Teenagers often do not feel comfortable using English in the English classroom because they feel self-conscious doing so. Teenagers are very sensitive and a way of helping them deal with this, that I have tried successfully, is to introduce different ‘masks’ for them to hide behind.

Photo of a teacher speaking to their students.

Source: monkeybusinessimages, iStockphoto

Famous people

  • At the start of a lesson put stickers on the front of the teenagers’ shirts – these stickers have on them names of famous international figures that all the students will know (George Bush, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Pamela Anderson, Che Guevara, Aristotle etc). Tell the students that for the entire lesson they will BE this person.
  • Students must walk around the classroom and greet each other without speaking – to encourage students to internalise the characteristics of these people.
  • Next they can speak and say hello. At this stage students will tend to speak in another voice to their own – they are ‘not themselves’ but have taken on a ‘mask’.
  • During the lesson, which can be a typical one, remind students who they are and that the only way to communicate with such an international group is through English.
  • Set up a discussion on a topic – the next one in the course book will do. Students must discuss the topic in role.
  • Encourage students to do group language work like grammar exercises still in role.

This approach may not work with all groups of teenagers but has worked very successfully with groups I have taught, especially in the 11 – 14 age group, once they trust the teacher.


Similarly get students to wear funny hats or use props like sunglasses, a scarf etc to denote that they are in role as an English-speaking person during part or all of the lesson.

Set an example

If you share the same L1 as your students, stick to the rules that you set for your students. Use English as much as possible for class routines and for managing the class as well as for ‘direct’ language teaching.

Make English use achievable

  • Especially with low-level classes it is hard for students to use English without sufficient support
  • Provide classroom language (in the form of posters) that students can use throughout the lesson. Phrases such as ‘I don’t understand’, ‘How do you say x in English?’, ‘How do you spell x?’ etc can be introduced, drilled and students encouraged to use instead of L1 equivalents.
  • Make activities, such as pair work, achievable in English by ensuring as much of the English as possible that is needed for the task is pre-taught, drilled and practised before students are put into pairs/groups and expected to use it. A survey such as this can be a useful support for students to use in order to practise ‘Do you like watching xxxx on television?’:
TVStudent 1Student 2Student 3Student 4


Students go round the class and ask four fellow students the four questions – they have all the language they need to do the task successfully and if they want to add more information in English they can do so under no pressure.


Teenagers, like adults, need to understand why they do what they are asked do in the classroom. Once their teacher explains the need for speaking English and how it will enhance their language development, they will be readier to try to speak more English, especially if they are clear about when they are free use L1 (see above). A contract can be negotiated between teacher and students with clauses like:

Teacher – I will allow students to express feelings about the lesson in L1
Students – I will try to use only English during role plays and pair work practice


Sometimes students lapse into L1 because they simply forget they should be using English rather than communicating, problem solving or completing a task. I introduce playful reminders into lessons.

  • Pay a fine – if students lapse into L1, I shake a paper cup with a few coins in it that has $10 or similar written on the outside and threaten to fine them. I never take any money! But it becomes a joke and students remind each other to speak English saying ‘You must pay Miss Olha a thousand dollars’ etc, so it is focuses them back on to speaking English.
  • Similarly I have used a red card – a card I pass to the first student I notice using L1 excessively or inappropriately during the lesson. It is then her/his job to pass it on when they notice another student doing the same. The student with a red card at the end of the lesson has to do a job for me like clean the board or carry my books back to the teachers’ room. Again it just makes them more aware of using English.