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Teaching teens in the EFL setting: Vocabulary

Group of teenagers walking to schoolJoan Saslow is the author of numerous widely used multi-level courses for teens, young adults, and adults. She has taught English and foreign languages at all levels of instruction in both South America and USA. Allen Ascher has been an English teacher, trainer, intensive English language program director, and consultant. He has also been a publisher, developing ELT materials for students of all ages. Ms. Saslow and Mr. Ascher have co-authored materials together since 2002. In this article, they share their tips for teaching vocabulary to teenage EFL learners.

This series of short articles will address the three-part reality we face: the social nature of the teenaged learner, the challenges of learning English outside of an English-speaking environment, and the limited number of class hours devoted to English study per week. Each article will focus on one aspect of language teaching and learning and examine pedagogical approaches to maximize learning and success.


In the EFL setting, the teenage learner, highly social yet easily distracted, must acquire a large volume of vocabulary in very little time and with little opportunity to practice. Lessons that provide enough exposure, practice, and recycling of vocabulary are hard to create, and time is never adequate. A middle school schedule of two class hours per week yields 72 class hours spread over a year. While a year of instruction may sound substantial, 72 hours only add up to 3 days! What methodology, then, can increase exposure, practice, and ‘stickiness’ (memorability) of vocabulary?

A purposeful methodology

1. Explicit presentation

The first step in learning a new word is understanding what it means. Though an occasional quick translation into students’ first language is convenient and harmless, using translation as the principal method of teaching vocabulary can lead to students’ paying more attention to the translation than to the actual English word being learned! A captioned picture-dictionary style illustration, on the other hand, can clearly show the meaning of a word. Captioned illustrations remain on the page of the student’s book for later study, reference, and review. When accompanied by audio, captioned vocabulary illustrations afford students a chance to read, listen to, and remember new words.

Extract from Teen2Teen - Vocabulary exercise

2. Repetition

After students have seen each new word and heard it pronounced, an essential step is repeating the word to practice it. Imitating the speaker on the audio ensures that students focus on the English words, helps them remember them, and builds accurate pronunciation.

3. Immediate practice

We cannot expect students to master vocabulary without repeated intensive use and recycling. In the following exercises, vocabulary is practiced and used, first in a controlled contextualized exercise based on meaningful visual cues. Then a second exercise permits students to personalize the vocabulary, giving it additional memorability.

Extract from Teen2Teen - Vocabulary exercise

4. Integration and recycling

New vocabulary should not just be limited to vocabulary exercises. Grammar exercises, listening activities, and reading texts can provide convenient opportunities to increase the exposure and practice of vocabulary.

Extract from Teen2Teen - Vocabulary exercise

5. Social application

Because teens are very social, model conversations that show real social language in interactions teens might really have in their own lives ensure memorability of new vocabulary like nothing else.

Extract from Teen2Teen - Vocabulary exercise

6. Personalization

It’s important not to stop with mere practice of model conversations from a book. Guided conversation practice offers learners an essential opportunity to use the new words in their own conversations, bridging the gap between controlled practice and productive use. Notepads and visual cues increase each student’s involvement, motivation, and success.

Extract from Teen2Teen - Vocabulary exercise


In the reality of the EFL setting, with very few class hours, teen learners need many opportunities to observe and practice new vocabulary. And because they are teens, integrating vocabulary in relevant social conversations ensures the memorability and mastery of new words.

Text and illustration examples in this article are from Teen2Teen Two by Joan Saslow and Allen Ascher.

For more expert advice on teaching teenagers from Joan Saslow and Allen Ascher, don’t forget to visit the OUP ELT global blog regularly. Their next blog on how to keep teenage learners interested in grammar will be available here from September 27th .

To communicate with the authors directly, you can also take part in their interactive webinars:

Teaching vocabulary to teens in the foreign language setting
Friday, October 11, 2013: 2pm-3pm or 6pm-7pm BST. Watch a recording here.

Teaching grammar to teens in the foreign language setting
Thursday, November 7, 2013: 2pm – 3pm or 6pm-7pm BST. Watch a recording here.

Text and illustration examples in this article are from Teen2Teen Two, a Secondary course for teens, by Joan Saslow and Allen Ascher.

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Pronunciation for Young Learners

To celebrate the launch of Project Fourth edition, author of the pronunciation SIG journal, Robin Walker explores the place of pronunciation in the upper primary classroom.

A few years ago I was crossing the playground in Spain, on my way to a training session with local teachers. As I was going past two young girls I heard one of them say ¿Jugamos al inglés? (Lets play English). The idea of ‘playing English’ roused my curiosity, and I stopped and eavesdropped. What followed was a stream of sh- and z-like sounds with not a word of actual English among them. But the rhythm was very English, and very un-Spanish.

By the time they get to the 9-15 age group, young learners are usually very aware that English feels and sounds different to their mother tongue. This makes this a great age for working on pronunciation, and offers us an opportunity to sow seeds that will produce very tangible benefits. We know from experience, for example, that poor pronunciation means poor fluency – you can’t be fluent if you can’t get your tongue around a sound, or get a short phrase out of your mouth. In fact, learners actually avoid words or grammatical structures that they find difficult to pronounce, and as teachers we are sometimes guilty of misinterpreting these ‘gaps’ in production as gaps in a learner’s knowledge or understanding.

But poor fluency isn’t the only outcome of poor pronunciation. Listening is a nightmare for students with limited pronunciation skills, either because they simply don’t recognise key sounds or words in their spoken form, or because they have to concentrate so hard when listening that their brains very quickly overload and ‘block’. When we spot problems with listening we are tempted to respond by doing more listening work, and are frustrated when this has no effect. What is need, of course, is focused pronunciation work.

Although problems with speaking and listening are obvious to us, poor pronunciation can also badly affect reading and writing. At the level of writing, for example, students might write coffee instead of copy, or berry instead of very. My tourism students used to write Festival at the beginning of a series of points in favour of an argument. At first I didn’t understand where this was coming from. Then they told me that I said this a lot in class. What do you think I was saying? (Answer below*)

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Can informal testing methods be as beneficial as formal ones?

To celebrate the launch of Project Fourth edition, English teacher, Marina Kopilovic, from Serbia writes about how to make testing fun and your students enthusiastic.

Informal methods of testing and assessment are as useful as standardized tests. They are typically based on every day classroom activities to measure the progress of students toward the goals and objectives where students are not aware of being monitored and assessed. These activities are monitored and recorded by the teacher as an observer. They allow teachers to keep track of the progress of their students regularly. Portfolios are great ways of monitoring and assessing the students throughout the entire school year.

Can tests be fun? In order to avoid staleness it would be good to allow your students to do group tests from time to time. They will have to help one another and work together for a group grade. Besides the common benefits tests usually provide, this kind of testing will help your students develop collaboration skills.

Have you ever thought of how to make students projects more than just a decoration on the classroom walls? Have you ever tried a group quiz based on questions extracted from your students’ projects? I will describe something I usually do when I ask them to do a group project outside the classroom. The aim is to test reading and speaking skills and monitor and assess some social skills.

The first step is to be done by the teacher – to display students’ posters all around the classroom and prepare questions in advance. Students are divided into groups of five. Each group is given 15 questions (three per each member on a separate piece of paper). Their first task is to move around the classroom (from one poster to another) to read (scan the text) and find the answers to their questions in 10 minutes. Once they have finished this, they go back to their groups to put their answers together and write them in the order of the questions (1 – 15) that are given on a new piece of paper. Then groups switch papers with their answers for checking, marking and correction – group 2 gets the answers from group 1, group 3 from group 2, and so on until group 1 gets the answers from the last group. Now the quiz can start. Teacher reads the questions and answers aloud, students check, mark and correct. Each correct answer earns one point for the group. It is advisable to use PowerPoint or another kind of visual support at this stage of the class. All the groups are rewarded according to the results they have scored. Teacher will decide how – by marking, giving written certificates, flags indicating their achievements etc. – depending on the age group s/he is teaching and on the level of the task students have to complete. Continue reading


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Another class interrupted by the chirping of a cell phone – has this happened to you? Are your students reading their cell phones or tablets under the desk, or even jumping up to leave the classroom?

Despite warnings and strict classroom rules, students still have trouble ignoring texts and Facebook updates during class. Recent brain research helps explain why. With every small burst of information the brain receives, it releases dopamine, the same pleasure chemical released when we take drugs, fall in love, or eat chocolate. In other words, the information students receive through social media can be addictive.

So how can we, as ELT professionals, harness the power of social media to our advantage?

Again, we can look to recent research for ideas on how best to use social media for language learning.

Engage students in the practice of English. Students who use social media in their courses increase their technology and communication skills, are more creative, and are more open to diverse ideas. (Greenhow). They can also master course content more efficiently. In one study, twice as many students who received a tweet about the focus question for the next class mastered the material compared to those who didn’t receive a tweet. Think about tweeting a focus question before your next class.

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Using the language of football to engage your students

Alan Redmond, co-author of English for Football, offers teaching tips on engaging your students by using the topic of football in your English lessons. Watch the video to see Alan and co-author Sean Warren discuss how football can motivate students in class.

I teach English to Premier League footballers and Academy players at Premier League clubs. For a football fan like me, it’s a great job and one that I’m constantly grateful for, but it’s a job that I’ve had to mould and shape from the start. I try to do two things: firstly, teach General English using football as a context and, secondly, teach the essential English vocabulary and terminology used in the world of football.

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Teaching English in a football context is useful for professional footballers but it can also engage students who aren’t professional footballers or even footballers at all. Try our Present Perfect explanation and exercises from English for Football and notice how easy it is to motivate your students afterwards.

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