Motivating Teens: a little empathy goes a long way

Here’s a scenario for you: 

You are sixteen years old. You are minding your own business, lying on the sofa watching TV, when your mum comes in and announces that she’s signed you up for after-school Mandarin lessons. You are not impressed. You are not particularly academic and you’ve always been dreadful at languages. Besides, you’ve never been to China. You’re not interested in Chinese culture. You don’t even like the food. You try to explain this to your mum, but she raises her hand to stop you. ‘It’s for your future,’ she says, and that’s the end of it. 

The following day she picks you up outside school, as usual, except instead of driving you home she drops you off at a private language academy. A lady in reception hands you a textbook and leads you down the hall to a room full of kids you don’t know. Their heads swivel in unison towards you as you walk through the door. The teacher pauses in the act of writing on the board.

‘你叫什么(麼)名字?’ she says, smiling. 

You have no idea what to say.

Now rate your mood from 1-10.

It is important to remember that most teen learners do not choose to enrol in our classes, much as it may cause a bit of superficial bruising to the ego to admit it, many of them simply don’t want to be there. They would rather be at home playing Minecraft or hanging out with their friends, doing whatever kids do nowadays. And you would feel the same in their shoes. Hence the funeral-parlour atmosphere common to so many teen language classes. 

So what can we, as teachers, do to address it?

Know your audience

One of the most rewarding parts of teaching is the opportunity to make connections with students. Take the time to get to know them; the more you learn, the better you’ll be able to motivate them. Start from the very first class. Conduct a Needs Analysis that focuses primarily on the students’ hobbies and interests. What are they passionate about? Animals? Football? K-Pop? Use this information to inform your lesson planning. If you introduce new language in a context that is relevant and interesting to your students, they will engage with it so much more and, ultimately, retain it that much better. This might require a little more work, what with having to source appropriate texts or writing them yourself, but it really is worth it. 

Foster Friendships

Nothing strikes fear into the heart of a language teacher like a silent classroom. But if your students don’t get on with each other then that is exactly what you’re going to get. After all, speaking in public can be daunting at the best of times, especially in a language you’re not quite fluent in. And if you’re not comfortable with the people around that only compounds the issue. This is why it’s a good idea to foster friendships amongst your students from the very beginning. Help to find some common ground. 

One activity that has always worked well for me is using Venn diagrams. Put your students in pairs and get them to draw a venn diagram – i.e. two intersecting circles, with each circle representing one of the students. Write a category on the board, e.g. ‘film’. The students then ask each other questions about the category, writing their answers into the venn diagram, so that by then end of the activity they have a visual model of their shared interests. 

Give it a name

Despite your best efforts, there will be times when your students are almost impossible to motivate. Often this is due to factors outside your control. Perhaps the summer holidays have just finished and they’ve gone back to school, or maybe they’re burned out from studying for end-of-year exams. Whatever the reason, they’re slumped over their desks in your class, unable to concentrate, moaning about every little task you set them. Rather than raising your voice and doing your scary teacher face (we all have one), it may be more beneficial for class morale to put aside what you’ve planned, at least for ten minutes or so, and give your students an outlet for their feelings. 

There’s an activity called ‘Where I’d rather be’ from Teaching Unplugged by Scott Thornbury and Luke Meddings that can work very well in these situations. It’s very simple. You write three questions on the board: Where would you rather be? Who would you rather be with? What would you rather be doing? Invite your students to ask you these questions. Board your answers, as well as any useful follow-up questions that are generated. Then have the students repeat the activity in pairs. 

This helps to create a feeling of solidarity between you and the students, and provides them some much-needed catharsis. With any luck, they’ll feel refreshed and ready to re-focus on whatever you have planned for the day. 

And if not, you could always just play Hangman.

Written by Charlie Delaney for November 2019
Charlie Delaney has been teaching English in Vietnam for the past five years to learners of all ages. He is currently working on his DELTA Module 3.

One Comment


    Quite interesting Charlie.
    Youths are always fertile soil ready to receive the well planted seed. Which in turn will germinate to become a plant, blossom flowers and yield pleasant fruits. Happy is the teacher that selects the right seeds for the crop.
    The first class with youths one needs to meet the criteria. I prefer a mingle presentation and getting to know you activity, to break the ice and prepare the soil with rich fertilizers for the seeds to come. Based on this data gathered, then from the second class, we will already have a little knowledge of the best seeds to choose for the crop, and so on.

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