New teachers at York are often surprised at the difference between Chinese teenagers and teenagers in the West. Without wanting to stereotype too strongly, teenagers back home tend to be more surly, negative, and unwilling than their Chinese counterparts, and while this does make our teaching life easier there are other challenges we face when teaching this tricky age group. Chinese teens often lack life experience that Western teens have which can make it difficult to engage them in a topic or make it relatable.
Understanding Chinese teenagers and what they want from an English teacher is therefore key. Without this appreciation, motivating them will be really tricky.
Warming Them Up
Starting the class with a suitable activity sets the tone for everything to follow. The goal here is to start with something vocal that gets everyone speaking. A bit of movement and competition doesn’t hurt either.
A favourite in my old class at York was to give every student a token (or fake money). Students were told that they couldn’t use the words yes/no/yeah/nah etc. If they used one of those words they had to give up their token. Students mingled and started a conversation with each other, trying to trick the other person into accidentally saying yes or no. The best technique seemed to be starting the conversation innocuously rather than with an obvious closed question. Watching students trying to goad others into slipping up is always hilarious and this activity is no exception!
Making Language Relatable
Students at York use a course called Smart Choice. We’re lucky in that this is a generally excellent course which has a lot of language that’s really useful and practical. So instead of learning about how to interview for a job, our teenagers learn about things that are relevant to their lives (very few Chinese teenagers will get a job, that usually happens after university).
Even if you do find yourself having to teach something students have no experience of there are still ways to get them using English. Try using negative teaching. An example:
Vocabulary to teach: extreme sports and present perfect
Teacher: Who has been paragliding?
Teacher: Who hasn’t been paragliding?
Students: We haven’t been paragliding!
This also works well if you find yourself always getting the same responses from the students when teaching.
Teacher: What did you do last night?
Student: I…er…did my homework.
Teacher: What didn’t you do last night?
Student: I didn’t go to Paris and eat cheese
This gives students an opportunity to review past and unusual vocabulary they may not otherwise practice.
Humour and Personalisation
But making language relatable doesn’t just extend to the content of the class. When introducing grammar replace the usual pronouns with names of people in the class. Change nouns to be something they’ll laugh at (yes, even the students’ favourite: WC…). Swap out verb phrases they hate (“do my homework”) with ones they like (“watch the Big Bang Theory”). If you have access to a projector, why not introduce new vocabulary with pictures of you in it? Or pictures of them? Even just using Word you can make teaching prepositions much more engaging by having images of students hiding under boxes.
Even practice can be personalised. After introducing new vocabulary, play a game of This or That. You put two items of vocabulary on the board. Students must paper, scissor, stone, the winner picks their preferred word. The loser takes the other. They have 30 seconds to argue about why their words is better than the other (“I think cars are better than bikes because they are more convenient.” “I think bikes are better than cars because they are better for the environment”). Teenagers enjoy opportunities to share their experiences and ideas. This activity is fast-paced and provides just that.
Ask any teacher, ESL or otherwise, about teaching teenagers and the most common difficulty you’ll hear is how to motivate them. Part of the problem is student’s can often lack confidence and can be shy about speaking a second language in front of their peers. Build their confidence with pairwork or a mingle before expecting them to speak in front of the rest of the class.
Bringing It All Together
One of my favourite activities with teenagers at York has been arranging debates between groups of students but be warned: without proper set up they can be a disaster! Here are some tips for helping them go smoothly.
1) Choose a topic they want to talk about (one of the best debates I’ve ever had was on the merits of plastic surgery which evolved into a discussion about the role of beauty in society!)
2) Set the students up in two teams.
3) Give them 5 minutes to prepare 5 arguments for their side
4) Outline your expectations. Tell them you will award points for:
a. Everyone participating
b. Persuasive arguing
c. Quality of English
d. Using target language (e.g. language you’ve covered in the lesson or unit leading up to this)
5) Team A reads out one point. Team B can then respond. Team A can respond to that. When the discussion peters out Team B should then read their first point and repeat.
This has proved highly successful in bringing students out of their shells, providing speaking opportunities and reducing teacher-talk-time. Let me know how it works!