7 Proven Ways to Teach the ABCs to Adults

7 Proven Ways to Teach the ABCs to Adults

Vicky Zurakowski
by Vicky Zurakowski 159,668 views

When it comes to teaching adult ESL beginners teachers can often draw a blank, especially those who are more inexperienced.

There are many preconceptions that teaching mature learners English is far easier than teaching younger children. There is the idea in place that adults have more motivation to learn whereas young children are more likely to be there because their parents have sent them. Others would argue that because adults are of a mature age it’s easier to teach and control the class whereas young children can often be unruly and over zealous. Perhaps this is all true but what about the content? What about teaching the basics?

When we start learning a language, other than the basic greetings, one of the first things we learn is the alphabet. We learn the order of the letters, phonetic sounds of the letters and various words associated to them. Teaching the alphabet is easy to young learners due numerous fun games, songs, pictures and flashcards that can be implemented in the language classroom with the most common one being the ABC song. These methods do not bode well with adults and even though knowing the alphabet is essential in a language, such teaching techniques are deemed inappropriate and juvenile. To many teachers this may be obvious but to others not so much. Teachers often make the mistake of using the same techniques and approaches teaching both adults and younger learners which in turn could lead to detrimental learning. If you take a glance at any lower elementary course book it is clear that there are specific activities that need to be covered. If adult participants feel like they’re being treated like children they’ll quickly retract thus making the learning process more complicated. When teaching adult learners it’s absolutely essential to take the material and modify it so it doesn’t appear to be too simplistic and condescending. So, what are some effective ways to help your ESL adult learners acquire basic knowledge in an age-appropriate way?

Consider Some Great Methods to Help Your Adult Students Learn the Basics

  1. 1

    Doing Diagnostics

    The greatest challenge with teaching adult ESL learners in a classroom environment is that you’ll have learners of all different levels. You’ll have those who are true beginners and those who are false beginners therefore it is necessary to carry out diagnostic tests to determine their actual English literacy level.

    Adult learners like to be tested. It’s a method that suits them and it appears to be more formal and as adults, they like structure. Additionally, because they’re investing both their time and money into learning English they want organization and they want to see results.

    Testing their English literacy level could simply be done by having the participants of the class fill out a short form with biographical information. Participants can fill out simple realistic forms which will require them to state their name, address, age, telephone number and so on. Tutors will need to demonstrate this on the board and afterwards they’ll be given an idea of what the class knows and doesn’t know.

    Realistic diagnostic tests to determine their level will motivate adult learners. Filling in forms is a part of everyday adult life and they’ll see this as a useful task.

  2. 2

    Pre-testing ABC Knowledge

    It’s also a good idea to see which letters your learners already know. Instead of using flashcards use something more adult like to show the class particular letters. Using a projector with a PowerPoint presentation will make adult learners feel more comfortable. After all, this type of technology is commonplace in the workplace and it will make the learning and testing process more realistic.

    Randomly project letters onto the screen and have your learners say them to determine their preexisting knowledge.

  3. 3

    Writing Sheets to Recognize Letters

    Passing out different sheets with single letters to your adult learners will help them with autonomous learning. With sheets directly in front of them, as opposed to the group chanting you would do with younger learners, you will help the adult participants have more control over their own learning.

    As you pass out each paper be sure to repeat the letter as you hand them out. After repeating each letter, continue to repeat the phonetic sound. Don’t force your adult learners to chant and repeat after you as most adult learners have more inhibitions than younger learners. Let them repeat at their own free will. After they get used to the new methods they’ll then begin to respond and you’ll see them mouthing the sounds after you until they become more comfortable in their new learning environment.

  4. 4

    Introduce Flashcards

    After the teacher has allowed the learners to mouth and see the words themselves and they feel more comfortable in their knowledge the use of the traditional flashcards can be implemented. Adult learners generally need to feel safer in their environment before they will participate vocally in class especially if this is the first time learning a language.

    Without speaking, hold up plain, non-decorated alphabet cards randomly and prompt the adults to name them through your body language and your smile. After a few rounds of uncertain guessing they’ll begin to become more confident and willing to participate which will be evident in their louder more certain voices.

  5. 5

    Alphabet Association

    When associating words with letters to improve alphabet knowledge care also needs to be taken with adult learners. With children this method is easy as there are number of great words and simple words that are relevant to children for example B is for ball, baby, Batman and so on. Adjusting your materials and modifying your lesson content to suit the needs of your adult learners is necessary. It makes the learning more meaningful and in turn they’ll be more motivated to learn.

    Again PowerPoint presentations can be useful in this scenario. Have a letter projected on the board and with each click show pictures and the word corresponding to the letter in focus.

    In order to do this, you need to look at the demographics of the class and have a clear understanding of their purpose for learning English. If it’s for business purposes, an example of this could be C is for computer, cartridge, calculator, camera and so on. As your learners grow more confident with saying and pronouncing the words you can just project the picture. Ask them for the phonetic sound of the word and then have them say the word. This will need to be modeled a few times and they’ll quickly pick it up.

    This particular way of helping your adult learners associate words with letters is also a great way of expanding their vocabulary and because it is all related to their needs there will be more motivation as they’ll have more chances to use this language in their everyday situations.

  6. 6

    Mirror Mirror…

    Language and phonetic acquisition is much more difficult for adult learners after they’re used to the sounds of their own mother tongue. Each language differs in sounds and it’s often more challenging to get pronunciation right from the onset. Additionally adult learners are shier when repeating sounds over and over again and can often become frustrated in the fact that they don’t pick things up immediately.

    Tutors can distribute handheld mirrors throughout the class and have their students examine the movements of their mouths and lips as they sound out the sounds. All teachers should model the sound first and exaggerate it so the participants can clearly see the movement of the mouth as the sound is made. Have the learners repeat these methods and they’ll be able to pick up the phonetic sounds of the letters easier as they’ll be able to see and control their mouths in front of the mirrors.

    Adult learners prefer structure and having rules. While this method does not distinctly have a list of rules it will help them to visually see what it is they’re doing right or wrong.

  7. 7

    Read it…

    A great way to continue practicing recognition of letters, individual sounds, and diphthongs in English is to have your participants read. When adults feel like they’re making progress and see changes in their L2 abilities, they’ll feel like they’ve achieved part of their goal in their second language acquisition. Be sure to either create your own materials with core words and easy sounds to suit them. Choosing simple children’s books is not appropriate in any case of adult learning as it could be seen as insulting, which is why great care needs to be taken when selecting language materials for adults.

Teaching or reviewing the alphabet with adult ESL learners does need approaching carefully.

These are just a few simple and tried methods that will encourage your learners to practice without feeling they’re being treated like children. In saying this, after they feel more comfortable in their new learning surroundings more fun activities can be gradually be introduced for review. Be sure to modify all learning materials to suit the needs of the class and always bear in mind you’re working with adults not kids.

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