How to Teach ESL to Adult Learners

How to Teach ESL to Adult Learners

By Sarah McCarthy

Adults choose to learn English for a variety of reasons. They may be immigrating to an English-speaking country, travelling for leisure, or needing to communicate for business purposes.

The list of reasons could be at least as long as the list of exceptions for the “i before e” rule. Whatever the case may be, you want to figure out how to teach ESL to adults and you need tips. Well, you’ve come to the right place.

What you need to know to teach ESL to adult learners:

  1. The different learning patterns of adults and children
  2. Connecting with your students
  3. Tips for teaching online
  4. Creating independent learners
  5. Discovering your “why”

The Different Learning Patterns of Adults and Children

There is a concept called Adult Learning Theory, that explains how adults learn compared to children. It is also known as andragogy, whereas pedagogy is the theory of how children learn.

Adult Learning Theory highlights the distinct ways adults best respond to learning and it’s essential for any instructor teaching adults. Most adults you will teach come to their first lesson with specific goals of why they want to learn English.

They already know the rules of at least one other language, which can be helpful or can make learning English more difficult. Adults also have life experience to draw from. On the other hand, children are blank slates and usually take classes because it is required of them.

There are pros and cons to both. Since adults are learning for themselves, they tend to be more motivated in the classroom. However, this motivation comes with pitfalls you have to watch out for.

Adults expect what they learn to be immediately relevant to them. If not, 25% of average adults will forget what they learned within one hour, and 85% will forget within one week! Adults need to know “what’s in it for me”.

As a teacher, it’s important to be very clear about why you have chosen to include something in your lesson plan or your adult learners will tune out.  So, keep it relevant!

Connecting with your students

Now that you know how adults learn, it’s important to know who they are. By knowing who your students are, you can make your lessons relevant to them.

You might want to ask each student at the beginning of the first class a bit about themselves and why they are there.

What is their motivation for learning English? And why now? What is their learning style?

Singing songs might seem like it’s only for kids, but that might be helpful for your students! It’s not necessary for you to change your teaching style for every single student, but it may be helpful in learning what type of student YOU want to teach.

Is a student there because they will be taking an English test for business or immigration purposes? You can help them with test prep. Perhaps they want to communicate better in a workplace setting. You can teach them English for business.

Once you know why someone is there to learn, you can incorporate examples into your lesson plan.

Tips for teaching online

As an ESL teacher, you have lots of options for where to teach. You could teach in a foreign country, in a traditional classroom in person, or you could teach online.  The setting of your classroom will make a difference in the way you teach your students.

Much of the world has moved online over the past couple of decades. As we know, that trend increased during the past few years. So, how can you take advantage of the trend and reach your students in a meaningful way?

A lot of what you do as a teacher will be similar no matter where your classroom is. Things like making your lessons relevant and connecting with your students. But you will also want to use tech to your advantage.

You may be able to record your lesson so your students can watch more than once, or at a time that’s convenient for them. The platform your school uses likely has lots of features for you to tap into.

Make sure you explore all it has to offer. If something is missing from the platform, use another application. If you want students to collaborate on a project but that’s not a feature that’s offered, find an alternative.

There are hundreds of online options that you could suggest instead.

For even more specific tips, check out this article:

Creating Independent Learners

Adults learn best when they are self-directed. Your job is to create an environment that enables them to learn on their own terms, with learner-centred lessons. You can give them some theory and then ask them to put it into practice by teaching the rest of the class, for instance. It’s important for adult learners to have the opportunity to independently problem solve and set personal learning objectives.  Try not to hand-hold. You can facilitate and give access to learning resources, but you want to ensure your adult leaners are self-directed. Your adult students will retain more if they are in charge of how they are learning, so don’t be afraid to ask for feedback!

Discovering your “why” 

You will be a more effective teacher if you’re teaching something that interests you, in a way you want to teach it. You will inspire your students through your enthusiasm. Discover why you want to teach adults ESL and you can become a specialist in a specific area.

Maybe your family speaks Arabic, Korean, or Mandarin and you want to help students with the specific first language interference that comes with learning English from one those languages.

Or after reading this article you’ve decided that teaching adults is not for you. That's okay! You can teach English to young learners instead! Knowing yourself and your motivations is as important as knowing your students.

Final Thoughts 

There are some significant differences in teaching children and adults. With the right techniques and approaches, you can teach people of any age. Understanding who your students are, why they are choosing to learn ESL, as well as understanding why you want to teach them, will help you immensely.

The Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) University of Toronto includes (optional) specialization courses as part of their TEFL program that’s unique and exclusive to OISE. You can be a more engaged and effective teacher by finding your niche.

Leave a comment

Please note, comments need to be approved before they are published.