Create Your Own Context To Win Over Teenagers

by Paul Neville

How many times have we flicked through the coursebook and thought “My teenagers won’t be interested in this” and yet, we go ahead and base our lesson around it anyway?

In just a few minutes, you can create much more meaningful contexts which should engage your students more, and hopefully provide a few laughs along the way.

The following activities have proved successful with my teenage classes, but of course they can be adapted for most ages and levels.

1. Stage a phone call

This is always a winner, particularly when teaching reported speech.

Set your mobile phone alarm to go off at the start of your lead-in stage, preferably using a ring tone as the alarm. When your phone rings, ask the students to excuse you for a moment while you take a very important call (from your new boyfriend/girlfriend). Ask the students to write the sentences you say in their notebooks. Answer the call and proceed with the conversation, repeating your sentences where necessary to ensure the learners have enough time to write.

An example of the conversation for practising reported speech could be:

Hi Katy Perry… Yes, I’m working… erm, but you know I’m an English teacher… I’m sorry, I can’t right now… I’ll see you later, ok… Bye.

After this, students should check the sentences in pairs. Elicit and board the conversation, leaving adequate space between each line. Students could put it on the whiteboard themselves, although it may be faster for you to do it. When boarding the context, make a few mistakes to test your students and keep them interested. When happy with the boarded sentences, ask students to speculate on what the caller said to you and board this too to complete the dialogue. You are now ready to examine the grammar.

For example: Hey honey… Are you busy… I didn’t know you had a job… Can we meet now? … What about this evening? … Ok, bye

As well as beefing it out, the students have contributed to half the context and this usually captures their interest, especially when you get to the ‘boring’ grammar analysis.

This activity can be used with most grammar points,  vocabulary, and functional language.

2. Write your own text – Personalise it!

Do the students really want to read about Tim and Sally’s memories from their youth? Are they going to be captivated reading that dialogue in which teenagers debate which album to buy?

Whilst the context may well perform the function it was designed for, is it engaging for students in any way? Why not try creating your own? This gives you the opportunity to personalise it, and naturally, students are far more likely to be interested in a text about their teacher, or indeed themselves.

Of course, like any text used in the classroom, there should be an appropriate gist question, and if possible some detailed questions too. I often do this when teaching grammar and ensure I include positive, negative and interrogative forms, and where applicable, a variety of tenses which contain the target language.

When I recently taught will and going to for predictions, I created a short newspaper article on how robots will change our future. The article included several quotes from their favourite celebrities and myself.

‘“Yesterday, Teacher Paul told us, “I’m really worried I won’t have a job in the future. If robots start teaching, I’ll probably have to join the circus.”’

The students greatly relished this prospect and couldn’t wait to respond. Ridiculing myself in this way is a guaranteed winner with teenagers and when you hear them giggling as they read, you know you have sold the lesson.  It also shows that you are listening to them in lessons, and that you know what interests them.

3. Record a listening

As we all know, it can get monotonous hearing audio presented in the same structure by the same voices. You know what I mean, “Unit 2… Listening 1.9… A… Listen to the conversation between Jim and Emma discussing which film to watch. Which film genres does Jim prefer?”

Spice it up by writing your own dialogue, getting a few teachers together and recording it yourselves. You can use the voice recorder on your phone or the free-to-download Audacity on a computer.

If the students have had a variety of teachers in the past, hearing a few familiar voices certainly provides some amusement. This is perfect for generating interest in functional language, and for teachers, it’s a nice opportunity to practise some acting skills and have a bit of fun.

4. Generate interest from drawings

You don’t have to be a great artist to bring stick-men to life! From the simplest sketches, you can involve your students in building the context, piece by piece, which of course means they will be more interested in understanding the grammar.

For example, if I were to teach second conditional, I might draw a man, sitting next to a palm tree, alone on a tiny desert island. I’d ask the students what he’s called and why he’s there, teach them some useful language, e.g. ‘a castaway’, ‘a desert island’, ‘be stranded somewhere’ and ‘survive’, then ask them to discuss how they would feel in this situation and what they would do first.

I try to steer the feedback towards a logical progression of events, boarded as bullet points in the imperative, e.g. Find wood. → Build a shelter. → Make a fire. → Look for food. → Cook it.

Puaul whiteboard pic

Having boarded 4 or 5 examples, I’ll elicit/board the first sentence, e.g. If I were a stranded on a desert island, I would find wood.

After going through the meaning, form and pronunciation, the students are ready for some controlled practice and can formulate the remaining bullets points in to sentences in their notebooks.

After checking their answers in feedback, ask students to close their notebooks and drill thoroughly from the bullet points on the board. Backchaining is perfect for this, where you build up a sentence from the end: ‘Find wood first.’, ‘I would find wood first.’, ‘Stranded on a desert island, I would find wood first.’, ‘If I were on a desert island, I would find wood first.’ After the drill, why not arrange a mingle so that students can practise the sentences from their notebooks by backchaining with their peers.

5. Live listening – Situational presentations

‘Teacher talk time’ are words that strike fear in to us teachers, but occasionally it makes a nice change to do a live listening. This can work with any type of language: lexical sets, collocations, idioms, phrasal verbs, etc.

Tell your students a story, preferably a crazy story about you, or even them. Along the way, stumble with the target language and try to elicit it through mimes and definitions. If the students don’t know, don’t wait too long before giving them the language. Drill, concept check, then drill again. Make sure you use a variety of drilling techniques to prevent the process from going stale.

As you continue the story, eliciting further vocabulary along the way, don’t wait too long before re-eliciting the language you’ve just taught them, especially the more challenging ones. By the end of the story, the new language should be firmly in your students’ heads and you are then ready to let them practise orally, or examine the written form.

When I taught ‘adjectives of feelings’ last year, I made-up story about the time I went to Berlin and bumped in to my ex-girlfriend. “When I saw her I didn’t know what to say or do because I felt so uncomfortable.” I pointed at my cheeks and said “My face was so red!”. “How did I feel?”, I asked them. This was a new word for them and three months later, when revising, the students still associated the word ’embarrassed’ with my uncomfortable feeling when I saw my ex-girlfriend, possibly because yet again, I was a victim they could laugh at.

For me, it was eye-opening to observe how deeply this link had been absorbed, and how presenting a personalised context generally leads to much better language recall months later.

Why make the effort?

It needn’t take you hours to make your own materials, and with experience, you’ll get better and quicker at producing meaningful, personalised contexts, which of course can be reused again and again in future lessons. Before you know it, you’ll have created a good library of unique materials, and of course, the respect and attention of the students.

Author’s Bio: Paul started teaching English in 2009 when he lived in Colombia and, upon returning to England in 2011, took the CELTA – he hasn’t looked back since! In 2013, Paul went to work for the fantastic IH Bydgoszcz in Poland, a school that’s very difficult to leave. He’ll back after the summer to start his fourth year there. In the summer, he works for UIC summer schools at various sites in a regular senior teacher position. He also runs a website for English learners and a Facebook page that has over 80000 followers.