Getting teenagers to use English in class can provide a considerable challenge to most teachers. This article examines some of the reasons why it can be so difficult and makes some suggestions for overcoming these problems.

Catherine Sheehy Skeffington
  • Why it's important
    • Long-term and short-term memory
    • Language fitness & agility
    • Authenticity
  • Why they don't use English
    • Peer pressure
    • Lack of motivation
    • Lack of support
  • How we can get students talking
    • Explain why it's important
    • Confidence tricks
    • Attainable goals
  • Conclusion

Why it's important

Long-term and short-term memory

Theoretically, we retain information in two ways: In short-term and long-term storage. We transfer information from one to the other by convincing our brains that facts in the short-term memory are valuable enough to be put in long-term storage - otherwise, the information is discarded.

  • Our native language is stored in the long-term memory. New information about a second language, however, is stored in the short-term until it is transferred.
  • To understand the new information quickly, we often translate into our native language. However, this makes it more difficult for the brain to accept the new information into the long-term memory. The result? We quickly forget the information about the second language.
  • Students need to translate less often. If they get used to speaking English - this helps the new information to be stored more quickly and for longer.

Language fitness & agility

Language learning and maintenance uses a surprising number of muscles - most importantly, the brain, and the more obvious muscles in the mouth and jaw.

  • It follows logically that just as with any other muscle, the more you exercise it, the easier it is to use.
  • So how often do teenagers exercise the muscles required for speaking English? If their only opportunity is English class, they need to maximise on the time to exercise as much as possible.


Speaking is a way of expressing ourselves in whatever language we use. The most motivating language to learn therefore enables us to talk in a way that is true to our personality. Even the best coursebook cannot provide this resource for every individual in every class!

  • Students bring their personalities to every class - if we can keep English as the language medium, their authentic language requirements will become apparent. This means accepting their personalities - in terms of topic (e.g. music, fashion, gossip), and function (e.g. exaggerating, exchanging anecdotes).
  • If they don't have the tools to express themselves in English, they'll use the tools they do have - their native language.

Why they don't use English

Peer pressure

Even native speakers take years to master their language, so it's no surprise a foreign language learner has to make a lot of mistakes before even managing to produce anything approaching good English. The spontaneous nature of speaking means you're likely to make more mistakes than you would otherwise. So generally we're asking our students to stand up and make fools of themselves at a time of their lives when they are at their most self-conscious.

Lack of motivation

If you ask a teenager why they think they should speak English in class, what's the most likely answer? Stunned silence, a disdainful look, or a droned 'because we have to practise'? They're following orders - and for what? So that in two or three years they may be better able to communicate effectively with another English-speaker? Not only is the motive external, but the end goal is too distant for many teenagers. For many students, instant rewards for speaking English are much more motivating.

Lack of support

There are two kinds of support: Classroom atmosphere and linguistic support. It may not be realistic to expect teenagers to provide the generous and patient atmosphere ideal for language practice, but it is possible to encourage them to support each other, for example by working in teams.

It is easier to provide linguistic support, in terms of words and phrases that are required for classroom interaction. Classroom language (e.g. 'Sorry I'm late', 'Can you repeat that, please?' etc.) is the only English they will need to repeat throughout the whole course, and it has an authentic context - it would be a waste not to capitalise on it!

How we can get students talking

Explain why it's important

Only you know how mature your class is and how well they will respond to the rationale behind your methods. However, it's often worth giving even a less mature group a chance to understand what you're trying to achieve. Not all students will react in the same way - the underlying theory may motivate smaller groups within the class, even though it might not appeal to the class as a whole.

Confidence tricks

This involves rewarding them for using 'easy language' - making them believe the goal is easy to achieve.

  • Classroom language is ideal for this, as are pronunciation games.
  • Drilling has a particular appeal, as the student's voice is safe in a crowd of voices, and it is the sound of the English (not their English) that is strange or amusing.
  • Along the same lines, choosing a buzzword for a class can encourage even the weakest student to try to use their English. The word could either be very useful, or sound a bit strange or be a key word in the group of vocabulary just learnt. The use of the word then has to be rewarded - and how you do that is up to you.

Attainable goals

Obviously the lower the level of the group, the less English you can expect them to produce.

  • For very low levels, the aim may be to spend only five or ten minutes speaking English per class. Initially this may be spent presenting and practising classroom language, which then allows them to extend 'English time' for themselves.
  • For higher levels, it is still worth identifying when it is more important to be using only English and when it is good to use their native language. This should be indicated by some kind of visual to remind them when to do what.


As with most techniques concerning teenagers, it's important not to give up! For all concerned, the task is not easy but it isn't impossible either. The aim is simply to try and increase the amount they speak English - this could be from 20% of the class to 40%, but it could also be from 0% of the class to 0.5%. Either way, you have had a positive effect on their oral English - so recognise it!

This article was first published in 2004



Dear All,Nothing compares to the ongoing practice of speaking the target language and support for students to get used to speaking English. An attentive regular praise is needed. What is more, please go beyond the classroom! It's a limited border...Cheers,Maria

I am also confused facing the students who are reluctant to speak in English. Senior High Schools students have been learning the language since they were in elementary Schools, even Kindergarten, but most of them almost have nothing to say in my English class. I wonder what a new and helpful method/technique is in order to elicit their speaking eagerness... Thanks

This is now an aspect that needs to be scrutinised. Jane Willin in A Framework for task-based Learning says:Many secondary students who have studied a foreign language leave school unable to communicate in it. This we need to ponder over and look back on our days when we were taught through GT method,through which we were taught about the system of the language but not the use of the language. Now a days schools have been trying to give ss a lot of exposure. But govt. and govt aided schools cannot deliver this kind of exposure for a number of reasons,some known and some are beyond  Trs control. But still task based learning and a reorientation in Second Language Pedagogy equip Trs to do it. In this kind of methodology ss get a kind of lexical approach. This lexical approach can do wonders for Primary classes. But post primary they should be given a traditional kind of text books. They after all, need to write well. Simulation,it seems,sounds well. Real life situation unless it be really a real one does hardly produce result. Hence smart interactive board plus traditional method of GT(YES,TRANSLATION GIVES A SENSE OF LANGUAGE) CAN PRODUCE DESIRED RESULT.


Thanks for your post. I think I have a good clue about non-native speakers, that even though been years of English language training, they still have low communicative competences. As I am a non-native English speaker and currently working as an English tutor I have a personal theory that explains this specific case about the way of teaching English in Latin countries as I was born in Cali, Colombia and grew up in San José, Costa Rica, where I took and English course when I was 25 years old. Please take note of the following facts:

1. We talk to kids in our mother language since they arrive to this world and we talk to them in all tenses.

2. What we teach them first? Vocabulary that is learned through lots of repetitions either pronunciation and/or spelling until each word is mastered.

3. When kids are around 6 or 7 years old, we send them to learn grammar, spelling and how to write and create sentences to communicate properly.

When it comes to foreign learners… things changes a lot. I will only refer to English teaching methodologies in Latin America because it is what I have experienced.

1. Learners face the challenge to learn a foreign language that has different grammar rules and the worst for them is that the new language has unknown sounds and unfamiliar pronunciation.

2. They have to learn all at the same time; vocabulary, pronunciation, spelling and writing which makes the challenge even harder when it comes to speaking, but they won't have long time to master this new language and the first difficult thing is that they are going to have to learn this language by tenses.

3. Except from bilingual schools almost other learners finish school without been able to speak English fluently and with poor vocabulary and grammar knowledge so they wasted all those school years and they feel frustrated for not being able to speak English and with the idea that it is so difficult to achieve it.

Well, I thing that a good solution would be to teach them first only vocabulary, verbs, pronouns, and nouns allowing them to make associations and get fluency for those words and for the first years of school, then later in the second part of school just teach them the 12 main English patterns to help them create their own sentences and focus only in conversation and fluency for the last school year.

Learners would improve if we teach them those patterns and show them how to fill them properly with the already known vocabulary so they will be eager to create their own sentences and happy each time he or she feels in control.

I would also suggest giving them grammar explanation in their mother tongue in this case Spanish because I think that "if you don't understand you won't learn".

Giving English instructions to Spanish learners is for them as if we can understand and learn Chinese just by hearing it.

Have you considered this before?


I work as a teacher for Spoken English and also am a trainer for IELTS and Other ESOL Examinations which are being provided by City and Guilds as well as British Council. I have students from various levels and ages, ranging from new to moderate user and speakers and from teenagers to adults. Students at my part of the world are really shy of making mistakes and thus dont talk in the classes even after tonnes of motivation, and I have been looking for a solution for this type of problem which is indeed A VERY COMMON PROBLEM. Though the topic is aimed at making the teenagers to speak, but I think if the technique and the tips given is used for the adults as well as the teenagers, likewise, will be helpful for the students to start speaking. Thank you very much Ms Catherine Sheehy Skeffington, for the advice and i am using it for my classes from today only.  Thank you again.....

To my mind it's a very up to date article with practical advice. Attract student's attention by means of motivation, suggestion and infusion, that's what really helps to learn speaking any foreign language and in particular English. Teachers must "infect" students using interesting lessons, methods, theater, etc.

thanks for the article it helps so much to understand the mind of the young students...and helped me to teach better....

This is a very interesting article and also call my attention to what I do in my classroom. I know that everything is important in the classroom, but I think that one of the things my students get motivated is the speaking and it is very important to know how the teacher is going to do this.


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