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Teaching tips

Teaching teenagers

by Gary Anderson

Teaching teenagers isn't easy because, well, being a teenager isn't easy. Just think back to your adolescence when you were going through all those changes, changes in your body and in your mind: habits and opinions, tastes in clothes and music, relationships with parents and teachers. In Self, Booker Prize winning author Yann Martel writes about growing up as “a new universe where notions such as success and failure, will and sloth, appearance and reality, freedom and responsibility, the public and the private, the moral and the immoral, the mental and the physical, replace the simpler guiding notion of fun.”

Of course, it's dangerous and difficult to generalise about adolescence from individual to individual, and from culture to culture; levels of maturity can differ significantly from culture to culture and in individuals within the same culture. But if you have accepted the challenge of teaching teenagers, then you are the teacher of a group of young, impressionable people and will need to try to be flexible and patient with each individual. And you will need to remember that in the classroom, the group dynamic is often as important as pedagogical content and activities will carry benefits other than linguistic content.

Below are twelve (because after twelve the teens begin…) things to keep in mind to help you answer the challenge of teaching teenagers in the English classroom.

Twelve Things to Keep in Mind when Teaching Teenagers

It seems that all teenagers are interested in pop songs, so exploit that interest by bringing music – and the feelings that can be expressed through songs – into the classroom.
Teenagers (perhaps especially the current need-to-know generation) like to be seen as cool and up-to-date, so bring in topics of current interest from IT, sport, entertainment and media, and English-speaking cultures that is personally relevant to your learners.
Teenagers are discovering (often with difficulty) a different relationship with others and group work allows individuals to interact with different classmates in a less stressful, collaborative atmosphere.
Teenagers are starting to define their proper personalities (sometimes it seems they have multiple personalities!) and role-play activities can allow them to try to express different feelings behind non-threatening, face-saving masks.
Part of growing up is taking responsibility for one's acts and, in school, for one's learning, so a measure of learner autonomy and individual choice can be helpful for teenagers.
It's amazing how some teenagers will have an almost encyclopaedic knowledge of a particular field, so let individual students bring their outside interests and knowledge into the classroom through cross-curricular work.
Variety – including surprise and humour – is the spice of classroom life (perhaps particularly with teenagers and their infamous short attention span), so try out different warmers, starters and fillers to change the pace and enliven the organisation of your lessons.
Teenagers are discovering their (often awkward) bodies so use movement by giving students an opportunity to move around during class.
Teaching in secondary school often means teaching multi-level classes, but effective classroom management can help even with very large classes.
Use of the mother tongue can not only steer a whole class activity away from misunderstanding, confrontation and potential discipline problems (always a risk with teenagers), but also help avoid pressure on an individual by removing the impression that one person is being tested and put on the spot.
Games can provide not only purposeful contexts in which to use language but they also stimulate interaction, provide competition and are fun – as long as rules are clear and clearly followed by all participants.
Project work offers each individual a chance to use their individual talent to do something personally meaningful and motivating with the language they are learning – and the resulting posters and other visuals can be displayed around the classroom (just as teenagers decorate their rooms at home).

What do you have to keep in mind when teaching teenagers?

Read Be sensitive… by Gary Anderson