English First – Tianjin China

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Teenagers. We’ve all been one, some of us more recently than others, but no matter what, we can all recall what it was like to be a student. At some point in time, we have all sat in a classroom and thought to ourselves, “I could think of one million other places I’d rather be right now”. As teachers, we need to try and surpass this sentiment and motivate our students the best we can, but where do we start and how can we maintain this momentum in all of our classes?

Growing up is never easy, and despite any cultural differences, teaching in a foreign country doesn’t negate the need to break through the barriers that teenagers so steadfastly put up.  ESL teaching often sees teenage classes scheduled on weekends, so it’s imperative that we give students a reason to want to be in class, if not to make it a little easier on them, knowing that they’re couped up inside on a Saturday or Sunday, or if they’d prefer to still be in bed, but at least to be able to foster and encourage learning through motivation.

To TPR or not to TPR?

Total Physical Response activities are of course a huge motivator for students with a shorter attention span, and this is a method of teaching which can be applied in this situation, but in all honesty, it’s not one which will always work.  Older students don’t want to get out of their seats and jump around playing games at every opportunity. There is a high likelihood that their fatigue is validated on the basis that they have studied in excess of 50 hours in a single week.  To put it simply, they’re tired and overworked.

So how can we get them to produce language, to write cohesively, or to comprehend fluently? The key is in the product itself – how can you relate you lesson materials back to a way in which your students can identify. The answer is easy – talk to them. Ask your students what interests them, ask your students where they want to travel, what they want to be when they “grow up”, where they see themselves in five or ten years. These are all easy questions that teenagers can answer (with varying levels of accuracy), and these are questions which can give you a great insight as to where your lesson should lead.

By all means, get them out of their seats – get them moving around. In many ways, this is a TPR method of teaching, it just needs to be delivered in a different way, whether this be through interacting with different students in the same classroom, or encouraging boy/girl interaction patterns. Having students get out of their seat will without fail break any thought pattern stagnation they may develop during a weekend class!

Getting to know you…

It wasn’t long into my first teaching job that I looked around my classroom and thought to myself, “wow, you guys all look as interested as I feel right now…” and it was from that moment that I made everyone put their pens down, and tried to get them to open up to me. I turned the floor over to my teens – they talked,  and I listened! Not only did my understanding of where my students are in life and where they are ultimately heading, this peeked my interests in them as human beings, and also gave me a leverage points as to where our lessons needed to head.

Surprisingly enough, teenagers read some of the same newspapers I do, they love some of the same TV shows I watch, and (embarrassingly!) we enjoy some of the same music! But none of them knew that about me, and I didn’t know that about them.  Now that we have established some common ground, we’ve got some scaffolding to do.  It’s at this point where I often try to pass on some of my worldly wisdom to students – I tell them about experiences I have had travelling around the world, about cultural expectations and practices from my home country, and about my hobbies too – without fail, my students ask me every week what I did on the weekend, for the simple reason that they’re interested!

Building rapport

IMG_0038They key to motivating teenagers is in building rapport and treating them how they want to be treated.  Younger-level learners will be upset with you if you yell at them during class, but will have forgotten any transgressions by the time the lesson is over. Teenage students however, will not. The ongoing relationship with teenage students is one which must be nurtured and maintained because it’s built on trust and respect– older students need to be treated as a friend, not as a foe, and need to be given the respect that you as a teacher give in return.

Now, I’m not suggesting that the student runs the class. Classroom management is still key in teaching a good lesson, but it is definitely something which you would hope will be more manageable. Teenage students need to feel comfortable when they come into class, especially if speaking is a heavy focus of your lessons – without building rapport, questions are going to be based on very low-level topics such as “what did you do during the weekend”, and “what will you do after school today?” Students who are uncomfortable telling a teacher about their lives, are also going to be uncomfortable talking about this in front of their peers.  Building rapport and motivating students is not something which is easily achieved, but can be worked through over time.

Often one single class will have students of varying levels, so it’s important for students to be able to have something to talk about which interests them. Language they can associate with their own lives or their owns passions will often come a lot more fluidly than topics which are thrust upon them!

The Psychology

American psychologist Carl Rogers (1957) suggests that there are three attitudinal qualities that a teacher can implement when motivating teenage learners, those being empathy, authenticity and acceptance. These are three easy qualities you can express to students by just being yourself! Empathise and lament with students, authenticate your story through visual representations, whether this be photos or videos – keep their mind ticking over, and finally, accept what they tell you! No matter what they say (“I LOVE Britney Spears”), agree! Tell them she is your favourite artist too! This only further consolidates the relationship and encourages further elicitation of language.

IMG_0641Rapport and motivation can be used hand-in-hand, when educating teenagers. Just remember, don’t be afraid to ask the difficult questions. Rapport can be really important for teenage learners, in that the smaller the class size becomes, the more you will need to rely on all students to contribute to discussion. There’s nothing worse than a class of four teenagers where only two want to talk! It’s so important to have the students on your side and to be able to have them open up. I now look forward to my teenage-level lessons because I like to think that I learn as much from the students as they learn from me, so it’s a real win-win situation! There’s nothing better than going in to class and seeing a class full of students bursting to tell you what they read/saw/did in the previous week!


English First – Tianjin China

This school is holding interviews for teaching jobs now, apply today!

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