Teaching Teenagers

Why teens are different and why it matters when you teach them. Download the article and slides here.

“The best substitute for experience is being sixteen.” ~Raymond Duncan

Teaching teenagers is often the dread of many language teachers. In America, middle school teachers have an alarming professional dropout rate and the frustrations are evident if one talks with any teacher teaching teens. Consider these teachers’ comments from a podcast on teaching English to teenagers

“I am teaching a class of teenagers for the first time but I find it difficult to get through to them. They are so unmotivated compared to adults.”

“I’ve found that when I’ve taught a good group of teens, it’s been really good, but when I got a bad group? I don’t want to remember!”

“It’s so difficult that (getting them to study outside of school), isn’t it? “We” know that you get along much faster if you do some self-study, but teens don’t get it.” (Harmer, 2003 pp. 1-5)

Frustration and classroom management issues take precedence over learning. Why is this so? Is it true they really don’t care? Or is it something to do with who they are and how they encounter classroom learning? We need to examine the reasons for teen “apathy” and also how teachers might better adapt their pedagogy to this very unique age group.

Teenagers are different. They are not children nor are they adults. They bring to the classroom and the learning situation a very unique set of cognitive, emotional, and social factors which teachers must consider when delivering content. They learn differently, they are “wired” differently. This paper will outline some of the major unique features of the teenage learner and most importantly, suggest what they mean for the language teacher.


A quick review of second language acquisition literature shows a startling dearth of attention to this very important age group. Most comparative studies focus on children and adults to the neglect of the teenage learner. Teenagers are just “sort of in the middle”. When attention is paid to teenagers, it is mostly about pedagogy and how to “entertain” them, not how they learn a language differently. Other times it is with exaggerated claims. For example, that teen laziness and emotional “angst” is because of genetic or developmental differences (small frontal cortex). In fact there is no evidence to suggest such (Epstein, 2007, p. 60).

Age And Second Language Acquisition

There is a popular misconception (even among teachers) that children are better at languages. In fact, there is no real “innateness” about language and even children have to learn language (Singleton, 1999 pg. 56) In general, adult learners are much better at the initial learning of language (Gaas , Selinker 2001, p. 336) because of their conscious metalinguistic skills but children perform better in the later stages of language acquisition (obtaining vocabulary, accent, patterning). This may be because of great plasticity and natural acquisition strategies in the young brain. Risk-taking and affective factors also play a part. In any case, it can be said that the apparent “ease” by which children learn language is because of the immense opportunity they have and also the amount of time they can spend “learning” and not from greater ability.

I argue teenagers have the best of both worlds. They still have a very flexible and still developing cognitive network. Yet, they also have more “conscious” control of language and the ability to categorize, manipulate and test logically, the language they encounter.

Recently, a good deal of attention has been paid to teenagers as digital learners or as Prensky ( 2001) in his seminal paper labeled it, “Digital Natives”. Teenagers learn differently, they have hypertext minds. They don’t learn in a linear fashion anymore. Images are the driving force of learning and text supports. Experience teaches and changes or “trains” their brain as they spend hours upon hours using computers, watching video, text messaging. This too often is not considered by the language teacher.

The Teenage Language Learner – Unique Characteristics

In so many ways, teenagers are like all learners. They respond to different forms of motivation, they take in language and try to make sense of it, and they struggle with pronunciation and remembering vocabulary……. Still, there are some very important differences (mostly in the affective realm) that need to be highlighted and noted so that teachers can adjust their curriculum.

Learner Autonomy

Teenagers are ego-driven. They are becoming adults and want more control over the learning situation. Their world revolves around one question; “What does it mean to ME?”. Anderson ( 2008) sees a need to let students have more choices and begin to take responsibility for their own learning. Harmer (2003 p.1) states;
“Get them to write the questions, cut-up texts (a bit too primary – like sometimes), and write their own grammar exercises. I mean somehow getting the ownership of the material over to them……put them in the center of the frame.

Harris ( 1991, pp. 1-5 ) suggests many ways how to get students more “into the frame”. These include; giving them roles to help the teacher and the class, highlighting students in a positive fashion and using rewards.

Teenagers learn language because it is meaningful to them. Children learn language because they have a natural affinity and also there is evidence of a deep need. Adults learn languages for many intrinsic reasons (and this may be a reason why they can be so good at learning languages, all things considered). Teenagers learn a language not only for marks but because it is meaningful. Relating the rationale and purpose of language learning is a must with teenagers. As well, a thematic curriculum should be developed that centers on their interests and their world. Presentations, role plays, and projects are all language activities that give learners more autonomy.

It should be noted here that it is very difficult to learn a second language in “a class”. There just aren’t enough hours in the school year and the classroom is also a very artificial and many times “wasteful” language learning environment. Giving students more autonomy also means giving them more opportunity to become independent learners. Teachers should direct students to resources for learning outside the classroom and provide them with these opportunities. In the present age of telephony, this will become increasingly the case with successful language classrooms. Students can learn much more efficiently by themselves through input and the classroom can be time for more social and instructional focus on language.

The Cool Factor

Teenagers are forming their social identity. As such, they are heavily influenced by their peer groups (Waqui , 2000) . Learners of a second language want to “belong” and not be “strange”. Speaking in a foreign language can be a scary experience and very necessary comprehensible output can be hard to achieve. Teachers must be sensitive to this and spend much time creating a very warm, inviting and risk-taking atmosphere in the classroom. Teachers need to reflect upon the activities they undertake in the second language classroom and ask themselves – “Does it help or hinder peer bonding?”

Group work is essential and a less teacher-centered delivery method a must. Teenagers along with control, want to learn in and by their peer group. Social networking and Web 2.0 tools are a big help for computer literate language teachers in this area. Teachers need to move toward more richly interactive language use and more cooperative learning.

The social nature of learning will only grow in importance. Teenagers are much more “social learners” and networking will become a larger focus of the learning paradigm. Chaos theory and everything being related to everything – knowledge growing exponentially – new technology that allows us to be “everywhere”, this will all change how we learn and live. The burgeoning field of “connection” will also play a part in describing this changing world (Siemens, 2005).

Learner Anxiety

The downside of the “cool factor” is learner anxiety. Language learning can be traumatic and frustrating. Learners very often suffer from acute anxiety which affects acquisition and leads to fossilization. Many studies have concluded that anxiety and achievement are negatively correlated. (MacIntyre and Gardner, 1994). Hoffman (1986, p. 261) suggests, “affect can determine the extent to which semantic and non-semantic modes of processing are brought into play”.

Na (2003) in her study of high school students in China, found significant anxiety negatively correlated with achievement. Boys suffered more and it often became a vicious circle (anxiety – low achievement – more anxiety – low achievement ……). She suggests teachers plan appropriately and focus on making a positive classroom environment (no negative evaluations, less error correction, no ranking, less test focus, allowing students to express their own views).

Anxiety depends on the language learning situation students encounter (Gass, p. 357 ). It is situational and depends on a multitude of factors. For example, in some classrooms competition and games may be seen as “anxiety producers” whereas in others, they may be a very beneficial way to foster language acquisition. Best practices would dictate that we give our learners the 2nd language anxiety survey (appendix) in their L1 to see if anxiety is indeed, a serious issue.

The “NOW” factor

Nothing dampens the spirit of the teenage learner more than drudgy, old, 30-year-old language learning materials. Teenagers crave “the new” and “the now”, driven as they are by peer socialization. Content should be up to date and authentic materials promoted. Further, teachers should students more opportunity to produce materials in their classrooms and thus “ensure” current content.

We are only just now starting to understand the brain and recent efforts in SLA research into connectivism may shed light on how teenagers use their brain and learn a language. They crave rich and multimodal content. An adult might not like all the sensory input that a teenager would.

Prensky (2001, p. 3) elaborates; Children raised with the computer “think differently from the rest of us. They develop hypertext minds. They leap around. It’s as though their cognitive structures were parallel, not sequential.”

Oblinger (2005, p.16) notes a number of differences with the “Net Generation”:

Visual – ability to read visual images
Visual-Spatial skills – integrate the virtual and real
Inductive Discovery – find the answers on their own
Attentional Deployment – shift attention quickly, focus on only what concerns them.
Quick Response Time – reply quickly and work quickly

These have important implications for the second language instructor.

|Teenagers ’ brains are quite malleable and instructors need to provide very “rich” content. Text to Speech and video/music is essential for not only motivating teenagers with the “new” but also allowing them to learn effectively. Instructors should limit activity time (Anderson, 2008). Language teachers should use more media and visual content to assist learning. More control should be given to students in terms of what they wish to study. Games will become an important component of any future successful language learning curriculum.

The “Romantic” Learner

Teenagers respond to the “humanistic” learning environment. They are very idealistic and emotions seem to dominate their character. “ Loving at one moment, monsters at the next”, as one teacher put it. Waqui (2000, p.3) suggests that the success of a language teacher is partly in being a good, empathetic role model. Learners will respond to a teacher that cares, especially teenage learners who carry a romantic spirit and crave authenticity, personality and presence over content.

The affective filter can also be reduced by giving students an emotional attachment to language and words (Harmer 2006, p. 58). Language is best retained when it has personal relevance and teachers can foster this. Further, as the preeminent psychologist Carl Rogers noted, “learners need to feel what they are learning is personally relevant to them, that they have to experience learning (not being taught) and that their self-image needs to be enhanced”.

Taking care of the affective side of the teaching equation can be a huge task. Further, it should not be done at the expense of attention to the cognitive and intellectual development of the equation. Still, it can be accomplished through a teacher that shares their life with the students and also encourages language learning through personal growth and sharing. Anything creative is a proven classroom winner for the teenager “romantic” learner.


I have briefly outlined some important considerations for teachers when teaching teens. Teenagers crave autonomy (and there are some critics who see the problems of the teen years as arising from restricting teenagers and delaying their adulthood (Epstein, 2004) ), they also want to be “cool” and desire “new” materials. Teens also need much peer interaction. Personalization of content and delivery is essential and attention must also be paid to the “anxiety” levels of language learners.

The future is like a double-edged sword for today’s teenage students. The world is changing under their feet. Will technology and rich content enable them to learn languages much quicker than traditionally? Or will it be a crutch, decreasing motivation, full of translators and “help” and allow them no “drive” and need to learn the language?

We should certainly hope for the former.


Anderson, Gary, (2008), “Teaching Teenagers English”, English in Mind, Cambridge Univ. Press, Retrieved Aug. 01, 2008, http://www.cambridge.org/elt/englishinmind/teacher_resources/teaching_teenagers.htm Driscoll, M. (2000). Psychology of Learning for Instruction. Needham Heights, MA, Allyn & Bacon. Epstein, Robert, (2007) “The Myth of the Teen Brain”. Scientific American Mind, pg 57-63.

Epstein, Robert,. (2004), The End of Adolescence. Philip Graham. Oxford University Press.

Gardner, R., and Lambert, W. (Eds.) (1972). Attitudes and motivation in second language learning. Rowley, MA: Newbury House.

Gass, M. Susan and Selinker, Larry. (2001). Second Language Acquisition, an introductory course, London., Lawrence Erlbaum Associates,

Harley, B. (1986). Age in second language acquisition. London: Multilingual Matters

Harmer, Jeremy,. (2006). The Practice of English Language Teaching, 4th Edition, Essex, Pearson Longman.

Harris, Robert,. (1991) Some Ideas for motivating students, Retrieved Aug. 01, 2008, https://www.virtualsalt.com/mla.htm

Hoffman, M.L., (1986), Affect, cognition and motivation. In R.M. Sorrentino & E.T.

Higgins (Eds.), Handbook of motivation and cognition (pp.244-280). New York, Guilford.

Jeremy Harmer,.“Teaching Teenagers”, ELT Forum, Sept. 2003. Retrieved August 01, 2008 from https://www.eltforum.com/articles/free/transcripts/23.pdf

Little, D. (1999). “ Developing learner autonomy in the foreign language classroom: a social-interactive view of learning and three fundamental pedagogical principles”, Revista Canaria de Estudios Ingleses 38: 77-88. Marc Prensky, “Do They Really Think Differently?”, On the Horizon,. MCB University Press, 9(6), 1-6. Dec. 2001.

Marc Prensky, “Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants”, On the Horizon,. MCB University Press, 9(5), 1-5. Oct. 2001

Na, Zhao., (2003) “A Study of High School Students’ English Learning Anxiety.”, Asian EFL Journal 9 (3) Article 2,

Oblinger, G. Diane and Oblinger, L. James, (2005), “Educating the Net Generation”, Educause.

Rogers, C., (1969) Freedom to Learn, Charles Merrill.

Siemens, George,. (2005) Connectivism: A learning theory for the digital age, Retrieved Aug. 01, 2008, https://www.itdl.org/Journal/Jan_05/article01.htm

Singleton, David,. (1989), “Language Acquisition, The Age Factor.”, Multilingual Matters, Avon, England. Twyford, Charles William,. (1988), “Age-Related Factors in Second Language Acquisition”, NCBE Winter (2) 1- 9.

Walqui, A. (2000). Contextual Factors in Second Language Acquisition. Washington D.C., Center for Applied Linguistics

Appendix 1

12 Things To Keep In Mind When Teaching Teenagers. – Gary Anderson

  1. It seems that all teenagers are interested in pop songs, so exploit that interest by bringing music – and the feelings that can be expressed through songs – into the classroom.
  2. Teenagers (perhaps especially the current need-to-know generation) like to be seen as cool and up-to-date, so bring in topics of current interest from IT, sport, entertainment and media, and English-speaking cultures that is personally relevant to your learners.
  3. Teenagers are discovering (often with difficulty) a different relationship with others and group work allows individuals to interact with different classmates in a less stressful, collaborative atmosphere.
  4. Teenagers are starting to define their proper personalities (sometimes it seems they have multiple personalities!) and role-play activities can allow them to try to express different feelings behind non-threatening, face-saving masks.
  5. Part of growing up is taking responsibility for one’s acts and, in school, for one’s learning, so a measure of learner autonomy and individual choice can be helpful for teenagers.
  6. It’s amazing how some teenagers will have an almost encyclopedic knowledge of a particular field, so let individual students bring their outside interests and knowledge into the classroom through cross-curricular work.
  7. Variety – including surprise and humor – is the spice of classroom life (perhaps particularly with teenagers and their infamously short attention span), so try out different warmers, starters and fillers to change the pace and enliven the organization of your lessons.
  8. Teenagers are discovering their (often awkward) bodies so use movement by giving students an opportunity to move around during class.
  9. Teaching in secondary school often means teaching multi-level classes, but effective classroom management can help even with very large classes.
  10. Use of the mother tongue (L1) can not only steer a whole class activity away from misunderstanding, confrontation and potential discipline problems (always a risk with teenagers), but also help avoid pressure on an individual by removing the impression that one person is being tested and put on the spot.
  11. Games can provide not only purposeful contexts in which to use language but they also stimulate interaction, provide competition and are fun – as long as rules are clear and clearly followed by all participants.
  12. Project work offers each individual a chance to use their individual talent to do something personally meaningful and motivating with the language they are learning – and the resulting posters and other visuals can be displayed around the classroom (just as teenagers decorate their rooms at home).
Extracted from – https://www.cambridge.org/elt/englishinmind/teacher_resources/teaching_teenagers.htm


Appendix 2

English version of FLCAS (Foreign Language Classroom Anxiety Scale)

1. I never feel quite sure of myself when I am speaking in my foreign language class.

2. I don’t worry about making mistakes in language class.

3. I tremble when I know that I’m going to be called on in language class.

4. It frightens me when I don’t understand what the teacher is saying in a foreign language.

5. It wouldn’t bother me at all to take more foreign language classes.

6. During language class, I find myself thinking about things that have nothing to do with the course.

7. I keep thinking that the other students are better at languages than I am.

8. I am usually at ease during tests in my language class.

9. I start to panic when I have to speak without preparation in language class.

10. I worry about the consequences of failing my foreign language class.

11. I don’t understand why some people get so upset over foreign language classes.

12. In language class, I can get so nervous when I forget things I know.

13. It embarrasses me to volunteer answers in my language class.

14. It would not be nervous speaking in a foreign language with native speakers.

15. I get upset when I don’t understand what the teacher is correcting.

16. Even if I am well prepared for a language class, I feel anxious about it.

17. I often feel like not going to my language class.

18. I feel confident when I speak in a foreign language class.

19. I am afraid that my language teacher is ready to correct every mistake I make.

20. I can feel my heart pounding when I’m going to be called on in language class.

21. The more I study for a language test, the more confused I get.

22. I don’t feel pressure to prepare very well for a language class.

23. I always feel that the other students speak the language better than I do.

24. I feel very self-conscious about speaking a foreign language in front of other students.

25. Language class move so quickly I worry about getting left behind.

26. I feel more tense and nervous in my language class than in my other classes.

27. I get nervous and confused when I am speaking in my language class.

28.When I’m on my way to language class, I feel very sure and relaxed.

29. I get nervous when I don’t understand every word the language teacher says.

30. I feel overwhelmed by the number of rules you have to learn to speak a foreign language.

31. I am afraid that the other students will laugh at me when I speak the foreign language.

32. I would probably feel comfortable around native speakers of the foreign language.

33. I get nervous when the language teacher asks questions which I haven’t prepared in advance.

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