Teaching adult learners can be very rewarding, but very challenging as well. We mustn’t forget we’re dealing with individuals who have their own lives outside of school, some with very busy schedules. But adult learners are also better equipped for dialogue and exchange. They come to class with a set of tools and information that can be of great use to us. On the one hand we present the advantages that come with teaching adult learners and the way you, as an ESL teacher can maximize their great potential for learning. And on the other hand, we examine the challenges we face and suggest some ways to overcome them.
The Advantages Of Teaching Adults
When we teach English to adults, we’re dealing with individuals who, to a greater or lesser degree, have a set of study skills, acquired in their previous schooling. At the very least, they possess writing, summarizing, and note-taking skills. They know perfectly well what it’s like to attend classes, and the greater their commitment to their learning, the more organized they are, and the more skills they are willing to deploy.
How do we fully take advantage of their previously acquired study skills?
Ask them to produce a summary of a video seen in class, or a reading assignment. Encourage them to prepare charts or graphs. Feel free to assign more challenging types of homework assignments, not necessarily more time-consuming, as most adults learners don’t have a great deal of free time on their hands, but they may handle more mentally-challenging exercises. They may even make a Power Point presentation for their final examination. Never underestimate them.
The first characteristic of adult learners you should learn is that they are not children, and they don't need help with their homework.
Most adults who enroll in English courses, do so of their own volition. This is another characteristic of adult learners. Their needs may vary, but the fact of the matter is they feel an interest in learning, a need, sometimes even an urgency to study English. Some need to improve their English communication skills to do business or have better chances of advancement in their careers. Others want to travel to English-speaking countries and want to get around on their own. Others still, simply enjoy it, or studied it when they were kids and want to take their English to the next level. Even those who are “forced” to study due to circumstances like relocation to an English-speaking country have a specific reason to learn, and a goal that will motivate them to learn.
How can we take advantage of their motivation to learn?
Although your students may have the initial motivation to enroll in classes, it may vanish into thin air if they suddenly face activities and tasks that don't inspire them to learn. To effectively motivate them, simply consider their goals. Do they want to learn English to do business? Plan activities that specifically cater to this goal, like job interviews, business realia, or business email writing. Are they learning just for fun? Provide a variety of activities that will keep them engaged, like videos, games, or even field trips.
A wealth of knowledge
One of the greatest advantages of teaching adult learners is the incredible amount of knowledge and experience they can bring to class. We mustn’t forget that although they may know little English, they most likely know a great deal about something else, whether it is their professional area of expertise or simply a hobby, and these may be things you know nothing about. Some of this knowledge may be highly specialized or industry-related (pharmaceuticals, marketing, manufacturing) or basic knowledge of things you have no experience in like cars, sports, crafts, maybe even other languages.
How can we tap into this wealth of knowledge?
It’s as easy as asking your adult students to talk about what they know about. For example, a beginner who is really into cars can make comparisons: A Mercedes is more expensive/faster/more efficient than a Ford. An advanced student can give a presentation on marketing basics for the rest of the class. If you're teaching business English to adults, you can practically ask them to teach you everything they know about business! This is why it is absolutely essential that you become very familiar with your students backgrounds and interests.
The Challenges Of Teaching Adults: What Adult Learners Want
Lack of time
Very few adult learners have tons of free time on their hands. Most have full time jobs and careers, some study, and it’s hard for them to find the time to take an English course, let alone do homework and study after class.
How can we overcome this challenge?
Rather than excusing them from doing homework or at home activities, give them several, but shorter tasks to do. For instance, instead of giving them something that might take them from 20 to 40 minutes, give them a 5 or 10 minute exercise, but several, so that they may do one a day, in between meetings, or while they're on their lunch break. Ask them to watch a 5 minute video while they have breakfast and then summarize it. Keep the tasks short and focused.
Unlike children, adult learners tend to be very self-conscious, particularly about the way they speak and their pronunciation. They also tend to get frustrated more easily. They get discouraged if they think they’ve made little to no progress, especially advanced students who may feel they’ve reached a language plateau, beyond which they can't progress. Finally, they are also very hard on themselves sometimes, demanding unrealistic things like perfect pronunciation or listening.
How can we help them?
- First, inform your students on what should be realistic goals. Make sure they're clear on what the course program is for the year and what they are expected to learn. Also, explain to them that their brains are not as flexible as children's brains, which makes it practically impossible for them to lose their accent. This does not mean that they can't improve their pronunciation, but that they’ll always have an accent that is part of who they are.
- Secondly, to help them track their progress, end each class with a What have you learned today? They may have learned about a specific topic, a new tense, or a whole new set of vocabulary. But make sure they are aware of this.
By far the best thing about teaching adult learners is the amazing things you’ll learn from them. Give them everything they need to advance and grow, but also be open to everything they'll share with you. You'll see how you grow as teacher too!