teenagers can be a passionate, energetic group. They often want to succeed, even if it doesn’t outwardly look like it—especially if they’re hoping to land a job or go to school in an English-speaking environment in a few years.
As English teachers, our job is to channel their energy and potential into a love for language, and ideally, towards fluency.
In this post, I’ll show you three practical tips for doing just that.
Teenagers Are My Favorite Group to Teach
Surprised? Let me tell you why.
Depending on where you are, you can usually expect teenagers to have a pretty solid foundation in English. The most advanced students I’ve ever had were between 15 and 18 years old. Communicating in English at this point is enjoyable—for them and for you.
Teen classes are fun and full of laughter. They typically start with some small talk—catching up after the weekend or telling me a funny story from school that day. It doesn’t take long for them to start making jokes (in English… or with my help, a mediocre translation that isn’t really funny in English but it’s funny for us). It’s every teacher’s dream! A class communicating in a very real way, integrating it into their own conversations with a hint of their personality and humor.
My teen students have also given me my most memorable thank yous and really made me feel like I was making a difference. They wanted my advice on studying abroad, asked if they could stay a few minutes longer to go over their paper for school and some even asked for personal recommendations for college.
There’s nothing to be scared of when teaching teens. Once you create a space to share opinions and have a little fun, you’ll be surprised not just by how willing they are to learn, but how much you can learn from them, too.
3 Pro Tips for Teaching English to Teenagers Successfully
1. Find your shared interests
You will have some shared interests, whether it’s music, TV, movies or Trump’s latest tweet. One of my best students discovered “Grey’s Anatomy” at age 16 (as did I in 2005) and not only was I super impressed with her ability to keep up with everything that happens on that show, but it also gave me some great material to work with in class.
After some get-to-know-you conversations, you should be able to land on a few common interests. Now make those interests your inspiration for activities. For example:
- Use a favorite TV show to work on speaking and listening skills. First, mute a scene and have them improvise what’s being said in groups. This is also a great lead-in to talk about the importance of gestures when we communicate or the physical aspects of pronunciation.
Once you’ve had a laugh doing that, turn the sound on and have a listening activity prepared. Any surprises once they hear the real thing? Were they close in their interpretations?
You can also bring FluentU into the classroom for this. FluentU is an authentic-video-based learning program that has many videos that teens are sure to find engaging. For instance, you can show them a trailer from an Avengers movie or a clip from a beloved TV show. Each video has interactive subtitles that show on-demand contextual definitions so you can also send students home to learn with the program.
You can use the different types of clips on FluentU to talk about differences in how we communicate. Teens, in particular, understand what it means to code-switch and why it’s necessary. For example, compare a clip from a news segment with a clip from a vlog and talk about how and why the language used in both is different. They’ll be so engrossed in the conversation, they won’t even realize that they’re picking up on new vocabulary and grammar aspects naturally.
- Have them answer questions as if they were a certain character. We tend to use the same language when always talking about ourselves. Having to think from the perspective of some fictional character usually pushes them to be more creative with their answers and to use English vocabulary they probably wouldn’t otherwise.
I doubt they have the same life experience as Eleven from “Stranger Things”!
2. Find topics that are relevant to their lives
Early in my teaching career, I realized that the debates and scenarios in the book just didn’t cut it with teenagers. You can’t rely on a textbook to keep teenagers engaged and motivated. Their motivation and willingness to participate will be a direct result of your creativity and ability to adapt.
While teens often have an even more advanced level of English than adult students, when it comes to discussing current events or debating common issues, they struggle much more than older learners. Sometimes they haven’t given it enough thought to have developed opinions yet, and sometimes they honestly just don’t care. (Did you care much about politics at 15?)
At their age, I’ve found conversation and debate topics need to cover something they have direct experience with. It’s hard for them to sustain the kinds of hypothetical debates we typically have in adult speaking lessons.
If you want to get them talking, engaging with one another and motivated to get their point of view across clearly… you have to learn as much as you can about them and what gets them fired up. Here are a few tips to help you get started:
- Pay close attention to what they’re talking about as they walk into class. Show interest and learn more about it.
- Learn about university entrance requirements and (if you’re tutoring outside a school environment) their country’s high school curricula. (In my experience, this led to the most heated debate I’ve ever witnessed in a teen class.)
- All those common stereotypes about teenagers? Ask them how they feel about them.
Listen, learn and then gear debates and essays towards topics they’ll have an opinion about.
3. They know the rules—now let ’em break ’em!
…or rather, teach them when to break the rules. And I’m taking about both grammar rules and classroom rules.
Breaking grammar rules:
One of the most fascinating things about learning a language is learning what’s not in the books. Does everyone you know speak perfect, grammatically correct English all the time? Probably not. You probably don’t either. Language is constantly changing and that’s what makes it so interesting. Bringing English into the real world means throwing the rulebook out every now and then.
This is easy (and fun) to do when teaching English to teenagers because one of their biggest references to the English language is music. Music is full of “incorrect” usage. I couldn’t begin to count the number of times I’ve been asked by students what “wanna” and “gonna” mean because they want to learn the lyrics to their favorite song.
One way to take advantage of this is to build lessons around music lyrics, whether it’s having them try to transcribe a song as you play it or giving them printed lyrics to parse out in small groups.
And students won’t just find grammar “mistakes” in music—they’ll hear people speak that way in real life, too.
As teachers, we tend to speak very clearly and pronounce every syllable perfectly so our students can understand. While this is a good habit when working with beginners, be honest with your teenage students: not everyone is going to speak clearly or correctly.
Don’t be afraid to introduce some slang or colloquialisms when you want to shake your lessons up, and encourage students to ask you about non-standard English whenever they encounter it.
Breaking class rules:
First a confession: I used to be a serious stickler for the rules. I wasn’t the type of student that would interrupt or make a joke in class when I was a kid, so I was quick to shut down those side conversations as a teacher.
But here’s the thing… if you can get them to do it in English, is it even a bad thing?
If they go off topic, let them run with it! At least for a few minutes. Give them a new phrase to express what they’re trying to say better (or to make that clever joke).
Same with cell phones. Don’t freak out about them using their phones. Set a policy that seems fair and encourage them to use them when it can support learning. Let’s be honest: that’s probably where they’re seeing a lot of English anyway via social media.
Meanwhile, integrating mobile technology into the classroom opens you up to tons of online material, apps, games and activities.
There’s no doubt that teaching English to teenagers has its own unique challenges and differences when compared to young kids or adult learners, but I promise you: if you become the teacher that all the teenagers want to have class with, you’ll have a competitive advantage.
Teens want (and deserve) the same respect you want from them. Aim for that place of mutual respect, set high expectations while giving them their fair share of freedom and be creative in your choice of material and activities. It’ll be worth it.