Creating a Buzz in Teens’ Classrooms (by Mari Nakamura)

“Aren’t teenagers too self-conscious to speak English?”

“Do they care about the contents that do not appear in their school tests?”

“Well… I wouldn’t want to get into that area…”

I have been teaching teens as well as pre-school and elementary school children at my language school, English Square, in Japan, for the last 20 years. When I tell my teacher friends about it, I’ve almost always met the responses like the ones above.


Actually, teaching teens has been a lot of fun! They are growing at an amazing rate, intellectually, emotionally and socially, and I have learned a lot from them about what the world looks like through their lenses.

In this small article, I would like to briefly discuss what sort of teen curriculum I have at my school and why I’ve designed the curriculum that way. Then, I will share one of the recent lessons with them.

Teen Curriculum at My School

Teen lessons at my school are topic-based, and students spend most of the class time on using English as a tool for communication. In many lessons I use real information on the Internet with the aim to help my students feel that English is ‘alive.’ I speak only English in class, and don’t teach grammar explicitly in these classes or ask them to translate English into Japanese.

Several years ago, I met a theory that had a great implication on my curriculum for teens: The Four Strands (Nation, 2007) advocated by I.S.P. Nation.

This theory informs us that a well-balanced language course should consist of four roughly equal parts:

  • Meaning-focused Input
  • Meaning-focused Output
  • Language-focused Learning


  • Fluency Development.

In a typical high school in Japan, however, the most of the instructional time is spent on language-focused learning. Through the talk with my students, I have learned that it is even more so at academically competitive high schools. Also most of the curriculums at public schools use a discrete point approach in teaching vocabulary and grammar, and learning strategies are very rarely taught. One of my students gave me this spot-on comment on what it is like at his public school – “We approach English language much the same way as we solve math problems.”

Compare these diagrams.

In an ideal classroom as suggested by I. S. P. Nation …

the ideal classroom

In many of the high schools in Japan?

schools in Japan

Being informed by the theory and input from my students, I’ve decided that my curriculum should offer:

  • Lesson contents and activities that encourage meaningful interaction
  • Systematic scaffolding to promote interaction and learning strategies


  • Relaxed and positive atmosphere where every student’s input is valued.

A Video Lesson ~ Penguin Goes Shopping ~

Let me introduce you to one of the video-based lessons conducted at my school.

Take a look at the following video, and imagine how you would plan a lesson for your teen-age students based on it!

Penguin Goes Shopping

Did this video make you smile? I’m pretty sure it did – even my teenage students smiled!

Here’s how I did a 60-minute lesson using this cute video.


  • To talk about their thoughts on penguins and pets with confidence
  • To practice note-taking skill though a video viewing task
  • To write a short report on the video and share it orally with classmates

To find a positive point in a classmate’s writing, and communicate it orally


A small group of students ages 14 to 16.


A: Before You Watch (for fluency development)

Students discuss their ideas on penguins and pets in pairs using the language they already have. The goal is to generate their interest in the topic and to promote oral fluency development.


After giving them the time to discuss in pairs, I ask a few students the above questions and a couple of follow-up questions.

B: While You Watch (for meaning-focused input and output plus strategy practice)

After watching the video once for overall understanding, students watch it a few more times while taking notes referring to the worksheet below. Comprehension of these key points naturally works as scaffolding for the next essay writing task.

worksheet B

A note about note-taking: Japanese students tend to believe that whatever they write, it has to be perfect in terms of grammar and spelling. I remind them that the note is for their own reference, and that they can take a brief note, perhaps with a few words or phrases. I also tell them not to worry about spelling.

After each student has completed the task, they discuss their understanding in pairs. Finally, I go over each point quickly as a whole class.

C: After You Watch (for meaning-focused input and output)

Students write a summary of this video report, imagining how they would talk about it to their friend. The addition of this “sharing with friends” element will make this task more engaging to teenagers than otherwise. This activity also works as scaffolding for the following oral communication activity.

worksheet c

After the students have completed this writing task, they work in pairs, and present their summary to their partner orally. The key here is that they make eye contact while talking which learners are not very good at.



After that they exchange their worksheets, underline one expression or sentence that he/she found especially fun or interesting in their friend’s report.



Then they put the worksheet back to the writer, and discuss why he/she chose the phrase or sentence.


The series of tasks in this post-viewing activity provide the students an opportunity for “pushed output” – to turn their receptive knowledge into productive use in a social context.

Final Comment

Teenagers in Japan have extremely busy schedules with club activities and studying at cram schools, and are often stressed out. Perhaps it is the same in some other Asian countries? I take it as a good sign if my students look happier and livelier when they say good-bye to me after a lesson than when they entered my classroom. The lesson above was a successful one in this regard.

It will be my great pleasure if you have found some useful information in this small article. I would also love to hear what you all do to create a buzz in teens’ classrooms!

Thank you very much, Barbara, for giving me this wonderful opportunity to share my ideas with colleagues around the globe.


Nation, I.S.P. 2007. The four strands. Innovation in Language Learning and Teaching. 1,1:2-13.

Note: This article by Mari Nakamura originally appeared as a guest post on Teaching Village and is licensed under a Creative Commons, Attribution-Non Commercial, No Derivatives 3.0 License. If you wish to share it you must re-publish it “as is”, and retain any credits, acknowledgements, and hyperlinks within it.

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21 Responses

  1. Barbara says:

    Thank you for this lovely, clear example of getting the most out of short video with teens. The steps would be great for any class, I think.

    The penguin video is really cute. I will definitely have to use this in class!

    • Barbara,

      Thank you so much for giving me this wonderful opportunity to contribute this small article. I really enjoyed putting down what I’ve been thinking of for a long time.

      Hope you will have fun using the penguin video with your students, too!


  2. Thanks for sharing that. Promoting fluency is really important, i think, too. There is definitely an imbalance that needs to be addressed so it’s great to see and share more and more meaning ways to do this. I hope that this message will reach the policy-makers that perversely influence curriculum planning and teaching in JHS & HS to cater to exam systems that lack a fluency component, most notably for both writing and speaking.

    However, with an increasing flow of ideas, from the recent JALT 2011 PAN-SIG conference on “Disovering paths to fluency” to lessons such as these, i hope we can make some waves and look forward to seeing the tide change in favour of more balanced curriculums in greater numbers of schools and institutions that will, i feel, lead to more communicative, confident and motivated learners.

    • Philip,

      Thanks for your kind comments. I do hope that some higher-ups will take a look at all the great articles in this site, and will start considering to revamp their curriculum!

      All the children deserve good quality education.


  3. What an interesting video and enlightening lesson plan! As Barbara says, I will definitely employ it in one of my lessons in the immediate future! Managing to find entertaining material that also facilitates written and oral output in class is not always so easy, considering the vast array of online resources and the time constraints all teachers need to face. So, thank you, Mari, for helping us with the difficult task of discovering material that can easily be adjusted to fit almost any lesson! 🙂

    • Christina,

      Thanks for your kind comments. I actually got the link to the video from an American friend. I know what you mean… it is hard to find a good material in the vast www. I think what we can do is to always keep our eye open for some fun stuff on the Net and to have teacher friends who are always willing to share!

      Now, I will take a look at your blog… 🙂


  4. Sandy Millin says:

    Hi Mari,
    That’s a really interesting post, and I love the penguin video 🙂
    One great place to get good videos along with lesson plans that go with them is Jamie Keddies – he’s got some fascinating things on there.
    Hope that helps!

    • Hi, Sandy,

      Thank you very much for your comment and the link. I accessed the website, and it looked really resourceful! I will definitely use the site.:-)


  5. Bob Middleton says:

    Hi Mari,

    I liked the clear flow of the tasks you offered here. And the attention to warm up thinking and writing down ideas before and after speaking. It really gives the learners something authentic to talk about when the speaking begins.

    Well done.

    • Bob,

      Thank you very much for your kind comments. Having learned English as a foreign language myself, I know from my experience that beginning level learners can express things much better when they are given time for ‘language planning.’ I think I will reduce the time for planning gradually as they become more proficient, which I hope!

  6. Thanks for sharing the lesson!
    That penguin appears in “Easy True Stories” (Pearson, Longman) – I’ve used it successfully with VERY weak deaf teenagers. Such a versatile tale!

    • Hi, Naomi,

      Thanks for your comment. I have that book, too! I LOVE the True Stories Series from Pearson Longman.

      The penguin is really adorable. I just found out that he actually lived two houses away from my teacher friend in southern Japan.


      • So it REALLY is real!
        Your teens might enjoy working with this video – mine did!

        • Naomi,

          Thanks for sharing the video.
          It is BEAUTIFUL!

          I’ll now think how I will use it in class.


          • Bob Middleton says:

            One idea I learned for this video, and tried with 6th graders, from Nicky Hockly at JALT 2010. Have students brainstorm a list of countries they know in small groups or pairs. Perhaps make a solo list before making pairs. Shorter times keeps the activity moving along. Then while watching the video, see how many you can recognize and find on your own list.
            You can then have students make a check if they have the country. If a pair has a country that no one guessed, they can have a point. Or they can get points for all the countries they guessed. That easier version worked well for 6th graders, the harder one worked better in the JALT audience of teachers. And the kids really enjoyed the songs, dancing and the story that goes with it.

  7. Glad you liked the video! Sorry I didn’t add the link to the two woeksheets I made for it. One is for VERY low level deaf teens, so they had to match the activity Matt is doing, written in Hebrew, not in the order that it appears in the clip, to the name of the country Matt is doing it in. By activity I mean things such as ” dancing near red crabs” ” getting wet from a wave”, etc.
    This wasn’t planned for a group activity.
    The stronger pupils got the worksheet in English.

  8. Marisa Pavan says:

    Hi Mari,

    It’s a great post. I´m sure your teen students must enjoy your classes a lot. It’s amazing how much they are able to do when they feel motivated. Most teenage students in Argentina complain they hate school. Some of them are lazy but others don’t feel motivated. I don’t know if the same happens in your country.

    • Hi, Marisa,

      Thanks for your kind words!

      Yes, it is not easy to motivate teenagers to interact in a foreign language. We need to create classroom culture where very one’s input is valued, and also offer them opportunities to use the language in a fun and purposeful way. I’m still working on this week after week.

      Good to know that someone on the other side of the globe is working on the same mission, Marisa!

      Hugs to you, too!

  1. June 15, 2011

    […] I have been teaching teens as well as pre-school and elementary school children at my language school, English Square, in Japan , for the last 20 years. When I tell my teacher friends about it, I've almost always met the … Read more: Creating a Buzz in Teens' Classrooms (by Mari Nakamura) – Teaching … […]