How to Teach Teens ESL: Tips, Techniques, Activities, and More!

By
July 8, 2021
Bridge grade, Omar Cholico Delgado, Mexican English teacher

There’s a common myth about teaching ESL to teenagers: They’re more difficult to teach than children or adults because they’re not interested in learning. As an experienced teacher of kids and teens in the U.S. and now China, I can tell you that this notion 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 on 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, you will even teach teenage students. Well, even if you didn’t set out to teach this age group, if you plan to teach EFL abroad or online, chances are that you will. That’s because in many countries of the world, it’s very common to teach both kids and teens. Let’s look at the regions where this is the case.

Richard, Teaching Teens in Thailand

Richard, with his teenage 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 for English teachers, which, when paired with the 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, the Czech Republic, and Ukraine. Students in these countries are often a mixture of teenagers and 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, and from the comfort of your living room. The typical student in these classes is generally a young learner, and that may include both children and 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, private tutoring, or online.

This infographic from the Bridge 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 assess their already-developed language skills.

The teenage 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 the now more than the consequences
  • Find it harder than adults to concentrate when distracted

Take a look at some challenging types of online students and how to handle them.

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!

Learn about other strategies for teaching English online to groups.

Lastly, when possible, stray 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 their own instruments and perform for the class, or let the students choose a song to use in a class activity.

Check out 5 popular ESL teaching methods you should know.

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 especially important for teenagers in order to motivate them.

In a rush? These last-minute ESL lesson plans can be adapted to any class.

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 like role-plays, in which students can develop scripted dialogues about different topics and perform for the class.

Watch a teaching video from the 60-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 ESL games for teenagers?

When choosing classroom games and activities for 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 teenage students.

Games for in-person classes

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.

Take a look at some fun ESL pronunciation games to incorporate into your class.

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 article: ESL Songs for Kids and Teens.

Games for the virtual classroom

Tell Me 5

The teacher picks a topic, e.g., animals, colors, verbs, etc., and the student whose turn it is must name five items in the category in less than a minute. This is a great way to review vocabulary!

Add these low-prep ESL games for teaching online to your repertoire.

Find Something That…

In this game, the teacher asks students to find an object that meets a certain description. For example, they can find something that’s blue, something that starts with the letter B, or something that is used in the kitchen. Students usually enjoy sharing objects from their homes.

Take a look at this 5-point checklist for planning online ESL games for teens.

Pictionary

Use a virtual whiteboard — or else hold up a physical whiteboard to the camera — to draw objects. Have students guess what you’re drawing. You can also have the students take turns being the artist, and you can even choose a theme to ensure they practice words that you want them to review.

Get more ESL game ideas in this Micro-credential course: Games and Activities for the Online Classroom (Teenagers).

Teen ESL conversation activity

Thai students in an ESL 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 The 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, a 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? 

Take a look at some other TEFL discussion questions for older students.

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 assess 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 something else, 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.

Learn how to build rapport with students when teaching English online.

Use rewards as motivation.

A good teacher knows which motivational buttons to push with teenage students, such as offering rewards for good behavior, and when to push them. Often, a promise at the beginning of class of a prize that can be earned at the end of class for good behavior is enough to keep them focused. Remember to accompany the promise with 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 five 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 somewhere like China, where an average classroom has 55 students!)

We can’t always rely on rewards, for many reasons. As such, 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 or online company’s policies, and don’t be afraid to ask colleagues how students respond to certain disciplinary techniques.

Check out classroom management strategies for teaching online.

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 60-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.