Philip Prowse and Judy Garton-Sprenger discuss the need to motivate and empower teenage students.

Photo of a classroom of teenagers.

Source: FatCamera, Getty Images/iStockphoto



Will you be quiet? I need you to be quiet. I’m waiting. I’m waiting. Will you listen to what I’m saying? Is anyone listening? Fatih, you’re not listening. Grace, you’re not listening. Bashir, stop fighting. No, Hassan, don’t punch Fatih. Will you be quiet? I am asking you to be quiet. I AM TELLING YOU ALL TO SHUT UP! SHUT UP!’
'My blood pressure has sky-rocketed. I can feel the blood bubbling against my cheeks. My head is throbbing from the noise and humiliation of it all and still the class is not listening. It is the beginning of the new academic year …'
You only become obsessed with control when you lose it. Until things went seriously wrong, I wasn’t too bothered about my ability to “control” a class. After it, my desire for control became an obsession that was to dominate my teaching career for the next few years.

These quotations are from I’m a Teacher, Get Me Out of Here! by Francis Gilbert. Many of us can identify with the feelings of humiliation when teenagers won’t behave, and recognize the subsequent desire for control. But is control the answer? Indeed, is there any real sense in which a teacher can be said to ‘control’ a class?

Peter Hook and Andy Vass in Teaching with Influence argue that the answer to both questions is no. All you can actually control is your own behaviour, and the way you behave influences the way your students behave. You cannot make students behave, you cannot force them to do what you want, but you can influence their behaviour. Hook and Vass’s ideas are based on extensive work with UK secondary teachers, but their ideas are relevant to ELT, and can be adapted to English classrooms worldwide.

Agreeing a set of rules

A good start is to be open about what goes on in the classroom. Every group has its own rules, and these need to be made explicit in order to be effective. Zoltá n Dörnyei and Tim Murphey put this very well:

Real group norms are inherently social products and therefore in order for a norm to be long-lasting and constructive, it needs to be explicitly discussed and accepted as right and proper by the majority of the group.’

This process can be described as the development of learner/teacher contracts, or learning contracts, but ‘contracts’ makes it sound rather grand. The form of the discussion/agreement will depend on particular schools and individual teachers and classes – each school, for example, will have its own disciplinary code. The important thing is open discussion and agreement about both teacher and student roles, a two-way process and an ongoing one with regular review. This agreement could be a piece of paper with mutual rights and obligations pinned to the wall (e.g. Students: We will listen to each other and respect each other’s views. We will be punctual. Teacher: I will discuss each week’s learning plan with you. I will be punctual and mark your homework within three days), or it might be something much less formal.

In Confident Classroom Leadership, Peter Hook and Andy Vass recommend three basic rules:

1 Follow your teacher’s directions.
2 Keep your hands, feet and objects to yourself.
3 No swearing, name calling, put downs, etc.

But in the context of these rights:

1 the student’s right to learn
2 the teacher’s right to teach
3 everybody’s right to safety
4 everybody’s right to dignity and respect.

Students are empowered and motivated by the recognition and acceptance of these rights, which create a shared responsibility between them and the teacher.

Raising awareness of the learning process

Being open about what goes on in the classroom also means being explicit about the language-learning process. A co-operative classroom is one where both teacher and students focus on awareness of this process. This involves highlighting cognitive and metacognitive learning strategies, fundamental to the development of learner independence. We aren’t trying to make a case for developing learner independence because that case has already been made. Instead we offer some examples of activities which engage learners in thinking about the learning process from the outset.

The first is a simple reordering exercise which emphasizes the value of using English to ask for clarification and explanation.

Classroom English

Put these words in the right order to make sentences. You can use the sentences to ask your teacher or another student for help.


understand I sorry don’t
right excuse this is me ?
word say you this do how ?
mean does what that ?
again say that you can ?
help please you me can ?
doing exercise we which are ?
please what answer is right the ?

The next three activities suggest a variety of strategies for learning. They also emphasize that different people learn in different ways, and encourage students to make their preferred learning styles explicit.

Learning styles 1

It’s good to try out lots of ways of learning. What is the easiest way for you to learn new words? Order these ways 1–7.


  • Using new words in speaking activities
  • Drawing pictures of the new word
  • Looking at the parts of a word
  • Playing games and doing crosswords
  • Writing sentences using the new words
  • Putting words in groups and making word maps
  • Associating the word with something else

Now compare with another student. Try another way of learning words.

Learning styles 2

When you want to learn new words, you can make associations. For example, you can associate a word:


  • with a picture in your mind
  • with a sound or a colour
  • with other words in the same category
  • with a word in your language
  • with a person or a story

Now choose some words and try to learn them by making associations.

Learning styles 3

What does ‘knowing’ a word mean? Which of these answers do you agree with? Compare with another student.


  • Being able to understand it
  • Remembering it when I need it
  • Being able to pronounce it correctly
  • Being able to spell it properly
  • Knowing how to use it grammatically
  • Knowing which other words I can use it with

Learning outside the classroom

In the guise of a matching exercise, the activity below highlights the many and various possible ways of learning outside the classroom. Activities of this kind, which promote conscious reflection on the language-learning process, lead to more successful learning outcomes, a vital factor in student motivation.


What can you do to practise English in the holidays? Which of these resources can you use? Match the resources with the activities.


Youtube video          mobile phone          library          computer          TV          coursebook


Talk to yourself in English (silently!) when you are walking somewhere.
Watch or listen to English language programmes.
Film yourself talking in English and then watch it.
Use email to contact other learners of English.
Listen to songs in English and read the words.
Watch recordings of films in English.
Read lots of books in English.
Look back through it and revise what you have learnt.
Phone a friend every day for five minutes’ conversation in English.

Creating lessons

Co-operation implies flexibility on the part of both teacher and student. It’s clear from our awareness of differences in students’ learning styles and backgrounds, interests and aptitude, that a ‘one size fits all’ approach won’t work for language learning. Equally, the lesson we plan is rarely, if ever, exactly the one we teach, since we respond to classroom interaction. We create the lesson by the choices we make as we teach it, but choice pre-supposes things to choose between. Therefore it is our belief that, while there is a common core of materials which all students cover, teachers need to be equipped with exercises at different levels to cater for mixed ability and, equally importantly, with a range of extra possibilities at every stage of the lesson so that they are prepared (without having had to prepare themselves) to react to feedback and to change or add an activity as appropriate.

We believe this is best done mainly in the teacher’s book of a course so that the new materials/activities come fresh to the learners. For most student’s book activities, we would expect the teacher to be given one or more optional activities to have ‘up their sleeve’. For example, if you are teaching verb/preposition + gerund for talking about likes and dislikes, here is a range of extra activities you might be given to choose from so that you keep the students motivated:

  • Students guess what you love, hate, are good at and bad at. Help them with mime or prompts, e.g. It’s a sport. Encourage them to ask for further information, e.g. How often do you go swimming?
  • Class survey: students collect information from lots of other students in order to prepare a wall chart: Things we love / Things we hate / Things we’re good at / Things we’re bad at.
  • When students write about themselves, tell them to include one piece of false information which a partner has to identify.
  • Collect in students’ paragraphs about themselves. Read out some extracts and ask the class to guess who wrote them.
  • Write the following on the board:

Find someone who…
loves _____
hates _____
is good at _____
is bad at _____

Students copy and complete the sentences with four different activities of their choice, e.g. dancing. They then ask other students questions, e.g. Do you love dancing? and try to find a different person for each category.

Offering choices

Choice is also part of the students’ acceptance of responsibility for their own learning, and the teacher’s language can influence that.The balance of power in the classroom is a delicate one and all too often students feel disempowered in the face of an all-powerful teacher. Equally, a teacher who feels at a loss is still viewed as an authority figure (and an easy target). The normal reaction of many teenagers is to challenge authority, to regain some power. But what if the teacher presents them with the power of choice to start with?

Peter Hook and Andy Vass emphasize the importance of offering choice:

What is the difference between these pairs of statements?
  • If you don’t do it now, I’ll send you out.
  • If you choose not to do it now, you’re choosing to go out.
  • Sit down and shut up.
  • I’d like you to choose to sit down and be quiet.

The difference lies in making students aware that they are responsible for their own behaviour, that they do indeed have choices. And this awareness of responsibility enhances motivation.

Achieving objectives

Co-operation in the classroom is fostered by the achievement of objectives – success in the given language-learning task. This is why it is important to set a series of smaller achievable tasks, rather than one, possibly unachievable, task. And to motivate students to attempt the task, two factors are needed: interest and pleasure. Language lessons cannot only be lessons about language – both content and interest are essential for engagement. We advocate a topic-based cross-curricular approach where students use English to learn something beyond the language. We also advocate classroom activities which the students enjoy and learn from at the same time, such as brainteasers, games, songs and amusing sketches which demonstrate the use of the target language.

To conclude, by controlling our own behaviour and language, and by offering choices, we can influence our students’ behaviour and empower them. A classroom where the students feel empowered is a co-operative, motivating learning environment.


Bress, P, ‘Sign here!’ ENGLISH TEACHING professional 36 2005

Dörnyei, Z, and Murphey, T Group Dynamics in the Language Classroom CUP 2003

Gilbert, F, I’m a Teacher, Get Me Out of Here! Short Books 2004

Hook, P and Vass, A, Confident Classroom Leadership David Fulton 2000

Hook, P and Vass, A, Teaching with Influence David Fulton 2002