How to keep teenagers motivated in TEFL: Part 1

Let’s face it; teenagers are one of the most difficult age groups to teach English as a foreign language to.

Parents whisk their teenagers off to a language academy because:

·         They are barely passing English in their normal school.
·         They are in a class with more than 25 students and rarely say a word in English.
·         They need to get a higher level of English to get into University.
·         Parents want two hours peace without their moody teenager in the house.

That’s when we come in. Half of your class would rather be at home sending photos to each other on facebook, or tuenti if they’re Spanish, or battling away on Call of Duty. The thought of an extra hour and a half lesson after an already long day does not fill them with much joy.

When you were a teenager could you imagine going to a private school to learn French or German? I’d never have gone, and my parents would certainly never have paid for the lessons.

But if you’re in TEFL then somewhere along the line you’ll have to teach teenagers. Here are a few tips on how to get those moody teenagers motivated in class.

Show you are human

My students know a lot about me. They know I’ve been in Seville for a long time, I’ve travelled the world thanks to my job, I have a dog called Pepa, a new born nephew, and that I got married last year. I tell them about my life, my weekends, my holidays, stupid stories where I am the end joke. Stories about when I was at school and what we used to do to the teachers. When your class see that you are human and that you were also once a teenager they tend to open up. 

My students normally think I’m a bit of a nutter at the start of term. I can see they are thinking:

‘Why is he telling us about his travel stories again?’

‘I don’t care if your sister has just had a baby boy.’  

But preserve and eventually they’ll respond.

Find out what they like

This is applicable to all levels, but very important for teenagers. This year in our school we’ve been spending more time finding out what makes our students tick outside school. We had to fill in questionnaires and have brainstorming sessions about their favourite movies, computer games, books (if they read), websites, sports and sport teams, actors and actresses (both in their country and international), and TV programmes.

This information has been key to engaging my students. Instead of comparing the boring characters in the class books they compare their favourite film stars or football players. I use whiteboard technology to show photos and short video clips to create interest and suddenly everyone wants to participate.

I once created a great class debate with teenagers about their different social networks. We spoke about the different types and then had representatives from each side to say why their social network was the best.

I have a great lesson where I get photos of their favourite and most hated famous people and hide them with technology on the board. I explain that they are going to do a role play. Each student comes up and reveals their character, then I put them in groups and they have to come up with a dialogue. They normally use the grammar point that we’ve just done to make it practical.

Effective punishments

I’m not sure that punishments are motivating, but I think teenagers need to know that you’re the boss and if they step out of line they’ll be in trouble. This is more about motivating them to work harder so that they don’t get punished.

I am strict when it comes to homework. I have a red and yellow card system in place. If they don’t do their homework they get a red card, 3 red cards means I phone their parents. I’ve never phoned a parent. Have a look at this blog on how to be a great TEFL teacher. 

I also find that lines go down well, or rather don’t go down well. On a few occasions I’ve made my teenagers do lines if they regularly come in late, speak too much Spanish in class, or generally mess about. This year I made three disruptive teenage girls do a presentation to me, the class, and the director about why they were in the academy. They hated me for it, but straight after the presentations we made a deal that I’d do more games in class if they behaved. It worked and they have just got decent marks in their exams. (Photo by Seattle Municipal Archives)  

Everyone has their own system. You just need to find yours.

Here are a couple of links with further ideas on keeping teenagers motivated.

5-ideas-for-keeping-kids-motivated on

Getting-teens-to-keep-talking on Marisa Constantinides edublog

In part 2 next week I’ll speak more about using points in class, finding out why your teenagers are really there, having a 'Get out of Jail Free session' and using curiosity to increase participation.

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