Teaching skills for working with teens

Teaching skills for working with teens - Image by Mansour BethoneyTeaching English to teenagers can be frustrating and fulfilling in equal measure. They can be full of energy and ideas that add a real buzz to the class, but they can also be sullen, self-conscious, reluctant to work together and difficult to engage. However, if you approach lessons with teenagers with the right ideas, materials and tricks of the trade, there’s no reason why they shouldn’t be a great success.

Here’s our list of indispensable teaching skills for working with teens:

***Do group project work***

Group projects come in all shapes and sizes and work well with teenagers. They increase motivation, promote learner autonomy, have clear, achievable objectives, involve all four language skills, and can be managed in a way that lets everyone in the group take on a role that’s best suited to them. They also make a welcome break from routine and can be run over several classes, with a section of each lesson allocated to them. You’ll find plenty of examples of project work here and here.

***Include digital content***

Teenagers of today are digital natives. They’ve grown up with the internet and surrounded by screens. They won’t be wowed by digital content, but not to include it in your lessons, especially given its many benefits, would be akin to a 20th century teacher refusing to work with books. If you haven’t yet flipped your classroom, now is the time to do so. You’ll find great ideas on sites such as Khan Academy and Edudemicand don’t forget that the best English courses these days, such as Focus and Performancecome online as well as in print.

***Set short term goals***

A year is a long time in the life of a teenager, so if you’re preparing a class for an exam that’s not until the end of the academic year, or even two years down the line, don’t expect them to be sufficiently motivated by something which is still such a long way off. Instead, set short term goals that they can work towards. As mentioned above project work is ideal for this, as is working chapter by chapter through a graded reader, but you can also personalise goals as well, depending on their individual needs.

***Give them choice***

A great way to engage young adults is to allow them some choice in what they study in class. This can range from having them select project themes to letting them choose which book to read, if you’re going to use a graded reader. If you like to use songs in class, why not have them take turns to prepare gap-fills of their own favourites? Building learner autonomy is crucial at this age as your charges make the transition to adulthood and take responsibility for their own learning and progress.

***Get day one right***

In terms of classroom management, how you set the tone of your teaching on the first day will determine how successful or not you are throughout the rest of the course. It’s essential to demonstrate from the get-go that you are the one in charge and that you do not tolerate bad behaviour. This may sound draconian, but there is every likelihood that a class of teenagers will try to suss out right away whether you’re a soft touch or not. Someone in the class is bound to try to test your limits. Be fair, but be firm, and make sure you follow through on any threats. Much as they may want to mess around, teenagers, like other young learners, prefer firmness and consistency in their teachers. It’s far better to start off strict and then relax than to try to claw back authority if you’ve lose it at the outset.

***Get to know them***

Learning your students’ names and finding out what they are like as people is an important aspect of all English language teaching. However, when faced with a group of teenagers it can be easy to think of them collectively, as somehow all sharing the same adolescent opinions, juvenile tastes or naïve outlook on the world. This is rarely the truth, however; scratch beneath the surface, dig a little deeper, and you’ll more than likely be pleasantly surprised by the variety of ideas you’ll find. Find out what they like, what they think, what their hopes are, and, where appropriate, what their worries are. The English language lesson is an idea setting for this to happen, so long as you make them feel comfortable. Importantly, don’t dismiss or belittle what they say or think. You may even learn a thing or two yourself.


Following on from the above, once you’ve found out what your students are into, what engages them and gets them talking, make sure you use those topics as the basis for activities. With the wealth of material available online, it’s easy to find an article or a video about a band they’re into, or a sports team they follow, or a celebrity they’re following, or an app they’ve all got.

At the same time, to help you plan ahead, why not have them look through the coursebook at the beginning of the course and pick out the three topics that most appeal to them? If you have an IWB and can show Google Maps, get them to show you and describe their town, or the journeys they make to class, or other places that are important to them. There’s plenty of scope to make the 21st century English lesson just as much about the student as about the language itself.

***Be empathetic***

Adolescence is no easy ride. It can be a time of constantly conflicting emotions, deep self-doubt and crippling self-consciousness. Don’t put anyone on the spot who is clearly uncomfortable being picked on and don’t make fun of anyone, even if you think it’s just a joke – at this age, throwaway comments can be taken very much to heart. What’s more, don’t forget that there will be lots going on in the lives of your students, at school, at home and with friends, that you simply do not know about. A bad mood in class might have nothing to do with you or your teaching and everything to do with a problem outside. Remember that. Be kind. And above all, engage.

You might also be interested in…

– Collaborative learning in EFL class with teens and adults

– Using ESL videos: Hit play and get ready to learn!

– 6 easy word games for the English language classroom

– 5 great activities for using movies in the EFL class

– 7 tips for teaching writing in the EFL classroom

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More info at Pearson ELT Spain & Portugal

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