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Teaching Teenagers: A Rewarding Experience
Sylvia Carolina Gonçalves Torres

Working with teenagers is a challenge teachers face every day either in English courses or regular schools. Discipline problems, lack of motivation, changes in their mood are examples of aspects that make teaching this age group demanding. For these reasons, I've always been interested in how to make this stressful situation better - both for teachers and students.

In order to understand the situation, the first conclusion I got was that I should conduct a survey, to know our students better and to have data to base myself on. Almost all the books we can find in ELT which focus on discipline do not fit our students: Brazilian students have their own characteristics, and we should pay attention to them so that everyone can profit from the classroom experience. Who are our students? What are their likes and dislikes? Only after checking the results could I think about possibilities to improve not only rapport in the classroom, but also their enthusiasm. By working on the results, I could reflect on some aspects of my own teaching , and consequently, I would be able to help other teachers work on their own.

1. Observing physical changes:

It's worth going through some biological factors and changes that happen in this interesting period of life, so that we can understand some of their reactions in class. They're trying to make sense of themselves, so they feel confused and disorganized but , at the same time, powerful and self-sufficient.

By the time girls are 10, estrogen starts working in their bodies, and not only do their bodies start changing(e.g. getting their first period) , but also their moods (Girls tend to become more sensitive).

When boys are 13, they have the highest level of testosterone in the blood system, which makes them more aggressive. Also, it's a time when they are very insecure, for their voices are changing, and so are their bodies.

It's important that teachers, as facilitators, help students through this phase, especially because teenagers won't tell you they need any help- we need to get this "between the lines". They don't like to be treated as kids, and their individuality should be respected. In addition, friends and music are more central than parents or school. It's a period in which relationships are strengthened, and our job as teachers is not to be a "buddy" (they already have many), but to be someone who can set limits and who they can count on. Fostering social values will be of utmost importance, since they are exposed to lots of opportunities for trouble, such as drugs, AIDS, etc.

2. Observing your students

Knowing your students' preferences helps a lot when dealing with them. The first day of classes should be a moment for the teacher to observe some aspects such as: age group, educational background, level of motivation. Having ice-breaking activities in which they can express their feelings would be a good idea.

When I received an Advanced group of 11 students, I imagined they would be interested in talking and discussing subjects, since they were probably fluent. I have to say that I was shocked at the lack of enthusiasm I encountered. They were between the ages of 15 and 18, they came to class systematically late the following weeks, and discussions would take about one minute ( instead of usual 10 to 15 minutes). The positive aspect of the situation was that they had good language skills.

A survey was conducted to check aspects that could be worked on, and I could find out that most of them really enjoyed working in groups, followed by work in pairs and discussions. Half of the class felt that oral reports would be nice. Based on those results, planning a lesson should contain some of those aspects, and some activities provided by the book adopted had to be slightly or sometimes drastically changed. Below, the activities considered the most interesting ones by them:

2.1. Oral Reports

They were asked to choose a topic to present orally and start a discussion. Classes were assigned, and the topics were free. The only recommendation was that they read something in English. There was a variety of issues, from "Rock bands" to "Crocodiles in Africa". The other students were free to ask questions, and the student presenting the topic wouldn't necessarily have to know the answer. This was a good point, because it made their affective filter lower (Krashen) , knowing they didn't need to be experts on the subject chosen.

2.2. Inventions

There was a unit about important inventions, so the focus of the unit was changed- students had to invent something they believed was still missing on Earth. They were also supposed to create an ad for it. Then, we had an election to choose the most creative one. Having a sort of competition made them more enthusiastic about completing the exercise. Also, they were able to use their imagination and create something that made sense to them.

2.3. Definite Articles

Transforming some grammar exercises in game-like activities (Penny Ur) also helps them participate and learn. When working on the Use of Definite Articles (Geographic names), the exercise was made into a Game Show. By answering the questions they were using the Definite Article, and making it more meaningful.

2.4. Complaints

Students were supposed to create dialogues making polite complaints. The book provided four options, but they were not used. The group was separated into 2 : A and B. B's were asked to leave the room. A's received the situation in a card (e.g.: your soup is cold; the T-shirt you bought shrank; you ordered coffee and got tea; your neighbor is playing music too loud), and the instruction was that they wouldn't agree with the solution given by their partners. Outside the classroom, B's received the same situations, and the same instruction. It was a very profitable activity, because they had to politely refuse a solution and think of other possibilities. The solutions found were really intelligent; for example, in the situation about the cold soup, the student who was the waiter refused to take the soup back, because cold soup is much more sophisticated than hot soup!

3. Conclusion

Students were asked to write comments at the end of the semester. Some of the excerpts are mentioned below, without any correction:

"I really like to read articles and discuss in class, it's a little boring, but I could understand that it is important because it can improve our reading and writing."
" We interact a lot with the activities and give our opinion about the topics that are discussed. There's a lot of participation among the students."
" I feel very motivated with our class, especially because we do a lot of activities that make our class less boring."

Their behavior changed throughout the semester: they stopped being late, and stayed after class , to talk about subjects that were not related to the topics discussed. Another big change was the interest they started having in correcting their compositions. They asked to rewrite their texts , while in the beginning of the term it was hard for me to get even the first draft. I believe that it happened because of the contact they had with authentic texts, and then it made them think about their own written production.

When reflecting upon their comments, I didn't take anything personally, especially when they use the words "less boring" , which was found in most of their comments. If we read these words in an adult's point of view, we may get offended. One day, after class, I asked them why they had chosen those specific words, and they were surprised at my question, because that was , in their point of view, a compliment.

The limits established in the beginning were followed throughout the semester, so it was a disciplined classroom, in the sense that they were cooperative, aiming at the same objective (Penny Ur). It means that when working with them we have to be consistent, not lenient, to get their respect. Using English all the time , respecting each other in the class (including the teacher, of course) and deadlines for homework and compositions were rules set and kept until the end of the semester.

Working with teenagers can be a rewarding experience if you give them some room for sharing ideas, talking about their likes and dislikes, listening to what they have to say. If you do so, they will make you understand that being a teenager nowadays is hard, but you, as a teacher, can be part of it and will probably make a difference in their lives.


I would like to thank my Advanced 3 students for their participation and willingness to help me conduct the survey.


Puchta,H. & Schratz, M. (1993). Teaching Teenagers. London. Longman.
Revell, J. & Norman, S. (1997). In Your Hands. London. Saffire Press.
Tiba,I. (1996). Disciplina- O limite na medida certa. São Paulo.Editora Gente.
______.(1998). Ensinar Aprendendo. São Paulo.Editora Gente.
Ur, P. (1996). A Course in Language Teaching. Great Britain. CUP.
Zagury, T. (2000). Limites Sem Trauma. Rio de Janeiro. Record.

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