written by S.J. Shelton-Strong
English language learners are now filling classes at a younger age than before and bringing with them a stronger background of word knowledge and other aspects of English learnt from their school curriculum. An increasing reality in the world of English language teaching is that teenagers (ages 12-19) often make up a large portion of these learners, but due to the uniqueness of their situation in life and the wide range of ages involved, teachers often find many of the current course books available from publishers lacking in sufficient appropriacy and depth. While Teenagers (Lewis, 2007) may not be a new 'resource book for teachers', it is certainly a timely one and worthy of review and your undivided attention.
Teenage years are without a doubt a very special time. Equally true is that teens can be challenging to teach, and for a variety of complex reasons. Learning English as an additional language (L2+) can provide a number of stumbling blocks for any age group to overcome. As teenagers are dealing with a continuously changing world, particularly on a personal and social level, they can often feel pressure to perform in potentially face-loosing situations. What this translates into for language teachers is often an uncertainty of how to best reach their teenage learners across the maturity gap, and perhaps at times, a realization that the repertoire of teaching techniques, topics and tasks used successfully with adult learners, may no longer be as effective. Expecting teenagers to interact and think in their new language may in turn lead to new challenges in effective classroom management and creating a successful, learner-driven, teaching-learning environment.
Teenagers (Lewis, 2007) takes these issues head on and offers a decidedly optimistic view of the learning potential waiting to be unlocked. Addressing the reader in a collaborative fashion, Lewis presents a brief but in-depth survey of teenage realities related to development, and offers a series of tasks designed to meet these challenging realities and support the provision of opportunities to learn English (L2+) through content, providing initiative for criticality, creativity and analysis as a way forward.
The book is divided into three sections. Within these sections, the aim of each activity is made clear. Five levels are used to guide the teacher, from beginner to advanced proficiency. However, the majority of the activities are aimed at pre-intermediate to intermediate levels, with suggestions for adaptation or variations as needed. Reference to what is believed to be the appropriate age for each activity type and approximate time and any materials needed is also provided. The level of demand made on the higher order thinking skills of the learner is linked to a reference to Bloom's taxonomy of the Cognitive Domain. This is an extremely effective pairing as this taxonomy has been used to provide purpose for aligning expected learning outcomes to content and assessment in a wide variety of teaching-learning contexts. Throughout, learners are led to notice different ways in which the language works, awareness of the cultural implications involved is also brought into focus, as is the development of problem-solving, and creative thinking skills to support their learning.
The first section provides contexts for strengthening the learner's awareness of language as a system. There are activities aimed at sharpening the learner's criticality in terms of the role language plays culturally, and within the school curriculum as a whole. Working with themes such as 'English in the environment', 'repairing English', 'categorization for vocabulary building', 'collocations', and 'rhyme and rhythm in creative writing' all bring the learner's focus to how English works within a self organizing system, based on regular occurring patterns.
This is followed by section two, which is called ' Creative and critical thinking tasks'. These tasks are designed to develop the learners' higher order thinking skills further as they combine tasks, which stretch young minds to think original thoughts, while at the same time leading them to employ logic and reason. By stimulating natural curiosity, it is hoped these activities provide opportunities for teenage learners to sharpen their thinking skills in English, which may lead to improved academic performance in the short-long term. Learners are invited to 'think outside the box' while they work through puzzles, predictions, poetry, and opportunities to personalise language and their approach to learning.
Section three looks at topics that are likely to be of specific relevance to the teenage learner. The learner is invited to collaborate with others to generate the content rather than run the risk of having the teacher prescribing what may turn out to be yesterday's 'latest thing'. The theme of respecting the opinions and ideas of teen learners and nurturing these to provide the necessary catalyst for learner-driven autonomy runs through the activities in this section in tasks such as inventing a new game, complaining about parents, school (or their teachers!), profiling current popular figures and guessing who it might be, writing a time line of their own lives, imagining contact with an alien race and setting out a new set of laws, or writing up a survey to conduct and report on, for example, are topics set up to allow a free exchange of language and ideas to be generated and worked with, which are all essentially organically grown within the groups of students in the class.
While some of these topics may sound familiar to many language teachers, experienced and novice alike, one of the strengths of this collection is its explicitness of approach and materials light procedures, and the consistency of the belief underpinning these activities and tasks types – namely that relevance and purpose are highly motivating factors for learners at this age; it is possible and enjoyable to develop analytical, critical and creative thinking skills and link these to language learning; and that these skills are transferrable, exploitable and inter-connected to academic skills from their L1 school learning environment.
In summary, Teenagers is a gift to those of us who value the learner as a resource, see merit in fostering 'higher order' thinking skills to aid in transferring the ownership of English to our L2+ learners and believe that creating a purposeful, flexible and fun learning environment for teenagers can both make our lives as teachers more enjoyable, but more importantly can provide the impetus which may lead to life-long learning in a holistic context, based on the sound principles of noticing and analysis, criticality and mindfulness, and a creative approach to language.