Some of my fondest teaching memories are of teaching adult ESL: the students are motivated, the curriculum clear-cut, the colleagues pleasant and noncompetitive, and the general environment low-stress because it is low-stakes: the students are in most cases not working to pass tests or matriculate into the “regular” classes, and indeed most of the classes are ungraded and noncredit.
So what could possibly go wrong in such a dream teaching environment? One of the major problems is its very low-stress, noncompetitive environment—the class is seen as perhaps the way many of us regard going to the gym or taking a sewing or other extra-curricular class. The noncompetitive atmosphere can create a lack of incentive for even showing up. In addition, given the very hectic nature of many adult ESL students’ lives and their barriers—change in work hours, lack of childcare—the teacher might see her class shrink considerably over the course of a term. Fortunately, there are methods to address this trend and create a class of committed students who attend, if not regularly, as much as possible for them.
Ways to Combat Student Attrition
Accept a certain amount of attrition is inevitable.
Given the choice between paid labor and a class, students are generally going to choose the job and with good reason: they have family and themselves to support, perhaps even relatives back in their home countries depending on them financially. Therefore, don’t take their leaving personally; say good-bye pleasantly as they leave to bring in the harvest or work the night shift and invite them back next term. Often they do show up again the next term—so perhaps this is not really attrition but the normal ebb and flow of an adult, noncredit class.
Welcome students back.
Make students feel welcome when they return after a long period away: greet them pleasantly and help reintegrate them into the class structure. Make this reintegration possible through detailed schedules, course outlines, websites with the term’s important handouts posted, as well peer mentoring, classmates that will help returning students with the material they missed, going over important points. Students are likely to return when their work or family situation normalizes if they feel welcomed back and there’s a procedure in place to help them catch up.
Create a pleasant, low-stress learning environment.
Many adult students who resume their education after a long time in the workforce or at home have had negative experiences with schools and teachers which caused them to leave the academic setting in the first place. That, combined with a stressful current classroom situation, will discourage them from returning. Therefore, maintain a low-stress atmosphere by positively responding to student work, fair treatment of all students, and a good balance of activities that are neither too challenging nor too easy. In addition, making learning interactive, giving students the opportunity to learn from both their peers and you, will keep students returning to the class.
These class circumstances of students attending when they can and shifting student population result in the need for more day-to-day planning in which the instructor knows in general what will be covered—language for extended families and their daily activities, for example—but the activities related to the particular learning objective can be adjusted on the spot depending on who shows up for class, focusing, for example, on more common and “universal” vocabulary such as “sister” or “uncle” for beginning classes, and more cultural/advanced vocabulary for advanced classes: vocabulary such as “stepsister” or “significant other,” for more contemporary family relationships.
In addition, while working in adult-level ESL classes, I quickly learned to move to more day-to-day planning rather than long-range projects. Long-range projects are too frustrating and difficult to see through when the student population changes on a near-daily basis.
Work to remove barriers.
As much as possible, accommodate work schedules and implement methods to allow students to catch up when they’ve been away on the job, such as a website with a schedule and assignments posted. Accept late work. Implement group work and peer tutoring so students can catch each other up to speed. In as much as your institution allows it, permit students to bring their children to class if their childcare falls through. I’ve never had a student abuse this privilege, using it as a one-time measure, usually, and the children have been uniformly well-behaved and non-disruptive.
Provide a meaningful curriculum.
Often ESL classes offer instruction that is not matched student needs: popular movies, cross-word puzzles, grammar drills, and conjugating verbs are not what ESL students are focused on learning and are not the best use of their time. Offer instead meaningful instruction in English use related to their immediate lives: how to have conversations with new friends and neighbors, ways to speak at the doctor’s office or airport, how to write a standard business letter or do a productive web search. Offering meaningful curriculum is one way to keep students coming back again and again.
Communicate your enthusiasm and energy.
Show your enthusiasm for the English language and English-speaking culture. This enthusiasm will communicate itself to the students, affecting their mood and desire to learn. A teacher who is enthusiastic about material almost always generates similar enthusiasm in students. Take lectures and discussions beyond the textbook page to give students information and practice they can’t get on their own. For example, a lecture on the passive versus the active voice can be a dry-as-dust grammar activity or it can come alive as the instructor delves into why the passive voice is used and specific examples: for example, a well-known leader’s use to explain his administration’s faux-pas: “Mistakes were made,” as well as more everyday usage of avoiding responsibility: “I’m sorry, but your records have been lost.” Examples like these drawn from life can’t necessarily be found in textbooks and are a reason to return to class. .
Create opportunities for students to interact.
To often even today language classes involve students sitting in neat rows, listening to the instructor lecture about language use, and speaking the new language only when called on—which may only be a couple of times a session. Instead, after a brief demonstration and instruction, set up groups and allow students to practice the language point with each other.
Adult classes with high student attrition are a challenge to teach. Instructors can’t be sure who will be in class the next day, which of course has implications for planning. However, through attention to the curriculum and instruction, as well as creating a low-stress environment in which lessons are approached with enthusiasm, the teacher can ensure that students will keep coming back again and again!