Teaching ESL to Adult Learners

credit goes to ESL- Centro Guadalupano

credit goes to ESL- Centro Guadalupano

Have you ever taught ESL to adults?

I have. For the past two years, I have taught a short-term English conversation class to Korean adults at the Andong City Library; the class lasted for 15 weeks in the spring and again in the fall. It has been a positive experience for me as I have been able to learn new skills and try different strategies. Teaching ESL to adult learners comes with its own issues, but also has some advantages that don’t come with teaching children.

One thing to remember when teaching adults, is that they’re autonomous learners, they have already acquired a set of study skills from their earlier education while growing up. Well, at least adults can read, write, speak and comprehend what’s being said to a better degree than children. Adults also show a greater desire to learn and practice what they’ve learnt, and will generally show up to class more often.

If you’re teaching a conversation course, assigning homework may be inappropriate as the focus is on speaking and listening comprehension more than reading or writing. If you’re teaching an adult course that incorporate all four aspects of language learning, then assign homework that’s appropriate to the level of the learners. Basic grammar and vocabulary worksheets may not help adults as much as comprehension worksheets.

Adults are motivated individuals

credit Google images

credit Google images

Adults generally enroll in ESL courses on their own for some sort of personal reason. They may need to learn English for their job, for travelling to an English-speaking country, or for their own personal enjoyment. There are various motivations behind why adults learn English as a second language, but whatever those motivations are, try to make the most of it.  Find out what their goals are for learning English and find ways to make the classroom activities and other work help them reach their goals.

Another thing to do, is have them speak about their experiences growing up, schooling, job, etc. in English. Adults, especially older adults, are a wealth of knowledge. In the adult class I teach, there is a 76-year-old woman who has such an interesting life story. It’s so fun to hear her speak about her life in the class. Other adults, too, have interesting tales to tell. Some books and materials with set topics, while helpful, can seem elementary at times and may focus too much on grammar or vocabulary and less on actual conversation and listening comprehension. If you’re going to have a set topic for the class, make sure it’s one the students can relate to and speak about without hesitation. Vocabulary is important and it helps to teach a few new words and expressions that relate to that topic. Dialogues about the topic also help students utilize their new vocabulary skills and reinforce memory skills.

The challenges

photo credit Google images

photo credit Google images

As I stated earlier, teaching adults comes with its own set of challenges. One of which is time; adults usually don’t have much time to study because many have a full-time job or stay home and take care of the house while their kids and spouse are away. One way to overcome this challenge, is to give the adult students short tasks to complete while they have free time. It could be something small as memorizing small phrases or words, or watch a short video and write a summary.

Another challenge is the frustration that comes with learning something new at a later stage in life. Many adult ESL learners tend to be very self-conscious, and are afraid of making any sort of mistake. The best thing to do, as a teacher, is to encourage them to try. Say it’s okay to make a mistake, because those can be fixed later. Having adult ESL students just practice speaking English is the first and foremost step; the vocabulary and grammar can come later. Adults may be frustrated that they aren’t progressing as quickly as they had hoped, but tell them to not give up. Progress usually is slow, but as they learn more words and expressions, they will gain more confidence to speak English.

How can we help them?

First, help the students set realistic goals for learning English. Since adults’ brains are less flexible than children’s brains, it’s more difficult to learn brand new material (such as a second or third language). Since that’s the case, their goals should reflect how they want to use the language. The vocabulary and expressions should be tailored to their needs (when possible). As adults probably won’t lose their native accent, they won’t be able to pronounce every English word correctly or accurately, but that shouldn’t deter them. Have them get as close to the correct pronunciation as they can with words that are difficult for them. For Asian adult learners, the r/l, and f/p/v phonemes are difficult for them to properly pronounce. Have them work in small chunks of time on difficult words.

Secondly, have them review what they’ve learned as often as they can. Repetition is key to learning new words and phrases; once they have a few words and phrases memorized have the students practice speaking them in class. It helps if they are able to track what they’ve learned over the course of the month/year.

Finally, learn from them. Adults have so much to contribute to the learning process with their skills and knowledge. Give them chances to speak about what they like and you’ll learn something new.

About

I am an ESL teacher with over 7 years of experience. I teach kindergarten and elementary students in South Korea. I have taught middle school and adult ELLs in the past, too. My goal as a teacher is to help my students develop and achieve fluency in English, but also in other areas of their lives. I try to educate the whole child.