In the last few years, there has been increasing pushback against the idea that secondary English classes should be fun, and that we need to foster creativity. Although ‘be more demanding’, ‘focus on quality language input’, ‘be thorough rather than entertaining’ are potentially reasonable arguments, neuroscience and psychology suggest that taking an either / or stance is unwise. To be effective secondary language teachers, we need to go beyond the language, language acquisition and even methodology and look at learners’ brains. If we do that, we’ll see that creativity, as well as its second cousin fun, are both valid and desirable.

Recent research into the teenage brain shows a fair degree of overlap with research into brain activity related to creativity and language. Memory, particularly long-term memory, is largely the responsibility of the hippocampus and the amygdala, parts of the limbic system. Their functions are quite complex, but to simplify, the hippocampus forms links between memories and different cues, with one important type of link being emotions evoked. The amygdala, triggered by the senses, activates those emotions. More links mean better retained memories (think about a new class and the many ways you use to remember names – where students sit, hair colour, clothes etc.) Together, the hippocampus and the amygdala encode and retrieve information and are therefore key in learning. So, if you use sensory stimuli to encourage an emotional response, you facilitate learning. You also activate the teacher’s best friend: motivation. Furthermore, recent research by the University of Lancaster shows that engaging the senses inwardly while processing language also activates the amygdala.  Notice how your brain reacts when you read these pairs of sentences, tapping into the taste sense rather than simply processing literally:

He thought about her words. / He savoured her words.    

She was incredibly unhappy. / She was bitterly unhappy.

Key in the secondary classroom is the fact that the teenage brain, in particular the prefrontal cortex, is not fully developed and fine-tuned until the age of 25. Adults use this to process information and take decisions, whereas teenagers have to rely more on the amygdala. The limbic system is the ‘instant reward’ centre, and it’s on fire in the teen years, so their need for fun and instant gratification is strong. In addition, part of the yet-to-develop prefrontal cortex’s function is planning, and another is focussing and organising attention. No huge surprises here for secondary teachers and parents / caregivers of teenagers alike. But bear in mind that attention is activated by the five senses, particularly by sight and sound.

Thus, we see that secondary learners need:

  • fun, reward, emotion, a sugar fix
  • sensory stimuli
  • help with focussing and planning

This is where imagination comes in. Unless you can take your students outside the classroom, which is generally a sensorially poor environment, then a bit of imagination is necessary. Therefore, we need to find ways to activate all our students’ senses, but also to provide effective stimuli that will push students to want to produce the type of output that will not only show them where their gaps are but will encourage them to want to fill them. ‘Push’ as described by Thornbury (2010) in his blog meets with Vygotsky, when the latter posited language as a natural bridge between stimulus and emotional response: if the stimulus is right, students will want to talk about it. If, furthermore, we allow them to think about it, talk about it, take decisions related to it and write about it, we deepen cognitive processing, heighten the experience, and activate learning.

My final point about teens concerns vulnerability. The prefrontal cortex is also where personality and emotion management lie. We all have topics we feel vulnerable about, areas that I call the Twilight Zone that we don’t share with just anyone, regardless of age. For teenagers these could include every day topics such as home, family, holidays, eating habits or musical tastes. Where adults have strategies to protect themselves, teenagers do not. They bruise easily. Helping them to use their imaginations and offering plenty of support helps them to deal with these topics, lowers stress and can even be extremely enjoyable. So how to do all of that? I’d now like to share some practical activities which cater for the above without leaving the classroom.

My Best Friend

If you ask secondary learners to describe their best friend, apart from potentially leaping into the Twilight Zone (‘But I thought I was your best friend?! / I haven’t got one / I’ve just fought with her/him.’), you will tend to get a description of hair colour (around 90% of humans have black or brown hair, so…), eye colour, height, and likes. It is not a topic that triggers the imagination, or the vocabulary or grammar available to the learner. So, try a questionnaire designed to engage the senses. Allow students to think quietly and prepare what they want to say, then put them in pairs to speak. Ask them to choose five questions. This avoids possible issues as well as giving them some control. Of course they can make up answers if they want:

  • What colour of eyes, hair and skin does s/he have?
  • What famous person does s/he most look like?
  • What does s/he smell of?
  • What does his/her voice sound like?
  • What makes him/her laugh?
  • What do you have in common?
  • How does s/he walk?
  • What colours does s/he usually wear?

After thinking, lexical research and speaking, students can “borrow” each other’s ideas when writing; this way, everyone has something interesting to say. Similar questionnaires work with many topics, such as my house, a memory, a city.

Voice visualisation*

Visualisation activities are great for supporting descriptions. Students close their eyes (or look at the ceiling if closed eyes don’t appeal), listen to your voice and visualise. When instructed, they open their eyes to note down responses. They can do this in their own language(s) if English will limit the visualisation. Using a calm, relaxing voice, read a script question by question, allowing a few moments for answers to be noted down. When the questions are finished, students open their eyes, and ask for, look up, or discuss vocabulary before comparing what they saw with partners. As above, when they eventually write their description, they can borrow ideas.

You’re staying in a city you’ve always wanted to visit. (pause) You’ve just woken up. It’s early morning. Walk to the window and open the curtains. (pause) What’s the first thing you see? (pause for notes) Listen to the sounds from the street. What can you hear? (pause for notes) Open the window. Move your toes. How does the air feel? Warm? Cold? Fresh? (pause for notes) Take a deep breath. What can you smell? (pause for notes) Look down. You see two people in the street. What are they wearing? What are they doing?   etc until you have included light, colours, buildings, any traffic, signs, the sky, weather…… and end with How do you feel?

Musical stories

Combine the questioning technique in voice visualisations with music to help with stories. Choose a dramatic piece, such as Dúo de las flores by Delibes. Ask students to listen, visualise and answer your questions. You ask questions to the whole class, so accept one or maximum two answers. Encourage them to give you the first thing that comes to mind. You’ll build the story as the music progresses, so it’s important to repeat the previous answers as you build. Here’s an example script, but of course the only limit is your students’ imaginations:

(play…then stop) Where are we? (by the sea! near a roller park!) OK, so we’re by the sea near a roller park. (play…then stop) What’s the weather like? (raining, windy) OK! So we’re by the sea near a roller park, and it’s raining and windy. (play…then stop) There’s a teenager! Where is she going? (to the park, to meet her best friend!) OK! So we’re by the sea near a roller park. It’s raining and windy. A teenager is going to the park to meet her best friend .. (play…then stop) They meet! What’s their plan for the rainy afternoon? etc.

Add in why are they meeting, what can they hear? etc. Build the story as you go and add questions as appropriate. Remember to include the senses! She smells the sea air and it reminds her of family holidays as a young child.

When you have enough, elicit the basic story again from the class (if you repeated it as you progressed, they’ll remember it), and write the main points on the board. Form groups of three to choose which details to include and which to discard, ask them to add three elements and to write their stories. They can write a second draft at home, changing four elements. Select the elements as a class (e.g. her clothes, where she was going and the setting). The repetition reinforces learning; thinking about changes adds processing, and new language will also be reviewed.

Actioning dialogues

Finally, as the hippocampus uses place, context, and emotion to form links and aid recall, scripted dialogues or role-play can work for functional / situational language, but add sensory and emotional stimuli. Script, semi-script or provide role cards for situations such as directions on holiday, ordering food, chatting online…  Students need to imagine background sound, a smell, the temperature and how they feel. Allow time for them to do this, then, write their ideas on the board. Give a list of verbs which affect communication: persuade, love, trust, tempt, ridicule, manipulate, shout, bore etc. (depending on level, see below for useful book). Tell students to choose a different verb each time they speak, say the verb, then speak. This encourages processing. With lower levels, adjectives can substitute verbs if you prefer, though verbs are more effective.

* I was first introduced to a version of this idea by Dr Javier Ávila, University of Córdoba, Spain, some time around 2002, and have developed it over the years.

Recommended reading

Inventing ourselves: The Secret Life of the Teenage Brain; Sarah-Jayne Blakemore; Doubleday, 2018

Actions: The Actor’s Thesaurus, by Calderone and Lloyd-Williams. Nick Hern Books 2017.


  • Fiona Mauchline

    Fiona is a materials writer, teacher trainer and teacher who specialises in lower and upper secondary ELT. She is the author of How To Write Secondary Materials, published by ELT Teacher 2 Writer. She is also co-editor of the IATEFL Teacher Development SIG’s ebulletin and co-founder of EVE: Equal Voices in ELT. She has a keen interest in photography, art, creative writing and psychology, which influence her ELT work. She’s now based in Oxford in the UK after 28 years in Spain. You can contact Fiona at [email protected]

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