4 key challenges in secondary education

Anna Roslaniec
Anna Roslaniec
A teacher standing over a desk where a student is sat, helping them. Students are also sat at desks in the background

Let’s examine four of the most common challenges secondary teachers have and look into some strategies to help solve them.

1. My students are afraid of making mistakes

You’re not alone! Many teachers say their teenage students are quiet and unwilling to answer questions in class. Sometimes, this might simply be because they don’t know the answers, but more often than not, they are nervous about making mistakes.

When children grow into teenagers, they tend to become more self-conscious and worried about what their peers think of them – and making mistakes in public is a big no-no for them. However, there are several ways to facilitate a safe learning environment where your students are happy and willing to talk. Sometimes, though, it takes a little experimentation. Here are some things you can try:

Celebrate mistakes

When students make mistakes, ensure that you praise them for taking a risk or making an effort. Correct their errors and be clear with the rest of the class that the only way to learn is to try new things.

Be firm

Don’t tolerate any bullying or laughing when someone gets an answer wrong. If your students fear that others will mock them for their efforts, they’ll stay quiet. So make sure you have clear rules and that your students understand that mistakes are normal and to be expected.

Have students discuss their answers in pairs or groups

If your students are painfully shy and afraid of making mistakes, avoid picking on individuals to answer questions in front of the class. Instead, when asking a question, tell your students to discuss it in pairs or small groups first. This will allow them to formulate their ideas and feel more confident. Afterwards, you can ask the pairs to share what they discussed – leading to a natural open-class discussion.

Listen to your students

Another, powerful way of engaging your students in discussion is to listen to a conversation they are having with their partners and then express how impressed you are with their ideas during a feedback session. E.g. “You said X, which I thought was very interesting. Could you explain this to the class? It was a great idea.” This gives them the confidence to share their thoughts.

2. My students are not engaged with the activities I choose

This is another very common problem for teachers of teenagers. You spend a lot of time thinking of fun, interesting activities – then, when you present them to the class, your students look away and say they’re bored. Soon enough, you’ll get frustrated and not know how to re-engage them. Here are some ideas to help:

Get to know your students

Without fail, the best way to engage your students is by getting to know them as individuals over the year. Find out about their hobbies and interests outside of school, and learn what makes them laugh and what worries them. Use your knowledge of your students to find interesting books to read, videos to watch, or relevant subjects to discuss. This way, you’ll deliver tailored lessons your students find truly interesting and useful.

Allow a degree of autonomy

Sometimes quietness is also a sign of disengagement with the learning materials. To get past this obstacle, you can get your students to brainstorm things that interest them in groups, list them on the board and have a class vote on the topic of their next class project. As a teacher, you always have the power to veto inappropriate ideas, but giving students a voice is a powerful way of making them feel valued and involved in their own education.

Make things (a little) competitive

Even teenagers love games! And play is an integral part of learning, as it allows our students to be themselves, have fun, and communicate freely at the same time. By allowing them to play language-focused games in class, they’ll soon forget their inhibitions and start talking.

3. My students just want to do grammar exercises

Language is all about communication, speaking, listening, reading and writing – yet all your students want to do is grammar exercises. Frustrating as this is, it’s probably a sign that our students are not confident in their speaking or listening abilities. Here’s what you can do:

Encourage free language practice

Grammar activities are very structured and there is often a clear answer. Day-to-day communications, however, are much freer, which can intimidate less confident students. This activity will help you combine the two aspects of language learning:

  • Put students in small groups and give them a set of cards with exciting topics printed on them—for example; music, sports, environment, school, vacations, friends, food.
  • Tell students that they should each choose a card and speak freely about their topic for 30 seconds – the short time will help them overcome their fear of speaking and can be gradually increased as they get used to this type of activity.
  • Have students record themselves when they are speaking and then, when they listen back, have them identify the grammatical structures they used.

They should write down and correct any mistakes under your guidance. Not only will this get students used to talking and encourage a lot of emergent language, but it will also help them feel they are practicing grammar.

If your students really enjoy learning grammar, you can ‘flip’ your grammar activities and make them more communicative. First, provide them with a series of sentences or listening clips which have a common grammatical structure (second conditional sentences, for example).

Then have students work together (in English) to identify how the language is structured, so they can discover the grammar point for themselves. This not only gets them talking, but they are doing something they feel confident at.

4. My students are bored of all the repetition

Repetition is an important part of language learning. By practicing things over and over again, your students will come to understand it better and will be able to produce the language more easily. However, repetition is often quite dull, especially for fast learners. Here’s how you can make things more interesting for your teenage students:

Use a greater variety of activities to engage your learners

If you’ve been teaching your students a particular set of vocabulary, a grammatical structure, or some pronunciation rules, think about how else they can practice them.

For example, instead of drilling pronunciation over and over again, ask students to think of all the words they can think of that have the same sound in them (e.g. book, look, cook, shook, etc.). This will help them ‘hear’ the sounds in their heads and improve their understanding of other words.

If you have been learning vocabulary through reading, have students write or tell stories that incorporate the words.

The idea is not to stop repeating the target language or skill, but to practice it in different ways. Apply this principle to other areas of language learning so your students won’t feel like they are repeating things.

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