Whether you’re teaching adult learners as your first assignment or are transitioning from teaching kids, we’ve rounded up 9 important things that adult learners want in the language classroom. Check out the list below to get a better idea of how to meet the needs and expectations of adult EFL learners!
Teaching strategies and instructions that you used when teaching kids should be taken with a grain of salt when working with adults. The human brain goes through a lot of changes from childhood to adulthood, and one of the big changes is how new information is learned and recalled. While adults might not want a beginning-to-end intensive grammar lesson every time they show up to class, it’s important to teach them structures explicitly. Research shows that this allows them to use their critical thinking skills to test out solutions and gain a better understanding of the target language. Where you may have previously been instructed to teach everything implicitly and to never acknowledge L1 use in the classroom with younger learners, be aware that adult learners are going to bring more of their L1 understanding to the table. They’ll ask questions about grammar and vocabulary, translate things (to varying degrees of success) and use cognates (and false cognates), so be prepared for these challenges! They’re not good OR bad, necessarily, but if you’ve previously worked with children, it might feel like a slightly new ball game for the first little while.
Adults usually have a goal in mind that is motivating them to take classes. It might be related to work or studies, o their travel interests, or to their personal lives. Take the time to find out why your learners are studying English! Don’t be totally shocked if their goals are a little on the unrealistic side, as well. When you don’t regularly study or teach a subject, it can be difficult to understand how long and demanding the process of learning a language actually is. That said, help them break down larger or less realistic goals into goals that you can help them reach. A great way to start this conversation is to use a tool like The TEFL Lab’s Needs Analysis!
While adults have the ability to think critically, figure out patterns, and use their extensive background knowledge to solve problems, they also have an affective filter. That affective filter, which can prevent adult learners from taking risks out of fear of being incorrect and feeling embarrassed in class, can undo all of the other advantages that adult learners have in the classroom– that is, if you don’t address it. How you can help adult learners feel more confident taking risks in the classroom? A pep talk about the value of an error can go a long way, and that’s just the beginning. Examine how you react to errors. The idea should be that instead of an error seeming like a shock to you, you want to invite it further into the lesson when you notice it. Praise the learner for sharing their ideas with the class, and mention that they’ve made an error that we should all look at more carefully. Turn that error into a valuable learning moment that gives them some more concrete information about how to use the language in question, and you’ll see more willingness from learners to make mistakes, take risks, and really put themselves out there. That’s where the real progress starts, so work hard to earn your learners’ trust, build rapport, and get them to this point as early on in their classes with you as possible!
Think about why your adult learners are studying English. They probably won’t need to be able to read two sentences and label which is in the past simple and which is in the present perfect. But at work, they might need to be able to switch between those two tenses in a meeting. They might never need to explain the difference between a gerund and an infinitive, but they DO need to be aware of how to use them and understand them. That said, you’ll want to keep important phrases, new vocabulary, and grammar situated within a context that helps them understand how and when this language should be used. It works well for helping them understand the functions of target language you introduce in a lesson, and it takes everything one step further in their future recall of this target language because you’ve helped them make connections to previous knowledge as they learned this new information (hooray for neurolinguistics!). What does it mean to make sure your lesson’s target language is tied to a context? First, avoid random sentence generation (“Use this word in a sentence” or “make a sentence in the past simple.”). Instead, give learners a context to respond to or roleplay. Secondly, organize vocabulary items by meaning and function rather than grammar they have in common (Lookin’ at you, lists of phrasal verbs with the same prepositions but literally no other relation whatsoever). Finally, ask a lot of WH- questions: Why did this speaker use X instead of Y? What does he mean when he says X? When can we NOT use this phrase?, etc. These types of CCQs are helpful to your learners in setting up the parameters of use for new language items they’re encountering in class. If you’re working with The TEFL Lab’s lessons, you’re good to go in this regard. If not, make sure you set an objective for each lesson that helps you also identify the context that this target language should be used in. This will help you give form to the activities you’ll do throughout the lesson, making them more relevant to the situations your learner needs to use English in outside of the classroom.
Listen, adult learners are juggling a lot. Think of all the things that adults have to do anyway– they go to work, run their households, take care of their families. If they’re REALLY on the ball, they might have a hobby or spend extra time exercising. Now throw a language course into all of that! Whether their baby has kept them up all night or they’ve had a terrible day at work or they’re stressing about a project at work, we want them to come to their English class each day and leave thinking “I’m so glad I made the time for this.” In order for that time to feel well-invested, it’s got to be an engaging lesson with a teacher they’ve enjoyed working with. If not, they can always put that hour or so to good use elsewhere! Make sure you’re giving them an objective that they can appreciate at the beginning of the lesson– try to phrase it as something they’ll be able to do by the end of the class. Then, address that objective through each activity you do in class. That way, your learner is aware of the path they’re on and the value that each activity has throughout class. If you’re working with The TEFL Lab’s curriculum, the good news is that this has already been done for you! But if you aren’t, or if you’re taking a break from structured lessons to work with some authentic material for the class, it’s still important to communicate the WHY to your learners, which is the value of the lesson. Giving them the information about what they’re learning and why it’s important is a huge key to engaging them for the entirety of the class.
This goes back a bit to the affective filter, but it goes beyond that as well. Think about what happens when an adult makes a mistake– there’s a penalty for paying a bill late, a missed soccer game for their kids because they made a scheduling mistake, or a sit-down with their boss after underperforming at work. It makes total sense that adults are error-averse, and getting them to move away from that attitude in the language learning process is a primary challenge in the adult classroom, so address it early on and encourage errors! Remind them that errors help you know where and how to spend time well in class, and they give you more insight into what your learners understand and what’s still unclear.
While they don’t want to be dragged through the mud, they also don’t want a bunch of flowery compliments that dissolve when they leave the language classroom and have to go use English in the outside world. They want honest assessments of their strengths and weaknesses. Help them understand what they’ve done well, and where they still need to study more and work harder to improve. While a well-placed compliment is invaluable in the classroom for kids OR adults, adults are typically happier with an overall assessment of their language abilities, the good and bad included. This survey of their L2 landscape makes it easier for you and for them to set better goals, track progress, and build up win after win over time, so don’t shy away from honest, but respectful, feedback.
Why? Well, language learning is an investment of time, money, brainpower, and more. It makes sense to want to see that there’s some return on your investment if you’re dedicating time and money each week, showing up to class with a positive attitude, and making the effort to study outside of class. You might decide to measure this progress with a test of some sort, but there are other ways as well! The TEFL Lab’s curriculum includes a module review lesson at the end of each module that allows you to put your learners’ new knowledge from the module to the test! It’s a great way to challenge learners to really use everything they’ve learned from the last few lessons to demonstrate their understanding. The clear activities and speaking prompts included will provide you with ample opportunities to note improvement, details that impressed you, and areas you still want to encourage improvement in.
It’s very common for adult learners to ask for homework assignments. However, if you’ve worked with adult learners for any length of time, you’ll know that whether they manage to do that homework assignment or not can be a gamble. Some learners will always have it done on time, and others won’t even open the email you sent them before the next class. We can encourage our learners to use English outside the classroom and study on their own time, but once they’re out of class with us, how they spend their time is up to them. So how can you assign valuable homework assignments that don’t take a lot of your time to plan, and that won’t be a big deal if they don’t get done? We’ve sorted this for you! Check out the PDFs we have in each module that correspond to specific lessons. These serve as great study materials to review important points from the lesson, but even better, they end in writing prompts! You can send one to your learner via email and ask them to complete a writing prompt from the bottom portion. If they do it, that’s amazing! You’ve just gotten some writing practice in for your learners without taking up extra time in class, and you’ve also satisfied their desire for homework. If they don’t do it, you didn’t spend any time planning anything that didn’t get used. It’s a win-win for everyone, don’t you think?
There you have it! While this list is in no way exhaustive, we feel confident that if you keep these tips in mind when working with adult learners, you’ll go far!
Are you new to the adult EFL classroom and have some doubts? Let us know about them in the comments and we’ll address them in our upcoming blog posts!