April 04, 2015

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Getting Teens Talking


Getting teenagers to use English in class can provide a considerable challenge to most teachers. This article examines some of the reasons why it can be so difficult and makes some suggestions for overcoming these problems.

Why it's important
Long-term and short-term memory
Theoretically, we retain information in two ways: In short-term and long-term storage. We transfer information from one to the other by convincing our brains that facts in the short-term memory are valuable enough to be put in long-term storage - otherwise, the information is discarded.

  • Our native language is stored in the long-term memory. New information about a second language, however, is stored in the short-term until it is transferred.
  • To understand the new information quickly, we often translate into our native language. However, this makes it more difficult for the brain to accept the new information into the long-term memory. The result? We quickly forget the information about the second language.
  • Students need to translate less often. If they get used to speaking English - this helps the new information to be stored more quickly and for longer.

Language fitness & agility
Language learning and maintenance uses a surprising number of muscles - most importantly, the brain, and the more obvious muscles in the mouth and jaw.

  • It follows logically that just as with any other muscle, the more you exercise it, the easier it is to use.
  • So how often do teenagers exercise the muscles required for speaking English? If their only opportunity is English class, they need to maximise on the time to exercise as much as possible.

Speaking is a way of expressing ourselves in whatever language we use. The most motivating language to learn therefore enables us to talk in a way that is true to our personality. Even the best coursebook cannot provide this resource for every individual in every class!

  • Students bring their personalities to every class - if we can keep English as the language medium, their authentic language requirements will become apparent. This means accepting their personalities - in terms of topic (e.g. music, fashion, gossip), and function (e.g. exaggerating, exchanging anecdotes).
  • If they don't have the tools to express themselves in English, they'll use the tools they do have - their native language.

Why they don't use English
Peer pressure
Even native speakers take years to master their language, so it's no surprise a foreign language learner has to make a lot of mistakes before even managing to produce anything approaching good English. The spontaneous nature of speaking means you're likely to make more mistakes than you would otherwise. So generally we're asking our students to stand up and make fools of themselves at a time of their lives when they are at their most self-conscious.

Lack of motivation
If you ask a teenager why they think they should speak English in class, what's the most likely answer? Stunned silence, a disdainful look, or a droned 'because we have to practise'? They're following orders - and for what? So that in two or three years they may be better able to communicate effectively with another English-speaker? Not only is the motive external, but the end goal is too distant for many teenagers. For many students, instant rewards for speaking English are much more motivating.

Lack of support
There are two kinds of support: Classroom atmosphere and linguistic support. It may not be realistic to expect teenagers to provide the generous and patient atmosphere ideal for language practice, but it is possible to encourage them to support each other, for example by working in teams.

It is easier to provide linguistic support, in terms of words and phrases that are required for classroom interaction. Classroom language (e.g. 'Sorry I'm late', 'Can you repeat that, please?' etc.) is the only English they will need to repeat throughout the whole course, and it has an authentic context - it would be a waste not to capitalise on it!

How we can get students talking
Explain why it's important
Only you know how mature your class is and how well they will respond to the rationale behind your methods. However, it's often worth giving even a less mature group a chance to understand what you're trying to achieve. Not all students will react in the same way - the underlying theory may motivate smaller groups within the class, even though it might not appeal to the class as a whole.

Confidence tricks
This involves rewarding them for using 'easy language' - making them believe the goal is easy to achieve.

  • Classroom language is ideal for this, as are pronunciation games.
  • Drilling has a particular appeal, as the student's voice is safe in a crowd of voices, and it is the sound of the English (not their English) that is strange or amusing.
  • Along the same lines, choosing a buzzword for a class can encourage even the weakest student to try to use their English. The word could either be very useful, or sound a bit strange or be a key word in the group of vocabulary just learnt. The use of the word then has to be rewarded - and how you do that is up to you.

Attainable goals
Obviously the lower the level of the group, the less English you can expect them to produce.

  • For very low levels, the aim may be to spend only five or ten minutes speaking English per class. Initially this may be spent presenting and practising classroom language, which then allows them to extend 'English time' for themselves.
  • For higher levels, it is still worth identifying when it is more important to be using only English and when it is good to use their native language. This should be indicated by some kind of visual to remind them when to do what.

As with most techniques concerning teenagers, it's important not to give up! For all concerned, the task is not easy but it isn't impossible either. The aim is simply to try and increase the amount they speak English - this could be from 20% of the class to 40%, but it could also be from 0% of the class to 0.5%. Either way, you have had a positive effect on their oral English - so recognise it!

Catherine Sheehy Skeffington, British Council, Barcelona

This article was first published in 2004


Aamani Khan
Aamani Khan