Choosing Topics for Teens

questions-to-ask-yourselfwhen-choosing-topics-for-teens

Things they believed when they were children, zombies, part-time jobs for teenagers, WWII, their ideal futures, the generation gap, US politics – all topics that have worked well over the years when teaching my teen classes. Music, fashion, school, popular TV shows, teenage life in other countries – all topics that haven’t.

It’s easy to see why when teaching teens it can be tempting not to stray far from the coursebook. Sometimes, however, there’s little choice but to use your own material, and sometimes you (and everyone else) simply get bored of the same old topics covered in seemingly every teen course – many of which are in my ‘didn’t work’ category! When it comes to thinking outside the box and choosing your own topics/material for teaching teens, here are 5 quick questions to consider.

1. Is this topic relevant to my teens?

Who exactly is in your class, and what is the focus of the coursebook? Although not ideal, it’s possible that at least some of your students will be older/younger than the focus of your coursebook. This means that you might end up, as I did, frantically trying to find ways to make a unit about ‘the world of work’ interesting to 10 to 12 year olds. A good indication is to ask yourself if your teens would be interested in this topic if they were talking about it in their own language. It’s worth remembering as well that teens at the younger end of the scale tend to be pretty self-absorbed (through no fault of their own, it’s simply a stage in development), and so their interest in different cultures/places they have never and probably will never visit/famous historical figures is likely to be quite limited.

2. Am I thinking outside the box?

Many coursebooks tackle the issue of relevancy by predominantly dealing with topics related to teen culture: music, film, fashion, friendship, etc. There are two problems with this: firstly, most schools don’t update their coursebooks on a yearly basis, and popular culture dates quickly. Secondly, talking about the same topics all the time quickly gets boring! You don’t have to stick to these topics – and sometimes thinking outside the box a little can be a great idea! Teenagers are starting to be more aware of the adult world around them, and as they figure out their place in it, they also have lots of opinions! Don’t be afraid to discuss a topic simply because it seems like something very different to the topics you normally use; your teens may well surprise you! When it comes to knowing what your teens are interested in or would like to discuss or study – ask them!

3. Is there an element of choice?

One important thing when teaching teens at any point is to include an element of choice – and this can be a great approach if you’re not sure which topic would be relevant/interesting for your class. On the face of it this seems like it creates more work for you, but that doesn’t have to be the case. Giving teens a choice works particularly well with project work; examples of this could be:

  • Alternative formats for the material you want your students to produce (eg. students can create a presentation, make a poster or write an essay).
  • Alternative tasks (eg. research and present an existing festival, design your own festival)
  • Same task, different topic (eg. students produce a presentation on a topic of their choice)
  • Choice within a limited topic (eg. writing a film review – students choose what film)
  • Positive/negative approach – I’ve found teens often enjoy this one. For example, rather than asking them to design their dream school, give them the freedom to choose that, or to design the worst school in the world. Create a campaign for healthy eating – or create a campaign to get people eating nothing but junk food. The subversive element really captures their imaginations and gets them thinking!

4. Am I making assumptions?

One of the reasons choosing topics for teens is so tricky is that it’s often easy to make assumptions about what they will and won’t be interested in. I’ve taught teens before who have loved Harry Potter – so Harry Potter is a great topic choice for teens (not always the case, it tends to be quite polarising and students either love it or hate it!). If you’re planning a programme of work around a particular topic (which will last for more than one lesson) it’s wise to check student interest first, or provide tasks but allow students to choose their own topics. Don’t necessarily assume that teens will or won’t be interested in something based on previous teenagers you’ve taught: ‘all teenagers like talking about music’ is about as much of a fallacy as saying ‘all British women like cats’.

However, if you’re choosing a topic that will only be used for one lesson (or even one activity!) don’t be afraid to choose something you’re not certain all your teens will be interested in – especially if you’re teaching older teens. Being able to engage with a boring topic is to some extent a life skill, and so something your students will need to encounter sooner or later.

5. Is this topic appropriate?

My final words on this topic are a word of caution. Although with the rise of the internet teens and children are exposed to far more at an increasingly younger age, we as teachers are still in a position of care. If you’re uncertain if the topic is age-appropriate, or you think it’s unlikely that your students would be exposed to this at their age in their culture, it’s wise to steer clear. Teens often like to think of themselves as adults, but that doesn’t mean that they are! Even if your teens all assure  Particularly if you have a variety of ages in your class, err on the side of caution: what’s appropriate for your older students might not be appropriate for the younger ones. It’s also worth bearing in mind that your opinion counts too! Your teens may tell you that they all play (insert violent computer game here) and they know all about (insert controversial adult topic here) – but at the end of the day you’re still the teacher and you’re still in charge. If you feel at all uncomfortable, again it’s a topic to avoid.

I’ve tried to avoid giving lists of appropriate/inappropriate topics for teens here, as every class and teacher is different – but I’d love to know what’s worked well for you! Have you had any topics that have worked particularly well with your teen classes, or any topics that you thought would be a success, which then flopped? 

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2 thoughts on “Choosing Topics for Teens

  1. Great questions, Elly – thanks for sharing them in a blogpost.
    I’ve done a couple of fun activities on the topic of holidays recently with my B1 teens. One was Disaster Holidays where they had to create a dialogue about a terrible trip – to be honest, this was taken from the book, but the ideas for things which could go wrong where quite standard (miss a flight, lose your money), so we brainstormed what problems you might have and they came up with more meaningful ideas (natural disasters, a terrorist attack, being bitten by a shark). It meant that their dialogues were much more dramatic and engaging.

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    1. Thanks Teresa 🙂 That sounds fun! I remember doing an activity about a bear attack at one point with a group of teens (again, an activity in the book)… however my teens all decided it would be far more fun if it were about a zombie attack. So zombie attack it was! Again, it captured their imaginations more and so what they came up with was far more engaging 🙂

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