Characteristics of pre-intermediate teenage language learners
1.1 Characteristics of pre-intermediate language learners
At pre-intermediate level, learners have been exposed to most of the basic grammatical structures in English, and will be familiar (and reasonably accurate) with simple past, present and future tenses. At this level, however, learners must begin to master many new structures, including most of the verb forms used in English, more sophisticated grammatical forms such as perfect tenses (Present Perfect Simple and Continuous, Part Perfect), reported speech, future forms, passive voice, WH-questions, conditionals, comparative and superlative forms of adjectives.
Learners entering the pre-intermediate stage can be expected to have a relatively limited vocabulary, focusing mainly on social English and everyday matters, such as meals and restaurant vocabulary, shopping, holidays, directions, cooking, timetables and giving simple descriptions of familiar people and places. At the pre-intermediate stage, learners must begin to master a much wider range of vocabulary in order to be able to discuss a wider range of topics in more precise ways. Topics that are practiced during a language course at pre-intermediate level may include, for example, family life, housing and accommodation, past memories, human characteristics, cities and famous places, the environment, health and entertainment.
At pre-intermediate level, therefore, learners need to develop the structures, vocabulary and language forms needed to express the following functions: giving directions, agreeing with statements or opinions, talking about experiences, recommending, asking and confirming, asking for details, expressing obligations, describing people, reporting, describing recent events and predicting the near future, explaining actions, giving advice and making suggestions, narrating past events and stories. In other words, learners must begin to become communicatively competent.
Furthermore, pre-intermediate level learners ought to be able to communicate intelligibly with native speakers, though may make frequent mistakes when speaking and may need to ask the native speaker to report words or phrases to aid understanding. Although learners may often have difficulty in participating in native speed conversation, they are able to make themselves understood in the classroom. The most critical tasks for the teacher at pre-intermediate level, therefore are to prompt learners’ interest in the language and show them how the language ‘works’ in practice. It is at pre-intermediate level that developing learners’ cultural competence alongside their linguistic ability becomes of great importance.
1.2 Characteristics of teenage language learners
In Poland students usually achieve pre-intermediate level between the ages of 13 to 15. This age group is very interesting to teach, but they can also present the teacher with more problems than other age cohorts. But what do we mean by a ‘teenage’ or an ‘adolescent’?
One of the first developmentalists to study adolescence as a psychological concept was G. S. Hall. According to Hall, and to many subsequent scholars, adolescence can be defined as ‘the stage of development that leads a person from childhood to adulthood’ (Seifert and Hoffnung, 1987: 591). Moreover, it is marked by the major physical changes of puberty as well as by important cognitive and social changes, which is why it is generally considered to begin around age twelve and to end with the completion of physical growth, sometime around age twenty (Wade and Tavris, 1990: 503). What is more, Hall believed that adolescence was a stressful period due to teenagers’ increased vulnerability to social pressures. Although there is not much support for Hall’s theoretical explanations, his view of adolescence as a time of ‘storm and stress’ remains popular today.
Adolescence is the time when most youngsters begin to consider other viewpoints in relation to their own, and develop complex ideas about political, moral and religious questions. They are open and receptive to new information and arguments, and are still shaping their view of the world. Adolescence is not the only stage in a child’s development where cultural awareness may be instilled, but it does seem to be the most effective and appropriate stage. The developing curiosity and openness to new ideas during the teenage years makes it an ideal time to develop learners’ cultural awareness skills – and their language skills too. In addition, we can expect teenage learners to enjoy discussion-based activities that expose them to new ideas, and allow them to develop their own ideas among their peers.
Adolescents are not, however, usually regarded as an easy group of learners to teach successfully. On the one hand, teenage students are the best language learners – at least according to Ur (1996: 286), though this ignores the learning abilities of very small children. On the other hand, teenagers are at an age when they need special attention during the lesson, and can seem ‘difficult’ to the unwary teacher. Adolescents may seem less lively and humorous than adults, less motivated and may present the teacher with classroom management and disciplinary problems.
Harmer (2001: 39) states that one of the key issues in adolescence is a search for individual identity, which is gained among classmates and friends. For teenage students, therefore, the approval of their peers may be considerably more important than the attention of the teacher. Komorowska (2001: 35) adds that during puberty, students are often under tremendous peer pressure, and are afraid to express their opinions if they are different from those of their peer group. As a result, they are unwilling to share their ideas in the classroom. To deal with this problem, the teacher may organize more pair-work and small-group discussions, rather than force students to speak in front of the whole class.
At the same time, teenagers need to be noticed, and often aim to gain the attention of their peers – often by indulging in inappropriate and disruptive behaviour. The teacher must take care to pay attention to individual students, to treat them as individuals, and remember to give praise, ask for opinions and use learners’ first names, etc. The teacher cannot forget that adolescents need to be viewed positively by their peers, and that they are easily prone to humiliation if the teacher is careless with criticism. Disruptions should be dealt with in a supportive and constructive way, without discouraging or humiliating students (Harmer 1991: 39).
Another challenge of teaching adolescents is their low boredom threshold, which may be a further reason for disruptive behaviour. If the level of the class is too low, they may simply switch off. If it is too high, they may become discouraged and demotivated. Teachers must ensure that the lesson and the material used are pitched at the right level – neither too easy nor too hard. In addition, the teacher must place language in interesting and authentic contexts in order to motivate students to complete and accomplish the task.
Similarly, Harmer (2001: 39) notes that teenagers have a great capacity for learning, great creativity, and a passionate commitment to things which interest them – providing they themselves are involved. They prefer to respond to texts and situations with their own thoughts and experience, and prefer real-life tasks to abstract learning activities. Students become engaged when they work with material which is relevant and involving, and pitched at the right level for them. Tasks which are too difficult or inappropriate only discourage them.
Another aspect of teaching teenagers is the specific way in which they learn. Komorowska (2001: 34) states that young people between 13 and 16 have the capacity to remember things logically rather than mechanically; in addition, their thinking is more abstract. This gives the teacher an opportunity to work on grammatical rules at a more advanced level, as such rules mirror the way the adolescent brain works. This does not mean, however, that teenagers should learn grammatical rules at the expense of communicative competence; merely that grammatical rule-learning may form part of the overall development of learners’ communicative ability.
Harmer J., 1991, The Practice Of English Language Teaching, Longman
Harmer J., 2001, The Practice Of English Language Teaching, Longman
Komorowska H., 2001, Metodyka Nauczania Języków Obcych, Fraszka Edukacyjna: Warszawa
Wade C., Tavris C., 1990, Psychology 2nd ed., Harper and Row Publishers, New York
Seifert K.L., Hoffnung R.J., 1987, Child and Adolescent Development, Hughton Mifflin Company Boston
Ur P., 1996, A Course in Language Teaching, Cambridge University Press