Teaching family

Teaching family lexis is easy, right? Just draw a family tree, label it up, bish bash bosh. But what if you’re teaching a class of learners in which a child or young person has been bereaved, or whose parents are going through a messy divorce? What about those from LGBT families? Maybe it’s not that simple after all.

The most important thing is to be aware of your students’ lives and situations, and adapt your teaching to that. Most of us will have at least a couple of students in class with “non-traditional” home setups, and it’s our responsibility to be sensitive to that. Of course, that doesn’t mean we should pry into family business, but most families will usually communicate major upheavals or issues to the school. 

Possible options


There are some simple ways to include all students in lessons about family vocabulary. One of the most simple is to use your own family, which may look more or less “traditional”. If using your own family is inappropriate or not possible in your context, then I would recommend taking some well-known families from popular TV series and using them to structure an example family tree. Try to find examples of “traditional” families, blended or extended families, LGBT families and multi-generational families. Of course, you will need to adjust and select depending on your location and the needs and experiences of your students.  For those teaching CLIL, we can look to history to find a multitude of examples of families of differing configurations – Henry VIII’s marital saga springs immediately to mind here. If you’d like to profit off the interest in Netflix’s The Crown, then looking to the royal family tree from the Queen down would also be very fruitful and demonstrate several blended families.

Once you have presented the relationships and done whatever language work you have in mind, students may be given the option to research and draw up the family tree of another famous fictional or historical family, or if they are comfortable, their own family.

A science-front approach

Some learners may be interested in looking at family trees from a more scientific perspective. In this case, we also get to use pictures of dogs, which is both cute and informative. By compiling a family tree of, for example, a mother labrador and a father poodle, we can see that the daughter or son is a labradoodle. There are lots of options here, and it could develop into an interesting research project for learners.

In this way, we are able to teach biological family relations and genetic heredity while avoiding forcing students to directly associate this lexical area with their own family situation. Of course, if students are interested and happy to do so, it would be a wonderful opportunity for personalisation. Which traits have they inherited from their parents and grandparents? Have their brothers and sisters inherited different traits? The depth of detail will of course depend on the age and level of your learners, and their interest in the topic.

Those are just a couple of simple alternatives to get you thinking about teaching family. What have you found to be successful when approaching this topic? Have you ever had any unexpected disasters the you’ve learned a hard lesson from? Let us know in the comments.

Teaching teens: dealing with challenging behaviour

One of the main areas of challenge in teaching teenagers is that of behaviour. I have covered some long-term strategies on improving classroom atmosphere, which will in turn improve behaviour. However, in this post, I want to focus more on specific strategies for teachers to deal with unacceptable behaviour when it does come up. Which it will. Quite often! There’s a more in-depth discussion on why teenage learners want to push the boundaries here.

Defining the acceptable

It’s important to start your course off by defining what you as the teacher and the you as a class think is acceptable or unacceptable. Depending on the age of the students, you might want to try:

  • Class contracts. This is a strategy I use with younger teens. They are allowed to choose five rules for themselves (no eating in the classroom, no phones unless specified by the teacher etc) and two reasonable rules for the teacher (no shouting, not more than 2 pages of homework…). We then create the contract on a large paper and sign it; teacher included.
  • Small group/whole class discussion (depending on the size of your class). This is a similar concept, but more loosely structured. I tend to go this route with teenagers aged 15 and up, as they can see the physical contract as being a bit babyish. They discuss their experiences in other schools and talk about what they feel is acceptable and unacceptable behaviour for both students and teachers. Then, we agree to hold ourselves to our own standards throughout the year. Of course, they will need reminding of this when they misbehave!

Defining consequences

When it comes to following rules at school, there should always be consequences of some sort. The scale of those consequences is up to you, but I would avoid using the ‘nuclear options’ of calling parents about bad behaviour, sending the student to the head teacher/director and so on for those occasions where it is really necessary. Try to achieve compliance with the rules by the most minimal means possible –  then, you always have somewhere else to go should the situation continue.

Consequences may not always mean a reprimand. Consequences could be a neutral stare (or a hard stare as the next step), changing your position in the room to stand next to the misbehaving student or calmly and quietly saying their name.

When dealing with more serious misbehaviour, work your way along your ‘consequences scale’, from minimal to nuclear, as appropriate. It is essential to tell learners what the consequences will be at each stage of misbehaviour. Calmly signpost what’s coming up: “Lara, if you continue to interfere with Maria’s work, you will move seat. If you stop, you can remain where you are. Thank you.” Teenagers have a very heightened sense of what is unjust, so giving advance warning and clear reasoning will help avoid escalation and cries of “That’s not fair!”. Give the student a choice: continue and accept the consequences, or stop and we’ll move on. If the student chooses to continue, then the result of their action can’t be argued against. They chose it.

Just as negative behaviour has consequences, so should positive. Don’t forget to reward those who follow the rules. Of course, when dealing with teenagers, we can’t simply hand out stickers, as with children. Verbal feedback is usually well-received, such as a simple “Thank you for your hard work today, Sara”, or “Good job today Ivan, great focus”.


Teenagers love having attitude. It’s their favourite. However, as the teacher and the adult in the room, it’s essential to rise above it. When learners smirk, slam doors or roll their eyes, it is done entirely to provoke a reaction from you. Stay calm. As long as your request is followed, the eye rolls can be ignored until another time. Reprimanding learners for one thing, then adding on more and more ‘attitude’ issues will do absolutely nothing other than provoke more attitude and more problems. Treat the original issue and move on. The other learners will see that you can’t be goaded into shouting or otherwise flying off the handle, and the level of attitude given should gradually reduce.

Try to discern between ‘bad attitude’ and ‘young people having fun and trying to make their friends and/or the teacher laugh’. I’m a big believer in using humour and building rapport with learners to improve behaviour. It’s a huge part of positive relationships, so don’t be afraid of it.

Management tips

Here are a few quick and easy management strategies to deal with various levels of misbehaviour in the classroom:

Minor issues

  • Ignore attention-seeking behaviour.
  • Look at the student with a neutral stare – no frown, no judgement.
  • Give your best ‘teacher look’: a hard stare, perhaps over glasses with arched eyebrows.
  • Stand next to or behind the student who won’t stop talking.
  • Say the student’s name, fairly quietly. It’s surprising how well this catches the attention, even in a pretty noisy room.
  • Count down from 5 or 10. There should be silence by the time you reach 0.
  • Give an intentional fake cough to bring the students’ attention back to you.
  • Put a hand gently on the edge of the learner’s desk furthest away from them and quietly but purposefully say “Thank you”.
  • Humour/sarcasm. This one can be incredibly effective, but must be handled with extreme care. It is important, above all, that the student doesn’t feel shamed or humiliated. I would recommend only using humorous reprimands with classes and students you know extremely well, who appreciate that kind of interaction with their teacher. If in doubt, only ever make jokes at your own expense.

Moderate issues

  • Crouch down to the student’s level or lower. Quietly explain why their behaviour needs to change and explain the related consequence if they continue. Thank them, smile and stand up, continue the lesson.
  • Move learners to seats away and – importantly – out of the eye line of friends/collaborators in mischief.
  • Sit and work with the misbehaving learner until they are back on task.
  • If the misbehaviour continues, follow through with the given consequence and explain why you’re doing it. “Jonas, I asked you to put your phone away. You have decided not to do that, so, as I said before, I need you to give it to me to lock away until the end of class. Thank you.”

Major issues

  • Loss of privileges where appropriate, e.g no longer allowed to keep their phone in their bag during the lesson for the next week/month, but must give it to the teacher at the start of class.
  • Holding back a learner after the lesson for a private discussion of their unacceptable behaviour.
  • Calling parents. When using the threat of calling parents, be aware of the learner’s home situation. Do the parents agree with the school’s idea of acceptable behaviour, or will they brush off the reports from school? Are there any difficult family dynamics the school is aware of that may be exacerbated by contact from the school?
  • Exiting the classroom. This is a tricky one to manage, as it needs to be handled very calmly, and the student must have somewhere supervised to go and work to do. Try to avoid this as much as possible, as some learners actively want to leave the classroom. It may also undermine your authority as it indicates that the teacher cannot control a particular student.


Have you ever had difficulty dealing with bad behaviour in the classroom? What strategies did you use to overcome it?

Accents and stereotypes in the UK

I was recently asked to give a guest lesson on accents, following on from something the main class teacher had done in the previous lesson. This was something new for me, as it was in a public high school with 25 students instead of the maximum of 16 I have been used to in the private language schools I’ve worked at. It’s also more of a socio-cultural lesson than a straight language focused lesson, however there are multiple stages in which you could provide feedback and input for whatever your learners need guidance with.  For this lesson you will need access to the internet as there are several videos linked to demonstrate the various accents.

The lesson

  1. As this was the first lesson I did with this class, I started off with a ‘getting to know me’-type activity. However, this is also a good review of question forms and can be used to lead into the discussion of accents. If you prefer, you can skip this and add in a different lead-in or warmer activity. Anything you like, as long as it allows to to segue into talking about accents.Divide the learners into small groups. Ask them to come up with 5 questions they want to ask you about yourself. There are no restrictions on what they can ask, but of course it has to be appropriate. Sit in a far corner of the room and allow each group to send an envoy to you one at a time. They ask you their questions. Answer them only if they are grammatically correct. The envoy goes back to their group and they write down the answers. Usually, every group, or at least most of them, will ask you where you are from. Tell each group something different. When the groups have asked you all their questions, tell them that one piece of information you gave each of them was incorrect. The groups send messengers to the other groups to find the lie. Once they’ve all discovered the misinformation, you can ask them to decide where they think you’re from, based on your accent. They may be able to get the country, and if they’ve spent time in your country they may well be able to guess something close to your geographical location.NOTE: I speak with (more or less) standard modern RP, which I used later in the lesson as a possible answer to questions about accent stereotypes. If you have a different accent, feel free to use your own, or you could include an example video of someone speaking RP to give learners an idea of what it sounds like.
  2. Introduce the idea that today’s lesson will be on accents. Using the first page of the handout below, learners try to match the accent locations to be studied with their geographical position in the UK. They majority of students will not know all of these locations, and that’s fine – it’s just to get the ball rolling. When they’re done, elicit their ideas and add them to slide 1 of the presentation, which you can find below.
  3. Move to slide 2 and show learners the real locations for each accent. Give them some time to compare their ideas to the map of locations and go through any concerns or surprising information.
  4. Move to slide 3 and give out page 2 of the handout below. Keep the handout folded over so that learners can only see the table, and not the secondary questions. Remind them not to unfold the paper! Go through the table, explaining that learners should give a value from 1-5 of how easy the accent is to understand and how ‘intelligent’ they think it sounds, as well as a simple yes or no about whether they would like to speak with this accent.
  5. Play each video from the google slides. I have cued up the videos to begin at an appropriate place, but it’s up to you how much of the video you want to play. I usually try for around a minute, to give enough time for learners to make judgements, but not so long that they get bored.
  6. Learners then compare notes in pairs or small groups. The teacher should take this time to monitor, making notes for feedback on language and ideas.
  7. Using your monitoring notes, board some examples of sentences that could be improved in some way. Depending on the level of you learners, this could be correcting errors, or it could be adding in extra detail or upgrading language and structure choices. Take this opportunity to feed in some topic-specific vocabulary if your learners are lacking it. It could be ways of describing accents or the impressions that accents give. I usually have learners work in pairs to improve the language and then come together in plenary to elicit and discuss ideas.
  8. From slide 12, take ideas in plenary from the class on the accent they best think fits the stereotype given. You can find answers to these questions in the attached Teachers’ notes.
  9. Learners then unfold their handouts and, in groups, discuss the questions. Again, the teacher should monitor and make notes of good ideas to feed back to the class, use of language previously introduced in the previous feedback and input stage, and and other language errors you feel need to be addressed.
  10. Using your notes, have one final feedback stage. Be careful to balance the areas for improvement and the positive things you heard. You want to end on a high!



Documents for download.

Student handout: Accents
Teacher notes: Accents
Google slides with video: Accents

Teaching Teens: Love/Hate

Click here to see the overview of this series, and links to other posts on the topic.

The ‘Marmite’ Group

Teenagers are probably the most divisive age group in teaching ELT. Many teachers tolerate teens without ever truly enjoying teaching them, while others actively dislike having to teach them at all. And some of us love them! To me, it is such a shame that not all teachers can see the joy of teaching adolescents. Teenagers can be the most energising group to teach, as they are going through such major changes in life and developing their personalities and perspectives.

This blog post aims to move us all a little closer to the positive end of the spectrum by looking at why teenagers can sometimes be so hard to love, and how we can cope with that.

Why are they just so infuriating?

This is a common complaint from teachers struggling to maintain discipline and a good rapport with their teenage learners. The answer lies in a mix of of brain development, personality and self-image.

Brain development
The brain is still developing until at least the age of 24, and likely into our 30s. In teenagers, the rational areas of the brain dealing with judgement, self-regulation and conscious decision-making are underdeveloped in comparison to the emotional areas. While teenagers logically understand that their behaviour in any certain moment is not acceptable, the pull of risky, ‘fun’ behaviour can often overcome that logic.

Further to this, the dominance of this emotional side of their brain can make reading others’ emotions – both facial expressions and tone of voice – very difficult. This is why some learners may not respond to our tried and tested ‘teacher look’, or they may appear ignorant of the emotions their classmates may be, in our view, clearly expressing.

Teenage self image is closely related to their brain development. You have probably noticed those learners who try to get your attention through high performance, jumping to answer questions, or by acting out as the class clown or causing arguments. Conversely, there are those who try their absolute best to blend into the furniture. Different again are those students whose personality and attitude seems to shift with the wind.

Each of these emotional presentations could be a result of student reactions to things happening at home, school, with friends or simply having a bad day. Managing emotions and how to present them is a learning curve made harder by both brain development stages and hormonal changes. The social pressures of teenage life also cause problems of self image and resultant behavioural issues. There’s a fine balance to be found between being different and interesting, but not too different – and that’s tough even for adults to manage.

What can we do?

It’s very frustrating as a teacher to respond to these behaviours in a productive way, but we can actually use the teenage brain to our advantage.

Lesson structure
The adolescent desire to take risks means that they can be far more confident language learners than many adults. They have an easier time experimenting with language and respond well to positive correction. This means they often enjoy task based learning with cycles of action and input, or project based learning for similar reasons. Try to move away from basic grammar presentations and switch up the style of your lessons where you can.

When giving feedback, keep it until the end of a speaking task, and try to ensure the language you select can be kept as anonymous as possible – this might mean changing a detail in the utterance, but shouldn’t alter the structure of the phrase. Ask learners how they could improve the sentences – not just by correcting grammar, but by switching up vocabulary to boost the level. They could also extend the phrases by adding in adjectives or adverbs, replacing Latinate verbs with phrasal verbs where appropriate, or combining two sentences using a relative clause. You can shift the focus to whatever you think is necessary to improve students’ communicative capabilities. They can do this in small groups, coming together in plenary to share ideas when they are confident in their ideas.

One major area to work on is building rapport and creating a positive classroom environment. The change has to come from us, the teachers, as it will not be student-led. Click here for more information and advice on building good rapport with learners.

Focus on the positives
It has been shown that positive reinforcement has a far better effect on behaviour and motivation than negative reinforcement. Teen students who, for whatever reason, are constantly receiving negative reinforcement – “why are you always late, you never listen, why can’t you just sit down, you never do your work, you are so rude” – are more likely to behave poorly. Of course we have to manage poor behaviour, but when learners feel they are being judged harshly, this can stimulate a ‘why bother if I’m just going to get told off anyway’ attitude.

Try to focus on the positives. If students do their homework, recognise that. If students manage to sit and quietly read for 5 minutes when they usually manage 2, praise them. When your student who tries to hide behind her hair gives an answer, tell her she’s done really well! Step by step, you should see progress.

Tune into your learners’ (and your) moods
The classroom is a dynamic environment. It’s constructed between you and your students, changing with your moods and development. As the adult in the room, it’s your responsibility to stay attentive to the mood of your learners. Are they acting weird? Are they hyperactive because they’ve had a pack of sweets in their break time, or are they hyperactive because they’re over tired? Are they near-silent zombies towards the end of the term? Awareness of this means building in a certain flexibility to your lessons, for example adding in some movement or taking it out, rearranging the structure of your lessons or altering the seating plan.

Equally, your own emotions enter the room with you, even if you manage to put on a good ‘game face’ in the classroom. It’s not a bad thing to let learners know you’re struggling, if it’s something you feel comfortable with. For example, over the winter I had a disaster with a 4:00am exploding boiler and a flooded flat. I went to work the next day and put a few phrases related to the incident on the board as follows:

read book late


bang on door

water everywhere


angry neighbour


Learners then had to reconstruct the events of the night using a variety of past tenses. This helped with language, but also humanised me as a teacher to them and explained my bedraggled appearance and the low-key nature of the lesson itself.

Secure relationships are based on trust, safety and respect. To have a positive experience teaching teens and bring out the best in them, learners have to:

  • Trust you to respect their boundaries
  • Feel safe in your classroom, both physically and mentally
  • Feel respected – both in their interests and personality. An introvert should not be expected to become an extrovert in a second language, for example.

It’s important to be firm but fair. Teens are highly sensitive to the concept of fairness, so this is a key tool in setting up the classroom to help you on your way to enjoying the time you have with them. There are many ways you could go about this, but it is essential to spend a little time going over your expectations of the learners. Make clear what is acceptable and what is not.

Negotiating rules
You could put up some rules on the wall and refer back to them when needed. This gives everyone a clear, visible reference point to help in times of bad behaviour, and provide praise when the learners are doing well. One option is to use a classroom contract where learners set five rules for themselves, and two for the teacher. Giving them the control over what the rules are is usually a welcome responsibility. This works well as a pyramid activity. You can put learners in small groups of four. They then combine into groups of eight and pick the best rules from the two groups. This pairing of groups continues until you have one final class contract document, which you all sign and display in a prominent place.

I have never had any learners seriously try to come up with obstructive or silly rules. The class always comes together to produce sensible, interesting rules which tell you a lot about them and what they think makes a positive learning environment.

And finally…

Always remember that however frustrating teenagers can be, that is the exact same reason why they can also be so dynamic, fun and interesting. Most of the time teenage acting out is something they are fully aware of doing, and they may be trying to get a rise out of you. Sticking to your guns, trying to stay calm and following your agreed rules and procedures should reduce the frequency for this kind of outburst. Try to stay positive and don’t forget to reward good behavioural examples. Most importantly of all, try to embrace the fun times! Get them to demonstrate the latest dance craze to you; let them explain the hilarious meme they found in their L1 to you in English, and so on.

Some classes will be more of a challenge than others, as in every age group. Thinking of your learners as individuals, rather than ‘that awful teenage group’ is often enough to cause a shift in your own attitude that learners – with their emotional brains – can sense.

Let me know if you’ve had a journey leading you to enjoy the experience of teaching teenagers – what did you you to move into a more positive space?

Teaching Teens: Interested or creepy?

It’s natural to want to have a good relationship with our students. Positive rapport enhances the mood in the room and sets the stage for learning. However, it is essential that in our efforts to cultivate this positivity we don’t accidentally come across to our learners as creepy.

This is a balancing act, and of course the line between seeming interested and being creepy can shift depending on the age of the learners, your age, gender, culture and regional norms. Yet there are some basic universals that we can put into practice to show our learners that we are interested in them, without making them feel uncomfortable.

The maxim to work from is be friendly, not their friend.

Showing interest

Teenage learners are notorious for being uninterested. In my experience, I’ve found that showing real interest in them tends to be rewarded with interest in both you and the content of the lesson. From speaking to students, it seems they often feel that teachers disregard their opinions or the things they’re interested in, which in turn leads to a lack of engagement from the learners.

Things to try

1.Use a questionnaire to find out about their study preferences.
This can be done at the start of a course, but is also useful to drop in part-way through. I usually give learners five minutes to write their answers and it can also be done anonymously. You will probably need to give a few ideas of exercise types or groupings, as well as adjectives to help describe teachers.

I learn best when…..

I do not learn when…..

The best teachers are……

I wish my teacher knew……

I can help others with….

I mainly need help with….

NOTE: I found a version of this idea on Twitter several months ago, and for the life of me I can’t find who originally posted it. If it was you, let me know and I will credit you immediately!

The most important thing of all is to follow up on the answers to the questions. If your students say they prefer working alone, make sure you provide the opportunity for some quiet individual work or reflection in each lesson. You may get the odd response of ‘I do not learn when I have homework” but this can mostly be avoided by explaining that you want your classroom to be a place for sharing ideas and preferences, but that there are a few things you can’t change – such as your school’s homework policy. They usually respond pretty well.

2. Ask them what they’re interested in and use it in class
Adults are often guilty of passing off teenagers’ interests as ‘phases’, ‘rubbish’ or ‘ridiculous’. Each of those things may or may not be true, depending on your own opinion, but we should pay attention to the things our teens are interested in and take them seriously. It can provide you with genuinely relevant, engaging lesson content. Yes we have a syllabus to get through, but lots of it can be supplemented with things the students already enjoy. You don’t have to conduct a survey – more likely than not you won’t get the real answers anyway, at least to begin with. Instead, listen to your learners. Check out the brands and bands on their t-shirts; what’s written on their pencil cases. Ask them what they’re listening to as they come into class pulling out headphones. Inform yourself about popular social media influencers and YouTubers in your teaching context and canvass opinions on them from your learners. If you have no idea where to begin, speak to staff members you think are highly aware of youth culture or talk to people in your family who can tip you off.

Here are a few things I’ve used in class, jumping off from things I know about my students:

  • Ariana Grande’s ‘Thank u, next’ to review past verbs with a class of 13 year old girls (just be sure to find a ‘clean’ version)
  • Interviews with K-Pop band BTS to provide something to report back to classmates using a variety of reporting verbs
  • Genre comparisons: hip hop vs rap vs trap vs grime
  • Social medial comparisons: Instagram vs Twitter vs Snapchat vs Facebook etc.
  • Using blank face templates and following famous beauty YouTuber tutorials (using YouTube’s excellent speed tool to slow down the lightning speed talking!)
  • Including images of famous Italian influencers, singers, rappers, sportspeople etc as visual aids when those topics come up in globally-oriented textbooks
  • Coming up with a whole-class fantasy football/basketball/any appropriate sport team. Practices a range of functions including negotiation and ranking/ordering
  • Made a Cambridge First part 3 speaking-style exercise using a plotline from Game of Thrones
  • Using memes and gifs to demonstrate tricky language points


3. Be open about yourself when they want to know
Teenage learners may not seem interested in you or your life and, mostly, they aren’t. However, when they ask you questions about your weekend, your birthday, your favourite pizzeria in town, your partner’s name – why not give them an answer? As long as the question is coming from a place of interest and curiosity, it’s no big deal. I don’t often offer up information to learners unless I’m using my own life experience as a model, but when they initiate the conversation, I continue it. It gives you license to ask about their lives, too. When it comes to boyfriends/girlfriends, I never ask learners. They often bring it up themselves, and that’s absolutely fine, but teachers should probably avoid turning the conversation in that direction.

Using your own experiences to demonstrate concepts – particularly if you’ve done something mildly regrettable – usually helps students to be more open when doing personalisation activities. For example, I have taught ‘used to’ for past habits with a slide full of pictures relating to my past – the unsuitable bleach-blonde hair, the violin I tortured for a year, a few achievements to demonstrate that I’m not a complete failure and so on. Students usually find it in equal measure hilarious and interesting, and try to think of their own equivalents to discuss.

Bleach and regrets

Where we need to be careful

Having canvassed my teenage learners – admittedly a small pool, but broadly representative of my western European context – I’ve found a few areas where we should tread carefully. Of course, teachers should be sensitive to their own local context and work to understand what is acceptable there.

Things to avoid:

  • Sex jokes/comments. Your teenagers will know ALL about the jokes that can be made in certain situations (including turning to page 69), but that doesn’t mean they want to hear them from you. It’s creepy. If a teenage boy has a love bite on his neck, unless he’s showing it off and disrupting the class, just ignore it. If the class is being disrupted, then think about your learners. A minimal response is usually safest. Perhaps a very dry “Wow, Pietro, that’s really interesting, thanks for sharing. Now if you could sit down and sort your books out, I’d appreciate it”.
  • Touching students. Some countries have a reputation for people being more tactile than others, but in general, avoid touching learners. All the students I asked said they wouldn’t want a pat on the back, an encouraging arm squeeze, anything. And that’s in Italy, which is seen as a more tactile culture.
  • Adding/accepting students as friends on social media. Students unanimously agreed that this was creepy. Even if students request your friendship on social media, do not accept. Word will spread and students will likely add you to try and find out personal information that is inappropriate for them to know. If you have a separate ‘teaching’ account, then that’s a different matter, of course.
  • Commenting on student fashion. All students I asked maintained that this was very creepy. The consensus was that it is more creepy to ask about crop tops, ripped jeans and  low trousers, and less creepy to comment on a jacket or coat. Noticing a haircut is fine, but we should move on after a brief, neutral comment such as ‘Oh, nice haircut’. Talking about how badly students dress is, of course, not a good way to endear yourself to a class.
  • Jokes. Having a laugh with students is great. Make jokes and enjoy those your students make. Once the joke is over for the students, however, it’s also over for you. Fun, relaxed, jokey teacher becomes creepy weirdo teacher as soon as you’re the only one still laughing.

Let me know in the comments if there’s anything you’d like to add. I’d be particularly interested to hear from those teachers in non-European contexts to broaden the perspectives available on this issue.

Teaching teenagers blog series

Teenagers are the marmite of teaching. Most teachers I have spoken to either love or hate teaching teens, with not too much in between. Personally, I fall into the ‘love’ category. Teenagers are the absolute best. Yes, they can be extremely reticent, moody, capricious and awkward, but that’s all part of the fun, in my opinion! Once you’ve built a relationship with your teenage students, there are no limits to the learning opportunities, or to the fun you can have. Teenagers are constantly changing, evolving and developing their perspectives and opinions. They have ideas to share and appreciate the opportunity to share them.

So, with this in mind, I have decided to become evangelical about teaching teenagers. This will be a new series of blogs discussing a number of issues related to teaching teenagers:

I think I’m going to kick things off with the creepy/cool demarcation, so if you have any ideas or personal experiences with this topic, leave a comment below!

Please do also comment if there is a particular topic I haven’t listed above that you’d be interested in discussing.

Book discussions and recommendations

I found myself feeling very uninspired looking at a coursebook for an intermediate class last week, and in casting around for something a bit more inspiring, I realised it was World Book Day (in the UK, although there is another in April). Perfect! So, I went to the World Book Day site and had a nosy around. There were lots of interesting materials there, and I’ve used some information on authors favourite books as a lead-in to the lesson detailed below.

I’ve also been working on trying to incorporate some more task-based learning into my classes, as far as is possible within a very exam-based, structural syllabus. So, there aren’t a lot of ‘materials’ here, but I managed to do a lot with them, filling an hour and fifteen minute-long lesson. Hopefully, this could be a useful lesson for you, too – at any time of year.

The Lesson:

  1. If you want, you can lead in with some general questions about reading and your learners, for example: Do you like reading? Why/Why not? What kind of books or stories do you prefer? How much do you usually read in English? etc. Inform learners that in the lesson today we’re going to be looking at how to describe and discuss their favourite books, as well as how to offer recommendations.
  2. Hand out the paper with the six authors describing the effect their favourite books has had on them. Learners read this and decide which of the books discussed they would like to read and why. They will probably have questions about some of the vocabulary, which you can deal with by peer-teaching, or giving synonyms and so on after they have finished reading.
  3. Give learners the handout, which you can download below. Learners take about 5 minutes or so to work individually and write down their thoughts as notes. They may need some input from you here.
  4. The second part of the worksheet asks learners to think of questions to ask others about their favourite books. Again, give learners 5 minutes to write down some questions. Make sure they focus on how to ask for a recommendation, as well as on books in general. Depending on the level of your class, there may need to be feedback after this and help with refining the construction of the questions. I sectioned off my board into three parts: questions, vocabulary and structures. In the questions section, I took learner ideas and, as a group, we refined them until learners agreed they were ready to go on the board. We had things like ‘Who’s it by?’ ‘What was your favourite part?’ ‘Have you read anything else by the same writer?’ and so on.
  5. Learners then work in small groups of three to five, using their questions to discuss the books they made notes on earlier. Encourage learners to let the conversation run naturally, and not to treat the questions as a checklist to work through. Tangents are brilliant! On the worksheet, there is space for learners to note down anything their colleagues say which they’re not sure about, or for the group to make notes on words they can’t think of in English. During this time, the teacher must be proactive in making notes on what learners are saying, particularly being aware of any grammatical structures they’re struggling with or need for this task. There will probably be a need for passives and structures with modal verbs. Each group of learners will have different needs though.
  6. When their discussions come to a natural end (mine took about 20 minutes), bring the group together in plenary. This section of the lesson is devoted to feedback and language focus. Ask learners for the words or phrases they have on their worksheets, and help them reach a fuller understanding. Again, this can be done through a combination of peer teaching, asking learners to describe what they are trying to say, or translation if appropriate. You can also include any key phrases for this topic you thought learners were missing – for example, mine were able to talk about ‘the kind of book’ they like, but they didn’t have the word ‘genre’.
  7. Follow the same procedure for the structures. Give learners time to make notes.
  8. The second task cycle on the worksheet is a role play, based in a book shop. If you feel that your learners won’t respond well to role-play, you could replace it with a repetition of the previous task, but with the learners in different groups. Alternatively, you could ask them to discuss the most recent book they have read, or even a book they have read which they didn’t enjoy. Any of these would be appropriate and allow for plenty of realistic language use.

Download the materials here:

Full worksheet favourite books task based lesson

Image for lead-in is below, and can also be found here

World Book Day Worksheet

Social media and changing opinions: note-taking skills

Note-taking skills are something many learners need to master, as they move through school and into English-language university course settings. It’s also a necessary skill for the working world, where notes have to be taken on presentations and in meetings and in our day-to-day lives – planning events, writing down directions and so on.

Many of us use abbreviations to help ensure our notes are concise, and most of these seem to be fairly widespread in English-language settings. I wanted to give learners the opportunity to see and practice using some of these abbreviations.

The context of this lesson focuses on Megan Phelps-Roper, a high-profile former member of the infamous Westboro Baptist Church, and her TED talk on how she managed to leave the group. Using the current discussions around political and religious divides on social media and the trend for ever-more polarised opinions as a background and introduction, we look at how bubbles of opinion are formed by algorithms, and how this can be overcome.

The lesson

Jump to materials

In the previous lesson….
In order to introduce learners to note-making, I find it useful to start with some ideas and examples of how we make notes. The University of Leeds has a great page on note-taking strategies. I give learners a copy of this page to read as homework before the lesson.

Stage 1
To start the lesson proper, we look at some examples of note-taking (see below). Learners discuss together:

  • Which note-taking structure has been used (refer to the homework reading)
  • What kinds of words the writer has used (nouns, verbs, prepositions etc)
  • Which structures have been used (full sentences, bullet point lists, abbreviations, subtitles etc.)
  • What do you think the abbreviations in each example mean?

After a brief feedback session, I ask learners what the note-taking examples have in common. (Answers are available in the downloadable Teacher’s Notes).

Stage 2

Using Slide 1 of the presentation as stimulus, ask learners where they get their news from, and how often they use each news media source.

Focus in on the social media element. Learners discuss the following questions in pairs or small groups –

  • How are the news items on your social media feeds selected?
  • Do you tend to follow people with similar views to your own, or different?
  • Have you, or anyone you know, ever had an argument online? What about? Did the argument get resolved in the end? How?
  • Do you know of any high-profile social-medial users who frequently make inflammatory statements? Why would they do this?

Plenary feedback could be useful here, as learners may well have very different views from one another, and some may need examples of social media users making inflammatory statements (see lesson materials below).

Stage 3

Move to Slide 3 of the presentation. Learners discuss the questions in pairs. If they haven’t heard of the WBC before, you might have to fill in some information using their Wikipedia entry or similar.

Stage 4

Introduce Megan Phelps-Roper as a former member of the Westboro Baptist Church. Inform learners that her TED talk covers leaving the group and information on online discussion management. The talk is 15 minutes long, so they will be concentrating for an extended period of time. If you feel it is appropriate, use the English subtitles available. If your learners are ready for the challenge, you can go without. Phelps-Roper is an excellent speaker with a fairly neutral American accent and clear enunciation.

Learners should choose a note-taking style from their reading homework and the examples at the start of the lesson. They then make notes while watching and listening to the speech. To finish, learners compare their notes and see if they have written down similar points.

If you set homework, you could ask them to write up their notes as a summary of the talk they have just seen, including an opinion on Phelps-Roper’s ideas for more productive online discussion.


Google slides presentation

Teacher’s notes including all materials

Authentic passives

The passive voice is something of an odd fish. Learners need to be able to understand and use it, both in real life and for exam purposes. However, we can often go down the rabbit hole of active-to-passive, passive-to-active transformations, without really touching on real-life use.

Jump to the lesson


So, when and why do we use the passive? Cambridge’s English Grammar Today states:

“We use the passive for different reasons. We sometimes use it to give focus to something. We can also use it because we don’t know the identity of the ‘doer’ or because it’s not important to know who or what did the action. In addition, we use it to be impersonal and create distance.”

So, what does that mean in reality? In which situations are we most likely to naturally use the passive?

  1. In academic, scientific or technical contexts. This is because academic papers usually give more importance to the processes or research done than to the person who did them.
    For example: The subjects were monitored over a period of three months.
  2. In news reports, passives ensure an impersonal distance is created. This helps make the articles sound more neutral and can also increase the focus on processes, for example in articles about crimes.
    For example: Three men in their 20s have been charged with theft.
  3. In conversation when we want to emphasise a piece of information. By using a passive construction, we can end an utterance with the most important information, thereby making it more emphatic.
    For example: I was hired by the company director personally.
  4. In signage where the agent is not known
    For example: WARNING: This door is alarmed.

Rather than just ‘teaching the passive’, I think it is important to focus on real-life use. To this end, I found some authentic materials from The Guardian to demonstrate high-density passive use in many different tenses. This was intended as a review for a B2 class, but could equally be used with both more and less advanced students. As always, you can use the lesson below as a guideline or disregard it entirely. Use the materials however you think best!

The Lesson

  • Show slide 1 from the presentation below. There are four images on the slide. Ask learners to predict, in pairs or groups, how the four images are connected. Give a few minutes for discussion. Elicit a couple of ideas.
  • Show slide 2, which gives the article title. Allow learners a moment to consider how closely their prediction matches the title.
  • Inform learners that they are going to read the full story of what happened, using an article from The Guardian. If you feel it is necessary, select some words for pre-teaching. Depending on the level and L1 of students, these may be different. I would suggest teaching some of the legal and nautical language to ensure learners don’t get side-tracked.
    detained: kept under police control, securely at the police station or in prison
    trafficking: conducting illegal trade
    docked: when a ship is securely in a port, it is ‘docked’.
    held in custody: arrested and held in prison
  • Hand out the article and give an appropriate amount of time to read it over. I would say about three to five minutes, depending on level, is appropriate. Check basic understanding with a few simple CCQs, for example:
    1. Where and why were the couple arrested?
    2. Who is managing the police investigation?
    3. Why do you think this story was reported in the news?
    4. [optional slide 3 – if you have use of an interactive whiteboard or projector, or you could print the map for each pair of students] Complete the map of the ship’s journey
  • Moving on to the grammar focus, draw attention to the subheading. Copy out “Drugs were hidden in four suitcases“onto the board. Ask learners a few concept questions to clarify:
    1. What are the verbs in the sentence? (were, hidden)
    2. Who hid the drugs? (The couple in their 70s)
    3. Why doesn’t the subheading tell us who hid the drugs? (It’s already written in the title – don’t need to repeat, it’s obvious)
    Depending on the level of the learners, you could dedicate more or less time to this step, going into detail on the name of the form (the passive) and the construction (correct form of ‘be’ + past participle) as required.
  • Give learners five minutes or so to re-read the article, this time underlining all forms of the passive. See the Teacher’s Notes for a highlighted copy.
  • To allow learners to better understand how using the passive indiscriminately is potentially unhelpful in furthering their English and may cause confusion, it is helpful to do a few transformations. Select a few of the options from the text and encourage learners to work together to transform them into the active voice. This may involve some considerable changes in structure, as well as alternative verb selections. You can go as deeply into this as you like, although be sure to provide a suitable level of support for your students.
    “The couple, who have not been named, have appeared before a judge and are being held in custody” could become
    “The couple have already appeared before a judge and remain in custody, although the police have not yet released their names.”

Having a discussion about if and how these changes affect the meaning, intention and clarity of these sentences will be essential. Some learners may be able to do this in pairs or small groups, while others will need more input from the teacher.

  • To finish off, give learners a few minutes to think about (or research on their phones!) a local or national news story that was surprising to them in some way. They can then prepare a few notes, focusing on reminding themselves to use appropriate passive construction and share these stories in small groups. Encourage learners to ask questions about each story. This can be fairly unstructured, or if you prefer, you could set it up as a speed-dating style activity, or a ‘report to someone else what you’ve just heard’ type of activity.
  • Mingle in with the learners, taking notes of both good and wobbly use of the passive. Write a few up on the board and ask learners if they can think of ways to improve some of the sentence. You could limit the focus to grammatical accuracy, or you could ask them to also try to build on the level and complexity of vocabulary used. It all depends on them, their capabilities and on what you, as their teacher, thinks the focus needs to be.

Passive voice authentic materials: Article from The Guardian

Passive voice Teacher’s Notes

Passive voice presentation slides

Modals of deduction and speculation

Jump to the Lesson

As students learn a language, they develop patterns and phrases which help them express their thoughts, even if they haven’t yet been exposed to the most efficient or common way of doing it yet.

A good example of this is speculation and deduction. My learners usually use some variation on “Perhaps/Maybe” followed by whichever time tense is relevant. This is absolutely fine, and gets the point across, but can become quite repetitive. This is particularly clear in Cambridge exam-style speaking tasks, where speculation is a large necessary element.

Of course, life is not exams, and so the need to use complex speculation/deduction structures is not necessary, you might think. However, we do use these structures pretty regularly, in a variety of situations both academic and otherwise and so, I feel, its something to give a little attention to if you notice your students are mainly just repeating the same few forms.

As this is something I tend to teach remedially, as and when the need arises, it is a bit of a standalone lesson section. However, you could integrate this into a book-based course without difficulty. The pictures I’ve chosen to use as the basis of the lesson are quite irreverent, in order to make the language more memorable.

The Lesson

I’ve taught this lesson to B2-C1 students who are already aware of the structures, however you could use it to introduce them to lower levels, with a few tweaks.

  • Run a quick diagnostic activity to find out your students’ default choices for expressing the ideas of deduction and speculation. For this, you could use any picture of any situation, and ask the learners to tell you what they can speculate and deduce from it. Here is an example which is suited to my Italian context:Supercoppa Italiana 2015 Juventus vs. Lazio
  • Ask the learners to discuss the image, saying what they think has just happened and what will happen next. They should also discuss the people in the photo: what are they doing? What kind of interests do they have? Where are they from?
  • Make careful note of the language learners use to discuss the picture. You can then write some examples on the board to demonstrate the limited range of structures used.
  • Depending on their level, you can then elicit or introduce the structures you want to teach – They must be Juventus supporters because they’re wearing the team’s shirt, or They can’t be watching the match live, because they’re not in the stadium.
  • Leaving the language visible on the board for reference, show the learners the first photo on from the Powerpoint below. In pairs or small groups of 3, the learners discuss the image as they have already done with the previous picture. If you don’t have access to a projector, you could print the pictures out and hand out one to each pair or small group. Go through each of the images in turn, monitoring for correct use of the language.
  • Follow up on this over the course of the next few lessons in particular, using images or questions requiring speculation and/or deduction.


Download the lesson materials: Modals for supposition and deduction