How to Teach Teenagers and Live to Tell the Tale

Have you got insurance?:  When I tell colleagues I mostly teach teenagers, they tend to respond with health warnings: ‘Teaching teens can… …seriously damage your health’ or ‘…try your patience’ or ‘…drive you nuts’ or ‘…shake your nerves and rattle your brains’ – the list is endless. But I have found they are not that bad really – especially in small doses! What few would deny is that they are quite distinct as a group. In any case, although I personally prefer to teach adults, I have found that time and again the universe conspires to force me to teach teens (which only goes to show that Coelho did not get it quite right…. 🙂 )  In all these years of teaching, I have always dreamed of eventually writing the ELTON-winning ‘Teen Teacher’s Survival Guide’, but so far I have only managed to come up with 5 principles. Still, they have stood me in good stead, so here they are for what they are worth…

1. Teenagers are obsessed with their peer group:  One often comes across the misconception that teenagers do not care about anybody, but in fact they do – their own peer group. It seems that at this stage they become sharply aware of differences between the others (often referred to as ‘old fogies’ 🙂 ) and their own cohort. They want to distance themselves from the former, but with the latter they conform massively (Cialdini 2001 – p. 123) The idea here is this: Any activity / text / discussion that has to do with teenagers or touches upon cross-generational problems or issues such as discipline – rights – obligations etc. is likely to arouse their interest as it is close to their reality. Interestingly, I have discovered that teenagers quite like laughing at themselves and this classic sketch with the iconic ‘Kevin the Teenager’ always goes down well. [See the video below; if you would like a handout to use in class, just click here].

2. Teenagers love songs: This is almost self-evident, but the big question is ‘Which songs should we choose?’ As I see it, the perfect song should meet 4 criteria: a) it should contain lots of language (surprisingly, many songs rely on a strong refrain and there is very little else – e.g. the very nice ‘Counting Stars’);  b) the delivery should be clear (alas – that rules out Bob Dylan! 🙂 );  c) the music should be non-intrusive (ballads are great in this respect); and  d) there should be no long musical interludes (students may switch off). But there is one more thing to take into account: content. Not everything will do. ‘Lady in Black’ by the Uriah Heep is one of my favourites – notice how it ticks all the boxes. And the content is plain and simple: a straightforward anti-war song that anybody can understand. [See the video below; if you would like a handout to use in class, just click here].

3. Competitions give teens the ‘high’ they crave: Teenagers love high arousal activities – hence their love of extreme sports etc (Brizendine 2010 – ch.2). Competitions are therefore an obvious choice. In a presentation on teaching teenagers a few years ago, the speaker advocated the use of Trivia Quizzes as shown in the first slide.


In groups, students decide on what they think is the correct answer and score points accordingly. But wait – can we not do even better? Why not get the students to come up with the questions themselves? That would generate even more language and increase the students’ investment. Here is another idea: why not use the ‘Boy – Girl’ dynamic? We could divide the class into boys-only and girls-only groups. The former could try to come up with Qs that most boys could answer easily, but which would be hard for girls and vice-versa. I have tried it with the teens I teach and they loved it! The second slide shows some of the Qs the boys wrote…


4. Teenagers’ interests have one thing in common: I remember once attending a talk on teaching teenagers and the following Q appeared in one of the slides (the correct answer is of course ‘All 4 of them!’) Teens_-_SExThere is no doubt that the issue of sex and relationships is number 1 for most teens most of the time. And while teen boys often withdraw and ‘disappear into adolescence’, this topic is guaranteed to bring them out of their cave (Brizendine 2007 – p. 66). One way to exploit the boy-girl dynamic, differences in upbringing, different biological agendas and the teenagers’ fascination with dating is to get them in same-sex groups to write tips – for the opposite sex. The task is this: ‘[Think about all the things that annoy you when you go out on a date] Imagine you are going out with a girl for the first time today. What advice would you like her [male] best friend to give her?’ The results can be hilarious. Here are a couple of tips from my male teenage students:


5. Facebook is the teen’s natural habitat: By FB I mean the social media in general of course. Anything that has to do with that particular biosphere, its flora and fauna, its ‘dos and don’ts’ is likely to motivate teenage learners. It is something they know, something the feel comfortable with and something on which they have far more expertise than we do. The following YouTube clip is simply perfect for teaching purposes. Students love the way it has been made to look like it was shot in the 1950s and it is ideal for listening comprehension practice as the delivery is so smooth. The best thing about it however is its potential for further discussion / projects. Two tasks suggest themselves: ‘What should Alice and Timmy have done in these situations?’ and ‘What are the top 10 rules for using FB in your opinion?’ [See the video below; if you would like a handout to use in class, just click here].

Final words:  There are a couple of other things that I have discovered over the years. The first one is that it pays to take risks (remember Mr Keating in ‘The Dead Poets’ Society?’). Many teens love PARSNIPs and they should not have to go to the grocer’s to find them. The other thing is that it helps if you ‘teach from the front’ (as in ‘lead from the front’). That means being somehow familiar with teen culture. You don’t have to be one of them, but it helps if you have heard of WoW or Jaqueline Wilson or the latest heart-throb. Failure to do your H/W might mean prolonged exposure to your students’ sclera as they roll their eyes… I was talking about these two points with a colleague the other day and she volunteered a third one: ‘Well’ she said ‘it also helps if you are a man’. ‘A man?!?’ I asked ‘Why?’ ‘Because unlike us, you never grow up!’ she replied with a grin.  🙂   Hmmmmm….

[First published in the IATEFL Young Learners and Teenagers SIG]


Brizendine, L. “The Female Brain” Bantam Books 2007

Brizendine, L. “The Male Brain” Bantam Books 2010

Cialdini, R. “Influence – Science and Practice”, Allyn & Bacon 2001

Madylus, O. “Film, TV and Music” Cambridge University Press 2009