An Insight Into Teaching Teens

Keeping teens on task and focused can often be more difficult than cooking the perfect boiled egg; you teensphoto1know, when you crack that egg open to find there’s no runny yolk to dip your toast into. Oh the humanity!

So how are teens and perfect boiled eggs similar, I hear you ask? Well, as with making a boiled egg, the temperature needs to be perfect. By this, I mean the temperature of your class. You need to gauge how ‘hot for the topic’ your students are. It also takes time and patience. Don’t rush that egg (or student), but don’t take it out too soon (or cut your student off before they’ve finished).

In order to write this blog, I first had to do some research, which I conducted in the form of a questionnaire given to my teen students. The information I received back was both interesting and insightful, giving a more in depth view of what students want and need. For the next, one or two thousand words or so, we’ll look at some of the more popular and interesting comments and information provided by this questionnaire.

English academies vs English in schools

When being posed the question “How is learning English in a language academy, different to learning English in primary or secondary school?”, I was only a little surprised to read the biggest difference is speaking.

Language academies are heavily based on interaction and use of the language, whereas primary and secondary schools focus more on copying from a book. It never fails to surprise me when a new student joins the academy and looks like a deer in headlights the moment they are asked to speak. One student even mentioned in her comments that students can sometimes be shy. When this happens, again, be patient. It’s not that your student is being lazy or doesn’t want to speak, they are simply not used to it. There are a few things you can do to help with this:

  • Speak to any new students before the class starts to get some information about them. Joining a new class with new people is daunting in its own way, but when the teacher asks you to introduce yourself it can become a whole new level of scary. I’m sure we all remember team building workshops or starting a new job where you had to stand up and “say something interesting” about yourself. It was awful, no one liked it. Don’t make your teens go through the same thing.

  • Introduce them to the class and get them set up in a pair to become more relaxed. Set your pair up with someone who is more confident but also not the loud one of the class. This will make your new student even more shy. Start with a discussion or a Q&A exercise to help your student become more confident and sure of themselves before asking them to talk in front of the class. Remember, your student is new and doesn’t yet know their level compared to others and may be worried to speak up through fear of making a mistake. Give them time in a pair to plan, then check their information before speaking.

  • Don’t become frustrated when they don’t speak. This applies to both new and current students. Your frustration will pass on to them and make them less inclined to talk. Instead, guide them by asking easy-to-answer closed questions, then work your way up to open questions. Lead them, don’t force them.

  • Give them time. A lot of the time, students don’t want to speak through fear of making a mistake or embarrassing themselves. You can help by boarding the question instead of just asking it directly to students – this puts them on the spot and makes it difficult to give an immediate response. Having a pre-boarded question before class starts is always beneficial, especially when, in my case, teens tend to trickle into class before it starts (and after). Give students time to think about the question and look for vocabulary to help them express themselves. With really nervous teens, check their work and help them with any errors before they speak.

Speaking is an incredibly important part of language learning. It allows us as teachers to check any errors, misunderstandings or pronunciation problems. Teens get less of this at their day-to-day school, so try and practise this skill as much as possible in class.


Which brings us on to the next area: What do students like learning about in class? What tasks energise and engage them and which bore them to tears?


It goes as no surprise that teens do not like working from a book. They find it dull, monotonous and boring. They do this at school and don’t want to be doing it after as well. What the majority of them did say, was that they learned best when seeing the language in use, through videos, listening to people, etc.

One comment that really caught my eye was when a student said “I like learning things that keep my head up, not down in a book”. Yes, as with many academies, you may have to work from a book or syllabus and like many others you may have to source your own materials or a combination of both. Whatever the case my be, it is our job to ensure students are engaged and active. Always ask yourself how would they use this in their day-to-day lives? What are possible ways they could use it? What are topics teens would like learning about? I recently discovered through conversation with my teens in class that we all loved The Walking Dead. What better setting than end-of-the-world zombie-apocalypse survival to practise The Second Conditional? I + would + get the hell out of town!

What did surprise me was that students do enjoy learning grammar and vocabulary. They understand its importance and how they need to understand it to progress. However, the key word that rang out was interesting. Copying grammar down and filling in gaps is just not interesting for these kids, whodathunkit? Again, it’s all about themes and common interests, keeping up with trends – my teen students told me the other day when talking about social networking that “Facebook isn’t cool anymore”. This led to an interesting discussion, (whist secretly prompting them to use comparatives and superlatives), about what social network sites were cool and which were naff.

Extra input

I asked students what extra input they enjoyed having the most in class. Videos were obviously a clear teensphoto3winner. Everything from film trailers, funny adverts, interesting discussion topics to epic fails, they can’t get enough. A few weeks ago we were practising modal verbs of deduction, where the final practise was to watch a series of what-happens-next video fails. Students had so much fun watching the videos and guessing what would come next they were using the language naturally and without really thinking about it.

In second place was music and, unfortunately, that doesn’t mean classic bands such as Pearl Jam, New Order or Massive Attack. More hip hoppy, bip boppity stuff although, thankfully so far, no Justin Bieber or Miley Cyrus, so they have that going for them at least. The good news is that you can do activities where you don’t need to listen to the full song, instead just the chorus, and even I have to admit they were catchy. To review reported speech and reporting patterns, I printed out the first part and chorus of popular songs and printed them out with a full sentence missing, with the obvious aim to listen and fill it in, for those of you familiar with Nevermind the Buzzcocks, it’s similar to their Next Lines round. After that, we used the boarded reporting verbs to re-write the sentences. Some were good, such as “John Newman asked if I could love him again, I told him I couldn’t”. Some were a little strange: “Sia threatened to swing from a chandelier, so I told her to do it”. All in all, it was a fun and successful task without using any books.

Lastly, we have projects. These came in all kinds of ideas from students including poster design, making a comic book strip, writing a story or creating a newspaper. I’ve seen seemingly tired teens perk up the instant I get the magazines, scissors and pens out. This is also a great way of getting them to work together and share ideas. A popular task is creating their own planet or island with their own sets of rules and ideas for what’s there. Students then present their idea and the others ‘visit’ and review their stay.


When asked which kinds of teachers helped students’ learning experience and how could we improve, there teensphoto4were lots of different responses, as one student summed up very well ‘I think a student needs a variety of types of teachers in order to learn in different ways and adapt better to different situations’


I asked some students to expand on this idea and this is what they said:

Personality is important, they have to like what they teach”

My teacher is a little strict but also funny, so she does a good combination”

My teacher is like a friend who explains interesting things”

I like teachers who are funny because when you are with them you

interact more and class is more fun”

Teachers who make different activities”

The funny teachers are always better because they make the classes seem less long,

and if we play games it’s easier to learn”

I like strict and fun teachers, because I want to learn, but with fun”

I think both teachers I have are very good, they are so nice and they always help you”

I like a teacher that explains the theory of the examples with videos”

So, not a lot of pressure then…

The important thing is to keep a balance. Classes can’t be out of control but they also can’t be under exam conditions: you need to establish the boundaries. You can even have your students help you with the ‘rules of the class’, a great way to start all new classes as well as reviewing and practising modals of obligation and necessity, although be prepared for them to say “the teacher can’t give a lot of homework”.

What your teens want you to know

A few left this question blank, although the ones that did respond made some very interesting points.

A few of them mentioned how important it was that their teacher spoke English throughout the class so that they had to use it in their questions and responses as well as when giving examples. I don’t let students simply shout out what they think the word is in their own language as mistakes and misunderstandings can happen; instead they must use it in a sentence to practise it and for me to check. Even if you speak their language and know the translation is correct, this is still a good thing to do with your students. They’re learning English and so it’s that word they should be using and remembering, not the one in their native tongue.

Another popular comment was for the teacher to interact with the students. They want you to get involved, they’re interested in who you are, using yourself in examples, especially the funny and slightly embarrassing ones will remind your students that you are not a robot. Have fun with them and, in turn, they will respect you more.

One comment really made me stop and it is this final comment I will leave you with after rambling on for nearly five pages – your boiled egg (head) is most definitely over cooked by now, my apologies, but I hope some of the information in here was worth it.

I would like that my teachers remembered when they were teenagers in class”


by Morgan Dalzell


FCE and CAE Exam Tips

Exams, exams, exams.

Everyone hates taking exams, and for ESL students it is no different. They can be difficult, frustrating and long. However, stressedoutthere are many things you can do to make taking these exams easier and more bearable for your students. This blog will look at hints and tips as well as an explanation of the exams so you can help your students overcome this demon!

What is the FCE and CAE exam?

These exams test students’ language ability and skills with the language at a high level and is graded using the Common European Reference for Languages (CEFR). Not only must they have a good grasp of the language, but they must know its use, how it is applied as well as form and function. Each part of the exam is different and will test them on different skills and language ability.

Most universities, especially those abroad, are now asking for an FCE level of English in order to be accepted so, as you can imagine, these exams are very important in helping a student advance and travel to different countries for work or study. It is an internationally recognised exam and having it will benefit your student greatly.


There are 4 parts to the exams:

  1. Reading and Use of English (previously separate now combined) – these test both specific and general reading skills, grammar and vocabulary knowledge and use
  1. Writing – this tests students’ ability on a range of different topics and writing styles. Part 1 – the essay is compulsory; whereas part 2 is a multiple-choice option where students can choose the topic and type of writing they want from a list of 5 options.
  1. Listening – this tests student’s ability to listen to general and specific information in order to answer sets of questions.
  1. Speaking – this tests student’s ability to speculate as a group, describe different scenarios, discuss possibilities, interact with each other and make decisions all whilst justifying and giving reasons for their ideas.

Sounds easy right? Well for a native it probably is, but for an ESL learner this can be very challenging and frustrating. So, what can we do to help?

A teacher taking an exam?!

Without taking the exam yourself, you can’t possibly begin to understand what students have to go through or the amount of examknowledge and skills they need to develop. You can find multiple online exams that give you results and let you know where you went wrong. As you’re taking the exam, make notes on what you did and how you did it. Of course, we’re more likely to know the answers because we speak the language, but ask yourself questions such as – how did I know this was the correct word? How did I re-write this sentence? How did I find the answer so quickly? Break down each answer and section of the exam; you can then pass on this knowledge to students to help them. Plus, they’ll also feel much better knowing their teacher has been through the exam procedure and understands it from a student’s point of view.

A theme a day keeps memory loss away

Choosing the right theme for a class can go a long way and it is often the best place to start before deciding what parts of the exam you will study in class.

Keep one theme throughout each class – just because the book jumps from space exploration, to media culture, to food, to weather in one class does not mean you have to. Jumping from different themes will not only make it difficult for the student to keep up, but it will also make it harder for them to remember parts of the exam.

I’ve often overheard students when taking the exam in class remarking:

‘Oh yes, I remember this part, this is when we studied technology and inventions/the environment/celebrities’

It will be easier for them to recall parts of the exam and skills taught by remembering the theme you used in class. Which brings us onto the next point.

Get creative!

So, we’ve chosen our theme but, to our dismay, we find that the book doesn’t contain any exam parts that link with this theme, what is a teacher to do? Well, what teachers do best – create their own resources!

A simple set of lyrics or news report can be adapted and made into many different parts of the exam. Last week I used lyrics from a video, which I adapted to work with three of the parts of the exam my students had coming up that week, as well as helping them practice the different speaking parts. It took five minutes and worked far better than anything I had available in the book.

A good video is a great source for listening activities and will engage and interest students more than listening about how plastic is made. Again, the aim is to provide something interesting and fun for your students to help them remember when they come to do the official exam.

I got mad skills!

Providing students with skills will go a long way in the exam, especially if your students have problems with timing. Flipping the reading around can reduce students’ time and give them a higher chance at finding the correct information. How many times have you seen a student spend ten minutes reading some text, making sure they understand every single word? Well, in the exam you have twelve minutes to read the text, read the questions and find the answers. Not long right? Flip this; students do not need to read the text. The questions are the most important and this is where students should spend most of their time and understanding. I have developed my own set of skills that I have passed down to students, these skills not only helped the student half the time it took them, but they got over 90% of answers correct. Oh, and, they did not actually read the text in full!

You will find your own set of skills that you can develop and pass on to students – this is why it is important for the teacher to take the exam. Reading the ‘How to do it’ section will also help, as will attending as many seminars as you can. These are gold mines of information and you will also come out with a new idea or skill to pass on to your students.

Practice makes perfect

As with any new skill, the more you practice the better you get. This is no different for the Cambridge exams, just not quite askeepcalm fun as honing your football or yo-yo skills. Always give your student a copy of the parts you have studied in class to take home and do as homework. Ask them to practice the skills and time themselves, so then, when you come to the next class, you can ask students to compare their answers, times and discuss how they found the information and the skills they used. You never know, students might develop their own skill, which you can adapt and use next time. Remember, all students are different and will approach each part of the exam in a different way. Ensure you have a variety of skills and knowledge to pass on to your students for each part as well as practice at home, and remember, be patient.

Exams are not fun, or easy, I’m sure we all remember countless nights studying and revising for the next day, but hopefully these hints and tips will help to make the process easier and better for your students.

By Morgan Dalzell

An Ode to the Private Lesson

Oh, private lessons

How you fill my heart with joy.

Ever changing, topics ranging,

Though on occasion you annoy. 

Well that’s about all the poetry I’ve got in me – sorry for the deceiving title. If you’re here for poetry, I can’t really help you there, but if instead you’d like to hear some suggestions regarding how to teach private classes, you’re in the right place.
Private lessons are an excellent way to supplement a full or part-time teaching job with an academy. In some cities, spanish studentsyou might actually only teach private classes, and some people, after dipping their toes in the water at a large academy, decide they prefer the flexibility and autonomy that come with the private class lifestyle.I’ve been teaching for 6 months here in Barcelona, and so far have only taught one group class; all the rest are private classes. My colleagues and I have been through the ups and downs of finding, teaching, and retaining students. While a lot of this process is best learned through experience, I have put together a list of tips on how to get started teaching private lessons.
Finding private classes
I’ve heard of people putting up flyers around town, handing out leaflets outside of elementary schools or teaching practice feb:marchuniversities, or even using social media platforms to connect with potential students, but in my experience, the best place to start is with online postings. Do some research and figure out some popular job boards in your country, and post an ad there. In Spain, there’s a great website called Tus Clases Particulares, which is a place where all sorts of private teachers post their availability. You can find something like that in almost every country in the world, and it’s an excellent place to start.
Posting your ad
If possible, write your post in both English and the native tongue (or tongues) of the city you are in. Your posting should include the following:
  • A catchy title
  • Your name & where you’re from (mention you’re a native speaker if you are)
  • How much you charge per hour (looking at other postings can help here)
  • Teaching experience and certification (leave this out if you have neither – don’t lie)
  • Availability
  • Contact info
  • Where you can teach (your home, their home, at a café, etc.)
  • Mention that the first class is free!
Wait – first class free?
Yes. In my opinion (and the opinion of many others) your first meeting should be completely free. This is an opportunity for you, as a teacher, to gauge their speaking level, learn what they are looking for, and get to know them a bit.
After that, you can start at whatever rate you think is best. It’s good to do some research here and ask around. Most people I know started offering classes at €15/hr to gain traction and then worked their way up to €20 or so. Many say it’s not worth it to charge anything less than €20/hr. More experienced teachers often charge €30/hr. It’s completely up to you, but do some research before you post so that you make sure you aren’t over or under-charging.
A teacher of mine once said, “Never leave the house for less than €30.” While this amount may be variable depending on the country you are in, the big takeaway here is that you should be scheduling your day with back-to-back classes that are close to each other. Otherwise, you’ll be spending so much time and money on travel, you may as well have stayed at home.
Allow your students some flexibility in scheduling and the location of classes, but be smart about it. Don’t schedule classes 30 minutes apart if they are on opposite sides of town. Teaching is your job, your livelihood. Don’t burn yourself out or breeze through metro passes just because your student wants to meet at their favorite café that happens to be deep in the suburbs. It’s not worth it.
Along with scheduling comes location. I recommend always meeting at a café or a park for your first class. Don’t IMG_2136invite strangers into your home and don’t go to a stranger’s home. Just don’t. After the first lesson, it’s a judgment call for you, but it’s totally fine to stick with a public place. If possible, have them come to you, that way you can have multiple classes in the same location back-to-back. If they can’t come to you, meet somewhere in the middle. If you’re teaching children – that’s a different story. You’ll probably be having class in their home, generally with a parent and/or housekeeper present, and that’s just something you need to decide if you’re willing to do. Obviously, be on your guard walking into someone’s home, and walk out if you don’t feel safe.
The best way to do this is to ask each student to pay for a month of classes in advance, and give them some sort of invoice, if possible. This saves you if the student decides to cancel at the very last second, however when you first meet a student, they may be worried that you will take their money and run. There are 3 things you can do to reassure them:
  • 1 – Offer a discount if they pay for the classes in advance. If you charge €15/hr and they want 1x class a week (€60 total/month), tell them that they can pay €50 for the whole month if they pay up front.
  • 2 – Make up a simple contract and give them a copy. I’ve never had to do this, but many people say that it makes the student feel much more secure, which in turn makes them more willing to trust that you will not run off with their money.
  • 3 – Test the waters for a bit. If they come to class on time each week, don’t routinely cancel, and always pay you, then it may not be necessary to have them pay up front.
Conversation-based classes
Many students seeking private classes are just looking for someone to practice their English with. They don’t want books, they don’t want homework, they just want to chat. You should still always prepare for these classes. Show up to each lesson with a topic prepared, generally with an article or video to accompany it. Have points prepared to discuss, and questions ready to ask.
You may show up some weeks to find that the “how was your day?” question leads to a completely different conversation, but you should by no means count on that.
Grammar-based classes
These can be tricky in a private setting. Students who are looking to learn grammar also generally want some privatelessonphoto1textbook style exercises, readings, etc. If you don’t have those resources from an academy, it’s hard to know where to start. The good news is that there are tons of resources online, or you can find copies of books online or in a library. You can also make your own materials (flashcards, worksheets, etc.), which can be tedious at first, but once they are made, you can recycle them for other students and cut down on prep time.
Bad students
It can be hard to admit, but some students are just not a good fit. Maybe they are rude, maybe they always cancel at the last minute, or perhaps their comments are often inappropriate. Sometimes you can fix this with a simple conversation explaining that they need to give you 24-hours notice if they can’t make it, or that they can’t make certain types of comments in polite conversation. That being said, don’t be afraid to get rid of really difficult students. Don’t waste anyone’s time, energy, or money trying to make something work if it’s not productive for either party.
In Spanish, this means, “exchange.” The idea behind an intercambio is that you trade your English skills for the Spanish/Catalan/French/Russian skills of someone in the country in which you are living. If you have a student who is maybe a bit flaky with time or with payment, but you enjoy the classes when they happen, it could be a good idea to suggest a language exchange. Basically, instead of paying you in cash, they pay you in language skills. If you have the time and the financial freedom to do this, I highly recommend it! It’s a great way to get to know someone and practice your own language skills at the same time.
The best piece of advice I can give? Just get out there and jump in! You will quickly learn the tactics that work best for you and your students, the tactics that don’t work, and you’ll experience how fun and rewarding teaching abroad can be.

By Sarah Melville