Keeping teens interested

Many English teachers would probably agree that teenagers are the most difficult age group to teach. Sometimes our teenage students do not want to be in class in the first place and often their minds can be on other things when we are giving an English lesson.

Keeping teens interested - methodology article
Kevin Thomson

However, teen classes can also be fun and very rewarding for both the teacher and students. I believe that the materials that the teacher uses in the classroom are a crucial factor in deciding if a teens class is successful or not.

  • A story from the classroom
  • A lesson learnt
  • Practical ideas
  • Conclusion

A story from the classroom

Some years ago in Barcelona I was trying to start a lesson with a class of fifteen year olds but two of the girls were having a noisy conversation in Catalan and it was proving very difficult to get the students' attention.
Finally, I said to these two girls that if their conversation was really so interesting they should tell the rest of the students, in English, what they were talking about. One of the girls proceeded to tell the class about a girl at her school who was causing trouble by telling lies about people and generally being very destructive. The rest of the students listened with good attention then asked questions, made suggestions and the conversation developed for the next twenty minutes or so. Taking advantage of the unusually good attention being shown, I asked the students how they felt about the activities we did in class. We then had a really frank discussion.

  • One thing that came across very clearly was that the students felt that a lot of the speaking activities we did were a waste of time. I explained the theory that students need to develop fluency by speaking in pairs or
    small groups and that during the present discussion some of the class hadn't spoken. "Yes, but look how much listening we've done today!", somebody said. After we had finished, one student came up to me and congratulated me on a brilliant lesson and several students asked me if we could do this kind of speaking activity again.

A lesson learnt

Clearly, the students in my class in the anecdote above participated in the lesson much better than usual because they were very interested in what their classmates were saying. My previous attempts at getting the same students to speak and listen had been much less successful because they had not found the materials so stimulating. It seems obvious that lessons with teens will always be more interesting for the students if the teacher tries to find materials that the students can connect with instead of imposing materials that leave the students cold.

Practical ideas

Whole-class speaking activities

If class size permits this, the teacher can help develop the students' fluency by organising the class into a large circle. Rules should be clearly established that only one person is allowed to speak at a time and all communication must be in English. There are many possibilities as regards the subject to be discussed. One option is that students take turns asking any other student or the teacher a question. Another possibility is giving students the opportunity to suggest a list of topics that can be discussed as a whole class. The teacher can act as a chairperson and take notes of common errors then deal with these on the board after the discussion has finished. Students could try to correct sentences containing common errors.

Students' lives as a useful resource in the classroom

Students can be given practice in forming questions by writing then asking questions to each other. It is usually a good idea for the teacher to give an example of an interesting question before the students start writing their questions.

  • For example, a question such as "Would you like to have children?" is better than a question where the student probably already knows the answer (for example, "Do you speak Russian?"). After the teacher has helped the students to write their questions individually, the students can ask and answer the questions in small groups. This activity allows the students to decide what they are going to talk about instead of the teacher deciding.

Importance of personalisation

When we present new language to our teenage students, it is important to give them an opportunity to use this language to say something interesting about themselves.

  • For example, if the teacher has just presented the second conditional, a way of practising this structure would be to give the students a small piece of paper with sentence stems on them as follows:

    "If I won the lottery, I would………",
    "If I could be somewhere else just now, I would be…………"
    and "If I could meet somebody famous,…..…………..".

    The students complete the sentences then fold the piece of paper and give it to the teacher. In turn, students are given a piece of paper then they read the sentences aloud. The students should then guess which of their classmates wrote the sentences.

Class surveys or learner diaries

These can be used to allow students to express their opinions about classroom activities. These can be done periodically throughout the academic year with sentence stems to be completed such as:

"The activities that have helped me learn so far this term have been……………………………",
"The activities that I have not enjoyed so far this year have been…………..",
"I prefer speaking in small groups/the whole class…." etc.


It seems clear that it is important to provide lessons which keep our teenage students interested. If the students are not interested in the material we are using, it is probable that both students and teacher will end up bored and frustrated. While many of us may be obliged to use certain course books and other material that may not always stimulate our students, it is important to adapt this material or supplement it with activities that bring the students to life and encourage them to express themselves. If the teacher shows that she is interested in her students' opinions and is prepared to adapt her lessons after listening to these opinions, this can have a very positive effect on the atmosphere in the classroom.


Submitted by sarka buckova on Thu, 10/02/2008 - 18:15


    I would like to comment on the article Keeping teens interested. This is a topic that drew my attention at the first sight because the issue of attracting the interest of teacher’s pupils, students or even adult learners is a crucial element for the lesson to be successful from every point of view.


    Concerning the idea of asking the girls to tell the class about the topic of their conversation and then making the students comment on it and join the discussion I consider this an excellent way of stimulating students‘ interest and attention as well as a great way of developing their communicative skills.  A typical reaction of teachers to students‘ interrupting a lesson by chatting is asking the student to be quiet and follow the lesson. The students concerned will probably stop speaking but there is only little chance that this will also make them start concentrating and being interested in the lesson and also this teacher’s comment is a disturbing element for all other students in the class. It is true that I have also always reacted in this way and thanks to this article I will definitely try and apply this in my future lessons.

  Nevertheless, in my opinion, this can be done only in that stage of the lesson that is suitable for interrupting the actual issue being just performed by the teacher and would not have even more harmful effect on both the current subject matter or an activity being done in the lesson and also the teacher’s respect. A teacher should be aware of the risk that by being willing to interrupt his or her lesson any time and giving students a chance to start speaking freely, he or she could gradually lose his or her respect and students could try to manipulate the teacher. For example, I do not consider to be a good idea to do this in the middle of  teacher’s explaining new grammar, listening activities or even testing.


    Next I would like to comment on the issue of the importance of personalisation as a way of gaining students‘ interest in the course of  a lesson, for example when presenting and practising new grammar.

    In the article given there was a reference to presenting the second conditional. From my own experience a know that this grammar may be a little complicated for some students. The activity with folded pieces of paper is definitely interesting and stimulating for students,           Maybe it would be also contributive fot the students not only to guess the author of the sentence but also make them support their bets by presenting arguments (in English, of course) why they think it was written by the person they chose.


    My way of teaching and practising this grammar is even a bit different. I have practised it with number of groups of students of various age levels and I was very pleased that it works and brings about very good results concerning the students‘ understanding and mainly remembering and adopting this grammar.


    After presenting the second conditional theoretically including writing the structure on the blackboard, an initiative sentence is given by the teacher, for example: If my girlfriend/boyfriend went out with my friend, I would …. . one student is then asked to. finish the sentence. All other students have to listen carefully and follow what is being said because another continuation immediately follows. For example the first student says: “If my girlfriend went out with my friend, I would ask her if she still loves me.“  The point is that the teacher then asks any other student to follow the end of the previous sentence, for example:

If she said she didn’t love me anymore, I would be unhappy and lose weight.“

And so the activity continues for a few minutes until the teacher is sure the structure is understood and adopted by the students.


    The positive and stimulating aspect is just the personalisation of this activity as students  are made to imagine the given situation and think what they would do or say and at the same time they are very interested in what the others are saying and what their ideas are.


Last but not least, this activity is usually very funny and entertaining because the model situation is not real it is only fiction so the students can use their phantasy and imagination, are not limited anyhow in “What if…“.


The teacher can also make notes for him/herself during this activity and then present the students other grammatical mistakes they have made while practising the second conditional on the blackboard and discuss those afterwards.


    The last point I would like to comment on are class surveys. I find this way of feedback very very useful for both a teacher and students. I have got my own experience with this. I was for 3 years teaching  language courses for young people who had finished either a secondary school or a university and were then registered at the Employment Office. Class surveys were an important part of the courses, they were carried out in a written form twice during the 3-month-long courses. They worked not only as my feedback but also that played a very important role in the students‘ attitude to the lessons because thus they realized their opinions and ideas were taken into consideration and often also followed which contributed a great deal to gaining their interest and motivation in the lessons.


    In conclusion, teenagers are probably really the most difficult age group to teach. It is due to their “complicated age“ , of course, and also due to their temporary unawareness of the importance of learning and educating themselves for the future. Gaining their interest is therefore one of the hottest issues a teacher should concentrate on and definitely the best way is application of using the topics that concern their own lives and interests and give them the possibility to express their own ideas and feelings as well as the feeling that their opinion is important for the teacher.

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