How to Teach Teens ESL

By Brendan O'Shea
July 15, 2019
William, Teaching Teens ESL in China

There’s a common myth about teaching ESL to teenagers: they’re more difficult to teach than children because they’re not interested in learning. Therefore, the idea of teaching students in this 13-17-year-old bracket can worry some teachers, who question their ability to manage a class of distracted young people who don’t want to be there. However, as an experienced teacher of kids and teens in the U.S. and now China, I can tell you the truth is, the myth is simply untrue. Yes, you may have to work harder to earn the attention of students in this age group, but I’ll give you pointers on how to teach teens ESL, including unique teaching strategies, engagement methods, and much more that will keep your students focused learning all year.

Where in the world is it common to teach ESL to teenagers?

First, you might be wondering if, as an English teacher, will you even teach teenaged students. Well, even if you didn’t set out to teach this age group, if you plan to teach EFL abroad, chances are you will. That’s because in many countries of the world, it’s very common to teach this both kids and teens. Let’s look at the regions where this is the case.

Richard, Teaching Teens in Thailand


Richard, with his teenaged students in Thailand

Asia


Asia is by far the most common region in the world to teach English to teenagers. Specifically, countries such as China, South Korea, and Thailand seek qualified ESL teachers to teach young students in order to meet the demands of the countries’ strong emphasis on English language acquisition. These countries generally have great salaries and benefits and for English teachers, which, paired with low cost-of-living, makes Asia (and therefore teaching young learners and teens) a popular choice for many teachers.

Europe


The next region where it’s most common to teach teenagers is Europe, including destinations such as Spain, Italy, and the Czech Republic, or Ukraine. Students in these countries are often a mixture of teenagers or young learners, and English summer camps are common here, too. Teachers who are drawn to Europe by decent salaries and a chance to travel to surrounding countries should be prepared to teach teenagers.

Online


Teaching English online is an increasingly popular option for both new and experienced teachers since this type of job can be done from anywhere in the world, on a flexible schedule, from the comfort of your living room. The typical student in these classes is generally a young learner, and that may include both children teenagers whose parents enroll them in virtual classes after school to improve their English.

Whether in Asia, Europe, or elsewhere, you can find yourself teaching teenagers in a variety of work environments, including public or private K-12 schools, English language centers, doing private tutoring, or teaching online.

This infographic from the BridgeTEFL Teaching Young Learners and Teenagers course outlines some of the possibilities. 

Types of Work Environments to Teach Teens ESL

 

To learn more about teaching kids and teens, check out: Teaching English to Adults vs. Kids: What, Where, and Why.

What’s important to know about teaching English to teenagers?

Teaching English to teenagers can be difficult at times, but it should be viewed as a fun challenge for both you and your students.

Level of Proficiency


The most important thing to understand about teaching teens is that, following years of prior learning, they’re often well advanced in their English proficiency. As a result, your job as the teacher is to challenge them in ways that will help them advance even further, rather than simply assessing their already-developed language skills.

The Teenaged Psyche


Further, the teenage psyche is very distinct from that of children or adult students. As Nicola Morgan, author of the best-selling book, Blame My Brain, an examination of the teenage brain explains, teenagers are learning to handle and demonstrate their emotions appropriately, falling behind or surging ahead of their peers academically, and establishing their roles in the classroom’s “society.”

She emphasizes, among other things, that during teaching, we need to keep in mind that teenagers:

  • May be less able to control behavior as emotions take over
  • Focus on now, more than consequences
  • Find it harder than adults to concentrate when distracted

What are some strategies for teaching teenagers?

With these characteristics of the teen psyche in mind, let’s look at some strategies that are effective with this age group.

Jody, Teaching Teenagers in Costa Rica


Jody, teaching young adults in Costa Rica 

Get to know your students.


Getting to know your teenage students on a personal level will yield great benefits in your classroom. Take the time, especially early in the school year, to learn what their interests, hobbies, talents, and even dislikes are. Then, use this information in your lessons! Students are much more likely to be interested in a lesson that relates to them in some way rather than something that means nothing to them.

Make use of classroom routines.


Classroom routines that are well-crafted and consistently followed create a predictable and comfortable learning environment for young learners and a natural “flow” to your lesson.

Your lesson will include certain elements every day, such as warming up, reviewing homework, presenting new material, and practicing concepts. Use visual or verbal cues to transition between these segments to allow students to develop familiarity with the daily class structure. As a result of routines, students are much more likely to come prepared to class, understand what is happening throughout a lesson, and maintain their focus during instruction.

However, also build opportunities to break away from the routine and implement an exciting new activity, instead!

Throughout your lessons, be sure to allow time for group work.


Teenage students are eager to speak to one another, so grouping four or five of them together is a clever way of allowing that to happen in a productive, academic way. Make sure to adhere to a strict, English-only policy in this setting!

Lastly, when possible, stray away from the classic “stick to the textbook” method of teaching.


Look for creative ways to engage your students. For example, when teaching a lesson on music, consider moving away from the textbook in favor of having students bring in their own instruments and perform for the class, or let the students choose a song to use in a class activity. (For more ideas on using songs to teach English, read this.) 

How do I prepare a lesson plan for teenagers?


 Keep “relevancy” in mind.


What this means is that the materials you use and the topics you teach about should relate to the teenage students’ lives. While relevancy is important for teaching all ages, it is most important among teenagers.

Lesson plans for teenagers ought to be more activity-driven than anything else.


While children can effectively learn through playing simple games, activities you use with teenagers should provide them with an active, participative role in the learning process. Consider making common use of activities such as role-plays, in which students can develop scripted dialogues about different topics and perform for the class.

Watch teaching video from the 20-hour Bridge Specialized Certificate in Teaching Teenagers, showing a role-play in which the students use “realia.” 

Video Role Play for Teaching Teens ESL

What are some classroom games for teenagers?

When choosing classroom games and activities teaching ESL to teenagers, it’s important that you use advanced games so the teens don’t fret over feeling “childish.” The following are some effective games you can use with teenaged students.

English Only


In this challenging game, students compete to speak only English for the entire lesson; teams that speak their native language are marked with a point. The team with the fewest marks wins a prize.

Hot Potato


This no-materials-needed classic is another game that teen ESL students enjoy. The students quickly pass a ball (or ball of paper) around the room, while music plays. Use a popular song the students know and like to keep them engaged. The student holding the “hot potato” when the music stops has to answer a question correctly to earn a point.

Roll the Dice, Make a Question


In this game, the numbers one through six are written on the board corresponding to “Who, What, When, Where, Why, and How.” A student rolls the dice and then poses a question to a classmate based on the number the dice landed on.

ESL Songs


Beyond games, using music in the classroom is also a great way to help students learn while having fun. For more song activities and song suggestions, check out the teens section of this recent article: ESL Songs for Kids and Teens.

Teen ESL conversation activity

Thai students in an ESL conversation activity

What are some English conversation topics for teenagers?

Teenagers will typically be very capable conversationalists since they’ve often already had years of English study. As such, it’s a good idea to push them toward thought-provoking conversations, instead of the more simple subjects used with children (i.e. avoid, “What’s your favorite sport and why?” in favor of “How does media affect the thinking patterns of people today?”).

This list of questions from Internet TESL Journal provides plenty of inspiration you can use to get your class of teenagers talking, such as:

  • What do you think are some of the greatest problems facing people today?
  • Would you rather be a child, teenager, or an adult?
  • What can society do to help teenagers who have problems at home?
  • What is the best advice you could give to a teenager growing up in this culture?
  • Do you think that advertising plays an important role in how people think?
  • Should high schoolers work? Why or why not?
  • Do you think it’s better to raise teenagers in the city, a small town, or the country?
  • What’s it like to be a young adult in your society? 

What’s the best way to motivate adolescent students and keep them engaged?

Build relationships with your students.


While they will never (or, rarely) admit it, teenage students love when the attention is on them. Use this to your advantage by demonstrating a genuine investment in who they are as people and as students.

  • You can do this by having chats with them before and after class, as well as while you walk around the classroom as they do their work.
  • Beyond this, you can improve and maintain a high level of engagement by putting the students in charge, to a reasonable extent. For example, allowing the students to teach a portion of a lesson every now and then is a great way to keep everyone involved as well as assessing what they do and don’t know.
  • Design “active” lessons, wherein students do much more than simply sit at their desks and read from a book. Whether it’s through games, activities, or otherwise, anything that gets teenagers up and moving will help to keep them engaged. Of course, never do this just to do it. Always have an educational purpose behind the active motions.
  • Finally, find (and when necessary, design) opportunities for the particularly reserved students to get involved in class. Sometimes, all the “quiet student” needs is to realize that he or she has a role in the classroom that can be fulfilled.

Use rewards as motivation.


A good teacher knows which motivational buttons to push with teenaged students, such as offering rewards for good behavior, and when to push them. Often, a promise at the beginning of class a prize can be earned at the end of class for good behavior is enough to keep them focused. (Remember to accompany the promise by a visual reminder on the board that remains visible during the entire lesson).

Appropriate Reward Ideas for Teenagers

The expectation and deliverance of rewards is a crucial item in your “Teacher Tool Bag.” While children might like to be rewarded by being the teacher’s helper or receiving a smiley-face sticker, you’ll need entirely different reward ideas when teaching young adults.

Some reward ideas for individual students are:

  • Extra computer time
  • Permission to eat a snack in class
  • Permission to listen to music (with headphones) while working
  • Chance to switch roles with the teacher for 5 minutes (teacher is a student and student is the teacher- great for English practice!)

If the whole class is being rewarded:

  • 3-5 minutes at the end of class to watch the students’ favorite English-speaking show or movie
  • Playing a favorite game as a class
  • Allowing free time for students to chat amongst one another – in English!
  • Teacher-provided snacks or drinks for the class (this can be tricky if you’re teaching in somewhere like China, where an average classroom has 55 students!)

However, we can’t always rely on rewards, for many reasons. For that reason, develop strong, personable relationships with your students. Trust goes a long way when it comes to student motivation and engagement!

How do you deal with behavior problems when teaching teenagers?

It is critical that you are both fair and consistent with your discipline.

  • This begins by introducing your classroom rules on day one and, more significantly, explaining what the consequences are for breaking the rules.
  • Then, abide by those rules and consequences moving forward, regardless of who behaves problematically.
  • It is especially important that you understand and explain that the goal of discipline isn’t to punish students, but rather to teach them how to behave properly in the classroom.
  • The specific disciplinary methods will vary from country to country, so be sure to follow your school’s policies and don’t be afraid to ask colleagues how students respond to certain disciplinary techniques.

Ready to teach teens ESL?

As you set out to teach teens ESL as a teacher in Asia, Europe, online, or elsewhere, remember to utilize materials that are relevant to the students’ lives, develop bonds with students at an individual level, design active and engaging lessons, and allow time for fun! Also, keep in mind where teenage ESL learners are in terms of mental and academic development. They need to be challenged academically and recognized individually.

Add a 20-Hour Specialized Certificate in Teaching English to Teenagers (and/or Young Learners) to your general TEFL training to be as prepared as possible for teaching this unique age group.