Anna Hasper looks at the importance of engaging teenage learners. Anna explores what teens like, how they like to engage, and what factors enhance engagement. She provides a variety of engaging activities to help teachers create an effective learning environment.

There are lesson materials including a worksheet and teacher’s notes at the bottom of the article as well as a link to a webinar for Macmillan English in which Anna discusses these ideas at length.


If you have ever taught teenagers, you know that teaching does not automatically lead to learning. Successful language learning depends not only on the teacher, but also on a key factor - creating a learning environment where everyone wants to learn. In short, it’s a classroom (face-to-face or online) that engages and motivates learners. So, what could that look like when teaching teenagers?

Teens are experiencing numerous changes; physically, emotionally and cognitively. Areas in the brain responsible for judgement, reason and empathy are still ‘under construction.’ This means that teens are often more engaged in finding out who they are, who they want to be and how they fit into their social group than what’s going on in class!

‘Misbehaviour’ on the part of teens is often driven from the inside; it is simply a way of trying to get what they feel they need, such as a sense of belonging, freedom, control, fun and security. If these needs are met, teaching teenagers can be an exciting and rewarding experience (see Glasser). So how can we win them over? By engaging them!

Engagement is not the same as being kept busy. Engagement means learners are passionate about their involvement and enthusiastic about their learning. They are willing to learn and show an inner drive (Williams, Mercer & Ryan, 2015). So often education is driven by cognitive engagement, such as developing thinking skills. However, engagement is multifaceted, and engaging learners’ feelings and actions is equally important. This is particularly key in the teenage classroom as teens are still developing social-emotional and other key life skills. Including opportunities for learners to connect with the subject matter, communicate their ideas, choose their topics and challenge themselves enhances learners’ overall engagement.

Create opportunities to CONNECT

When the material is meaningful and authentic, teens will connect with it. For example, you might localize materials or personalize topics so learners feel part of their learning community. Relating new ideas to prior knowledge provides the conditions that enable learners to contribute. The feeling that their ideas matter in the discussion helps lower the affective filter and creates a willingness to engage. The key to working with teens is building rapport and showing an interest in their lives. By doing this, you’ll know what’s important to them and how to connect their interests to the materials you teach.

Here are some activities to create connection

  • Find Something in Common
    Pose a question that will engage your students, such as You are going to travel overseas on a long trip. Which five essential items will you bring? Have learners write five items and think about reasons for their choices. Mingle learners or share ideas in the chatbox or breakout room and try to find someone with two or three items or reasons in common.
  • Think Pair Share Square
    Give learners a statement or question to respond to. For example If you could be anywhere right now, where would you like to be and why? Give them time to think about the answers before sharing ideas in pairs. After a few minutes combine two pairs and share again; this time they should report on what their partners told them.

Allow learners to COMMUNICATE

Suggested online activities

Allowing learners to work together means they practise language skills, share expertise and experiences, and learn to collaborate with each other. Being heard makes teens feel respected by their peers, which keeps them engaged in the activity.

  • Where do You Stand?
    Provide a statement and ask learners to decide on a scale of 1-10 how much they agree or like something and why. In the classroom, learners can line up by number; online they can write their number in the chat. Then pair learners with different views to discuss their choices and try to convince each other of their point of view.
  • Feed it Back
    Ask learners at the end of class for their feedback on the lesson. Ask them to write on a sticky note (in the classroom) or in the chat (online)three things they have learned, two things they liked and one area they need more help with.

Give learners CHOICE

Teens are working out their place in life and may resent always being told what to do in class. Giving them a choice about the topics they study and the type of activity they do will make them feel respected and take responsibility for their learning – both increase engagement. Learners are all different and should have an opportunity to demonstrate learning in ways that suit them.

  • Choice Menu
    Make a menu of choices about how to do a particular task. Give your learners options for how to complete a task (the process) and choices for what the final task will be (the product).
  • Up to You!
    If a student course book has too many similar practice exercises - which can bore teens - have your learners complete half the exercises in the book and then write their own sentences to give to a partner. When learners have to complete a speaking task, let them add their own topic to the choice list.

Provide a healthy CHALLENGE

Learners are more engaged if they feel they can be successful at a task. Tasks that are too easy bore them, whereas tasks that are too hard frustrate them. Select tasks that are achievable or offer differentiation so all learners can experience success and keep their inner drive alive. Encouraging learners to see challenges and mistakes as natural opportunities for growth instead of failures can help maintain engagement.

  • 1, 2 or 3?
    We often differentiate tasks, but remember you can also differentiate timing, interaction patterns and the level of support being offered. For example, when learners are working on a challenging task provide three different options for support: if they want some support, they open document 1. For a bit more support, they open document 2. For the detailed scaffolding, they open document number 3.

Whether you are in a classroom or online, whether the activity uses technology or not, engaging teenagers has everything to do with their feeling of empowerment. The way to engage them is to address their key needs to connect with others, communicate their ideas, choose for themselves, and succeed at a challenge.

Further reading

Williams, M., Mercer, S. and Ryan, S. Exploring psychology in language learning and teaching. Oxford, OUP, 2015.
Glasser, W. Choice theory in the classroom. New York, Harper Perennial, 2012.
Ryan, R. and Deci, E.L. Self-Determination Theory: Basic psychological needs in motivation, development, and wellness. New York, Guilford Press, 2018.

Anna Hasper’s webinar for Macmillan English on practical ways to engage teenage learners.