What I Need to Know about Teaching English to Adolescents

Leonardo Esperanca

For many teachers, a class full of teenagers can be a big challenge. With that in mind, we interviewed author Jeff Stranks to better understand the phases of teen adolescence, and hear his suggestions for effective ways of teaching English to this age group.

It is common to see English teachers feel insecure in front of a group of adolescent students. Whether it’s because of the stigma that “teens are complicated” or because they are not used to teaching this age group, it’s common to get uncomfortable – but it doesn’t need to be like that.

For Jeff Stranks, the co-author of “English in Mind”, “More!” and “THiNK”, teachers need to know that adolescence has two phases: one that goes approximately from 10 to 14 years and another that begins at 15 and goes until adulthood; and that the interests of the students change as they grow older.

“In general, in the early teens, students tend to be fascinated by extremes and things that are completely outside their everyday existence, hence their interest in, for example, The Guinness Book of Records. They are also interested in positive human traits such as courage, perseverance, creativity, and they look for role models who represent these things. The second group of older adolescents begin to become more ‘philosophical’ in the sense that they want to understand how the world and society work. They start to get interested in ‘great ideas’,” says Jeff.

Neither group are particularly interested in talking about themselves or their own experiences: they want to broaden their horizons – Jeff Stranks

Because of this, one of the key elements for teachers to prepare more engaging lessons is to use content that will arouse the curiosity of adolescents and thus help them to have more knowledge of the world and build knowledge that goes beyond language. For Jeff, “teachers can help them precisely to broaden their horizons by giving them stories – in the broadest sense of the word – that speak about human values ​​and experiences.”

What are the differences when teaching adolescents?

In addition to considering the adolescence stage of your students, there are also other factors that need to be observed when working with these young people. One is the understanding that your students are going through a transformation phase, in which they are no longer children, but are not yet fully mature.

For Jeff, “teens will often revert to child behavior and try to be disruptive, they will claim to be upset about something very quickly, do or say things just to look cool in front of their peers, and that requires a lot of patience from teachers “. But the author points out that it is not necessary to teach adolescents and adults in different ways, quite the contrary: “When teaching adolescents, I have always tried to treat them as adults, but I do not expect them to behave as such,” he concludes.

Teaching beyond language

Valid for the teaching of anyone in any age group, planning English classes that go beyond language teaching is a primary factor when looking for a broader experience and richer content. After all, language is an instrument by which we communicate and express ourselves in other areas of human knowledge and relationships.

“There are so many other things that need to be addressed beyond language. Adolescents, especially the younger ones, need support in their development. They seek help to establish their own sets of values, values ​​that will guide them in their adult lives; seek help in terms of reasoning and understanding; they want to be able to make sense of the multitude of facts, opinions and ideas that surround them, something even more important in this ‘post-truth era’,” explains Jeff.

“Occasionally, adolescents also seek help in relation to their self-esteem, that sense of self-worth that is so important even to adults and that can make a big difference in someone’s life,” says the author. “I believe that teachers know implicitly that when working with groups of adolescents, their role goes far beyond grammar, or lexis, or pronunciation, although they are important. Good teachers help adolescent students to think and investigate. And good materials help teachers to do this,” he says.

For the author, it is necessary to devise activities that encourage and develop critical thinking. While teaching English, teachers may ask students to analyze and discuss the values ​​inherent in the content of a text, not just its form. It is also possible to do an exercise that leads adolescents to distinguish ‘fact’ from ‘opinion’, or to analyze whether a given internet text is criticizing an idea or the personality of a person, for example.

They are simple exercises that, in addition to working with language, help adolescents to build vocabulary and express themselves more confidently, exercise critical thinking and develop awareness of the world around them.

But how to achieve these results?

In most cases, you will need to look individually at each of your students and find out the best way to teach them English. There is no perfect formula that works for all teachers and all students, but there are some tips that can help you take the first step, like these suggestions from Jeff Stranks:

1. Be careful with compliments

Do not praise the right answers, but praise positive behaviors such as effort, creativity, cooperation etc. Much research shows that praise for teens is most effective in improving learning and self-esteem when it is linked to the students’ effort rather than their performance. And beware of excess! Only use adjectives such as “brilliant” or “fantastic” when that is indeed the case. At other times, things like “very good” or “correct” are sufficient.

2. See how you ask questions

When asking students something, ask the question first, then name a student to answer it. In other words, avoid saying “Rafael, what’s the answer to number 3?”, but say “What’s the answer to number 3, [pause] Rafael?” That makes a lot of difference. If you first say a student’s name, the others will no longer pay attention to what you are talking about, that’s for sure. And this is especially true for teens.

3. Pay attention to wait time

Wait time is the gap between a question that is being asked and a response to be presented. Research shows that prolonging the wait time by one to two seconds results in more student reasoning and better responses. So, ask a question and then insist that no one respond for at least two seconds, so they have time to think before they speak.

4. Encourage cooperation

Teenagers like to compete, but encourage much more cooperation than competition. In a competition, for every winner there are many losers. Teenagers who work together to do something gain a lot more than winning a competition – and certainly more than losing one. Of course you can hold some competitions, at least to vary the lessons a little – but not very often, and do it in teams, so that at least there is also cooperation!

5. Making notes to remember!

Find all the possible ways to get your teenagers to write down and remember vocabulary (words, phrases, etc.). Most of them listen to music, watch clips on YouTube, use Instagram and so on. They have a lot of contact with English, so take advantage of that and ask them to bring the words and phrases they hear to show or ask about them (some will be questionable, but you can handle it!). Giving teenagers room to bring content to the classroom themselves will help them see English language learning as a positive experience – and in the end I think that’s our main task as teachers.


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