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Milica Vukadin - Think Like a Teenager - 10 Methods to Motivate Teenage Learners

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Teenagers can be notoriously difficult to motivate. Yes, that's true. Instead of playing the blame-game and figuring out who is to blame for their lack of engagement, we should try to observe the world from their perspective. We were once teenagers, and we need to use that experience to engage and motivate our students.

Quite a lot of research and academic articles point out that for our students to be engaged in learning, we need to appear engaged as well. To put it simply - positive energy is contagious, and if you are excited about teaching with a certain method, the students will share your excitement as well.

Here are some methods I use to motivate my teenage students:

1. Individualize - Not only the instruction but also the assessment as well. It may seem like a lot of work, but it's actually easier. You don't need to plan every single lesson up to the last detail, the crucial thing is that you get to know your students before you try to individualize their tasks. A great thing I do for my students is creating student portfolios made by the teacher, where I post assignments and lesson summaries of their lessons. This is applicable if you have individual tutoring lessons, but if you have lessons with a class, you cannot individualize the approach with every single student all the time.

2. Student portfolios made by students are something I plan on starting in 2020. These portfolios can easily improve learner autonomy and make students more accountable for their work. The student portfolios will actually be their blogs. I will help them set it up while they design it. I want to try to make a habit of writing a summary of every lesson we have, in hopes of them liking having a blog and writing content that is not related to learning English.

3. Use lots of group work and projects - group works makes everyone collaborate, and even just observing is a form of collaboration. Completing projects is meaningful because we know that there is an ending, and we would all love to see the end of grammar, right? 

4. Effective edtech - Edtech is important in the modern classroom, but we need to make sure that we incorporate it seamlessly into our curriculum. Using apps in a bad way may cause more harm than good. My favorite apps this year are Edmodo (Facebook for learning), Padlet (Interactive board), Mentimeter (Surveys and brainstorming tools), Quizlet (Individual flashcard vocabularies), and Canva (designing tool). More than that would be too much, so try to limit the number of apps in your classroom - you do not want to overwhelm yourself and your students as well.

Here are short activity ideas conducted with these apps:

  • Mentimeter is really fun because students can go and type their answers just by using a code. I use it for brainstorming. As the students input their words, we can see a word cloud growing!
  • Quizlet - Click here for an example vocabulary. All of my students create their personal flashcard vocabularies and then we share them and everyone can reuse the links. 
  • Canva - design tool. Click here to see examples of my free lesson materials for young learners designed in Canva. You can use it to design basically anything, and teachers mostly use it to make worksheets.
  • Padlet is a tool where we can write down things in small text boxes until we make a board full of texts. We can also add photos, videos, and even record audios straight in the Padlet.

5. Social media for learning - Edmodo - everyone uses social media, especially teenagers. So why don't we try to use that to our advantage and have them use their phones and computers to learn? I have a special classroom for my students on Edmodo, where I post tasks for all 4 language skills and different kinds of activities.

6. Gamify as much as you can - Think about the content that is crucial in your curriculum and make a list. Teachers tend to cover essentials in a very traditional way, so if you cannot skip certain lessons, make them meaningful. Think of a different way you can gamify each essential lesson in your curriculum - from making vlogs as homework to interviewing people using the given grammar structure. 

7. Headlining plain activities as click-bait Youtube videos - We are all victims to click-baits on Youtube, but that does not necessarily need to be a bad thing. For example, why should we work on word families to broaden our vocabulary? Why should we bother with a scary thing such as morphology when we can play a vocabulary volcano? If this activity tickled your mind, click here to find out what it is and how you can use it in your classroom.

8. Teach contextually - refrain from using the textbook daily and try to find similar topics online. Start with the content you found and then take it to the textbook. Here is an article on how to teach grammar contextually which shares plenty of activity ideas for all four language skills.

9. Be spontaneous - If you see that your students are tired, in a bad mood, or simply not ready to participate actively, use this opportunity to review old content. Start a discussion - have them tell you what happened, but set a task (they should use past simple, conditionals, etc.) Start a debate, let them select a video or an article you can use. Even podcasts and songs can be used to brighten up the atmosphere and still learn a few things.

10. Connections-based learning is something we should all use since we are lucky to live in the digital age, where making connections is really easy. Learning by connecting with other classrooms or other students online is an amazing opportunity to use English, especially since the students on both sides come from different countries. The following examples are done with adults and young learners, but they can certainly be used with teenagers as well.

I recently had a group lesson with my adult online students. I've been teaching them for about 2 years, and they finally got to know each other. They loved it, and they keep asking for more group lessons!

The second activity happened at the beginning of 2019 when my 3rd graders connected with children from Egypt and discussed environmental issues in both Serbia and Egypt. If you are interested in learning more about interculturalism and connections-based learning, take a look at this article with example activities I've done with my students. If you want to become pen pals or connect your classrooms, you can post in teacher groups on Facebook or join Microsoft for Education to connect your classroom through Skype in the Classroom page.

Motivating my teenage students to learn English in this way also makes my job easier since I can use technology to do many things I wouldn't be able to do in the traditional way. Also, it shortens the time I spend preparing the lessons since I try to build up their autonomy by letting them have a choice. Having a choice is sometimes the only motivation teenagers need.

References for further learning:

  1. Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (1985). Intrinsic motivation and self-determination in human behavior. New York: Plenum.
  2. P. D. MacIntyre, & A. Henry (Eds.), Motivational dynamics in language learning (pp. 95e105). Bristol, UK: Multilingual Matters.
  3. Dörnyei, Z., & Kubanyiova, M. (2014). Motivating learners, motivating teachers: Building vision in the language classroom. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  4. Dörnyei, Z ., & Ushioda, E. (2011). Teaching and researching motivation (2nd ed.). Harlow: Longman.
  5. Fukada, Y., Fukuda, T., Falout, J., & Murphey, T. (2011). Increasing motivation with possible selves. In A. Stewart (Ed.), JALT2010 conference proceedings (pp. 337e349). Tokyo: JALT.

What are your strategies when it comes to motivating teenagers to use English? Do you have some success stories to tell? Write in the comments, I would love to hear your opinion!

Milica Vukadin B.Ed. 

Blog: Alice In Methodologyland