How to teach Adult English Learners

These days the vast majority of English Second Language (ESL) learners are children who get to master the language at a young age. There are, however, also many adults who want to improve their English. It could be professional reasons, to sustain their current proficiency level, or for a specific reason, like going on a trip or preparing for a test.

Whatever their reasons might be, adults are mostly given a choice to learn English, while most kids do not.

There are various differences between adult and young learners, so as teachers, we have to make slight adjustments in terms of the materials we choose, the activities we use, and how we interact with our students.

In this video, I shared ten tips about teaching English to adult students.

Expectations

When learning English, most adults have expectations on what they want to learn and a timeline for progress. Some study English to advance in their careers, some want to travel and some want to challenge themselves to improve their English skills.

When you teach adults, it is important to find out exactly what their expectations are. Is it for an English proficiency test? What realistic score are they aiming for? How can you best assist them?

If it is practical communication skills, what expressions and activities can you utilize to help them achieve those goals?

If it is professional, how can you best use the time available to help them improve and how can you measure their success?

Understanding your students’ expectations is key to your success as an English teacher.

So when you start your classes, ask students what they expect to learn. What are some activities they feel will be most useful to them? How can you build their confidence? Tell them to visualize themselves after class. How do they feel? What did they learn?

Ask them again after a couple of months, how do they imagine their ideal level of English proficiency themselves? How much did they improve?

Backward re-engineer that image and create a curriculum and activities that will help them become that person.

Practical Skills

Adult learners are with you because they want to improve in some way. Make sure to focus on activities and lessons that are practical and measurable. Talk about relevant topics, teach vocabulary that is often used and practice conversations that can be integrated into their everyday lives.

Roleplays are important in this aspect. Use their prior accumulated life experiences to drive the lesson. That way they always have a connection to the new language and skills they are learning.

It could be something like asking for advice, going to the grocery store, explaining how to do something step-by-step, traveling, or making small talk.

Also make sure to practice things that might cause them anxiety like job interviews, presentations, or difficult conversations.

When adult learners leave your class, they should feel like saying, “What good use of my time. I can apply what I learned today to my life!”

News and Current Hot Topics

Adult learners want to know how to engage with the world in English. Not only do you want to teach them practical skills, but you also need to prepare them to talk about current issues and hot topics.

Before every class, you should do some research. What is happening in their country? What is some pressing world news? What are some current developments in their industry?

You can use these topics to start discussions or print out resources at an appropriate level for your students.

One website that is really useful for finding News articles is “Breaking News English”.

Using realia in the classroom builds your learners’ confidence because they are using real-world material.

Share articles that are relevant to your students’ real lives, explain difficult or useful vocabulary, and discuss it with them.

They will feel like their opinions are important and will learn to express their ideas in English.

They will love your sessions together because they get to learn about the world and share their feelings on relevant topics.

Learning is all about making connections and engagement. Focusing your lessons on important topics will engage your adult learners and provide them the opportunity to be heard.

Focus on their life experiences

The biggest difference between young and older learners is that adults have a wealth of life experiences. The event and memories have shaped who they are as people, and now it is up to us as teachers to integrate that knowledge with the English language.

Let your adult students share their lives, their likes, who they are as people. Not only will they be improving their English, but the lessons will also seem to have been tailor-made specifically made for them.

Honestly, that’s not something we get to do often. Most adults aren’t asked about their opinions and experiences nearly enough. We should engage our adult students by making their lives the priority of our lessons.

The most significant way adult learners digest information is through real-world filters. As I’ve already mentioned, adults have far more life experience than children, and that comes with a stronger need to understand the “Who’s and Why’s” of your lessons.

By establishing connections with their own experiences, your classes will be better remembered and you will be appreciated for making their lessons learner-centered.

Include real-life applications so your students can understand and visualize how to apply what they are learning. Explain exactly what situations and times they can use what they have learned, as well as common mistakes they might run into.

By putting your lessons in context, they become easier for adult learners to understand and retain.

Brainstorm

Remember to find out what your group knows about a topic before starting a new lesson.

Without understanding what they already know, you might be rehashing worn-out topics that they have done a million times, or you may attempt content that is out of their reach at that moment.

Therefore, you need to know what your students know, and how far you can push them.

At the start of the lesson, divide your students into small groups and ask them to brainstorm everything they know about the topic. They can create a mind map or just write as much as they know.

The mere act of working together and reflecting on pre-existing knowledge will be great preparation for the lesson ahead.

As instructors, we must partner with our learners in the pursuit of their goals. We should capitalize on their expertise by encouraging them to share, showing respect for their wisdom, and allowing them the freedom to determine their path to relevant learning.

Tell Stories while you are teaching

Stories have been used for millennia as a teaching method.

Learners share a remarkable variety of personal experiences, values, and ways of understanding. The language they learn in the classroom is the tool they use to shape their thoughts and feelings.

It is more than a way of exchanging information and extending ideas; it is their means of reaching out and connecting with other people. Stories can link not only between the world of the classroom and home, but also between the classroom and beyond. Stories provide a common thread that can help unite cultures and provide a bridge across the cultural gap.

Adult learners have so many stories to tell that can help guide their language acquisition in a natural, more engaging way.

Make learning a social experience

Work in groups and allow adult learners to regularly engage one another during class.

Most students are very shy about speaking in English so we have to get them to use it. Prepare them for social interactions by practicing with partners, letting them speak in front of class and guide them by using English in a variety of situations.

It’s especially interesting to adult learners how Western culture works and how to use it in social interactions. Not only will they enjoy learning about how other cultures interact, they can also reflect and compare it to their own.

Eating, meeting people, social interactions, and Western norms always interest adult English learners. Get them to practice using these in role plays or when interacting with one another.

Add this to your lessons as well as explanations of how things work if they were to meet, interact, travel, do business, or date someone from another culture.

Break up information

Adults can follow more complex information than children, but you should still aim to structure your classes into compartmentalized lessons that progress logically as you teach.

By using structure and logic to guide your lessons you ensure that all students can follow along.

Make sure to preview and recap lessons to make sure students know:

First, what they can expect in the lesson.

Second, review the topic, grammar and expressions to ensure that everyone is keeping up.

Highlight the key points of each lesson and provide learners with lesson material so that they can independently prepare or review what they have learned.

This style of teaching will help you keep you on track, as well as monitor your students’ progress.

The clarity of lesson outcomes will keep the class focused on what the aim is if it ever gets off-topic.

Topics of interest

Often times adult students will focus on topics they are interested in or only use the vocabulary they are comfortable with.

We need to get our adult students excited about the class by including topics they find interesting and allowing them to lead conversations and the flow of the lesson. More so than we would with young learners.

It is a good thing if students enjoy speaking to improve fluency, but that should be balanced with encouragement to speak about a variety of topics to increase their depth of knowledge.

Otherwise, you will hear the same stories about their cats, politics, or whatever hobby they are currently obsessed with.

Don’t misunderstand — we should use topics that are interesting to our students to help them open up, increase their interest and allow them to practice their fluency.

But if that subject becomes their sole focus in class, they will miss out on so much more than they could learn with you.

We should guide our adult learners to share their personal or professional knowledge, adding significant value to class discussions. We also enrich their lessons by providing them with activities that push them out of their comfort zones and reinforce the expectation that everyone must go beyond only sharing opinions and insights to demonstrate new insights.

Dealing with Tension

Be mindful of social hierarchy when you have students of different ages or corporate structures.

It may be awkward when people who work together under different social rules, suddenly interact in English.

In Korea, for example, there is a respectful way that younger learners speak with their elders. It’s strange for example, to refer to someone older than “you” or communicate as equals.

Learners might be afraid to make mistakes in front of their colleagues, or uncomfortable interacting using the Western belief that everybody is equal.

Therefore, we have to create an accepting atmosphere in class where there are no mistakes, just an opportunity to express and practice English.

Encourage small bubbles of activities, where students have to practice specific skills or do work with other adults without social constraints — but after giving feedback or presenting their work, they may return to their normal mode of communication.

So why don’t I encourage the whole lesson to be a bubble where students can interact freely in English without social consequence?

Because that is rarely possible. In each culture, there is an unspoken social agreement — even in English classes. I’ve seen instances where students get too familiar and tension arises. Rather have a class with rules, where everyone is encouraged to take part, but where there is less pressure to “be English”.

They still have to answer questions and engage with each other in class, but they are allowed to act in a way that doesn’t feel uncomfortable.

Then, create activity bubbles within the class where learners take on roles. In these bubbles they are supposed to be the English version of themselves, and work with their adult colleague to do role plays, have discussions and complete objectives in a stricter, more English way.

When they have completed the given activity, they can return to a more natural way of engaging with others.

Older students will still feel like they have the respect they expect, and younger learners won’t feel embarrassed or like they’ve done something wrong.

Whatever you teach, remember to motivate your students to voice their opinions and foster mutual respect for each other regardless of age or stature.

Conclusion

Teaching adults doesn’t need to be more difficult or taxing to an English teacher. Remember to encourage respect, give them a say in their education by giving them options, and allow them to use their fast amount of personal and professional knowledge to steer class discussions.

Don’t be afraid to play games and make class fun with lots of practical activities aimed at improving and achieving their goals.

Teaching Adult learners English can be as rewarding to the teacher, as it is to the students.

I’m Eric from Etacude.

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