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:

  • how to balance being a relatable teacher with not crossing over the line into being considered ‘creepy’
  • why they can be such a pain in the backside, but also how that makes them the most exciting age group to teach
  • dealing with challenging behaviour in a productive way
  • discussing how a teenager’s mindset can positively or negatively impact on their engagement in language learning and ability to retain information
  • Spotting the difference between friendly teasing and bullying – and acting on it
  • Anything else you’d like to talk about!

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

Vocabulary expansion pack

Something many learners struggle with once they reach basic conversational fluency is how to keep improving. They probably already have a grasp on the main grammar stuff, and have the vocabulary they need to make themselves understood and to understand others.

At this point, I usually shift focus to vocabulary and lexical patterns. Expanding the range of available lexis gives learners options, flexibility and greater specificity in language. However, just exposing learners to language isn’t enough. How many words and phrases do your learners ‘know’ but never use?

Here are a few rapid-fire vocabulary review activities to help move passive understanding to active use.


This is a simple activity based on the TV game show.

  • Draw a long rectangle on the board and divide it into 9 squares.
  • Learners choose 3 vowels and 6 consonants.
  • They must make as many words as possible of four or more letters in 4 minutes (vary the time for age/ability).
  • Learners must only use the letters in the boxes, but they can repeat letters.
  • Bonus points are available for the individual or team with the longest words.

This is a useful warmer activity, as it forces learners to think of all possible combinations, without tying them to a particular theme or lexical set. The randomness of the letters helps them come up with words they wouldn’t usually use. The teacher’s role is essential here: learners are free to ask you to check spelling or word forms. This encourages greater creativity.

Backs to the board

This is a vocabulary classic. It is as simple or as complex as you make it, with very little prep required. Essentially, you split the learners into teams. Each team has a representative at the front of the class, sitting facing away from the board. The teacher writes an item of vocabulary on the board and the teams must describe it to their representative, without using the word itself. The first ones to correctly guess the word win a point.

Here are a couple of variations you could use.

Use specific language

Ensure you’re recycling the great language you’re feeding in. Use the lexis you’ve noticed that learners understand but don’t use. For example, if your class generally struggles with using linking phrases in essay writing, throw a couple into this activity before focusing on the day’s writing task.

Question forms

For a tricky twist, and to get learners using more complex question structures, try using questions and answers. The teacher writes the answer on the board, and the teammates must ask their representative the question which elicits that answer. This could be as simple as writing a student’s name on the board (“What’s his name?”) To something much more complex. For more complex questions, you’ll need to guide learners with timelines or drawings to clarify.

Don’t worry if you can’t draw, it adds to the fun. One of my 7-year-old students declared to me on Wednesday – with a little help translating one or two words – “No offence, but you’re not so good at drawing”. He’s right, I’m not.

Only phrasal verbs

If you have a class that struggles with using the many, many phrasal verbs they’ve been exposed to, play the game with only phrasal verbs. I like to mix between having the phrasal verb on the board to guess, and having an alternative, usually latin-based synonym up there. This means learners have to switch between using the phrasal verbs to describe, and using synonyms for their representative to guess. This spreads the load more evenly among the group.

As you can see, the possibilities are basically endless!

Word transformations

Here again there are many versions, so have a play and find what suits your learners and their needs.

  • Write a three letter word on the board, for example ‘cat’. Learners have to add or change one letter to make a new word, such as ‘cart’.
  • Set a time limit for learners to create as many new words as possible in a time limit of two or three minutes.

You can make this more difficult by giving the learners the first word and the last word in a chain and challenging them to get from one to the other using the method above.

Similarly to the Countdown activity above, the seeming randomness of the word connection forces out words learners often neglect to use.

Word search

…but not the kind you’re thinking of!

  • The teacher writes the word ‘wordsearch’ on the board.
  • Learners must find as many words as possible of three letters or more.
  • There are many many possibilities here, from the obvious – ‘word’ – to the more interesting – ‘ashore’ or ‘cashew’.
  • Set a strict time limit. I wouldn’t go over four minutes.

Banned words

Very much does what it says on the tin. Whether writing or discussing, it can be useful to have a temporary ban on some words. This will depend on your context and what is particularly overused by your learners.

I often write one or two words on the board which are banned for the duration of a particular activity. In my context, these are usually things like ‘beautiful’, ‘so-so’ and ‘according to me’. I am careful to stress that these are not words that need to be banned in general, but that occasionally I’d like to make sure that learners are pushing themselves to use their full vocabulary arsenal.

Good but…

When error correcting, we tend to focus on, well, errors! However, I feel that we can help our learners so much more than just picking out their errors. It can be very useful to focus on language which is good, but…simple.

  • The teacher writes a sentence or two on the board that they heard while monitoring a speaking section of the lesson.
  • They inform learners that the sentences are correct, well done!
  • However, the students are definitely capable of using more complex vocabulary and/or phrasing.
  • Learners work in pairs to upgrade the sentence/s without changing the meaning.
  • Feed back as a class and write up the options on the board. Learners can choose their favourite to make a note of.

Hopefully you found some of these ideas helpful! Let me know in the comments if you use any, or if you have your own tried and tested vocabulary building methods.

Structuring a paragraph – Writing 101

Before becoming a teacher, I had always thought writing was, simply, writing. However, I have since learned that writing traditions vary enormously from place to place. The writing style in Italy, where I live, is complex and lyrical, full of adjectives and sub-clauses, often repeating the same ideas several times in different ways. English, by contrast, is far less descriptive, foregrounding the importance of evidence supporting a clear topic. This is something that learners cannot always see for themselves. Therein lies out job. We must ensure learners write in a style and form that is clear to their English-speaking examiners, while not lessening their appreciation of their own writing tradition.

Working with classes aiming to take the Cambridge First certificate, I have found it necessary to focus explicitly on how to structure a paragraph. Simply using models, discussing the structure and then producing a text did not produce any great results, so I came up with a more hands-on approach which seems to have had more effect. This process is particularly useful in raising awareness of form for essays, articles and reviews. It would also be suitable for IELTS preparation.

The lesson

You will need

  • Coloured pens, pencils or highlighters
  • A sample paragraph, photocopied one per student
  • Another sample paragraph, cut into sections of topic sentence, supporting examples and concluding/linking/opinion sentences, one per pair
  • A sample essay/article/review, cut into separate pieces by paragraph, one per student. I usually use a sample essay from the coursebook I have been given.


  • Have a short discussion with learners in groups or plenary about what is expected of them in their native language writing at school or university. If they are older, ask them to reflect on what their teachers told them when they were studying. They will probably need some focus points to get going. These could include
    -use of adjectives
    -sentence length
    -how many ideas in a sentence?
    -use of paragraphs (Do they exist? How do you choose when to start a new one?)
    -Any other common structural and stylistic differences specific to your setting
  • Inform students that the focus of the lesson is on writing in English, and that you are going to look at some points of structure that will differ from what they have just been discussing. Learners should actively make a note of when these differences occur and what they are.
  • The teacher copies the flowchart below on to the board and explains the structure of a paragraph in English (see the teacher notes for more information).
  •  Hand out the photocopies of the sample paragraph. Elicit from learners what the topic sentence is, and where in the paragraph it usually appears (the start). They highlight the topic sentence. Repeat in pairs or small groups using different colours for the supporting statements and the conclusion/link/opinion. It is essential to support learners through this, as the concepts may be completely new. Avoid immediately giving the answer, instead supporting learners hypotheses and ideas where appropriate and gently steering them away when they go off track.
  • Hand out the second, cut up, example paragraph, one per pair. Learners work individually to reconstruct the paragraph in a logical order. The teacher should circulate, monitoring and supporting learners. Feed back in plenary if necessary, but you can probably get the point across to each individual group as you monitor, depending on how many students you have.
  • For the final section of the lesson, we move on to the structure of paragraphs in a whole text. Hand out your chosen cut up article, essay or review, one per pair. Students work in pairs to reconstruct it. Once the text is in order, learners should find and highlight the topic sentences, supporting examples and concluding sentences. At this point, give out more copies of the sample text so that each learner has a copy they can annotate and stick into their notebooks. Again, monitoring, support and guidance will be needed.
  • The logical end to a lesson this intensively focused on writing is, of course, to assign a piece of writing. I assign a First Certificate article, essay or review, telling learners that I will be specifically focusing on structure when I mark their texts. However, any general, long form piece of writing would also work.

Download the teachers’ notes here: Paragraph Structure Writing 101 Teacher Notes