"Tapping into teenage culture to accelerate autonomous learning"

"A different side of EFL" is hosting  Sylvia Guinan, an online  educator who gives a dream list of onlinetools and resources to stimulate your teenage learner's interest and boost their autonomous learning! Click on the links and let the journey begin...

"Tapping into teenage culture to accelerate autonomous learning"

Image credit: Wikipedia

Our teenage students are wonderfully complex, creative learners. As teachers we can play an important role in helping them to become who they want to be. That’s what teen culture is all about – becoming themselves and becoming part of the peer group during those crucial, exciting ,yet challenging years that lead to adulthood – whatever adulthood may be;).

 In our rapidly changing societies, it may seem hard for us to truly engage teen learners or help them to feel part of something greater than themselves.

In the words of Red Hot Chilli Peppers

It's so lonely when you don't even know yourself”
. - Red Hot Chili Peppers, Knock Me Down

The good news is that we don’t have to be ‘cool teachers’  In fact, there’s nothing worse than showing off how uncool you are by ‘trying’ to be cool – and teenagers can spot it a mile off – think of Holden Caufield and Catcher in the rye.

“And I have one of those very loud, stupid laughs. I mean if I ever sat behind myself in a movie or something, I'd probably lean over and tell myself to please shut up.”

This is OUR licence to shut up and let the teens take over;)

The amazing thing is that our job is not to entertain students but to help them entertain themselves, learn to appreciate their own minds, hearts & talents. It’s a journey that should be marked by celebratory rites of passage into adulthood through creativity and not through fighting against their avalanches of hormones.

Teens are learning to know themselves and fit in socially. They are also trying to handle their emotions, hormones and academic studies. What if we could harness their feelings and imagination to make language learning natural for them and help them to make sense of life at the same time?

Music, stories, games, technology and humour shape teen culture, speak to teen culture and inform new generations whilst inspiring new forms of expression through art, fashion and first romantic explorations.

This article will share ideas by bringing together the old & the new to make learning fun. The power of story blended with user-friendly socially-wire d technology can work wonders in this respect.

I will recommend some sites or tools that are free and/or work along freemium models of usership. All are suitable for autonomous learning.

Is it Mount Olympus or Junior High School?

Image credit: gycinn.deviantart.com

1) Mythology

Mythology & folktales can help students to explore their own inner realities, promote reading and have them using the target language. We know that not all teens may like reading, or we may think that the digital generation is too hooked on technology to read much. Yet, myths are often short, very easy to read, and very compelling. Of course, that’s not enough. We want our students to build & create something new from the stories they read.

That’s where technology comes into play. Story-telling websites, multi-media and games allow this to happen naturally.

Here’s an encyclopedia of online stories, folk and fairy tales for kids and teens. Check out
Adlit.org and World Mythsand Legends in Art.

A brilliant book to explore is ‘
Mythologyfor teens – classic myths in today’s world’. The writer, Zachary Hamby, explores creativity and common mythological themes through play and drama. I’ll share the main philosophy here and suggest how we can also harness the power of mythology and storytelling using educational technology. The idea is that we can teach our students to interpret metaphors about life, apply them to their own modern lives, do all of this in the target language & then create their own stories, games and multi-media based on their own modernized myths and metaphors. Themythologyteacher.com website even has some amazing webquests and teachingmaterials for language learners to explore.

When students have read, acted out, dramatized or created meaning from the myths in class, the next step is the ‘perilous’quest for autonomy. Adding suspense to their missions will make it all the more compelling.

a) They can go on
webquests, such as those mentioned above.

b) They can take lessons learnt from particular myths and rewrite them into modern stories that relate directly to their own lives using social storytelling sites such as
storybird or simple class blogs. For collaborative storytelling, they can use wikis or google docs.

c) They can use the
present.me tool shared by Russell Stannard in his previous guestarticle, and tell their stories using video, imagery and art.

d) Students can be encouraged to recreate their stories in comic form, using amazing sites such as
MakeBelief Comix, Pixton, or Bitstrips, which also has a user-friendly facebook app. Go animate is also wonderful – here are two examples I created for Valentine’s Day. I’m sure students could write much better ones themselvesJ

Boy talk, Dream loverson Valentine’s Day, What kind ofboy do you like?,

Dream lover

Some of the comic websites may take a little time to get used to, but you can set them as challenges for homework and they are such fun that students should be experts in no time.

(All of the comic sites above are free to use in general but some charge for upgrades or special accounts. I have never paid to use them)

e) With your help they can join online storytelling, gaming or multi-media social communities such as
Tripppin’ or Clubefl. These sites take students into a magical world of play, socializing and imagination in the target language.

(Tripppin’ works on a freemium model, which means that it’s free to use unless you want some some extra features.)

(Clubefl has a minimal charge for membership equivalent to 10 euro per year per child.)
2) Autonomous reading through comics.

There are some amazing old comic archives on the internet, such as The Digital Comic Museum.

(These are part of the public domain and are free to use.)

The Digital comic museum is like a treasure trove of what was once hot for teen boy & girl brains. This museum has comics specifically for boys and specifically for girls.

Are they still hot?

Let your teens decide and compare/contrast retro story boards to the modern teen mindset.

3) Male & female adolescent brains:

We think we know all about teenage brains and hormones, but recently I’ve read two separate books; one dealing with the male brain from birth, through teen years and beyond, as well as the female version.

(* See bibliography below)

Here’s a short summary relevant for teachers.

The Teen Girl

Drama, drama, drama;)
Isn’t it strange that our teen girls are so immersed in real life drama but we don’t harness this in the classroom?

“The teen girl’s brain is sprouting, reorganizing and pruning neuronal circuits that drive the way she thinks, feels and acts – and obsesses over her looks. Her brain is unfolding ancient instructions on how to be a woman. She begins judging herself against her peers and media images of other attractive females. This brain state is created by the surge of new hormones on top of the ancient female genetic blueprint.”
Dr. Louann Brizendine

By deliberately sharing old-fashioned comic stories with our female students, we can invite them to enjoy love stories without feeling self-conscious and let them develop their humour as they laugh at retro-style clothes, roles and attitudes.

All of these comics can be downloaded for free. If you can download your own copies and replace the text with blank speech bubbles, you can get students to build up their own stories.
 Apart from what they can learn from the stories themselves, the real magic is to get them to create their own teen love stories using suitable comic software. Pixton for fun (free version) offers the most flexible character design, though Bitstrips is also excellent, much faster, and the facebook app. allows you to create amazing resemblances to real people you know, including your own personal avator.

Here is a list of great comic resources for education and I have more collections from my webinars and presentations.

Here’s an example of an old comic strip for girls – amazing learning potential and story creating potential with this. The girls can even blog about these stories or pretend to be agony aunts and work out what kinds of potential problems the comic strip is hinting at.

We can also help boys to understand girls more by getting them to talk about the stories too. Then boys and girls and compare notes and have boy/girl discussions, thereby raising their social/emotional intelligence & relationship building skills through the target language in the process.

 The teen boy
“Teen boys aren’t trying to be difficult. It’s just that their brains aren’t yet wired to give much thought to the future. Getting boys to study and do homework has always been more of a battle for parents than getting girls to do the same, and with today’s high-tech temptations, the battle can feel like a war”
Dr. Louann Brizendine


4) Digital games in language learning

All we need is the path of least resistance – harnessing technology and applying gaming principles to education.

To learn more about gaming and language learning for teens, I recommend

Digital play by Graham Stanley and Kyle Mawer and Learning To Go by Shelly Terrell. . The digital play blog itself is full of articles, amazing lesson plans about gaming with technology, and Shelly Terrell’s blog has lots of great ideas about embracing the teen learning spirit via technology.

‘Learning to go’ is beautifully planned book that will inspire you to guide students to create their own online virtual environments. I have set up a virtual teen library and teacher resource section to display all of the information I’m describing here and to show how multiple environments and tools can be very simply organized. I chose Pearl Trees – as recommended in Shelly’s book. I also love
Tackk. Check out this poster I created to share 50 ways to use Tackk for teaching. I will add more ideas to my Pearl Tree collection for you to browse through.
§  Graham Stanley and Shelly Terrell also have amazing slideshows on slideshare from their many teacher training webinars.

Gamifying the language classroom by Graham Stanley

Learn collaboratively with free webtools by Shelly Terrell.

Here’s an infographic about why games are good for language learning

Here’s a webinar on gaming from David Dodgeson at iTDi WiziQ.
§  I attended the webinar as I was writing this article yesterday. Action research you might say;)
I asked David about unisex games as I feel that boys and girls are attracted to different kinds of games. David and some of the other participants there recommended
Sim 2. It looks perfect for immersive storytelling and drama in virtual environments. David’s presentation was extremely clear and practical, so if you want to explore gaming further, check out the free webinar recording.
Here’s an article by Nik Peachey about
encouraging learner autonomy through gaming., which also explores issues of time management and distraction.

5) The news, current affairs and citizen Journalism

It’s crucial for all teenagers to tap into the world around them and become pro-active global citizens with a healthy social conscience. When I was a teenager we were encouraged to read the newspaper. Today, teenagers can become news breakers and shakers through Twitter, facebook and all kinds of social networks. They can blog, and have their say in world affairs. This is dynamite for language learning opportunities.

As for gaming itself, we can see from a study below how it can also shape social and community awareness.

Here are some facts I picked up after doing a little research.
Major new study

52% of teenage gamers report playing games where they think about moral and ethical issues.
§  43% report playing games where they help make decisions about how a community, city or nation should be run.
§  40% report playing games where they learn about a social issue.”
§  .
Needless to say, as teachers we educate teens and their parents as to which games are suitable and which should be avoided.

Beyond games, we have the classic
Breaking English News by the wonderful Sean Banville. Last year we had Sean host a webinar for us in WiziQ and I ended up doing a fun activity for his website where I reported on a news item using the interactive poster style interview features on Eduglogster.

(Everything on Breaking English News is free and Eduglogster has a freemium model – mostly free)

I also love the
Edulang applications and they have beautiful lessons about international news. Teenage students can work with all of the above resources autonomously, though I think that teachers should also get them creating, reporting, blogging and becoming citizen journalists of the world. The benefits of incorporating the news into teenage learning reality are immense. They are beyond the initial scope of what is now turning into a bumper article, though I can include more information in my teenage resource link.

(Edulang is not free but works on a donation model where you pay whatever you want for a yearly subscription – as little as one euro – and 50 % of your payment goes to a reading room charity)

6) Movies For Teens

The American drive-in movie culture is something I always wished we’d had in Ireland when I was a teenager. Drive-in cinemas were such a big part of those movies we watched as teenagers in the eighties. Today, with the internet, we have ‘plug-in’ instead of ‘drive-in’ – but it’s infinitely more practical and probably much safer;)

Your teens should definitely be plugging into
English Central – an amazing interactive movie website for language learners that promotes fun, culture, and even pronunciation practice. There’s also a lot happening at English Attack.

(Both English Central and English Attack work on freemium models)

The Film English blog by Kieran Donaghy is also amazing and here’s a great teen topic called
The First Kiss, created by Kieran, and the general theme is about doing things for the first time.

Finally, I’m helping as a material reviewer for Nik Peachey’s new book project
The Digital classroom, which focuses on harnessing the power of online video for blended learning. There will be much to share on that in the near future – perhaps even some webinar & asynchronous training courses.

( The webinars that I hope to present for his project will be free)

7) ELT & Comedy

Speaking of movies & teens, there’s a treasure trove of English language comedies that we can share with teenagers. Although this area of has been largely neglected in ELT, one teacher has devoted himself to collecting the best comedies for language learners. Nick Michelioudakis has created a You Tube channel just for this purpose.  I’ve gathered a collection of ten suitable ones which you can
find here. Please use your own discretion as to what’s suitable for your particular students.

Nick describes his approach very clearly here in the
guest article he wrote for the August ELT Blog carnival. The blog challenge is hosted by Carissa Peck on mELTing activities, so if you keep this link you’ll soon have a full collection of humorous lesson plans submitted by bloggers all over the world.

At the end of the day, teachers have to be careful about what kinds of comedies or humour they can share with students – it’s a fine balancing act. On one hand teenagers like to be bold and irreverent and it’s actually good for brain development ( another topic to write about), yet one the other hand, culture plays a role in what’s considered funny. In Western societies we seem to be most lenient about brazen humour, as laughter at the human condition is seen as being more important than rigid morals. In fact our own strict morals become the butt of our humour – for example in Ireland we had the infamous
Father Ted. The English cartoon series Stressed Eric is also very funny. I’m thinking of making my own Father Ted and Stressed Eric collections to add to my teenage virtual library.

8) Teens, music & kinaesthetic learning.

We all know how much teenagers identify with music and most of us know one teacher who has specialized as an ELT teacher/rap performer who writes ELT lesson songs.

The Fluency MC You Tube channel is number one on my
virtual juke box for teenagers. His songs encourage kinaesthetic learning too as students can dance to the rap while chanting. If you train students to do this in class, they can eventually have their own personal playlist at home and can dance in their rooms while learning verbs – how cool is that?

Theodora Papapnagiotou is also developing kinesthetic language activities through exercise. This is something else that students can go on to build into their lifestyle routines. I recently interviewed Theodora and her training coach Nick Maragkos
I also like to collect songs and create lessons for them on interactive music posters. I have quite a collection, which you can browse through later.

For more music resources I recommend EFL classroom 2.0 and whatever David Deubelbeiss creates and blogs about regarding learning language through music.

Check out fifty ways to use music in the classroom.

(Most of the Fluency Mc resources are free, all of the videos and posters are free.

(Everything on EFL classroom2.o is free – and I’m talking about lifetimes worth of collectively curated & authentically created resources)

9) Dedicated resources.

The British Council has the Learn English Teens website which is dedicated to this age group. This site has a little bit of everything in it, so it’s perfect for busy teachers and students.

Nik Peachey has a blog dedicated to autonomous learners called
Daily English Activities

10) The book worms

If teens don’t like reading, then where do the bookworms come from?

There will always be some teenagers who love reading and it’s our responsibility to nurture this desire
. Britlit is a good place to start for online lessons, but we should really have our own recommended book lists for our teenagers. For example, I use the Wimpy kids book series for pre-adolescent intermediate learners. This is a topic I hope to cover in future in more detail.

(Britlit is free)

11) Collections, planning, thinking tools and environments.

Mind mapping tools are essential for teenagers in all kinds of brain-friendly ways. The most popular for students is
padlet. You can explore more from my collection in the teen library. I’ll continue adding more ideas to my collection as time goes on, so please consider my library to be a public tribute to teenagers and teachers and one that you can refer to on a long-term basis.

(Padlet is free)

12) Dedicated Free Webinars

I’m also collecting webinar links about teaching teens and here’s a recent one by Roseli Serra at iTDi on WiziQ called
‘What Teenagers Want.”

13) Art

Students who like art can learn a lot of English autonomously from You Tube. Lots of talented artists have dedicated drawing channels which demonstrate drawing skills and describe the whole process in English.
Mark Crilley is a good example, but you can browse You Tube artists to find what you’re looking for. Brilliant for listening practice, imagination and kinaesthetic learning. Anyone can develop drawing skills in this way. Students who learn to draw cute cartoons style characters can even create completely original comics later using Pixton or Comic Life, which allow you to upload your own images.
(Comic life isn’t free but licences are very reasonable)

One teacher who has a special interest in learning English through art is Chrysa Papalazarou who recently presented on
Teaching Through Art.
Here’s an article she wrote about Art & The Power Of Thinking Routines

She also organized a wonderful school art project that you can learn more about here.

I have my own very special interest in visual design for education and will be working on that from September onwards.

14) Nature

Although most student love animals, this topic is skimped upon in ELT. I’ve discovered an amazing website that teaches about nature and animals through a mixture of cartoon and real life documentary. It’s amazing for language learning and autonomous work for students.

This site is called Wild Kratts and I also hope to do a lot of work with this in the near future. There are lots of cartoon/documentaries
here. I think they’re suitable for teenagers by level and interest as I enjoy watching them with my kids. Even though my kids are younger, I enjoy the shows as much as they do. There is also a PBS gaming site for WildKratts for younger learners – check out this amazing teacher page for Wild Kratts.

Speaking of young learners – a very pro-active way of nurturing autonomous teen learners is to ‘catch them young’ and train them to be autonomous from lower levels.

15) My teenage Virtual Library for Learning English On Pearl Trees

Virtual language multi-media library

Finally, thanks to Shelly Terrell for sharing Pearl Trees and many other tools with us in her amazing webinars. I highly recommend her new book Learning to go for further inspiration.

That was it – a bumper-pack of resources and ideas – that’s constantly being built upon


Hamby, Z "Mythology For Teens", Prufrock Press, 2009
Brizendine, L " The Male Brain", Three Rivers Press, 2010
Brizendine, L " the Female Brain", Three Rivers Press, 2009
Terrell,S, Spencer J "Learning To Go", The-Round, 2014
Stanley, G, Mawer k, "Digital Play", Delta Publishing 2013 

Some ELT books that I use to inform my teaching are all mentioned with the authors above.

This is my relatively focused, yet comprehensive look at what’s out there to help us develop ideas and encourage creativity in autonomous learning. As this is a blog post and not a book, I can’t include more. If you know of other great resources or ideas please comment below

You can follow more of my articles on
the WiziQ blog and ESLbrain

Sylvia Guinan is an online English teacher, writer and blogger who
facilitates professional development online. She uses brain-friendly techniques to help students and teachers around the world.

She designs educational materials, develops courses, writes resource papers and publishes ebooks. Her work is the result of much research into the psychology of learning, as well as hands-on experience with multi-media technology.


  1. Great blog post, Sylvia - packed full of ideas. And thanks for the mention!

    1. Thanks so much Graham - obviously your work with gamification is perfect to help us guide teenagers towards independence & learning to love the language - and it's so prolific - I call it the Aladdin's cave of brain-friendly gems:))

  2. Excellent post! Love the idea of students doing an activity to compare comics old and new. They could maybe add to it by writing a strip for a possible future comic and vote on their favourite.

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