The Successful Teaching of the Adult English Language Learner

What countries are your students from?
What language(s) do they speak?
What are their educational backgrounds?
Who are your students?
Why are they taking your class? What are their immediate goals?The first step to the successful teaching of the adult ESL student is to find out some basic information about your students and their motives for attending your class. Teaching ESL to adults is not like teaching ESL to children.What are the differences?One major difference is life experience. Adult students come to the classroom with diverse cultures, knowledge, and frequently an extensive vocabulary because they have more life experiences than children. Thus, adults should be assisted in drawing upon their backgrounds as they practice literacy skills. Building on what already is known makes the tasks of reading, writing, listening, and speaking more consequential and less threatening than a curriculum that does not take into account what the student brings to the learning setting.We’ve talked about life experience. Can you think of another difference between teaching a child and an adult?Motivation. Adult students are goal oriented and highly motivated. They attend class of their own free will and at some personal and financial sacrifice. Absences are due to family and economic obligation rather than a lack of motivation.Do children have immediate life goals that need to be satisfied?Adult students usually have very specific and immediate goals. Many are not looking to some long-range academic achievement. They need English today, to get a job tomorrow.Children are naturally curious, but…Do they see themselves as students? Does the adult ESL student?Many adult ESL students have a poor self-concept. They do not see themselves as students. The undereducated adult is especially convinced they cannot or they do not know how to learn.Two questions for you, Teacher:1. What is your role in the community? Are you…
Parishioner2. Do you have many and varied life responsibilities and roles?If you have countless roles and varied responsibilities, then you can relate to your adult student. You can understand that as parents, workers, friends, and relatives we have many roles that must be fulfilled. We have busy schedules. When we take a class, our schedules would naturally prevent us from going to class at certain hours due to time or distance.Outside the classroom, our students have many diverse interests. Therefore it is important to bring these interests to class in the form of relevant class activities. The experiences of our students can serve as fodder for our lessons and make our activities more applicable.Who is the typical adult ESL student?You will be disappointed to learn that there is no typical adult ESL student. Every student in a class will have a wide range of backgrounds, skills, and interests. Listed below are some of the more important differences:Literacy or the Low Level Student – one of the most important differences among adult students is whether they can read or write in their native language. If students are literate in their native language, learning another language is much easier than for the non-literate or low-literate student. Why? Because (most) literate students already understand the sound/symbol correlation, have a grammar base and many other skills that are essential to learning a language.Formal Education – you will more than likely have students whose educational backgrounds range from those with advanced degrees from a foreign university to students with little or no formal education. One important thing for you to remember is not to underestimate the intelligence of your students. Most are smarter than their ability to speak English would seem to indicate.You may also experience a wide range of ages that will require you to use diverse activities in the classroom in order to reach all of your students. In this case, you can be most effective by grouping students by level and doing many activities in small groups.What has motivated your students to come to class?- You may have students who are very eager to learn English so they can advance in their jobs. Their motivation is the dollar.- You may have students who are required by their employer to attend classes but who do not really care about English at all. Their motivation may be peripheral.- You may have the student who has been pressed by family or friends to learn English.- Others may have made a decision to learn English for self-improvement. This may be true of moms who attend classes because their children are in school and they want to be able to talk to their children’s teacher.How can you motivate your students?You will need to find out what your students really want. Regardless of the reasons why adult students enter our classrooms, genuine concern, an enjoyable class, and a sense of progress will increase motivation once students are there.Different theories abound regarding how people learn best and how to teach. Whether you’re a seasoned teacher or a novice, as you work with your students and exercise your skills, you will discover what works and what does not. You will need to be flexible enough to continually modify your original plans to meet new student needs and interests. In other words, always have a back-up plan! Have that extra game, exercise or activity available. Don’t worry. You’ll find the methods that work best for your students.Would you want a class composed of reading sounds, words out of context or work on isolated grammar problems without immediate application? Yes? No?Would you like to receive worksheets and other assignments which drill meaningless language elements and language skills in isolated contexts? Yes? No?It is imperative that we maintain student interest in our classes. So, if you require that students read sounds (the alphabet), words out of context (vocabulary lists), or drill grammar in isolated situations (He is/are single), then your students may not return to your classroom. Adults need immediate application for what they are taught. Our students come to us with a wealth of experiences and represent a wide range of educational backgrounds. They should have input into how teaching and learning progresses.Have you ever taught (or have been a student) in a classroom that was too hot? Too cold? How did you feel? Yes? No?Put yourself in your student’s place. If you are uncomfortable in a classroom that is too hot or too cold, then you know that student will be also. Adults learn best when they feel comfortable in the learning environment.How can we make students comfortable?Listen to your students. Interest in the class will remain high if students actively participate. Adults learn best when what they are learning can be applied to the world outside the classroom.Have you ever sat inactively and listened someone explain something? Do you remember what it was? (Think about the question for a moment.) Yes? No? How did you feel?Now, think back to a time when you were actively engaged in learning something as you were taught. How did you feel then? Complete the following statement in your own words. There is no right or wrong answer. I felt…It’s a good idea to use techniques and materials that have been chosen on the basis of the student’s skill level, needs, goals, and learning style. For these reasons, we need to use a variety of learning activities in our teaching – what might work for some, might not work for others. Each student is an individual. If we do not meet a student’s needs, they will not return to class. Our students are more directed and involved in instruction when what they are learning is useful and meaningful and can be applied to their everyday lives.It has been said that people retain
– 10% of what they read
– 20% of what they hear
– 30% of what they see
– 50% of what they see and hear
– 90% of what they say and doGiven the above, what implications do these statements have for teaching adult students?Actively involve your students in the learning process. Find out your students’ needs and wants, and plan your lessons accordingly. Don’t ignore the “teachable moment” when for example, a student raises a question/concern outside what you’re currently teaching or there is a breaking news topic. Make sure activities directly relate to students’ lives. Adult students want more than to sit and watch as you wax philosophically on, for example, count versus non-count nouns.Keep in mind that the adult student has a plethora of lifetime experiences that s/he brings to the ESL classroom. As our students learn from us, we learn from them. It’s a collaborative learning process. S/he may not be able to understand, speak, read or write English so use these experiences as a basis for your lessons.