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How can teachers help students do as well as they possibly can in exams, while maintaining motivation and enjoyment in English classes?

Some of the problems of preparing students for English exams are:

  • Preparing for exams can be very stressful for students
  • There never seems to be enough time
  • Exam preparation classes can become very boring
  • Teachers find it hard to find suitable materials for exam preparation lessons apart from practice tests
  • Doing Practice Tests can be very demotivating for students when they do badly in them
  • Teaching turns into testing

Yet in many ways the examination preparation class could be seen more positively as
  • Students are motivated to pass their exams
  • Students are all working towards the same goal
  • There is a set syllabus to follow
  • It is easy for teachers to justify what they do in lessons if it’s useful in the exam
  • There is a real challenge for students and teacher alike
  • The satisfaction on knowing you are doing well is very motivating

So we must attempt to build on these positive factors and reduce the negative.
Here are some tips and practical suggestions on how to do so:

Exam preparation classes should not just practise doing exams but teach students examination techniques and make these transparent.

Students must know what the exam includes and what the examiner is looking for.

Look through old exam papers with your students. Let them discuss what each question is testing e.g. a composition tests grammar, vocabulary, structure, punctuation, organisation of ideas, ability to interest the reader, ability to answer the question thoroughly and sometimes creativity and imagination, too.

Explain that examiners mark many papers and that can be a boring job. They are pleased when handwriting is tidy and easy to read and when students are imaginative. (I used to mark up to 1,000 examination compositions every summer and can tell you it is wonderful when students are truly creative and interesting. Once I had read the 50th story that ended with   and I realised it was just a dream’ I was ready to scream – driving the marker crazy is not a good way to get top marks in an exam.)

Please do not encourage students to learn model compositions by heart or even model paragraphs. Markers can spot these immediately and students will get no marks for this.

Students must get used to interpreting rubric (the instructions at the beginning of the exam and before each separate part of the exam) correctly. Many students lose marks by skimming over the rubric and, for example, writing more than one composition when only one is required.

  • You can play a yes/no game with students here. Let them read a rubric and then ask questions like:
Will you write in pencil?
Will you answer all the questions?
Will you spend one hour on part one? etc
Let them call out Yes or No or raise their arm if they agree with your statement. This will bring to their attention the need for careful reading.
  • You can also insist that they spend the first 5 minutes of any test/exam reading the paper carefully and are not allowed to pick their pens until those five minutes are up. This will ensure they don’t start off without a careful reading of the instructions and is also useful for calming them down at the start of the exam. I’ve made my teenage classes sit on their hands for the first five minutes to stop them grabbing their pens and writing immediately.

Merely going through practice tests only shows the students what they don’t know and doesn’t actually teach them very much.

Practice Tests are useful for students to get to know the format of the exam and to get used to the timing, but should be used sparingly. They take up a lot of time, teachers have to do a lot of marking and the results can be very demotivating.

You should continue to be ‘teaching’ English all the way up to the exam and not just recycling or testing. This will help keep students motivated and make good use of the limited time you have.

Exams test many different skills. Be aware of what these skills are and ensure you practise them in isolation as well as in exam mode. By isolating them you can help students understand their own strengths and weaknesses. Also students will be aware of the skills they should be displaying during the exam. Many young students go into an exam with the sole aim of surviving it and getting out as soon as possible. These students do not do very well in exams. The exam is, after all, meant to be a showcase for what they are able to do.

Below is a breakdown of some skills that are tested in different papers in an exam and some suggestions on how to practise them in class (or for homework). It is important that you explain to students how the skills you are practising in these activities can be used in the exam – point out the links. For example if you do some editing / correction work on a piece of writing in class, explain how this is also important to do in the exam.



In Reading Comprehensions students are faced with a lot of text and a time limit. Activities that encourage them to read effectively – to skim and scan and notice key words can be fun as well as effective.

Reading games:

Scanning quickly:
Copy a page from an English telephone directory or a TV guide (any page that has a lot of information on it). Hand out a copy to each student.  Call out questions like: Where does Mr J.Z. Brown live? What is Mrs K.B. Brown’s telephone number? Whose phone number is 01567 325987? etc the first student to answer gets a prize or a round of applause. Students will be really trying to move their eyes efficiently over the page to find the right information. It’s a game, so they won’t be stressed.

Finding key words and understanding gist:
Find 8 – 12 small newspaper articles. Cut them out and separate the headlines form the articles. Put the articles and headlines on the walls around the classroom. Each one should be numbered. The students move around the class reading them and have to match the articles to the headlines by writing the correct numbers together on a paper. The first student to come to you with the correct matched pairs is the winner.

Students often panic when they find words they do not understand in a reading passage. They should develop skills to deal with this and avoid getting upset in the exam.
Find a suitable passage for a reading comprehension and blank out every fifth word (or the right hand third of the paper – whichever you prefer. Start with an easy version and make them more difficult once students get used to this). Get students to do a usual comprehension exercise (multiple choice or questions) asking them to guess what the missing words might be.  Students could do this in pairs, as this way they will share their strategies and it will be more of a learning than a testing task.

Also encourage extensive reading through class libraries or readers. The more students read in English, the easier it will be for them to approach an unknown text in an exam.


Grammar is of course being tested in all parts of any English exam, but specifically in a test like the Use of English in the Cambridge First Certificate.
It may be hard to break down the aspects of the exam to practise, but when practising these tests let students work in pairs of small groups, so they get a chance to discuss (in mother tongue is fine) why they think their answer is right and can guide weaker students.

Here is a nice idea from Learning Teaching by Jim Scrivener, Heinemann (an excellent book with lots of practical suggestions especially for teachers who are new to the profession):

A ‘teacherless’ lesson: give the students the chalk or board pens and they discuss and work through an exam paper together on the board. The teacher only looks at (and marks) the board when they have completely finished.

Listening is a very difficult part of the exam. Students are easily panicked and distracted and they cannot spend a few minutes recovering as the exam tape will not pause for them.

Prediction – as soon as students start reading the questions they should begin formulating ideas about what they will hear. This can be done in class: let students read the questions on a listening task, brainstorm what they think they will hear, then play the tape and see how much they were able to predict. The more they can predict, the easier the listening will be for them.

If students are doing an international exam like the Cambridge FCE, they will hear native speakers. They should have been exposed to the features of natural English like linking, weak forms etc. A good way to do this is to practise listening with pop songs, which do not always have the clearest pronunciation and have features of natural English. See some of the ideas for using songs for listening comprehension on the web page on Using Songs and Music with Secondary students.

Many students have complained to me that during their listening exams there was a lot of noise outside the room where they taking the exam that made it difficult for them to hear the tape or that the recording was not very clear. So, when doing listening in class I often also play music, have another tape playing with some noises on or play the tape very quietly. This helps them to practise listening carefully, cutting out the noise that would otherwise interfere.

Do not leave speaking English out of your lessons. Encourage students to use English as much as possible. This is probably the most stressful part of the exam as they are faced with a stranger and are expected to have a conversation. They won’t be able to just learn a few lines of English to use in the exam. Nothing will substitute regular oral practise.

Plan your exam preparation programme backwards from the exam. If the exams are in June, plan how you can spread preparation classes over the term(s), beginning in January (or before if possible). Ensure that all lessons are not dedicated to the exam, but that you continue language development and fun lessons too.

For example:

As well as covering the required units in the course book

Review & practise Reading skills
Review & practise
Writing skills
Review & practise
Listening Skills
Review & practise
Oral Skills & go over all exam skills
English exams

A typical week in March:
The course book can be covered by doing some of it in each lesson or dedicating 2 or 3 lessons a week to it, plus the following, which do not have to be very long activities.

Vocabulary quizzes on adjectives and practise brainstorming for a sample essay
Punctuation exercises & read a funny short story & discuss what made it good
Write a sketch / dialogue and act it out.
Descriptive paragraph writing in groups on ohts – for class correction.
Students design quizzes / games to test each other’s vocabulary based on the course book units they have covered


Speaking / Fun

Make sure that each lesson has variety. Plan an exam preparation sandwich - start with a light-hearted quiz about language items covered previously and finish with a fun game. These quizzes and games are not a waste of time, but another way of revising language items or skills that may come up in the exam.
You can use games and quizzes as warmers at the start of a lesson to revise key vocabulary and grammar items. Also you can get students to work in groups and design quizzes for each other – here you double the revision, as students need to check the language while preparing the quiz and then practise it while doing the quizzes set by their classmates. Also this minimises the work you do – your job is to monitor and help students while they prepare and do the quizzes.

Key considerations in exam preparation are:

  • Reduce the stress
  • Make it success-oriented
  • Make it as much fun as possible
  • Make clear what skills / strengths are needed in the exam
  • Break down and practise individual skills


Teaching Mixed Ability Teens

Many teachers complain that they have problems dealing with classes that are mixed ability. The characteristics of such classes are
§  While some students follow the lesson and are able to answer questions and do well in tests, others fall behind, don’t seem to understand and do badly in tests
§  While some students pay attention and are cooperative, others ‘misbehave’ and seem disinterested
§  Teachers feel concerned that they are not challenging the high-achievers enough and at the same time are not giving enough help to those who are not doing as well
§  Teachers find it hard to ‘pitch’ their lessons at a level where all students can be engaged

In the past teachers may well have said that the problem was just that some students were cleverer or simply ‘better’, but we now understand that the situation is more complex than that. Our students are indeed mixed in many ways. They are different in terms of their levels of:

§  Attention
§  Interest
§  Motivation
§  Learning styles
§  Types of intelligences
§  Physiological needs
§  Psychological needs
§  Speed
§  Maturity
§  World knowledge
§  Knowledge of and about English

And you can probably think of other areas in which they differ e.g. girls and boys who in their class may be the same age, but may behave and respond very differently.

In order to give all students the chance to benefit from their lessons it is vital to take into account their difference and plan lessons or activities within the lesson accordingly.

Are we addressing all the students in the class?

Sometimes without being aware of it ourselves we are making the difference between students greater by favouring some and ignoring others.
Consider the questions below to reflect upon your own teaching and consider whether you are directing your lesson to all the students in the class.

Can all the students see you?
Can you see all the students?
Can all the students hear you?
Do you know all the students’ names?
Do the weaker students sit at the back, where it’s more difficult for you to make eye contact with them?
Do you ask questions to the class and give everyone time to respond or do you let the quick students call out the answers first?
Are you fair?
Do you encourage all the students?
Are you patient?
Are your instructions clear?
Is you lesson well signposted? (i.e. do students know what they should be doing at any given time? Do you give time limits for activities? Has everyone noticed that you want to give some new instructions or explain something?)

Students are at different levels of English

If students within the same class cannot cope with the same exercises, can you grade the tasks i.e. design them so that the same task can be done by different groups of students at different levels.

Here is an example of a writing task that is graded.

A. Write a postcard to a friend, telling them about your holiday.

B Fill in the gaps or circle the word you want to use:

Dear ________,

I am having a great / fine / terrible time here in ____. The weather is sunny / rainy /snowy. Everyday I go swimming / jogging / skiing. The food is terrible / ok / great. Yesterday I went to a circus / museum / zoo. It was _______.
Best wishes,

Write your friend’s name here:

Write your friend’s address here:

While one task is open and challenging for students, the second offers support. It is still challenging, as students need to read and choose their words. The first task may be very daunting for a less confident student and also they may be unaware of what kind of information goes into a postcard – here it’s their knowledge of the world that lets them down not necessarily their knowledge of English.

Students have different learning styles

Do you vary the way you present language and get students to practise it? If you use a course book, sometimes it’s easy to fall into routines in class that some students may find unstimulating and plain boring.

Howard Gardener’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences tells us that we all may learn in different ways and we also have natural preferences to the way in which we enjoy learning. If we only teach in one way many students will be disadvantaged. They will find it difficult to engage in the lesson and may switch off. They are not less able than others, they just need a different kind of stimulation.

For example they may be more:
Visual and therefore respond well to pictures and enjoy responding to language through drawing pictures
So when presenting language use pictures to give new language context e.g. use magazine pictures of homes/houses to introduce the vocabulary of furniture.
Kinesthetic and therefore respond well to activities that require movement in class. These students would respond well to drama activities like role plays that involve use of body language or action games, which involve moving around the class.
Musical – so why not use songs in class to introduce and practise new language?

(For more about Multiple Intelligences and their use in class there are many articles and books available – there’s lots on the internet)

Students have a variety of interests

Design tasks that are varied and allow students to draw upon their interest and world knowledge like projects. Here is an example of a mini-project below. If some students don’t like the subject, maybe they could be allowed to design something else that appeals to them more.

Young Designer of the Year

Join this fabulous competition and see your
design in the shops next year!!!

Last year’s winner was the Dream bath which included features such as the automatic back-scrubber, built-in Jacuzzi, a reading lamp and book rest, inflatable head pillow and many more… The lucky winner was Alejandro from Mexico City. Well done, Alejandro!

This year we invite you to design  the dream car
Draw your sketch below and be sure to label all the special features. If you win, you must be prepared to be interviewed by local TV journalists on their Dream Designer programme

Students come to class with a lot of knowledge of things other than English

Students are put off when they are not doing well in a subject. Remember – Success breeds success. Activities that allow them to use their outside knowledge can increase their confidence in class.
Try a general knowledge game like this:

Choose a letter of the alphabet and ask students to write the following beginning with that letter in English:

a country
a woman’s first name
a sport
a fruit or vegetable
a politician
a musician or composer
a part of the body

e.g. with the letter M = Malaysia, Mary, motor racing, mango, Mozart, mouth

What about diaries?
Encourage students to regularly write in a diary or journal. They can write about whatever they wish and however much they want. Focus is on fluency. Teachers can read and respond to the content. This creates a real and personal communication between the student and the teacher.

Use the checklist blow to self-check your teaching or ask a colleague to observe your lesson and give you feedback

1.      Are all students involved in the class?
·         Do weaker students always sit at the back?
·         Do you nominate weaker students to answer easier questions?
·         Do you check that instructions have been understood?
·         Do you monitor all students during activities?
·         Do you establish eye contact with all students?
·         Do you learn and use their names?

2.      Are you
·         Audible and visible to all students?
·         Encouraging?
·         Friendly?
·         Fair?
·         Enthusiastic?
·         Authoritative?
·         Signposting your lesson clearly?

3.      Pair and Group work
·         Is there are a variety of interaction patterns throughout the lesson?

4.      The Board
·         Can all students see it clearly?
·         Do students get to copy down what is on the board?

5.      Classroom layout
·         Do you vary it?



Teenagers – Writing Compositions

Students find writing compositions very difficult because

  • It is usually a solitary task, often given as homework and therefore unsupported
  • They find composition titles boring
  • They often feel failure when they have writing returned to them covered in red ink
  • It’s not communicative
  • It’s not fun
  • Writing compositions is usually a requirement of formal examinations like FCE, which teenagers usually perceive as stressful, linked to failure and unmotivating
  • Writing is a difficult skill even in our mother tongue – consider how often we have to write continuous impressive prose in our lives, especially when texting and emails encourage short abbreviated text.
There are many skills involved in producing good compositions. Don’t expect students to be able to write well without breaking down the skills and practising them separately. Footballers practise shooting at the goal, dribbling, tactics etc. They are not simply asked to turn up at the match and play the game!

Skills needed to produce good writing

  • Correct grammar
  • Range of vocabulary
  • Accurate punctuation
  • Correct layout
  • Correct register
  • Accurate spelling
  • Good range of sentence structures
  • Linking
  • Imagination
  • Planning
  • Drafting
  • Proof reading
  • Communication
I am sure you can think of more!

The following are some classroom activities which aim to develop the some of the skills above. They are meant to be achievable, for there is nothing more motivating than success, and also to be fun.

Grammar Auctions

Ø  Practise grammar and proof reading

Choose ten to fifteen sentences that your students have written in past compositions or are similar to those students often write. Half should be correct and the other half should contain errors that are typical of your students.

e.g. He has visited China ten years ago.
I usually live in Bolivia, but am living in Peru at the moment.
If had a lot of money, I will buy a sports car.
When you arrive in Paris, you will see the Eiffel Tower.

Write these sentences onto big pieces of card or onto the board. Prepare ‘pretend’ money for the students or use Monopoly money.

Students, in groups, get a chance to look at the sentences and decide which they want to buy.
If they buy a ‘good’ sentence, they will make a profit.
If they buy a ‘bad’ sentence, one that contains a grammar error, they will lose their money.
Auction the sentences to the class. (Who will give me one thousand dollars for this sentence, two thousand, three thousand? Going! Going! Gone! Sold to Mario’s team!)

This often leads to a lot of competition between groups and fun, but most importantly encourages students to look carefully at the sentences and discuss whether the grammar is correct or not. The ability to spot errors in their own writing is hard for students, but is a skill they need to develop to become more successful writers, especially in exams.
If students like the activity, you could incorporate it into regular diagnosis of their compositions.


Ø  Focus on communicating meaning and using correct grammar

This is a type of dictation, but I find my students don’t groan when we do it like this!

Choose an interesting or amusing passage, with grammar and vocabulary items that your students are quite familiar with. Some unknown vocabulary is actually good, as they need to try to make sense of the ‘whole’ meaning.
Read the passage out at normal speed twice. The first time students just listen, the second time they can make notes.
In pairs or small groups, students have to share what they remember and attempt to write a version of the passage that remains true to the original’s meaning and has correct grammar, but does not have to be exactly the same.
I get students to write their versions on OHTs and we all look at them together and decide if they are similar in meaning to the original and if we think the grammar is right.
They do not worry about content, as this is provided, but concentrate on the communication of message and good grammar.

This is a passage I use with teenagers and adults around FCE level. It is a true story, which adds motivation to listen.

A few years ago, at the Seattle Special Olympics, nine contestants, all physically or mentally disabled, assembled at the starting line for the 100-yard dash.
At the gun, they all started out, not exactly in a dash, but with a relish to run the race to the finish and win. All, that is, except one little boy who stumbled on the asphalt, tumbled over a couple of times, and began to cry.
The other eight heard the boy cry. They slowed down and looked back. Then they all turned around and walked back. Every one of them. One girl bent down and kissed him and said, ‘This will make it better’. Then all nine linked arms and walked together to the finish line.
Everyone in the stadium stood, and the cheering went on for several minutes.

Some interesting discussion on the nature of competition and cooperation may come out of this. Choose a passage that you feel your students will respond well to.


Ø  Don’t be boring, use interesting vocabulary and ideas

Thinking of good ideas and vocabulary is often not something students do well, especially in exams. This skill can be developed in class. It is a good warmer before students do some writing on the topic.

  • Write a topic on the board e.g. crime and get students to call out either good words or plot ideas for a story (gun, scar, bandit, threaten, bank robbery, kidnap etc). Collect those words and if students are not sure of the meaning, clarify.

  • Get students into four groups, give out one big sheet of paper per group, like this




Ask students to write down as many words appropriate to the composition topic. After a few minutes, students pass around their paper, so groups read others’ ideas and add their own. Do this again and until all groups have written on each sheet of paper. Again clarify any words that students are not sure of. You don’t need to do this, the students who wrote the word can.

  • My cat is a ……….. cat. In a circle students say the core sentence, but each student has to think of a different adjective to describe the cat. The first must start with A, the second with B and the third with C etc. Other nouns can be used depending on the topic of the composition that will be written later, ‘my school is a/an ‘, ‘the bank robbery was a/an ‘ etc


Ø  Recognise appropriacy of style / register

Students sometimes get register confused when writing. This activity helps them to recognise style/register.

Hand out this list to students:

Once upon a time……….

I regret to inform you……………

All my love, Boris xxxx

In conclusion, it must be stated that………….

She grabbed the gun and pointed it a Dillon.

The windows are large and look down onto a flower-filled garden

All this can be yours for only $999, if you call this number…………

Add two tablespoons of sugar and stir………

I look forward to your prompt reply…

Here in the studio we have the lovely Dido. Hi Dido….

Students discuss where they think these are taken from and why.


Ø  See a whole story before writing it – the supermarket thief

Students often start writing a narrative before planning where it is going, This activity encourages them to ‘see’ the entire sequence of events before starting writing.

Ask students to shut their eyes, and relax. Give the following, or similar prompts, pause between prompts;

o   Imagine a busy supermarket
o   What can you see?
o   What can you hear?
o   How do you feel?
o   What are you buying? Why?
o   You see a person, who makes you suspicious
o   What does this person look like?
o   What are they doing that is suspicious?
o   They take some items form a shelf and hide them in their coat
o   What are the items?
o   How do they take them?
o   How do you feel?
o   What do you do now?
o   How do you feel at the end?

Students can tell each other about what they imagined. They can go on to write their story. This technique is useful for narrative or descriptive writing.
It is not always necessary for writing to take place for a pre-writing activity to be useful.

Real Writing

Ø  Activities that foster real written communication

Writing in English can often seem the most unnatural thing for teenage students to do. Here are some real classroom writing activities.

  • Graffiti Wall – designate one wall, display area for English Graffiti. Encourage students to write up any thoughts, funny sayings, gossip – make writing English fun!
  • Letters to teacher – ask students to buy a separate exercise book to write letters to you. In class or for homework, ask students to write you a letter. They can tell you anything or ask questions. Respond to each individually and encourage them to continue this form of communication any time and only if they want to. This could also be done on e-mail. This may seem like a lot of work, but response can be amazing and helps build a relationship of trust between teacher and teen students.
  • Organise for students to write to pen-friends around the world. Nowadays using email makes this a much more effective activity than it used to be when students might have to wait weeks for a reply.
  • If students have a favourite international pop, movie or sports star, get them to write a letter to them or their fan club.
  • If your students feel strongly about world issues, like the deforestation of the Amazon, get them to write letters to world leaders or key organisations expressing their feeling – send them. Usually offices will respond and this will motivate students.
  • Have quiet times in class, when the only communication, for students and teacher alike, can be written, either on the board or on scraps of paper - a nice activity to quieten down classes!

Group Composition Writing

Ø  Practise writing entire compositions with peer support

Rather than give a composition to write in class to individuals and get them to write in silence, get students to write one together in small groups. The sharing of, ideas, vocabulary and mutual correction often leads to a much better product and brings to the surface the skills that are required to write successfully.


Ø  Motivate, don’t discourage

A composition returned to a student covered in red ink is very demotivating, think of ways to make correction more positive
For example:

  • Peer correction – in pairs students read through each others’ compositions and correct orally and discuss what might be a better version = helps students notice errors and analyse them, but this activity depends on mutual trust between students
  • Do not mark anything incorrect on the students’ compositions – just praise everything good – a nice piece of vocabulary, appropriate grammatical structure, imaginative idea etc
  • Use different colours – not just red!
  • Correct only one type of error per composition and tell students that you will be doing so before they write. For example, just correct the tenses or articles.


Ø  One of my favourite classroom writing activities. Group writing, reason to read and usually hilarious

Hand out a sheet of paper to each student. They are to write one sentence after your cue. Fold the paper forward so the sentence cannot be seen, pass the paper to their right, or so that all students receive a different piece of paper for each cue.

e.g. A love story

  • Write a sentence to describe a man. Give him a name. What does he look like? What is his character like?
  • Fold the paper, pass it to your right.
  • Now write ‘met’ and write a sentence to describe a woman. Give her a name. What does she look like? etc
  • Fold the paper, pass it to your right.
  • Now write where they met. Describe this place. Remember to use good adjectives.
  • Fold the paper, pass it to your right.
  • What did the man say? Write it down.
  • Fold the paper, pass it to your right.
  • What did the woman say? Write it down.
  • Fold the paper, pass it to your right.
  • What happened in the end.
  • Fold the paper, pass it to your right.
  • Now open the paper and read the love story.

The students will be motivated to read what has been written and that can be the end of it. Students could also choose a story and work on it – improve the links, grammar, vocabulary etc. All sorts of topics can be covered and teacher can decide on the prompts. This activity never fails to make my students (adults and children) enjoy the result of the writing process.


Getting teenagers to speak English in the ELT classroom


Do your teenage students lapse into mother tongue during group or pair activities?
Are they reluctant to say things in English in front of their peers?
Do they have few or no opportunities to practise spoken English outside the classroom?

Do you want them to speak more English in class?

Do you believe they would make more progress in their English if they used it more?
If you have answered ‘yes’ to any of these questions, read on.
Let us first examine why teenagers often avoid practising spoken English in class. They may be reluctant to speak English in class for one or some of these reasons:
q  They feel silly speaking a language in which they know they are making mistakes
q  It is artificial to communicate with their classmates in a foreign language
q  When they want to say something important to each other, they do so spontaneously in their mother tongue
q  They do not have the English to express the concepts that the teacher wants them to express
q  They do not understand the point of speaking English all the time in class
q  It is very tiring to concentrate on producing a foreign language especially when your level is low
q  The topic / activity that they are supposed to be talking about in English is boring, so they talk about something else in their mother tongue
q  Speaking English is difficult
q  Speaking English is not fun
For them these reasons are valid – maybe they have a good reason to want to use their own language.
The Communicative Approach encourages teachers to insist on the use of English in the classroom, but by constantly nagging teenagers to ‘speak English’ we may be being counterproductive. It is important as teachers to understand when and why we are encouraging students to use English. With younger children we try to immerse them in English and give them plenty of opportunities to acquire the language. As children get older they develop a variety of different learning strategies. While they will always be open to language acquisition, they also start using conscious learning strategies and may feel uncomfortable with others.
Allowing the use of mother tongue is important for teenagers, but we must understand how this will enhance their language learning experience.

Humanistic approach

If students feel strongly about a topic they are discussing in class, the way they are learning, issues outside the classroom etc it is only humanistic to allow them to express themselves in their L1 within the classroom.
§  Allow for an L1 island in the class – either a clearly defined area students can retreat to (a corner of the room or by the teacher’s desk) in order to express themselves in L1
§  or allow a time (e.g. the first or last five minutes of any lesson) that is free for discussing their learning, the topics of the lesson, or just telling their teacher and fellow students a funny story that would take forever to tell in English and would lose all the humour, etc
Making it a clear place or time can instil security, while maintaining an ‘English as much as possible’ classroom for the rest of the time
Comparing languages
The ability to compare their own language to English may help them overcome obstacles that L1 interference creates. Translating single words or sentences can lead to greater understanding.
§  Wall posters
Students can collate words on posters that either (1) have direct translations and are very similar in both L1 and English (2) false friends – words that seem similar but are actually different in meaning and often cause confusion (3) words that they often want to use but find hard to remember in English – students can choose their own criteria for such word banks.
They can also expand into collecting grammatical structures in similar groups
§  Idioms – students can collect local idioms and expressions with literal translations and then the English equivalents (e.g. an Arabic idiom translates into ‘The son of a duck is a floater’ and the English equivalent is ‘Fruit doesn’t fall far from the tree’. It is interesting to discover how similar many such expressions are even when countries and cultures seem very distant.
§  Students and teacher can discuss the precise meaning of the English in L1
§  Students can add L1 translations/explanations to their language records where appropriate
Talking about language
When students are asked to do grammar exercises, write together in English, do any work where they need to think about how English works, this is a situation when students may benefit from being allowed to use their L1 together. In these situations students often usefully explain grammar/lexis to each other, share ideas about how English works and actually engage in a much deeper exploration of language than one that might occur when their teacher tries to prohibit use of English.
Teachers can make it clear that at such times L1 use is OK!


Translation is a natural strategy for many learners in approaching language learning.
Here are some activities that are particularly appealing to teenagers. They are based on students translating from L1 into English in fun contexts, and that lead to a very focussed production of spoken English.
§  Traditional songs
Students (in pairs or threes) choose a song in their own language and translate into English (an added challenge is to try to make it still singable to the original tune)
§  Soap Operas
Similarly students choose a scene from their favourite soap opera or movie and translate into English. They can act these scenes out in front of the class later
§  Dubbing
Students can do the soap opera activity using a videoed episode of the programme, turn down the sound and speak over their English versions (this may be more appealing to more self-conscious students)
§  Interpreters
In threes, students take on the roles of an interviewer, a famous person who can only speak L1 and an interpreter. They must carry out an interview (TV interviews are good as students think about body language too) with the interpreter facilitating the communication. This is possible at low as well as high levels.
The above activities encourage students to focus on translating meaning and appropriate register, not just translate single words.
§  Tourist / Alien Role Plays
In pairs students are (a) themselves (b) a visitor from another
country or planet where only English is spoken.
(a) must explain an L1 instruction, menu, set of rules, advertisement etc to the visitor
§  Translation chains
Students stand or sit in lines, the first student is given a sentence in L1, they must translate it into English and tell it to the next person, who then translates it back into L1 and tells it to the next student etc until the end of the line. This can be done orally or can be written. This can be hilarious and can lead into interesting discussions about how the translations went wrong.
Having suggested reasons and activities to ensure that L1 is used effectively in the English teenager classroom, I am now going to move on to
How to encourage use of English
Teenagers often do not feel comfortable using English in the English classroom because they feel self-conscious doing so. Teenagers are very sensitive and a way of helping them deal with this, that I have tried successfully, is to introduce different ‘masks’ for them to hide behind.

Famous People

§  At the start of a lesson put stickers on the front of the teenagers’ shirts – these stickers have on them names of famous international figures that all the students will know (Barack Obama, Tom Cruise, Lady Gaga, Victoria Beckham, Che Guevara, Aristotle etc). Tell the students that for the entire lesson they will BE this person.
§  Students must walk around the classroom and greet each other without speaking – to encourage students to internalise the characteristics of these people
§  Next they can speak and say hello. At this stage students will tend to speak in another voice to their own – they are ‘not themselves’ but have taken on a ‘mask’
§  During the lesson, which can be a typical one, remind students who they are and that the only way to communicate with such an international group is through English
§  Set up a discussion on a topic – the next one in the course book will do. Students must discuss the topic in role
§  Encourage students to do group language work like grammar exercises still in role
This approach may not work with all groups of teenagers but has worked very successfully with groups I have taught, especially in the 11 – 14 age group, once they trust the teacher.


Similarly get students to wear funny hats or use props like sunglasses, a scarf etc to denote that they are in role as an English-speaking person during part or all of the lesson.
Set an example
If you share the same L1 as your students, stick to the rules that you set for your students. Use English as much as possible for class routines and for managing the class as well as for ‘direct’ language teaching.
Make English use achievable
Especially with low-level classes it is hard for students to use English without sufficient support
§  Provide classroom language (in the form of posters) that students can use throughout the lesson. Phrases such as ‘I don’t understand’, ‘How do you say x in English?’, ‘How do you spell x?’ etc can be introduced, drilled and students encouraged to use instead of L1 equivalents.
§  Make activities, such as pair work, achievable in English by ensuring as much of the English as possible that is needed for the task is pre-taught, drilled and practised before students are put into pairs/groups and expected to use it . A survey such as this:
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Student 1

Student 2

Student 3

Student 4





Can be a useful support for students to use in order to practise ‘Do you like watching xxxx on television?’
Students go round the class and ask four fellow students the four questions – they have all the language they need to do the task successfully and if they want to add more information in English they can do so under no pressure.


Teenagers, like adults, need to understand why they do what they are asked do in the classroom. Once their teacher explains the need for speaking English and how it will enhance their language development, they will be readier to try to speak more English, especially if they are clear about when they are free use L1 (see above). A contract can be negotiated between teacher and students with clauses like:
Teacher – I will allow students to express feelings about the lesson in L1
Students – I will try to use only English during role plays and pair work practice.


Sometimes students lapse into L1 because they simply forget they should be using English rather than communicating, problem solving or completing a task. I introduce playful reminders into lessons.
  • Pay a fine – if students lapse into L1, I shake a paper cup with a few coins in it that has $10 or similar written on the outside and threaten to fine them. I never take any money! But it becomes a joke and students remind each other to speak English saying ‘You must pay Miss Olha a thousand dollars’ etc, so it is focuses them back on to speaking English.
  • Similarly I have used a red card – a card I pass to the first student I notice using L1 excessively or inappropriately during the lesson. It is then her/his job to pass it on when they notice another student doing the same. The student with a red card at the end of the lesson has to do a job for me like clean the board or carry my books back to the teachers’ room. Again it just makes them more aware of using English.


Reading – Teens

Reading in class

Students who are faced with a text in class and asked to read it and answer questions often find the task difficult. Once they have had some disappointing attempts at this kind of reading they lose motivation and it becomes even harder for a teacher to get them involved in the task and eventually become successful.
We want the classroom task to help students develop reading skills as well as o motivate and challenge them.

We rarely read anything without having some ideas about what we will discover in the text, even if we are wrong. If we read a newspaper article, we may already be following an unfolding story or already be interested in the topic. If we read a story, we have already got a framework of what that story will contain – if it’s a science fiction story we will be expecting strange new worlds, aliens, spacemen, star ships etc. It is very hard to read something without having these ideas already in our minds.

It’s not a good idea to just hand out a text and ask students to read it and then set some questions.
a.      the students must be prepared for the text
b.      they must have a task set before reading otherwise their reading will have no aim – we do not read without an aim: we want to find out some specific information e.g. did our favourite footballer score any of the goals in last night’s match? Or we may want to get some general information about a topic.

So before reading:

Don’t let the students see the text yet. Get them thinking about the topic of the text – use one of the ideas below

1. Tell the class that today they are going to read a text about e.g. crime in America. Ask them what ideas they have on this topic and if they think crimes in their own country are similar or different.
For a class whose English level is not very high encourage the students to come up with words or phrases and write them on the board. If all the students do not know these words or phrases, this is a great opportunity for students to teach each other new vocabulary.


       murder    drugs       police with guns    death penalty  

dangerous streets         gangs      mugging         terrorists  


Higher level students could perhaps have a discussion in groups on the topic or do a similar brainstorming to the one shown in groups on large pieces of paper collecting vocabulary and ideas.

2. Prediction is a great way to get students involved in a text and to challenge them to produce imaginative, rich English.

3. Use pictures on the topic you are going to read to stimulate vocabulary or ideas.
Try this game – find a picture on the topic and if possible copy it onto an overhead transparency. Cover the picture entirely and gradually reveal the picture by moving a piece of paper covering it away gradually. As you do this keep asking the students what they see. Accept all possibilities and don’t tell them if they are right. This will give them confidence to keep making suggestions. Students will also be using lots of varied vocabulary and also using their imaginations. When I do this, students become focussed on the picture, enjoy the challenge of trying to work out what is happening in the picture and enjoy seeing the picture revealed bit by bit.

4. Jumbled headlines / titles
If you are going to read a newspaper article, take the headline and jumble it up and ask the students to work in small groups and see which group can put the headline back in the correct order.










Doing the activity makes students think about possible meanings and already they are beginning to wonder about the story.

This could be done with story titles too, that are longer than 5 words.

The reading task:

Who sets the questions?

Usually the task, quite often a set of questions on the text, is set by the teacher or is already in the course book. I prefer to get my students to set their own questions.

Once we have either discussed the topic or perhaps they have done the reordering the headline activity, I ask the students what they want to discover about the text and I collect their questions on the board. I then hand out the text and ask them to find the answers to their questions if that information is present.
A variation on this is to get them to predict what the text says. So for example with the ‘cunning jewel thieves get away with diva’s diamonds’  text, they guess what is in the article. Very often their ideas are both imaginative and appropriate:
e.g.  It was Mariah Carey.
She had lots of diamonds her husband had given her.
The thieved tied her up.
The jewels were worth 10 million euros.

Then they read the text and check if they guessed correctly.

Cunning jewel thieves get away with diva’s diamonds

Police are searching for thieves who last night managed to break into a 17th floor room in The Statten Hotel in Manhattan, New York and escape with the Danielli Diamonds, a set of jewellery made for the Countess Danielli in 1689 and currently owned by Mindy Morecombe, the American pop diva. The jewels are believed to worth around $20 million.
Miss Morecombe was staying at the hotel, while recording her latest single at the Brooklyn Recording studio. She had left the diamonds in the room safe, while having dinner with her agent and a few close friends including her boyfriend, rock singer, Bryan Keyz.
Police believe the thieves let themselves into the hotel room through the window after abseiling down from the roof six stories above. They used high-tech explosives to blow open the safe door and removed the diamonds that were inside. It is currently unknown how they made their exit from the $700 a night hotel that had up till now a reputation for high security.
Miss Morecombe is said to be very distressed by the theft and is appealing to anyone who knows the whereabouts of her favourite jewellery.

By getting the students to guess or set their own questions they are far more involved, use more language and are motivated to find out by reading the text. Notice that they don’t need to read every word – just as we don’t in our own language when reading newspaper articles.

Vary the tasks

Course books tend to set very similar tasks for reading. This gets very boring for students and some students may just not be very good at that task type but still be good readers.

  1. Drawing
Students read a text and draw a picture of the person or scene.

Madame La Knife
She was tall and slim, but you could see she was very strong. Her blonde hair was very short. Her thin eyebrows sat over small, snake-like eyes. Her nose was straight and her lips thin, and her smile was always cold and cruel. She wore high heels, a straight skirt and a black jacket that had ten large metal buttons. Her right hand held the famous knife. It was long, sharp and dripping with blood.
Captain Johnny Ocean
He had a red scarf tied across his head, but his long hair fell on his shoulders in an untidy mess. Around his eyes were dark circles and his moustache and beard were dark and untidy too. Under his right eye was the long scar from a fight he had had as a young man. His leather boots reached his knees, his trousers were dark and dirty and his shirt loose and baggy with dark stains on it. In his left hand he held his sword and looked ready to fight.
The House of Horror
It sat on the top of a hill, far from any other building, dark clouds behind it. A few dead trees stood to the right with big black birds circling over them. The large house looked grey and old. You could only see four windows on the second floor. The glass in the windows was broken and there was no light within them. A fence surrounded the building but the gate stood open. A path led to the huge wooden door, which was closed.

Taken from Film, TV and Music, Olha Madylus, CUP, 2009

  1. deduction

You could find a text like this

Inspector Lewis pushed open the door and took in the scene before him. It was a large room with many expensive looking paintings on the walls. There was a huge French window opposite him with the curtains partly drawn. In front of the window was a large, wooden desk. Papers and files were scattered all over it. Some had even fallen on the floor. Behind the desk a chair had been knocked over. To his right Lewis noticed a dark stain on the carpet and to his left what looked like a long silk scarf had been thrown down carelessly. In the centre of the room lay a gun. There was no-one in the room.
 “Now where could the Prince be?” wondered the Inspector.

and ask the students to read it and in small groups to try to work out what they think happened in the room.

3. jumbled reading
This is a nice challenging activity that encourages students to think about the logic of a text in terms of the meaning and the grammar – which they discover is inextricably linked.

Take a text like a short story and break it up into chunks. These could be sentences or broken in the middle of sentences. Students work in groups to put the story back into the correct order.

Here’s an example with a version of one of Aesop’s fables.

A wolf, however, did really come one day

any attention to his cries

destroyed the whole flock and then ate the boy

A shepherd-boy, who watched a flock of sheep near a village

The shepherd-boy, now really frightened, shouted

he laughed at them because there was no wolf.

He just enjoyed playing a trick on them

panic three or four times by crying out, "Wolf! Wolf!"

Moral – You cannot believe a liar, even when he tells the truth

made the villagers run out of the village in a
 "Help, the wolf is killing the sheep"; but no one paid

 The wolf, having no reason to worry, attacked and

and when his neighbours came to help him

The original story:

A shepherd-boy, who watched a flock of sheep near a village, made the villagers run out of the village in a panic three or four times by crying out, "Wolf! Wolf!" and when his neighbours came to help him, he laughed at them because there was no wolf. He just enjoyed playing a trick on them.
     A wolf, however, did really come one day. The shepherd-boy, now really frightened, shouted: "Help, the wolf is killing the sheep"; but no one paid any attention to his cries. The wolf, having no reason to worry, attacked and destroyed the whole flock and then ate the boy.
Moral – You cannot believe a liar, even when he tells the truth.

4. make up a title
After reading a story like the one above, encourage students to think up an appropriate title. This involves understanding the aim of the story and using key vocabulary.
The original title is ‘The boy who cried wolf’.

5. skim and scan
It’s good to develop different reading skills.

Skimming is reading quickly to get the main idea of a text.
You could give out an article from a newspaper or magazine and give students 30 seconds to tell you the main topic(s) of the article or to find out whether the writer of the article agrees or disagrees with the ideas she/he is describing.

Scanning is reading to locate particular information in a text.
This can be practised in a game-like way with any text that has a lot of information in it. I might make copies of the t.v. page from an English language newspaper – something like the one below and ask questions like these:

These questions expect the children to recognise key words in the text:

  • How many times is the news shown on television tonight?
  • If you like spy film which channel will you watch?
  • At what time can you see a programme about Einstein?
  • Which channel shows most films?
  • You are a Ben Moore fan, which channel will you watch tonight?
  • In what year was the spy film made?

These questions expect some inference skills and wider knowledge of vocabulary:

  • If you like sport, which channel will you watch?
  • How many comedy programmes are there on Channel 2 tonight?
  • Which channel is suitable for more serious people?
  • On which channel can you watch documentaries?
  • On which channel can you watch science fiction?

Channel 1

6:00 The News

6.30 soap: The Smythes – the ongoing story of a family in crisis

7.00 Fix It – more ideas on home decoration

7.30 FILM - Alone at Home – US comedy, starring Ben Moore, 1999

9.15 The News

10.00 FILM – David Bond 008 – The Spy who Shot me 1994

Channel 2

5.45 The food show – delicious fish recipes

6.15 The News – in detail from around the world

7.00 The Big Question – family quiz show

7.30 The Crazy Team – local comedy

8.00 Bill and Grace – US comedy

8.30 Spells – where 3 modern-day witches fight evil

9.30 Star Trip – adventures in outer space with Jim Nice & Tom Stewart – this week aliens attack the ship

10.45 Ha Ha Ha – late night jokes and fun

Channel 3

5.55 The Samsons – US cartoon

6.15 the Big Match – Live Manchester Utd v Dynamo Kyev

7.45 Golf Highlights – from the US Open

9.00 World Championship Athletics from Berlin

10.30 Snooker from the UK

11.30 Ice-skating from Serbia

Channel 4

6.00 Lions in the Wild - a walk in the jungles of Kenya with Dana Kay

7.00 Great Scientists - Einstein

8.00 The News

8.30 Drama –Queen Victoria starring Helen Tix

10.00 The Late News

10.30 The Politics Show

11.30 News round-up

Students are encouraged to do this quickly. You can ask questions orally and give points to the students who find the information first or you can hand out 10 – 20 questions and allow students to read the questions and scan the text for the answers, setting a time limit to encourage them not to read the whole text but to look out for key words. The idea is to get students finding their way around a text and answering such questions quickly and correctly.

Both skimming and scanning are real-life skills and also very important reading skills that students need in exams.

Extensive Reading

Reading in English is very good to help language development. Think of ways of encouraging students to read outside the classroom, too. Suggest they read books or magazines of interest to them. Try to collect some English language magazines like football or fashion magazines that they will be motivated to read.
Does your school have a library? If so, encourage your students to take advantage of it. Go on a class visit there and point out the kinds of books and magazines they might find interesting and that are at the right level for them. If you don’t have a school library, try to make one – obviously on a small scale - get together with other teachers and find books and magazines, ask friends, colleagues, students and parents to donate books and magazines. I have had a lot of success getting teens reading with just a box of old magazines and some novels that they took home and returned when read.
And don’t forget the internet. There are lots of sites with excellent reading materials that are free to download – newspapers and stories, too.

A note on reading aloud in class

Avoid it! Students need to learn to read silently and use different skills like skimming and scanning while thinking about the meaning of the text.
Reading aloud is not something they will need to do in English unless they become a newsreader.
Reading aloud is not good practice for speaking. Students struggle to articulate the words they see on the page often not even understanding them.
Listening to another student reading aloud is boring and not useful for the others. It also uses up valuable lesson time.