Teenage Kicks: why language students aren’t listening

Today we welcome back language teacher Kelly, with some advice on engaging teenagers in language learning. Have you tried thinking outside the box with students? Tell us about it in the comments…

Another Brick In The Wall

Musicians have been flogging this particular dead horse for years: stop treating teenagers like an alien species that we have no relation to. Language teachers: take note.

Textbook learning: a one-trick pony

It doesn’t matter how much you enjoy language learning. Even the most enthusiastic learner will want to escape to a blanket fort at the prospect of studying purely from a textbook. And with good reason. Language textbooks, no matter the effort put into making them interesting, are one of the dullest resources to use when learning a language. And, incidentally, to teach one.Learning a language from books is no fun

In my day…

Cast your mind back to your own time in school. Who doesn’t remember the tattered books on our desk with the rude scribblings in, the out of date ‘modern’ pictures and the stale, dated language that was being taught? There’s no easy way to jazz up your role play ordering of a baguette if you only know the standard fillings. Cheese? Ham? Tomato? Teacher: ever heard of Subway? We want to choose our own bread, avoid the olives, embrace the jalapeño and yes, of course we want it toasted.

If you can relate, pity the poor teenager in school as we speak.

Cue eye roll

Being a teenager is an eventful enough time in your life; where’s the motivation to learn a language if all you get to talk about is school work and pets? Do you imagine that these are the only things teenagers discuss on Snapchat, Whatsapp or Kik? Have you never been on Tumblr?

Teenagers are just, as we are, feeling their way in the world. And what they are not feeling is the urge to learn languages when the methods of teaching are so out of touch. The issues that bother us are the same ones that bother them. So why not use that to a teaching advantage?

Attempting to change

A recent Guardian article looked at the ways in which an English exam board is planning on overhauling teaching languages using realia that teenagers can relate to and have a part of. Tattoos and tweets, authentic material foreign literature: things that are happening today.

For any ESL/EFL teacher out there, we hear you. We know. We have been saying this for years. If you use something relevant to the world around you to teach that your students can actively engage in, you’re going to get effective results. If you’ve ever taught at a language school with zero resources and had to make lessons out of nothing but your imagination, you’re probably looking down on the efforts being made to make language interesting in schools with well-founded ‘told-you-so’ disdain.


Teaching what matters

Teenagers – all students – want to learn about real, useable language, not tired, formal words and phrases that are technically correct but make you stand out like you’ve gone to a Slipknot gig in your preppy finest. There is nothing controversial about teaching people how people really speak; even within your own language you can learn something new every day. From colloquialisms to slang, language is a constantly evolving beast and we speakers are merely along for the ride. Digging our heels in and clinging on to the old ways is only going to result in hair (fur) pulling.

True learning comes from learning the basics and putting them into practice. Imagine learning the theory behind driving but never sitting behind the wheel of a car. Pointless and uninteresting. And while the theory is important – in the case of language, grammar and vocabulary – what is more important is putting it into practice. Role play how to find the post office all you want; what use is it if you’re needing directions to Primark on Oxford Street and you’re trying to navigate the Underground?



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