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The joys of teaching teenagers in the EFL classroom

Group of teenage friendsJean Theuma, a freelance teacher trainer, shares her thoughts on the challenges of teaching teenagers in the EFL classroom.

“Why does Giovanni always ruin my lesson.”

“Sarah just doesn’t seem to care or even want to be here.”

“Pedro insists on disrupting the lesson.”

“How can they do this to me?”

If any of these sound familiar, then I’ll bet you’ve taught teens! If the thought of summer give you a sinking feeling knowing that most of your students will be between the ages of 14 and 17, then it’s time to stop and have a rethink before the season is truly upon us.

I think that teaching teens is frustrating, depressing and downright tiring but I also know that some of my favourite classes have been with teenagers. They can also be motivating, rewarding and masses of fun!

Motivating

Teaching teens stretches me to look into areas that I wouldn’t normally. Trying to keep my teen classes engaged and focussed, I have delved into project work and task-based learning. I have learned new approaches to teaching that I wouldn’t have tried without the fear instilled by the thought of going into a teen class with a boring course-book and a 3-hour-stretch ahead of you (let’s be honest now)!

In an effort to find common ground, I have explored material that I didn’t think I was interested in; sports, the latest singers and whatever the ‘next big thing’ is. And I’ve learned the hard way never to try to ‘get down with the kids’ and be their friend. They want a teacher, leader, manager, and inspiration – they will find their own friends amongst their peers.

Rewarding

Teens are teens. I think it’s important to remember that these are not fully formed adults and that they are coming to terms with so many changes in their lives, feelings, moods, and so on. In her book “Why are teenagers so weird?” B. S draws on studies which show that the teenage brain undergoes much greater changes than thought previously. What we interpret as laziness, pig-headedness or lack of concentration might all be linked to a process rewiring and remodelling in the very structure of the brain. MRI research in teenage brains have shown that behaviour thought to be controlled by hormone imbalances are actually related to the break-down and reconstruction of neurons. I think that puts classroom behaviour issues into some perspective. Some of our students are dealing with processes which result in mood swings, lack of self-control and general difficult behaviour – they don’t understand what’s going on in their brain, they don’t do it on purpose and here we are getting angry because they feel sleepy or uncooperative. With that said, it seems that any tiny amount of progress we make in class with our students is a great achievement and we should congratulate ourselves and our students for it.

Fun

Who better to have fun with in class than a group of teenagers? Most of them have had formal lessons all year and been drilled to know the grammar and vocabulary of English; however, very few of them actually get the chance to practice and produce the language in any free or spontaneous way. We are lucky that in EFL, activities which foster genuine communication and fluency are often also very good fun. Communicative tasks change the dynamic in the class and can lighten the mood considerably. Teenagers are old enough to see the purpose of these kinds of activities but young enough to also really appreciate the game-like structure of the task.

So yes, I know – teaching teens can be a challenge, right? But it doesn’t have to be that way. It can also be fun!

 

References:

Strauch, B. Why are teenagers so weird? Bloomsbury 2003

 

 


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Classroom speaking challenges: it’s so hard getting the weaker students to join in

Solutions Speaking ChallengeErika Osvath, an experienced teacher and teacher-trainer, explores the third of our Solutions Speaking Challenges: ‘It’s so hard getting the weaker students to join in’. 

As I am sitting at my desk thinking over the issue of how to get weaker students to join in, my thoughts keep returning to the same questions:

Who are the weaker students?

What makes them ‘weaker’?

How do I want them to “join in”?

I can’t seem to escape them. I could just list various activities that may encourage students to participate more actively in speaking activities, but I feel have to go deeper this time. And as a result, I find myself wondering about my own preconceptions as a teacher.

I expect a “weaker student” to say less, come up with fewer ideas, make more mistakes, and be more insecure. As a result, when they join in – if they ever do – they will be like this. Does this sound familiar to you? This is known as the Pygmalion effect, a psychological principle asserting that expectations decisively influence performance.

So what can we do to adjust our expectations and thus create situations where “weaker students” feel more comfortable contributing?

First of all – and this seems quite obvious – we can create a warmer atmosphere for all the students. Research has shown that we tend to unconsciously build a more relaxed climate for students that we have more favourable expectations of – we tend to be nicer to them both in terms of what we say and how we express it. We need to consciously try to do this for all the students in the class, regardless of ability, by using accepting words, true smiles, and demonstrating understanding and openness towards them.

Secondly, we tend to teach more material to students we consider more able. The key here, then, is to expect more of the students we perceive as “weaker”. So, when setting up a speaking activity, make it clear what you expect from all students. Tell students that they must offer a minimum of three ideas during the activity and use the past perfect at least once. Students will be able to live up to these challenges if you elicit some examples and note them down on the board before they start preparing their own ideas. Then, as you are monitoring their work during the preparation time and the speaking activity, make it clear that you expect them to do the task you had set. Of course, it is important not to be pushy or unrealistic, but make your expectations clear in a gentle and supportive manner.

However, the following two factors are the most important ones in influencing the way our students perform in all activities, including speaking. Firstly, when giving students the opportunity to respond to a question in class, we tend to call on the students we think of as “stronger ones” more often. A simple way that we can encourage less able students to join in speaking activities is to increase the number of opportunities they are given to respond – and if they need more time and support, shape the answers with them and give them longer to formulate their response.

Do not give up on them thinking that “they cannot do better than this anyway”, something that can often occur unconsciously. Instead, offer small anchors in constructing ideas and sentences together in front of the class, this way encouraging them to speak and contribute in small group activities as well.

One way you can ensure equal speaking opportunities in pair or group activities is by giving every student say, three slips of paper – signs of their contribution to the task. The aim of the speaking activity is to get rid of the paper, and students can put one card down only if they contributed at least one idea or sentence.

The second important factor is the quality of the feedback we give. If more is expected of a student, they are praised more. If the teacher thinks less of a student, they are more willing to accept low quality answers with the undertone of “not worth the time or effort, because they won’t know it anyway”. Our task is to reverse this process, making sure that we do expect higher quality responses from students who might need more support too.

All these four factors will greatly influence the way less able students perform. They will start raising their own challenges and demonstrate a greater willingness to join in with speaking activities and other activities too!


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Promoting speaking in the mixed ability classroom

Solutions Speaking ChallengeFreelance teacher trainer, Edmund Dudley looks some of the issues related to promoting speaking skills in mixed-ability groups ahead of his upcoming webinar on Solutions Speaking Challenge #3: “It’s so hard getting the weaker students to join in”.

Mixed-ability groups present a particular challenge for teachers when trying to promote speaking skills. For every student who gets actively involved in class, there is another who does as little as possible. For every student who speaks, there is another who stays quiet. For every hand that goes up, there is another which stays down.

Naturally, our aim is to get all the students involved. In reality, however, when a lesson is not going as well as hoped we tend to modify our goals. Unable to involve everyone, we settle for what we can get.  Rather than noticing that only the stronger students are getting involved, we are simply grateful that at least somebody is saying something. The fact that weaker students are getting a free ride in the lesson can pass us by.

So how can we get the weaker students to join in speaking tasks?

The following questions are crucial to a full understanding of the challenge:

What do we mean by weaker students?

In most cases we mean students whose level of spoken English is below that of the other members of the group.  What we need to be careful of, however, is making the assumption that level of spoken language proficiency matches strengths and weaknesses in other areas. A student who is weaker at speaking may have strengths in other areas which can be capitalised on when it comes to speaking.

What do we mean by a mixed-ability group?

The groups we teach are ‘mixed ability’ not only in the sense that they are heterogeneous but also in the sense that the students themselves are simultaneously proficient at some things and weak at others.

Every student we teach has strengths, talents and skills. The first thing we need to do if we are to encourage weaker students to speak in class is to boost their confidence. And the best way we can do that is to find their strengths and focus on them in a real, relevant and constructive way.

Can’t speak or won’t speak?

When we open our mouths to speak we become vulnerable. In many situations, when weaker students decide not to join in, they are making an entirely understandable decision. Why risk making a mistake or looking foolish in front of the rest of the class?

This is where teachers come in. We need to create a classroom dynamic which nurtures confidence. We need to be attentive, appreciative, sensitive, supportive and – where necessary – protective.  The only way students will find the confidence to speak is if they feel they can put their trust in the teacher and the learning environment s/he creates in the classroom. Before we rush to experiment methodologically, it is vital to remember that the ideas and techniques we implement will only be effective if the essential foundations of trust and confidence are already in place.

That brings us to the practicalities of the lesson: how we set up, manage and review speaking tasks. We have already established that it is hard to get weaker students to join in. Is there anything practical we can provide them with that will make a positive difference?

- Time

This has both a micro- and a macro-dimension. In the context of a single lesson, students need to be given enough time to formulate a response or utterance, as well as a chance to plan it and rehearse it. At the start of a course, meanwhile, we should not expect students to start speaking a great deal in the very first lesson – they need to be given enough time to acclimatise and feel secure in the classroom.

- Options

Speaking tasks tend to work best when they have options built in – options regarding roles, tasks and outcomes. For example, providing different speakers with a number of different communicative roles to choose from is an effective way of ensuring that all students feel confident and in control.

- Variety within tasks and modes of interaction

Differentiated activities can enable weaker students to complete speaking tasks at a level appropriate to their abilities. This does not necessarily mean segregating the weaker students from the stronger ones: in fact, as we shall see, some of the best differentiated speaking activities are based on weaker and stronger students working together to complete a joint task.

- Resources

Less confident speakers are more likely to lose their nerve before a speaking activity begins. We need to provide them with three important resources: information, language and encouragement. They need to have a clear idea of what to do and how to do it. They need to know how much time is available to prepare and for how long they have to speak. They need plenty of language resources, such as useful phrases and expressions. And as they prepare, they need to have someone they can ask for help, someone to encourage them.

Yes, it’s hard getting the weaker students to join in. There are days when it cannot be done. With the right strategies in place, however, we can expect to see some positive changes over time.

Register for Edmund Dudley’s webinar ‘Solutions Speaking Challenge #3: Promoting speaking in the mixed ability classroom’ on either Wednesday 25th July or Friday 27th July to explore this challenge further.

Register for the webinar


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How to get students writing: an insight into writing

Young woman writingZarina Subhan-Brewer is a freelance teacher trainer and has been working in the field of English as a Foreign Language (EFL) for over 20 years. Here she previews the upcoming webinar How to get students writing which takes place on Wednesday 18th June and Friday 20th June.

Do you see more and more people whip out their smartphones to take a note of something instead of a notebook and pen?

With the advent of technology, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the act of writing is dying out. I don’t know about you, but I still like to scribble ideas down on paper. I think better with a pen in my hand, and even while using technology, that circumnavigates the need to write, I have a pen and paper to hand, or even a pen in my mouth!

In ELT, writing is a skill that tends to be developed later, once students become confident in listening, speaking and reading skills. This makes absolute pedagogical sense of course – immediate communication skills are strengthened in order to give students the ability to react and respond in real time to each other. These skills also lend themselves well to more fun-filled activities in the classroom, which can keep the learner engaged and motivated. As language teachers, however, we are also obliged to facilitate the learning of writing skills.

Writing in English is no longer simply something students have to demonstrate in order to pass exams. It is a skill which affects employment opportunities and is actually put to practical use in the global village we now occupy. It is a skill that can open many doors and can be the deciding factor between one person being promoted and the next. Therefore we need to ensure that even though writing may be a skill that is taught and developed last of all of the four skills, it is not one that is ‘half-heartedly’ taught.

So how can we get our students to spend time on writing activities that can make lessons less fun and more ‘serious’? In the webinar How to get students writing, we’re going to look at what constitutes writing, the difficulties students have with writing and the subsequent problems that arise for teachers and what can be done to overcome them.


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The EFL Classroom: Teaching more than English

Teens in Classroom Verissimo Toste, an Oxford teacher trainer, looks at some different ways the language learning experience can be enriched.

More and more, English as a Foreign Language (EFL) is being taught in mainstream schools around the world. As part of a larger curriculum of general education, EFL teachers have an opportunity to focus on aspects of learning beyond grammar, vocabulary, and the traditional four skills. With the aim of enriching the language learning experience, I would like to focus on some of these aspects. For the experienced EFL teacher, these will not be new, but I hope that by focussing on them here, it will encourage teachers to give them more importance in their classrooms.

Encourage questions

This may seem obvious, but it is not always easy, especially when a lot of education leads many students to become passive recipients of information.

Before beginning a lesson or a unit of work on a topic, ask students what they already know about it. Make sure they do this individually first in order to get input from everyone. Have them share their knowledge. Then, tell them the next unit is on this topic. What do they want to know? Ask each student to write 1 or 2 questions. If you can, display the questions in the classroom. In this way you can refer to them as you work through the unit.

Encouraging questions from the very beginning tells your students that you expect them to be actively involved in the work of the class. Further, it tells them that what they are learning should be meaningful and useful to them. It is the best way to learn.

Bring their world into the classroom

Think about the lives of your students, at school, at home, their neighbourhood, city, country. Now think about what you will be teaching them during the term or the school year. How can you bring their world into the classroom? Let me give you a simple example. When teaching “can” for abilities, consider involving the physical education teacher. Students can do some of the activities in the physical education class, like jumping, running, throwing, etc. Once they have done the tasks, you can use the information in the English class as students express what they can do. This can be in the form of graphs or tables, individual or class posters. The important point is that students will be learning and using the language to communicate real information. The language they learn is not simply an end in itself, but a means to communicate.

Students can make a timeline of historical events to practice the past tenses based on work in their History lessons, explain the process of an experiment from the Science class, use skills from their Art classes to create displays of their work, as well as critical thinking skills from Maths classes to organise their language learning. The key is to involve other school subjects, and the teachers of those subjects, in the students’ language learning experience.

Once you have considered the school, move on to life outside school. How can you involve family and friends? One of my favourite activities with my students was when I was teaching “used to” to teenagers. I asked each student to talk to their grandparents and bring to class 2 – 3 things that were very different now from the time their grandparents were teenagers. I then would use the information to introduce the language point, “used to”. The students were so interested in the information that the language quickly became secondary, and easy to use.

Stories

I am a big fan of stories. Someone once told me that stories may have been the first form of education, as people communicated important information around the camp fire. I have little trouble believing this. There is something about the structure of stories that makes learning easier. For this reason, stories are a great medium for language use.

Stories are everywhere: what happened on a holiday is a story, how a student begins his day is a story, what happened on the way home is a story. We tell each other stories every day. The key is the structure – beginning, middle, and end. The story develops, leading us to the end. It is by nature interesting, otherwise we wouldn’t be telling it.

When considering the topics and language you will be teaching, think about how these can be included in a story. The story may provide the basis for the language you want students to learn, or it may be the vehicle for the topic of the unit. When stories become a part of your teaching, you will naturally begin to collect them. Don’t forget local stories, stories from your students, and traditional stories of the country you live in.

Sense of achievement

Too many times education focusses on what students don’t know. Rarely do we have the opportunity to show students how much they have learned. Just as students learn the present simple, we move on to the present continuous. Just as they grasp past simple with regular verbs, we introduce them to irregular verb forms. Education focusses on what students don’t know. So, giving students a sense of achievement based on how much they have learned is important to raise students’ self-esteem and confidence in their ability to learn more.

Brief, unit-based projects can offer students the opportunity to show what they have learned, as well as give many students a second chance to learn what they have forgotten. Encourage your students to see the project as a learning opportunity: What language are they using? What mistakes are they still making? What are their weaknesses? Their strengths? How could they improve? The aim is not simply to learn more, but also to get students used to reflecting on their learning. In this way short projects can help students become better learners.

These four points may seem obvious, but it is not always easy to make them an integral part of our classes. However, as they do become a part of your lessons, you will find your students becoming more active in their learning. You will also find that learning itself will have more meaning and become more rewarding.

Image is taken from Flickr under the Creative Commons license

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