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? 


5 Games for Advanced Students


We’re all familiar with the games teachers habitually play in the EFL classroom: hangman, 20 questions and so-on. When your students have a high level of English, though, it gets a bit tricky – those games may be fun, but they present little to no linguistic challenge for your students and as such don’t have much value.

Just because your students are upper-intermediate or advanced, it doesn’t mean they don’t want some fun every now and then (especially if they’re kids or teens!). So, what can they play?

1. Challenge

Also known as Stop the Bus (although I’ve never figured out why!). The aim of this game is to be the last player remaining by correctly spelling words under pressure.

Nominate a student to begin the game. The student must say a letter. The turn then passes around the classroom, with each student saying a letter to continue spelling a word.

For example:

Student 1: C

Student 2: A

Student 3: T

The student who completes a word then begins a new word. However, if a student thinks that the person before them has made a mistake, or has given an impossible letter combination (eg. C-A-L-T) they must question the student by saying ‘Challenge!’. If the challenged student fails to produce a correct word, they are out. If they can answer correctly, then the challenging student is out (and the subsequent rounds skip that player). The last player remaining in the game wins. The teacher monitors, provides a countdown time limit if students hesitate too much before providing an answer, and optionally can provide additional support by writing the letters on the board (if desired).

2. Word Squares

Put the students in pairs, or ask them to play on their own if you think they fancy a challenge!

blank_grid-2ewi9kvDraw a grid on the board, 3×3, and ask the students to copy it down (one grid per pair).


Then elicit a 3 letter word from the students, and write it diagonally in the grid, one letter per square, starting from the top left hand corner and finishing in the bottom right hand corner. Explain to the students that they must race to complete the square with words that read left to right.

If for example you start off with:


The students’ end result might be:


When the first group finishes, stop all the pairs and collect feedback. I normally play three rounds of this game (the fastest pair to complete the square correctly getting a point each time), using a different variant for each round.

Possible variants include:

Using a bigger square – 4×4, 5×5 and 6×6 all work

Students may only write verbs (although any form is acceptable)

Students may not use the letter ‘e’ (or another commonly used letter)

3. Word Tennis

This can be played as a team game, or with each student playing individually. The teacher selects a topic (eg. vegetables, sports, the environment). The turn moves around the class (or alternates between the two teams) with each student (or team) saying a word connected to the topic. The last student (team) to be able to say a word each time wins a point.

4. Scattergories

I’ve played this game with students at pre-intermediate level or above, but it still works well for upper-intermediate or advanced levels – just make the categories harder (and perhaps include things more relevant to topics they have studied).

Teacher (and students!) select 4 or 5 categories and writes them on the board.

Eg. Place         Food         Personality Adjective         Outdoor Hobby            Job

Put the students into pairs or small groups. Each group needs a piece of paper and a pen or pencil.

The teacher says the alphabet in their head/randomly draws a scrabble tile/any other way of choosing a random letter. The students must then think of (and write down) one word for each category beginning with that letter. When they have one word for each category they must shout ‘stop!’ and the scoring for that round begins.

There are plenty of different ways to score this, but usually I award:

0 points for no word/ a word that does not begin with the correct letter

5 points for a correct word that is the same as another team’s word

10 points for a correct word that is different to other team’s words

20 points for a correct word if no other team has a correct word

Repeat for  3/4 rounds and tally up the scores at the end.

5. Hangmanagrams


No, that isn’t a typo. For students who love hangman (but who honestly find it too easy) here is an extra challenge (which also gets them thinking about letter patterns). Hangmanagrams is played in almost the same way as hangman – a word is chosen, dashes drawn for each letter, students guess the letters, a new part of the drawing is added for each incorrect answer etc (less bloodthirsty versions can be substituted). Why almost? Well, that’s where the ‘anagrams’ part comes in.

Correct letters are written up on the board – but they can be written in any order. For example, if the chosen word is ‘APPLE’, and ‘P’ and ‘E’ have been guessed, the student/teacher writing the word may choose to write ‘P P E _ _ ‘, ‘_ P _ E P’ or any other variant. As well as guessing the letters correctly, the students must guess the (unscrambled) word – even if they’ve guessed all the letters, each incorrect word guess counts as another life.

What games do you play with your high level students? 



Teaching Teens 101


Teenagers often have a reputation which precedes them. Moody, rude, unmotivated and uncooperative, they’re many teachers’ least favourite age group to work with. What many teachers don’t realise is that teaching teens can be just as fun and rewarding as teaching other age groups – you just have to approach it in the right way. 

Thrown in at the deep end and have a class of teenagers to deal with? Here is what I wish I’d known when I first started teaching teens. 

1. Remember that they’re not adults.

It sounds obvious, but especially if (like me) you’re not overly tall, it can be a bit of a shock to walk into a room of 15 year olds and realise that they all tower over you. One of the mistakes people often make when teaching teens is that they assume that because their students look like adults, sound like adults, and sometimes act like adults, they can teach them in the same way that they would adults. With some classes, you can – however as a general rule, I’d say ‘don’t’. Teenagers don’t have the same attention span as adults. Hormones lead to fluctuations in both mood and energy levels. Often teachers complain about their teenage classes being ‘bored and lethargic’, when actually their students are just tired. For more information about the differences between teenage and adult brains, I really enjoyed this article.

Teenagers can be interested in very ‘adult’ topics (and by this I mean things like politics and the economy, as well as the other interpretation), but they can also surprise you by suddenly being interested in something that would strike you as being very immature. I remember one occasion when my teens begged me to let them write letters to Father Christmas – simply because they’d seen the letters my younger students had written and for whatever reason it had tickled their fancy.

Finally, it’s worth bearing in mind that teenagers do need stricter boundaries than adult students. In most adult classes, there isn’t much classroom management to ‘do’, students don’t tend to be badly behaved and students are generally respectful of others’ points of view. Adult students also don’t have quite the same propensity to say things simply to ‘get a reaction’. Your teenagers need to be aware that if they wish to be treated like adults, they need to behave like them.

2. …but they’re not kids either.

Given what I’ve just said, it can be natural for teachers (especially those used to teaching younger children) to go too far in the other direction and treat their teens as though they are simply bigger children. Again, this tends to not work well. Teenagers are becoming ever more aware of themselves and the world around them, and as they get older they are increasingly able to engage in adult topics. I’ve yet to encounter a teenager who doesn’t hate being patronised – and if you ask them to do too many activities which are seen as ‘babyish’ this is the risk you are running.

3. Let them provide the input.

As I’ve touched upon in my last two points, teens can often be changeable, and surprising! It can be hard to work out what they will (or won’t) be interested in, and even if you weren’t a teenager too long ago yourself, it can still be difficult as an adult to try to keep up with the latest popular singers, films, books, and trends. Rather than guess what your students might be interested in or which celebrities they might be familiar with, it’s far safer to plan your activities so that your students can provide as much of the input as possible – even if it means asking them about things they like, and planning a subsequent lesson based on that.

4. Let them talk about themselves.

A useful addition to the above point. Teenagers are often pretty self-absorbed creatures, and are far more likely to engage with an activity if it gives them the opportunity to think, write, or speak about themselves. It also means you’re guaranteed a topic that everyone is interested in – win-win! The teenage years are also when children move from only thinking about their own little world to having opinions on more diverse subjects and issues, so if something does come up (or a textbook activity on the environment or laws is unavoidable), be sure to ask if they have an opinion on it.

5. Respect them!

I cannot stress this enough, as I’ve always found this to be the most important factor when teaching teens. If you respect them, they respect you – and vice versa. Teens need to be allowed to express themselves, to engage with themselves, each other and the world around them, and they need to be able to do so in an atmosphere which is open, friendly and supportive. Conversely, they should know that there is acceptable and unacceptable behaviour in the classroom, and any words or behaviour which are intended to hurt, belittle or intimidate other class members, or to disrupt others’ learning, will not be tolerated. Make your expectations know, be clear, be firm, and above all, be consistent.

6. Give them some responsibility.

With respecting teens, comes giving them some responsibility. Show them that you trust them, you respect and value their ideas and opinions, and their behaviour is almost sure to reward you. Not sure how to give your teens responsibility? Allow them to determine the consequences when rules in the class contract are broken. Allocate a certain student or group of students to be responsible for preparing/leading a game each week or each lesson. Spice up a revision lesson by asking each pair to prepare and present a short summary of a topic that will be covered in the test.

7. Don’t police them too rigidly.

Part of treating teens with respect and giving them some responsibility means trusting their ideas and opinions. Sometimes it can be worth giving teens a bit of a free rein and allowing them to talk about a potentially controversial issue – they may well surprise you with their maturity!

8. Ask “why?”

Often we associate constantly asking ‘why?’ with toddlers or small children. However it’s something I like to use with teens, as it forces them to think a little more and express themselves more clearly and in more detail. Often teens tend to try to cut off a conversation by giving a quick/silly answer. ‘What did you do on the weekend?’ ‘I slept.’ ‘What did you do yesterday?’ ‘Nothing.’ ‘What can you tell me about the person in the photo?’ ‘He’s stupid’. Rather than try to pressure students into giving an entirely different answer, another approach can be to take their original answer and then run with it. ‘You slept? All weekend? Do you like sleeping? Why do you like sleeping?’. Be warned, this will make you incredibly annoying. It will also make your teenagers talk more, and in time they will give longer, more thought-through answers.

9. Expect the unexpected.

One of the joys (and the challenges) of teaching teens is that you never quite know what to expect. A normally chatty, lively class can be impacted hugely by a pre-lesson argument. School exams can have an effect on how motivated (or even how awake!) your students are. You may carefully plan a lesson, only to find that for whatever reason, on that day, your students aren’t interested in it. Yes, it’s annoying. But often going with the flow is the only way.

10. Hold the coursebook loosely.

Maybe whatever coursebook you’re meant to be using is fantastic, ideal for teenagers and really suited to both the level and the interests of the students you’re teaching. Chances are this is not the case. You may want to think about adapting the coursebook, leaving out or changing some activities altogether. Particularly if your coursebook is a few years old, don’t hesitate to replace the material (or particularly the songs!) for something a bit more up-to-date. The coursebook is there to help you – but provided you’re teaching whatever grammar, vocabulary and skills that the students need for any exams they are taking, don’t feel as if you have to follow it slavishly.

I hope some of this helps with your teen classes (particularly if you’re new to teaching this age group!). You can also read my Teaching Kids 101 post, which focuses on teaching 6-12 year olds.