During our recent Live Classes project, delivered in partnership with the BBC, we addressed some of the challenges facing secondary teachers around the world.
Live Classes is a unique opportunity for students to enter a dynamic global classroom. Teachers also gain valuable teaching experience, ideas and skills to help motivate their students.
So, let’s examine 4 of the most common challenges secondary teachers have and look into some strategies to help solve them.
1. My students are afraid of making mistakes
You’re not alone! Many teachers say their teenage students are quiet and unwilling to answer questions in class. Sometimes, this might simply be because they don’t know the answers, but more often than not it means they are nervous about making mistakes.
When children grow into teenagers, they tend to become more self-conscious and worried about what their peers think of them – and making mistakes in public is a big no-no for them. However, there are a number of ways to facilitate a safe learning environment where your students are happy and willing to talk. Sometimes, though, it takes a little experimentation. Here are some things you can try:
When students make mistakes, ensure that you praise them for taking a risk or making an effort. Correct their errors and be clear with the rest of the class that the only way to learn is to try new things.
Don’t tolerate any bullying or laughing when someone gets an answer wrong. If your students are afraid that others will mock them for their efforts they’ll stay quiet. So make sure you have clear rules and that your students understand that mistakes are normal and to be expected.
Have students discuss their answers in pairs or groups
If your students are painfully shy and afraid of making mistakes, definitely avoid picking on individuals to answer questions in front of the class. Instead, when asking a question tell your students to discuss it in pairs or small groups first. This will allow them to formulate their ideas and feel more confident. Afterwards, you can ask the pairs to share what they discussed – leading to a natural open class discussion.
Listen to your students
Another, powerful way of engaging your students in discussion is to listen to a conversation they are having with their partners and then express how impressed you are with their ideas during a feedback session. E.g. “You said X, which I thought was very interesting. Could you explain this to the class? It was a great idea.” This gives them the confidence to share their thoughts.
2. My students are not engaged with the activities I choose
This is another very common problem for teachers of teenagers. You spend a lot of time thinking of fun, interesting activities – then when you present them to the class, your students look away and say they’re bored. Soon enough, you’ll get frustrated and not know how to re-engage them. Here are some ideas to help:
Get to know your students
Without fail, the best way to engage your students is by getting to know them as individuals over the course of the year. Find out about their hobbies and interests outside of school, and learn what makes them laugh and what worries them. Use your knowledge of your students to find interesting books to read, videos to watch, or relevant subjects to discuss. This way, you’ll be delivering tailored lessons that your students find truly interesting and useful.
Allow a degree of autonomy
Sometimes quietness is also a sign of disengagement with the learning materials. To get past this obstacle, you can get your students to brainstorm things that interest them in groups, list them on the board and have a class vote on the topic of their next class project. As a teacher you always have the power to veto inappropriate ideas, but giving students a voice is a powerful way of making them feel valued and involved in their own education.
Make things (a little) competitive
Even teenagers love games! And play is an important part of learning, as it allows our students to be themselves, have fun, and communicate freely at the same time. By allowing them to play language-focused games in class, they’ll soon forget their inhibitions and start talking.
3. My students just want to do grammar exercises
Language is all about communication, speaking, listening, reading and writing – yet all your students want to do is grammar exercises. Frustrating as this is, it’s probably a sign that our students are not confident in their speaking or listening abilities. Here’s what you can do:
Encourage free language practice
Grammar activities are very structured and there is often a clear answer. Day-to-day communications, however, are much freer. This can intimidate students who are less confident. This activity will help you combine the two aspects of language learning.
Put students in small groups and give them a set of cards with interesting topics printed on them. For example; music, sports, environment, school, vacations, friends, food.
Tell students that they should each choose a card and speak freely about their topic for 30 seconds – the short time will help students get over their fear of speaking and can be gradually increased as students get used to this type of activity.
Have students record themselves when they are speaking and then, when they listen back, have them identify the grammatical structures they used. They should write down and correct any mistakes under your guidance. Not only will this get students used to talking and encourage a lot of emergent language, but it will help them feel they are practicing grammar too.
If your students really enjoy learning grammar, you can ‘flip’ your grammar activities and make them more communicative. First, provide them with a series of sentences or listening clips which have a common grammatical structure (second conditional sentences, for example).
Then have students work together (in English) to identify how the language is structured, so they can discover the grammar point for themselves. This not only gets them talking, but they are doing something they feel confident at.
4. My students are bored of all the repetition
Repetition is an important part of language learning. By practising things over and over again, your students will come to understand it better and will be able to produce the language more easily. However, repetition is often quite boring, especially for fast learners. Here’s how you can make things more interesting for your teenage students:
Use a greater variety of activities to engage your learners
If you’ve been teaching your students a particular set of vocabulary, a grammatical structure, or some pronunciation rules, think about how else they can practice them.
For example, instead of drilling pronunciation over and over again, ask students to think of all the words they can think of that have the same sound in them (e.g. book, look, cook, shook, etc.). This will help them ‘hear’ the sounds in their heads and improve their understanding of other words.
If you have been learning vocabulary through reading, have students write or tell stories that incorporate the words.
The idea is not to stop repeating the target language or skill, but to practice it in different ways. Apply this principle to other areas of language learning and your students won’t feel like they are repeating things at all.
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This article was originally published on the Pearson English Blog in February 2019.