IATEFL 2015 Making it awesome: teaching and reaching teens – Niki Joseph

Anybody who has been following my posts will have noticed the variety of talks I have managed to attend so far, but there has been a conspicuous gap which is now about to be filled: teaching teenagers! Hoping to come away with fresh ideas for how to engage my lovely little teens back in Palermo. 🙂

Niki Joseph taught and lived in Portugal for 20 years, currently lives in Australia but is British. This workshop is about teenagers. Niki came away from IATEFL thinking that there are lots of frameworks for primary teaching but less for teens. This year, there seem to be many more teen-related talks.

Her framework is AWESOME! This checklist is to be applied over a series of lessons.

First of all, what are we talking about? Teenagers. Teaching them can be really challenging (as with any age or level). Teen years are from 13-19, however 11 year olds and 25 year olds may display “teenage” attributes. These guys spend half their life at school, so it is important that our lessons are engaging/motivating etc.

Activity #1

This will hopefully demonstrate a few points. Statements and sentences to encourage examination of beliefs. Stand up if you agree. Try not to be influenced by everybody, hold your ground!


These are the statements we did the activity with!



A is for Amygdala: it’s all about the brain.

Up to about 15 years ago neuroscientists still believed that moodiness in teens was all due to hormones. However, this has been disproved: everyone has hormones. They have now discovered that there is an awful lot going on inside the teenager brain. When we are younger, we have experiences and make connections. By the time we get to teenage years, our brains are full of these connections and we need to start choosing which are important. The rest fall away. The teenage brain is being remodelled or rewired. The brain is on its way to becoming 3000 times more efficient than it was.

At primary, you can only teach 5-6 words per lesson, whereas teens can pick up up to 15. They have better short-term memory. It has literally grown. If you think of pre-school children, the brain is like a dirt track, by the time they are teenagers, it is a freeway with no tolls!

Dopamine is a chemical that is released in our brains as a result of risky activities, it is a feel good chemical. Different from adrenaline. That’s why teenagers enjoy “risky” activities like roller-coasters.

How can we translate this into the classroom?

So the activity that we did as a “warmer”, we could do with teenagers. It takes guts to stand up on your own.


  • “Everyone should have the same amount of homework”
  • “There should be less tests” 


You could also get them to move from one side of the classroom to the other.

Every single class, they should leave with something new. You need to provide something new – a new activity, new language, something to wake them up. Their dopamine levels might be quite low, and that leads to listlessness and boredom.

W is for writing

The teen years are the years that we write. You wrote your first poem, you wondered if you were going to get published, it’s an emotional time. You text your friends. You look for information. Then from school you have assignments, tests and lots of writing.

How can we make it motivating and engaging for learners?

We can use critical thinking skills. I.e. Bloom’s taxonomy. The easier ones are the lower order, the higher require more language and thought process. We should be encouraging them to analyse, evaluate and create.

Activity #2 

Compare a Lower order thinking skills activity and a higher order one.

  • 30 seconds to write down sentences or words on a topic given by Niki. “My favourite animal”

My favourite animal is the horse. Horses are all beautiful and they all have individual personalities.

  • 30 seconds to write down information about an animal that you’ve never seen but that you would like to see. But don’t say what the animal is.

It is white and shaggy. It lives near the north pole, on the ice caps. It goes fishing.

Analysis: The second activity is more creative. You had to think whether you’d seen it before or not because you weren’t supposed to have seen it. And you had to not what it is.

  • Choose a number or roll a dice to select a topic (a list of 100 topics); E.g. Write about a festival from your country.

Niki did it for fluency, didn’t “mark” it, just responded to it.

You could make it more challenging by changing the topic a bit e.g. How would you celebrate an ‘inside out’ day? This is an easy way of bringing in higher order thinking.

E is for Ether #getconnected #usetechnologyintheclassroom

Everybody is connected, especially teenagers. If not, images are probably still very important to them. If they have a mobile phone, they can generally take a photograph with it. With technology you can also make word clouds, voice recordings, use apps/sites/tools and, as mentioned, images.

Activity #3

Take a photo with your phone. Think of 3 ways to use it (the picture) in class. 

  •  Describe the photo, what can you see? (speaking/writing)
  • Say what happened before/after it was taken
  • This photo is part of a crime scene, what happened?
  • Find the photo which is most like yours (i.e. mingle)
  • Hashtag the photo – in its simplest form a hashtag tells you something about a photo in just two or three words.

S is for Speak about it

We have lots of activities to get our students speaking. They can be great when they work but can be horrible when they don’t. When you try to get people to speak and they won’t for whatever reason. There are lots of reasons why – too large a class, not good at listening to others, lack of language or ideas, they use mother tongue, maybe they feel it’s a test, maybe they feel the topic isn’t relevant.

Activity #4

Imagine in your course book that the activity says they need to talk about “talking to tourists in my country” or about “travelling in my country” . At first sight, it’s not particularly appealing to teenagers.

How to make it more interesting?

  • Use phones/internet connections to browse for interesting places to go and what to do there.
  • Role play of chatting up the tourist
  • Where would you take a pen-friend? Where would you take me?

“You are in a town and a teen from another country asks you some questions?”

“Look at the picture of young people on a train journey and tell their story”

-> They need something that relates to them. Their world revolves around them. We need to tap into it.

The activity also needs to be done in the right order, to set the activities up for success:

  • opportunity to brainstorm ideas
  • time to prepare language
  • some controlled practice
  • rehearsal time (v. important – gives them the opportunity to succeed)
  • presentation

Also important for presentations: to set a time limit and maximum number of slides; let learners choose the topic; check your learners have the language; give the listeners something to do – a listening task. Teens won’t sit and listen “for interest”.

 O is for older, other


They are all different. Differentiation is important. You can also give them choice – teenagers like choice, they feel empowered to it. So if you want them to make a presentation on a specific topic, but let them choose the tool: poster, video, powerpoint, prezi etc.

Activity #5:

You want your learners to do a review unit from the course book. What choices could you give them?

  • Open book/closed book
  • in pairs/alone/in groups
  • do an exercise then compare the answer/don’t compare
  • in pairs, one reads and one writes
  • do 3 activities, your choice which 3
  • as a test

M is for music

Always answering the questions “Who am I?” “How do I feel?” “Where can I go?”

Use music as often as possible.


E is for Excellence

We need to provide enough challenge, to enable them to reach excellent. Extend things, get them reading. Instead of ZPD, flow – “energised focus, full involvement and enjoyment.”

To contact Niki: niki,joseph@gmail.com

One thought on “IATEFL 2015 Making it awesome: teaching and reaching teens – Niki Joseph

  1. Pingback: IATEFL 2015: All my posts indexed! | Reflections of an English Language Teacher

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