Wrangling teenagers in class – 3 approaches that can help


The chasm gapes before us, and yet it must be crossed—the gap between teaching teenagers and having teenagers actually learn is daunting. Educators know that just because a teacher teaches, doesn’t mean a learner learns. As students move into their later teenage years, motivation can improve as exams loom, but not for all, and sometimes not enough.

So, the content vehicle that takes information from the classroom into a student’s brain is of utmost importance. Content must be meaningful, memorable and motivating – these three concepts form the standard to which all content in Focus (a five-level upper secondary English course authored by Sue Kay and Vaughan Jones) must therefore measure up. This is easier said than done, of course, so it can be helpful to break the process down into steps that teachers can use every day, both when choosing ready-made materials or creating their own.

Let’s start with motivation

Long-term motivation in language acquisition comes from the moment of comprehension, and comprehension is more likely when a student sees something on the page or on the screen that tweaks their interest. Consider a simple example – the concept of a house.

How we live and where we live are topics almost universally featured in ELT courses. Here’s the sort of thing you might normally find in a textbook or picture dictionary:


Accurate, detailed…and boring.

An alternative (used in Focus) could be:

Hobbit House

This is The Hobbit House, built by Simon Dale for £3000 – he has been living there since 2003. Still accurate, still detailed, but not boring. Certainly not to anyone who has seen The Lord of the Rings. This is the kind of quirkiness that can spark motivation, and even discussion. It’s a bit of extra effort in content creation that can actually make a difference.

So, we’ve closed some of the gap between teaching and learning. To shrink it further (and this is a big one), we must address the issue of memory…

The issue of memory

Paul Nation wrote that ‘various studies create a range of 5-16 encounters with a word for a student to truly acquire it’. That’s a lot of repetition before the information lodges permanently in a student’s brain. Most courses don’t achieve this for all vocab during the cycle of classwork, homework and assessment, because students get tired of rote-learning, or there isn’t enough time.

But how to build vocabulary recycling into a lesson without the tedium of drills? Enter the Word Store. Exercises like this are scattered through the Students’ Book units in Focus, and refer to a 24-page booklet that opens out from inside the Students’ Book back cover:

Word Store 4BArt and music Justic system

Students are taking vocabulary notes in the Word Store booklet as they go, with guidance from the coursebook. There are visual aids to help the words, their meanings and relationships stick in students’ memories.

The Web has produced some lovely tools for embedding vocabulary learning, particularly the relationships between different forms of words. Visuwords, for example, is fun to use in class. Search for a single word and watch its common phrases, collocations and participles generate and multiply across the screen. Then mouse over the entries for dictionary definitions.

There are so many other ways that Focus’ content and structure enhances memory – digital practice in MyEnglishLab, Grammar Animations to link grammar concepts with visual cues and stories, to name a couple – but there isn’t room to go into it all here. Instead, let’s take the final step across our teaching and learning divide to land on the other side – using the power of meaning.

The power of meaning

Meaningful content and meaningful practice have been startlingly absent from language learning in the past. Language teachers are unfortunately familiar with the kind of thing Focus author Vaughan Jones calls ‘invented, form-based nonsense’ – lessons like the below:

Lesson one

A useful exercise for someone unwisely tempted to apply a cigarette lighter to a horse, perhaps, but otherwise absurd.

Even something apparently reasonable can seem inauthentic to a learner:

Complete the questions

Which waitress? In which country? The student’s country, or Britain? Who is Dick? Who is Harry and why is he complaining? Just shut up, Harry. Even something apparently harmless like this has no place in the ELT classroom. It has no relevance or link to students’ lives; it is language for language’s sake. It is not meaningful.

Consider an alternative, from Focus:

Complete the questions 2

The syllabus items covered are the same – ‘Make and Do’ – but the content is personal. It relates back to the student’s individual experience. Communication is taking place – the kind of communication that a student might actually need to use in an exam or an English-speaking country.

The gap between teaching and learning is daunting; educators face it bravely every day. With motivation, memory and meaning in a course, they can confidently close it.

Learn more about Focus at www.pearsonelt.com/focus.

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