Getting teens to talk

This post outlines my problem-solving techniques, and offers some tips for improving interaction in teen classes.


It’s only a few weeks into term, but I’m revisiting familiar issues with my new teen classes:

Why are they so timid? Why won’t they volunteer answers during class discussion? Why won’t they share ideas when nominated? Why won’t they interact in pairs? Am I putting too much pressure on them so early into the term? How can I stop them speaking together in their L1? Should I always stop them speaking in their L1?

Many colleagues have similar problems, and are very supportive. Their advice has included:

  • Don’t forget that they are teenagers
  • Always take into account the influence of learners’ own culture
  • Don’t take it personally
  • Consider whether your expectations are realistic

I agree with all the above, but I still feel I could do more to improve the way my teen classes are interacting. I’ve dealt with these issues before, so it’s time to reflect and consider how best to address the situation.

What exactly are the problems?

When there are problems in class I like to write down exactly what I think the problem is:


Image courtesy of Tumbleweed Holdings

Put simply, my teens are not interacting much:

  • They don’t speak much in pairs, and rarely share ideas together in English
  • They barely contribute at all in group or class discussion, leading to eerie silences and tumbleweed moments. At best, group discussions are dominated by one stronger speaker
  • They don’t seem that engaged in the lesson topic, despite attempts to personalise the content

Note: all classes referenced are teenagers, aged 12-14, pre-intermediate level

Why might these problems exist?

Next, I try to pick out the key issues and start brainstorming a few ideas of possible causes


The above are just a few possible reasons for the problems faced. I’m aware that they might sound a bit obvious, but that doesn’t mean they are all easy to deal with! So, if these are the problems then what are the solutions?

Reflecting on my own practice

Once I’ve explored the problems and possible reasons, I start with some self-reflection. I normally write myself a list of questions to think about, which help me both reflect and generate ideas:

  • Do I make students feel more nervous by nominating them? Can I change my nomination techniques to limit this?
  • Are my instructions ok? I’ve had problems with these before.
  • Have I learnt enough about the students from past teachers?
  • Have the class always been quiet? How was their rapport last term?
  • Have I learnt much about the students’ own education system?
  • Are my learners trained and familiar with communicative approaches?
  • Am I scaffolding tasks effectively?
  • Am I providing process language when it’s needed?
  • Do students understand what they are achieving in each task?
  • Are tasks too difficult?
  • Am I personalising the lesson topic effectively?

Responding to the learners needs

My reflective questions help to devise a set of actions to undertake outside and inside the classroom. The bulk of my questions above focus on planning and practice – after all, the problem does occur in class! For me, these are the most pressing issues to address. This week I’ve been exploring various troubleshooting techniques, and assessing whether learner interaction improves as a result.

Developing world knowledge

My students are 13 years old, so they undoubtedly lack a bit of world knowledge. Following a textbook syllabus means that every now and then we encounter activities that assume a bit of world knowledge. An example was the other day, when students were doing a speaking task using the passive voice, from our textbook English in Mind:

A: When was the Berlin Wall knocked down – 1979 or 1989?

B: I don’t know what the Berlin Wall is.

A: When was the Titanic struck by an iceberg – 1902 or 1912?

B: I don’t know.problems2

This is not how the activity went, this is how I saw it going. I knew that my students would know the Titanic, but the other questions asked about the Berlin Wall, Space Shuttle Colombia and Pompeii… I wasn’t so sure. I set a homework activity the week before in preparation for this task (see right).

I devised similar activity for other students on different world events. They then used these for a jigsaw listening task at the start of the next lesson. The speaking task then became a quiz to test what the students had learnt.

There is a reason I set this task for homework – I knew students would look up the information in their L1. In class I’d normally discourage this, so I allowed them to explore the topic at home first to give them greater confidence discussing it in class. The chances are that if the topic interests them they’ll come to class prepared with a bit of new vocabulary they’ve looked up, which can be exploited.


Image courtesy of Wikipedia

Making learners feel more confident and knowledgeable

Lack of world knowledge, lack of task knowledge, lack of vocabulary, lack of this, lack of that. I’m perceiving my classes so negatively, but they have plenty of knowledge they can utilise. Reminding them that they DO know a lot helps to build rapport, give learners confidence, and personalise a lesson. My follow-up task to the activity above (sticking with the same ‘past passives’ form) was:

Write two TRUE/FALSE statements about history or events in your own country to ask me. If the statement uses the past passive structure, you get one point. If I guess the TRUE/FALSE statement and get it wrong, you get another point.

Of course, as teachers we know EVERYTHING, so make sure you get a few answers wrong on purpose…

(Note: I learnt that Ayutthaya was destroyed by the Burmese. Click on the picture to learn about that too)

Giving activities a clear purpose

In one of my classes we were looking at the topic of ‘Natural Disasters’. Before reading a text on swarms of locusts, learners had a few prediction questions to do, similar to these:


Discuss these questions with a partner

What insect is the article about?             

How do these insects live?

What problems do they cause?               

Why are farmers afraid of them?

Student’s answers formed the focus of a gist task, where they skimmed the text and checked if their predictions were correct. The first time I did this activity, pair discussion was almost non-existent, and feedback as a class just didn’t work. Students seem bereft of ideas and engagement.

I discussed this with a colleague (thanks Leigh), who said ‘just make sure every task has a clear purpose, and students know what they will achieve.

For my next class at the same level, I tweaked the activity. Here’s how:

1) I made the task competitive: if students guessed correctly they got points for their team.

2) I made students develop their ideas: they had to think of two possible answers for each question

3) I varied the interaction patterns: First, students had a minute to think alone so they were prepared to speak. Then they shared ideas with a partner. Then they worked as a group and decided on the two best answers for each question.

4) The class feedback was visual rather than verbal: I asked one member from each group to write their answers (as notes) on the whiteboard for everyone to see, instead of sharing them vocally.

Preparing for a gist task took nearly 10 minutes, but who’s counting? The students got far more out of it, and they spoke together in English without realising it. A small change in helping the learners understand what they achieve from a task led to a big improvement to how they interacted.

Nomination techniques

Just because learners won’t speak during class discussion/feedback stages doesn’t mean they should be avoided. I normally manage class feedback quite well and can keep the dominant speakers in check, but find myself begging them to say something when everyone else is silent.

The way I nominate learners needs to change. One interesting recommendation from my girlfriend, a primary school teacher,problems4
was to adopt ‘the lollipop method’. This is where all students in the class have a number. The teacher has a pot of lollipop sticks with numbers on them. When its feedback time, the teacher picks a stick – it your number comes up, it’s your turn to speak.

I can see how this might work – everyone knows they might have to speak so they will prepare something to say. I’ll try ‘lollipopping’ this week, but I feel like it might lead to some awkward stand-offs.

(Note: image taken from this great post on using lollipop sticks)

Something else I tried in class this week worked well. I set a few questions for group discussions, then I nominated one person from each group as the spokesperson.

‘Share ideas for 5 minutes. After 5 minutes, I will ask for feedback from Bob, Bill, Belinda and Benny’.

I saw these students then acting as note-takers, clarifying points. Other students were dictating, engaging in discussion, etc. Letting students know that they will be giving feedback at the START of a task allows them time to prepare – that includes preparing mentally.

Believe it or not, I have my Year 4 Primary school teacher to thank for that method, as halfway through my own task I had a flashback to doing something similar over 20 years ago!



My essential materials for teen classes

If someone asked me to share one way to get teens talking in groups, I’d say put a mini-whiteboard (MWB) on their desks. I’ve mentioned before about the scoring system I use on my whiteboard. Most points are gained during the lesson from the abundance of games I make up involving feedback/answers on these mini-whiteboards. There is an instant buzz in the classroom when I say ‘Ok, on your boards…’ – students love them. The best thing is that you can’t use them too much, there is never overkill. I’ll probably post up my favourite ways to use MWBs at some point so I’ll leave the details, but here’s what they do for my classes:

  • Get the students talking without even realising they are!
  • Energise students
  • Make many activities more collaborative
  • Allow you to analyse your learners – especially the ones that can’t help drawing on their MWB during other activities…

Remember: make sure the designated MWB writer is rotated within groups often to prevent certain students dominating.

Process/task language

There are times when I set learners a task and get frustrated when they don’t come up with ideas. The other day they were given a set of statements about environmental issues which they had to agree or disagree with:

In 50 years’ time everybody will recycle                  AGREE                  DISAGREE

All the students circled their opinions alone, then compared answers with a partner. They did the first part in silence, naturally. They then did the second part in silence by just looking at each other’s paper, again naturally! When I told them not to look at their partner’s ideas, but share their ideas verbally, they did this:

A: In 50 years’ time, everybody will recycle. Yes.

B: Yes.

That is what I told them to do, so why should I expect anything less? However, if you scratch the surface a bit, not only are they doing the task in a way you didn’t expect, they are also not answering it truthfully.

Teacher: So Bob. In 50 years’ time, everybody will recycle

Bob: Yes

Teacher: You agree?

Bob: Yes

Teacher: Do you agree 100%?

Bob: No

Teacher: Oh, why not?

Bob: [silence]

problems1Firstly, I didn’t give students any language to help them express their real views. It’s always hard to simply agree or disagree, so grading answers is probably better – like number 1 if you strongly agree, 7 if you strongly disagree, etc. Tell the textbook writers that…

Not only that, students don’t have the language express their opinions properly, this needs to be modelled (see left).

As for the ‘why?’ they need time to think about that too. Plus, they need to consider the process they’re undertaking, and need some language to help them with that too:

A: So, what do you think about the first statement?

B: I strongly agree, because….

How about you?

A: I disagree, because…

B: Ok, fair enough. What about the next statement?


My students find this type of activity difficult, hence it’s the time when they either keep quiet or revert to their L1. With a bit of scaffolding, supporting language and clear modelling, this might be avoided. The best way to establish what language they might need is to perform the task yourself.

Phew! So that’s just some of the ways I’m trying to get my teen classes to interact a bit more. At the moment it seems to be working…

I don’t want you to think that every time I have a problem in class, I go overboard like this! I’ve tried a longer post here as a stream of consciousness thing, then gone back and highlighted key points. It turns out that I’ve given myself quite a lot of advice… you should try it!

What tips can you share? How do you tweak activities to get timid teens talking?

UPDATE: Sandy Millin has suggested this great ELT chat summary for further ideas on the topic. It’s well worth a look!


Categories: General, teacher development

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17 replies

  1. I use a random number generator app to choose the students so it doesn’t look like I am picking on them. The android God has spoken. I press the generate button in front of a student so there is no cheating and then look at their number in the register.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I’ve made some pretty unsuccessful attempts at making younger teens speak in class. I find the combination of their limited life experience and their limited language skills (level A2/B1 mostly) difficult to manage. I’ve actually had groups who’d rather spend time filling in worksheets than talk, which was extremely disheartening. I think the “I don’t have anything to say” reason you’ve identified is the biggest difficulty to overcome. I believe that once students find the topic even remotely interesting, they will try to communicate it with the world. I’ve been trying to personalise speaking activities as much as possible (passive voice for the technology they use daily, talking about clothes and fashion by visiting websites of the stores they shop at, comparatives for talking about the lives of famous musicians/actors/athletes they like). As for nominating the students, I have a rule of 3 seconds of silence after I ask my question. It might not be much, but it gives some extra time to everybody to digest the question and increases the chance of getting the correct answer from more students. I like the idea of making calling on students more of a game that would keep them on their toes, I need to try it!

    Liked by 1 person

    • yeah, thinking time… good thinking! I forget the importance of this, probably as I get a bit scared of silence in the classroom. I guess this comes with confidence though, and realising that silence may not actually be a bad thing… Cheers for the tips as always. By the way your new site layout looks very snazzy!


      • I know what you mean and, believe me, it was quite awkward at first. My students didn’t seem to see any point in keeping quiet and thinking. I decided to be consistent and it worked (with some groups better than with others, of course). Try it and don’t get discouraged by some initial resistance/questioning the point of it. PS: the layout was a very belated birthday gift, no way I would be able to pull it off!


  3. These are great! I also use Classdojo ( to encourage speaking, classroom participation, interaction and to discourage L1 chat, but you need a computer or device kids can see.
    My (mostly Italian) students are not as quiet in class as I think other cultures can be, but they always need to have a genuine reason for speaking to each other and they need the language to do it confidently – no one (but especially not teens) wants to be tongue-tied in front of classmates!
    Great tips, thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Hi Pete,
    This post is an excellent example of action research and the reflective process in action which I’ll be passing on to my teachers, not to mention all the great ideas for encouraging teens to speak. Here’s an ELTchat summary from a few years ago which may give you some extra ideas:
    Good luck!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Very insightful and comprehensive- thank you for sharing!



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