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Teach English online to teens like the one in this photoWhen a student is not engaged, what do you do? If the student is a child, maybe you play a game, make a funny face, or use a puppet to get his or her attention. For an adult, perhaps you can adjust the topic to make it more relevant to his or her English learning goals. But what do you do when the student is a teenager? If you use the same tactics to teach English online to teens that you do to five or six year olds, all you might get in return is a skeptical look of “you want me to do what?” On the other hand, if you get straight down to business as you would with an adult learner, you might just get looks of boredom.

Teaching English as a second language to teens can be challenging for many different reasons. The students may not be interested in learning English or see an online ESL class as just another chore they have to finish. If there is a difference between the culture of the teacher and student, it may be hard to find topics teens get excited about and start a conversation. And we shouldn’t forget that group dynamics change for older students, who may feel more embarrassed or nervous to make mistakes in front of their peers compared to younger children.

Top Dos and Don’ts to help you teach English online to teens with success


  • Play games: Just because the students are adolescents, doesn’t mean they don’t like to have fun too. Bridget O’Neill has been an educator for the past five years and is currently Assistant Principal at Harlem Children’s Zone Promise Academy. While a 2016 Fulbright English Teaching Assistant in Malaysia, O’Neill says she liked to do fluency games as a warm-up, such as tongue twisters or even “something wacky, like pretending to greet a random object.” Other ESL games for teens can be adjusted for different levels of students.
    • 20 Questions: Take the classic road trip game and turn it into an ESL activity. The tutor can set a category related to the lesson, or keep it open. One student will think of a person, place or thing and the other students take turns asking Yes or No questions, such as “Is it red?” “Can you find it in a grocery store?” This game helps students practice formulating questions and being creative.
    • Odd One Out: The tutor shares sets of three to five words with the students. Either individually or as a group, they have to decide which word doesn’t fit with the others and explain why. The sets of words can be as easy or as challenging as you’d like. Some examples are apple, banana, carrot (carrot is not a fruit) or lion, panda, whale, parrot (parrots are not mammals).
  • Find their interests: “When a teacher can connect with a student and find ways to appeal to their passion, experiences, and areas of interest you gain their investment naturally,” says O’Neill. While parents and schools do expect students to complete the lesson content, it’s OK to go off topic sometimes, especially if the subject gets them using English.
    Photo of band to use to teach English to teens online

    Spark conversation with ESL teens by researching pop culture

    • Just like the teens in your life, ESL learners enjoy sports, fashion, movies, music, video games, and many other activities. It’s definitely worth taking some time to research the pop culture, even if it’s just some slang or gesture, and try to incorporate it into your teaching. You will probably surprise them if you mention some of their favorite celebrities in class!
    • If finding famous people from your students’ home country is difficult, don’t fear. You’d be surprised how much Western culture students are exposed to, no matter where they live. Students may be familiar with the same Hollywood movies, superstar athletes and top 40 musicians that you know.
    • When in doubt, remember some topics transcend culture. Food, celebrations, and family are just a few ESL conversation starters that can work with just about anyone.
  • Give students some control over the lesson: What did you want most as a teenager? Being treated like an adult and not like a kid, right? Having choices and helping make decisions in the class helps build rapport between you and your adolescent students.
    • Set goals together: Whether students feel that English is important for them or not, having a goal at the beginning of the course or each class can help focus and motivate teens. It also sets the expectations for the class
    • Let students choose the order: If your lessons generally follow the same pattern, give students a chance to decide on the order of the lesson. It can shake up routine and make the class seem new again and lets students feel like they have some agency in their learning. Of course, they have to finish the material regardless, but allowing them to choose which discussion questions to answer, or whether to do speaking practice or vocabulary first, can feel empowering.


  • Assume older equals high level: It can be easy to forget that not all teens have had the same kind of language instruction from five years old like their younger siblings. But some students may have only recently begun learning English, or just received basic instruction in school. Furthermore, some adolescents may be very skilled in some areas of language, such as reading or writing, but below proficiency in others. Being able to adapt to different students’ levels is a must, whether that is simplifying questions, using TPR or adding visuals to the class to facilitate understanding.
  • Forget to use pictures: Just as you might use puppets or other props to encourage speaking for younger students, photographs or other visuals can be great tools for older learners of any level. They can be used to add interesting content to the lesson, explain difficult words or concepts, or stimulate creativity and get teens’ attention. Funny pictures can break the ice, get students laughing and make them feel more comfortable.
  • Get frustrated: Just as with any level class, there will be ups and downs. What works for some students won’t work for all, and often you will have to adjust your methods. Don’t be afraid to try different approaches and see what works best. No matter what, try to build rapport with your students. “Nurturing that bond is what makes students want to show up every day and show you what they can do,” advises O’Neill.

When you teach English online to teens, patience and perseverance are key. But with some creativity and enthusiasm, you can win them over and engage even your most disinterested students.

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