Gaga’s grandma and garden clippings – or choosing themes for teens

Fiona M2

This month Fiona Mauchline looks at writing for teenagers and the topics they prefer. The MaWSIG blog features guest posts by members – please get in touch if you would like to write for us.

You have your new coursebook or project outline, or you want to design materials for your own class. You’re writing for secondary, and the umbrella topics are old friends: homes, food, clothes, friends, family, holidays, routines, technology and so on. How do you find interesting angles? Is your computer awash with bookmarks, your bag stuffed with pages ripped from travel magazines? What are your criteria? How much do you actually know about what teenagers want in their English materials? So many questions, so little time.

Writing a module for ELT Teacher2Writer (forthcoming), I asked a class of students aged 17–18 to come up with a list of subjects they’d like to find in coursebooks. It was a highly productive hour, which threw up some surprises – although they shouldn’t have been surprises at all. The list is as dictated by the students, but it contains seven topics that they are not interested in. Can you spot them?

Music – Madonna, ABBA …

Music – contemporary figures with a message e.g. Meghan Trainor

Controversial issues (homosexuality in Russia, neo-Nazis …)

Hair (styles, care, male/female)

Fashion

Fairy tales

Herbs, spices, teas: healing properties

Weird food e.g. insects

Current affairs (refugees, conflicts …)

Comparing opinions across generations e.g. on tattoos

YouTubers talking about normal life

YouTubers doing crazy things

Drones

Video games

Driving (bad driving, driving tests …)

Travel: different places in our country

Countries near our own

Faraway, exotic places

Backpacking

History – testing knowledge: two versions of an event, one with errors

History – figures like Nelson Mandela

The answers are three lines down. How did you do?

 

I listened to my teens’ reasons for those seven no-go areas, and, while the list itself may be local and group-specific, the conclusions that can be drawn are generalisable.

 

The Seven Nos (in three groups)

A      (1) music – Madonna, ABBA; (2) history – figures like Nelson Mandela

B      (3) fashion; (4) video games

C       (5) YouTubers doing crazy things; (6) faraway, exotic places; (7) weird food

A These were deemed boring, old and irrelevant. While for certain adults ‘Madge’ is the Queen, for teens she is simply old and slightly ridiculous. Lady Gaga’s grandma. As for Mandela, yawn; same old, same old.

B This pair surprised me initially, although the scales fell on listening to my students’ explanation. Topics like fashion and video games are divisive. Teens play games and wear clothes, but they only talk about them to their friends, not to all their classmates. They are areas in which you can be judged. I remember as a 14 year old being asked in front of all 24 of my classmates the most difficult, humiliation-inducing question of my entire life: ‘What did you think of Grease?’… I still don’t know the correct, ‘cool’ answer. When dealing with films, clothes, games, series, eating habits and so on, handle with care. Don’t divide.

C We fill our books with tales of Tasmania and chocolate-covered insects, but while teens feign indifference, they’re actually being undermined. ‘I don’t want to talk about stuff I have no hope of ever seeing, doing or having,’ they say. And in this world of migrants and refugees, we’d be well-advised to listen. The teen years are filled with dreams of separation. They want to fly, so they want to read about achievable dreams, not rainbows and pots of gold. Travel texts? If they can get there by train or bus, go for it; if they need a Visa Gold Card, forget it. Food? Ramen or a doable recipe, yes; sheep’s eyes and crickets, no.

It all makes sense now, doesn’t it? Teenagers are all about feeling different from the rest yet wanting to be the same, wanting to integrate while feeling inferior or lacking. Self-esteem is key. Besides, because their brains are still developing, their classroom experiences are pivotal in helping them become who they want to become – in the sense of successful adults, not fireman/footballer/hairdresser/CEO. As a materials writer, you can help smooth the way, calm some of the waves.

One further interesting point my students threw at me: they don’t always want to learn facts from English coursebooks; they want to read for pleasure. The new language is learning enough. They want more stories to wander into, fewer carbon-fibre limbs for elite Paralympic athletes.

As for under-16s, if you ask them what they want, they shrug and say ‘dunno’ (or ‘football, music and girls/boys’). The above four factors are also startlingly true for this age group, but why such a huge difference when it comes to being aware of what they want? Because the brain (the pre-frontal cortex, if you’re interested) is still developing. Conscious decision-making is one of the areas undergoing development, along with empathy and impulse control. Frustration and impatience are rampant. Teens have surplus synapse connections, so there is literally too much going on in their minds. When you ask, ‘What do you want to talk about?’ it’s too vague, just as the teacher who asks, ‘What did you do at the weekend?’ gets those much-loved answers: ‘Sleep’ and ‘Nothing’. Why is this relevant? Because it means two things for those writing for this age-group.

Firstly, if we fine-tune questions in our materials, reel them in and add an emotion or sense – both stimuli that teenagers experience in overdrive at this stage – and ask, ‘What was the most exciting/amusing/boring thing you did at the weekend?’ or ‘What was the most interesting thing you heard/saw/tasted?’, more language will be produced. By forcing the teen mind to focus and concentrate while stimulating it appropriately, we give rise to a need for language. To paraphrase Vygotsky, language is a natural bridge between stimulus and emotional response, so stimulate the younger teen brain effectively.

Secondly, observe social media and you’ll notice something. Think for a moment about adult Facebook friends of yours who post several photos a day. They post events: coffees, lunches, train rides, snowfall, beach walks, garden clippings … But what do teens post? Selfies, when they’re feeling particularly gorgeous. And group selfies. Their crew. They are all about their tribe, not about events, so ask, ‘Who did you hang out with?’ or ‘What did you do with your best friends this weekend?’ Tune into their world. And create learning.

Fiona Mauchline is an ELT author of coursebook series for secondary, teacher’s books and other resources. Her courses include Motivate, Interface and All Clear (all co-authored for Macmillan Education), and recently she has been working with National Geographic Learning and Oxford University Press. She is also a teacher trainer, teacher and blogger, curating and/or writing blogs including ELTpics blog Take a photo and … and her own macappella for teachers of teens. She also has a module in the pipeline for www.eltteacher2writer.co.uk, due out later in 2016.

 

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3 responses to Gaga’s grandma and garden clippings – or choosing themes for teens

  1. James Styring 17 June 2016 at 11:41 am #

    This is absolutely fascinating, Fiona. A) one could predict, but I am sure all ELT writers are guilty of including quite a lot of B)s and C)s in their writing. I think this blog could pave the way for writing off against tax at least one foreign holiday a year on the grounds of conducting focus groups with teenagers about suitable coursebook topics.

  2. Kate Cory-Wright 18 June 2016 at 3:56 am #

    Wonderful blog, Fiona – fabulous style and lots of interesting info. One more thing to add on the B category is this: never try to get into teenagers’ bedrooms, so to speak. There is a good reason why they close their bedroom doors at that age. They don’t want to let others into their “private world”. So, when writers try to include video games, fashion, etc. we are intruding in a sense (for the reasons you give). Plus, we cannot hope to know more than them on a topic like video games, popular TV programmes, singers, famous people, and fashion, so it just comes across as boring. And then there’s that major consideration – by the time our materials are published, teenagers may well have moved on to a new “cool” thing or person.
    My personal feeling is that we should avoid those topics altogether, or give them a new angle (example: for the course “impact”, Diane Pinkley and I wrote the sample unit on the fashion footprint, which got very good feedback. It was fashion, but environment, too).
    Thanks! Lots of food for thought there!

  3. John Hughes 26 June 2016 at 10:07 pm #

    Thanks for this Fiona. As others have said this is a really interesting study. One question I have is what the cultural/national mix was of the teenagers you interviewed. We can talk about ‘teenagers’ but I wonder how much cultural difference between learners affects the responses you found. Can you give more background on the group you interviewed as you also mention that the results might be affected by being ‘local and group-specific’

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