The ESL Classroom: Tips for Managing Teens

Jenna Makowski's picture

It was the first day of the semester, and I was terrified. A group of 13-year olds were staring at me. Critiquing me. Instantly judging me. I wasn’t necessarily scared of teaching; I had the materials and the methodologies and the theories firmly planted in my mind and in my lesson plans. I was actually terrified of them. How could I ever make two hours of forced, after-school English classes interesting for a room of 13-year olds?

As the semester progressed, the inevitable moments occurred when hormones supplanted English learning, as Masha began to experiment with high heels and Alexei began to experiment with spiky hair. But I began to experiment too, with different ways of keeping young teenagers controlled, managed, and most importantly engaged, in my English classroom.

The most important lesson I learned was that young learners stay engaged – and the classroom stays under control -  when lessons are consistently active, constantly moving from one activity to another. Here are three activities to keep teenagers engaged with English.

Board Games

Board games are an effective way to keep students active, and can serve as good prompts to get them talking and using the grammar structures and vocabulary they’ve learned. And with websites like, it’s possible to turn almost any grammar point into a productive board game. A few topics that translate well into board games are:

Conditionals. Each space on the board contains the first half of a sentence, prompting students to create the second half. If it rains today, I’ll bring my umbrella. If I had a million dollars, I would buy a Ferrari.

The past simple and used to. Each space on the board contains questions that prompt students to answer using irregular forms of the past, or used to. Did you see any new films last week? Did you used to wear glasses?

Past perfect. Each space on the board contains the first half of a sentence, prompting students to create the second half. She was late for work because she had forgotten to turn on her alarm.

Vocabulary review. Each space on the board contains a list of words organized by topic, and students must add three more words to the list. Apple, pear, banana, grape, orange, pineapple.

Board game tips: I’ve found that board games tend to work best when only two or three people are playing on the same board. The more students per board, the more inactive time each student has between turns. One option is to make students repeat the answer that their partners gave before taking their own turn, a tactic that encourages them to listen, even when they are not playing. I also discovered the need for a small, shallow box to roll the dice in, lest they become projectile missiles.

Sentence Deconstruction and Reconstruction

I frequently used this activity as a warmer with my class of intermediate teenagers; it worked well with a group of six people. I began the class by writing a sentence on the board based on a grammar structure they had recently learned. For example, if they had just learned the present perfect, I wrote something like, Jan has just finished her book, and will start to read a new one tomorrow.

I then wrote a number above each word in the sentence. Because I had six students in the class, I only numbered up until six, and then repeated. I assigned each student a number, and told them they were responsible only for the words with their particular number.

Then I rolled a die. If it landed on 4, for example, student 4 had to choose one of his words and create a new sentence with it. So for example, if finished was a word with a 4 above it, the student could create a sentence like, I finished all of my work yesterday. I erased each word individually as students made correct sentences, until the board was empty. Then, I encouraged them to recreate the original sentence word by word, with each student contributing the words he was responsible for, in order.

I found that this game worked well to reinforce structures and word order, and also to give students a sense of language flexibility. And because everyone had the task of keeping track of his particular words, they tended to stay engaged throughout.

Vocabulary memorization

I frequently used this activity as a warm-up, to review vocabulary learned in the previous lesson. I began by writing a list of the targeted words on the board and told students to stare at it for one minute, in order to memorize it. I then passed out a blank piece of paper. I slowly erased the words on the board randomly, one by one, with students writing down each word as I erased it. Whoever had written each word in the correct order (the order in which I had erased them) was the winner. We then worked together to recreate the original list, working on pronunciation and reinforcing meaning.

My students got extremely competitive with this game, racing to see who could write each word the most quickly after I had erased it. I’ve found that this kind of competition could be used maintain engagement, as long as I kept the game moving quickly to keep it from spiraling out of control.



Jenna Makowski is the ESL Editor for Wandering Educators.  She has taught in the United States and Russia, and she currently lives and works in Poland.  Follow her adventures on her blog:


The ESL Educators Blog Carnival this month is hosted by Go!Overseas.This month's topic is Classroom Management Techniques.

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