Review written by Jake Haymes
This book, part of the Cambridge Handbook for Language Teachers series, is aimed at teachers of students aged between 11-16. Many of the 99 activities include suggested variations so the teacher really is presented with a lot of options. In the introduction, Lindstromberg recognises the realities and potential challenges of teaching this age group – poorly motivated students and large, mixed ability groups. Solutions to these problems are offered throughout. The editor also points out that the vast majority of students in this age range are learning English in an L1 community and, as a result, will not have much opportunity to express themselves in the language outside of the classroom in the near future. He states that ‘poorly motivated students are rarely persuadable by such arguments as This will all be very useful to you one day.’ Therefore, the activities selected aim to motivate learners by being intrinsically interesting and varied. Most of the tasks outlined have clearly achievable goals, require more than just producing the correct forms (brainteasers, quizzes etc.), use non-language stimuli (pictures, objects, mime and sound), and incorporate movement and humour.
Teachers who are familiar with some of the Lindstromberg’s earlier work will not be surprised to learn that most of the activities take a broadly humanistic approach. Students engage with language on a personal level (examples being Tell me about it and My schoolbag and yours) and are encouraged to use imagination and creativity (Be someone else, Fake biographies and Take a good song and make it better). Many teachers will testify that more traditional materials for this age range do not provide the learner with such opportunities. However, many might also wonder how successfully they will be able to incorporate such activities with large and sometimes difficult groups, bearing in mind their learners’ previous experience and expectations. Lindstromberg, aware of potential reticence, provides an excellent opening section which offers invaluable advice on approaches to these activities which should maximise their usefulness and prevent disruption. If, as may often be the case, this type of activity is new for a group (or its teacher), I would strongly recommend reading the introduction beforehand.
In keeping with the student-centred theme, Lindstromberg includes classroom activities in which the students themselves are involved in establishing the learning environment. These include Jobs for friendship pairs and very useful persons, Noise control: the disappearing word and discussing ground rules. The rest of the book is divided into the following chapters:
Short, auxiliary activities: ice-breakers, warms ups, breaks and closures
Learning and renewing vocabulary
Building the skills of discussion and debate
All chapters start with a brief discussion of the area (the vocabulary section is particularly useful) and go on to include a series of activities. The editor, clearly aware of the time constraints many teachers are subject to, helpfully organises the information so that suitability can be quickly assessed. Each activity is headed by a shaded box detailing appropriate age, level, time needed, focus and material needed. The suggested procedure which follows is clear and to the point and the teacher is given permission to photocopy many of the materials included.
The four skills chapters, significantly named mainly speaking, mainly reading etc., offer ideas for integration either as part of the activity itself or as follow-on work. Students might, for example, read a text and add to it, write a similar text or simply share their reactions to it with a classmate. Some of the suggested texts themselves do contain quite a lot of rich, abstract language so teachers may wish to spend a little time clarifying this before having their students read or listen.
The activities featured vary in length from 5 minutes to on-going project work so even teachers who are required to cover a pre-set syllabus will find something to use here. Many of the activities also inherently promote learner training through tasks such as mind mapping, formulating arguments and text mapping which will provide students with skills that can easily be transferred to other school subjects, not to mention their language learning.
Questions such as ‘Have you got anything good to practise the past simple, second conditional etc?’ are frequently heard in teachers’ rooms and those scanning this book to find grammar presentation or consolidation may initially be disappointed. Indeed, there is no grammar chapter as such. This is not to say that this book ignores structure but that, with the learners’ ideas and imagination as the starting point for many of the largely humanistic activities, the focus on form tends to arise from what the students have either been exposed to via the texts or what they have produced themselves. In this respect perhaps teachers with experience of Task-Based Learning may find it easier to integrate a grammar focus into these activities. In any case, the book seems to be intended as supplementary material to a coursebook and many teachers will testify that the standard syllabus material they are required to use for these age-groups already contains a great deal of grammar.
Language Activities for Teenagers is an excellent resource which provides a wealth of engaging and memorable activities. The students themselves are placed at the centre of the learning experience and all tasks have immediate relevance which, if used judiciously, should help to transform the dynamics and motivation of even the most despondent group of teenagers. It will be of particular interest to those teachers who sometimes feel rather tied to the coursebook and would like to engage their students from a more personal or emotive perspective and it could also prove a valuable tool for getting to know what works best with these age groups.