Inspiring teenagers: issues of motivation and discipline
Philip Prowse and Judy Garton-Sprenger

Many of us can identify with a teacher’s feelings of humiliation when teenagers won’t behave, and recognise 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.

Being explicit

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. This process can be described as the development of learner/teacher 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 – it’s 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 (eg Students: We will listen to each other and respect each other’s views. We will bepunctual. Teacher: I will discuss each week’s learning plan with you. I will be punctual and mark your homeworkwithin three days.) or it might something much less formal.

Being open about what goes on in the classroom also means being explicit about the language learning process. A cooperative 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. Activities which promote conscious reflection on the language-learning process lead to more successful learning outcomes, a vital factor in student motivation.

The importance of choice

Cooperation 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 her sleeve’.

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 emphasise 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.

Success orientation

Cooperation 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 – 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 cooperative, motivating learning environment.


Judy Garton-Sprenger and Philip Prowse are co-authors of Inspiration, a four-level secondary course for Macmillan.

J udy Garton-Sprenger is a freelance materials writer and teacher trainer. She has written numerous adult, secondary and primary coursebooks and has run teacher-training seminars in many countries, including work for the British Council, the Soros Foundation, and universities throughout Britain. She has also been a Cambridge ESOL examiner and syllabus consultant and written radio scripts for BBC English.

Philip Prowse began his professional life with the British Council in Egypt, Portugal, Greece and Poland. Returning to the UK he became Principal of Bell College, Saffron Walden. He has been a full-time writer and trainer since 1994. Philip’s publications include graded readers, three integrated skills series (as series editor), primary, secondary and adult coursebooks and articles in professional journals. He is Reviews Editor of English Language Teaching Journal.

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