You’re Not in Munchkin Land Anymore: Four Simple Strategies for Teaching Adults Every ESL Teacher Should Know

You’re Not in Munchkin Land Anymore
Four Simple Strategies for Teaching Adults Every ESL Teacher Should Know

Susan Verner
by Susan Verner 21,961 views

Teaching adult ESL learners can be an enjoyable and satisfying experience.

You may be able to relate to your students on a more personal level than if you teaching children, and adult learners are often more motivated to learn independently. But that doesn’t’ mean teaching adult ESL classes is all smooth sailing. Teaching adults presents not only its unique set of advantages but also its unique set of challenges. Here are some tips for making your adult ESL classes a big success.

4 Essential Tips for Successful Adult ESL Classes

  1. 1

    You’ve Got to Move It, Move It!

    It is difficult and perhaps even unfair to keep young learners seated behind a desk all day long. They want time to stretch and move and use up that youthful energy. Your adult students, on the other hand, likely won’t start bouncing in their seats if you have them sit for extended periods of time. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t get them moving. In fact, to teach most effectively, you HAVE to get your adult students moving, even if they prefer to stay seated at their desks.

    There’s a good reason for this. Research proves that getting your body involved as you learn actually helps you acquire a second language better. That means if your students want to learn quickly and deeply, they have to move while they do it. Even if they don’t want to.

    You can get your students moving by playing games, modifying traditional activities to require movement around your classroom, or with the teaching method Total Physical Response (TPR). With kids you’ll get grumbling if they sit too long. With adults, you may get grumbling if you make them move, but rest assured it will be worth it in the long run.

  2. 2

    We’ve Only Just Begun

    Adult students, by definition, are older people. I don’t mean senior citizens (though you may have some in your class). I mean they have years of interesting life experiences in their past. If you want to really tap into the strengths of your adult learners, value the experience they bring to the table.

    Because they are studying English, you can’t expect your adult students to express themselves eloquently or even grammatically at times, but that lack of experience with English does not extend to other areas. Your students have done interesting things. They have accomplished great feats. And you should value their past and encourage them to share what they know and what they are good at with the class.

    This means that you, as their teacher, should approach your students as more equals. Don’t confuse their proficiency in English with their proficiencies at life. Make learning a team effort. Don’t talk down to them or patronize them. Even though their language may be immature, they are not. To show that you value them and their experiences, encourage their participation in class and accept their feedback even if it’s about how you teach and areas you can improve.

    One particularly fun way to show your students that you value them is to host an expert day. Ask each of your students to think of an area or topic on which they would consider themselves an expert. Then have them share with the rest of the class. In their presentation, whether it is formal or informal, have students share what they are an expert on, how they became an expert on that topic, how they have used their expertise, and what others should know about that topic.

    It is a great way to get to know your students more, let them know you value them, and get a speaking activity in as well.

  3. 3

    Uphill Pronunciation

    Did you know that children as old as five can pick up a second language without even studying it and still end up with native speaker fluency? Adults don’t have that advantage. In fact, the older a person gets studies show, the more difficult it is for them to learn a new language. No area is a greater struggle for these students than pronunciation.

    For adults, their pronunciation patterns are entrenched in both their brains and their mouths. Their minds have learned a specific set of sounds used in their native language, and their muscles have developed memories on how to produce those sounds. When you try to add new sound patterns to the mix, adult learners may struggle with the process both in their mind and their mouth.

    To help your adult students in the area of pronunciation, the best thing you can do is lower your expectations. That right. Stop expecting perfection.

    Often we as teachers feel it is our role and responsibility to help our students produce spoken English as close to a native speaker as possible. In fact, our role and responsibility is to help our students communicate in English to the best of their abilities. This is never truer than when teaching adults.

    Having an accent when you speak English does not hinder communication except when the accent is so severe English speakers cannot understand the words being spoken. Instead of challenging your adult students to have perfect pronunciation, encourage them to have perfect communication.

    That being said, there are things you can do to help your adult students reduce their accent and improve their pronunciation. Be sure to teach them the phonetic alphabet and learn it yourself if you don’t already know it. Using the IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet) in class will help your adult learners see if the differences in sound and pronunciation even if they can’t hear it when you give them an example. Also use mirrors in class so your students can see what their mouths are doing as they pronounce certain words, again putting less depending on the ears and engaging the eyes in their place.

  4. 4

    I’m Late for a Very Important Date

    Finally, if you teach adult students, respect their time. They are grownups with grown up responsibilities. Some may have full time jobs, spouses, children, or all of the above. Be sure you aren’t giving homework for homework’s sake. Make your assignments practical and based in real life when you can. Start class and end class on time, and don’t fill your days with what your students might consider pointless activities. Let them know why you are doing what you are doing and what you hope they get out of it, and they will value your lessons as much as you do.

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