Teaching English to adults

Teaching English to adults has its own set of challenges and rewards for the EFL teacher but requires a whole range of different skills and qualifications. Their motivation is intrinsic which is a great advantage as this has been identified as one of the most important factors in determining successful language learning.
The acquisition of a second language by adult learners is slow, discouraging and often frustrating. All learners want to use a foreign language with confidence and spontaneity in the same way as they use their mother tongue. However none of the learners can talk on unrehearsed topics without constant and painful hesitation. The latter point is also applicable to young learners.

Adult learners are notable for a number of special characteristics: They can engage with abstract thought, have a range of life experiences, definite expectations about the learning process, their own set patterns of learning, and are more disciplined than children. On the other hand, adult learners have a number of characteristics which can make learning and teaching problematic: can be critical of teaching methods, anxious and under-confident because of previous failure and worry about diminishing learning power with age. They more often than young learners face certain linguistic problems like fossilized errors, persistent deviations from the L2 norm, language transfer - negative influence of the mother tongue on the productive skills.

In one respect, however, adult learners are similar to young learners. All may be grouped according to their preferred learning styles. Learners employ different learning strategies, i.e. specific actions taken by the learner to make learning easier, faster, more enjoyable, more self-directed, and more transferable to new situations. The common learning styles for each type of learners are:

Concrete: learners use active means of processing information;
Analytical: learners prefer logical and systematic presentation of new material;
Communicative: learners prefer social approach;
Authority-oriented: learners prefer the teacher’s authority.

Which of the four skills is most difficult to teach in adult classes? Undoubtedly the speaking skills. The major reason is that oral skills and listening skills are interrelated; the better listening comprehension, the better speaking skills.
Competence in speaking skills is hard to develop, because it depends on a number of factors: age, aural medium, socio-cultural and affective factors. The affective factors like emotions, self-esteem, empathy, anxiety, attitude, motivation, uneasiness, self-doubt, frustration, and apprehension are very hard for teachers to tackle, but the affective side of the learner is probably one of the most important influences on language learning success or failure.

Teachers dealing with adult learners must remember that adults, unlike children, are concerned with how they are judged by others. They are very cautious about making errors in what they say, for making errors would be a public display of ignorance, which would be an obvious occasion of losing face. This sensitivity of adult learners to making mistakes has been the explanation for their inability to speak without hesitation.

Adults do not enjoy drilling and doing grammar exercises. They avoid doing homework or any other additional tasks that would help them to consolidate structures and vocabulary. They keep complaining about shortage of time, work load and family commitments.
Motivation is an important part of learning. Adult learners, contrary to young learners who can study for the sake of a good grade or other indirect rewards, put forth sustained efforts for some other goals than the immediate enjoyment of the activity itself. Internal and external factors that promote learners’ motives are: new challenges and promotions at work, requirements for English literacy, overseas assignments and trips, workshops and conferences in English, welcoming foreign visitors, professional differentiation and specialization, e-communication.

 Many older learners fear failure and are more anxious than younger learners; perhaps this is because they accept the stereotype of the older learner as a poor language learner or because of previous unsuccessful attempts to learn a foreign language. Older learners need to feel comfortable and trust the teacher and the other students before they participate fully in the language classroom. A key role of the teacher is to reduce anxiety and build trust and self-confidence.

Teachers should:

  • Find out what their older learners’ motivations are for learning a language and adjust their methodology accordingly.
  • Use humanistic techniques to build empathy between the teacher and students, and among the students.
  • Reduce the focus on error correction to build learners’ self-confidence and to promote language production.
  • Avoid timed tests which may make older learners anxious unless they are about to take language exams.
  • Give students more time to complete activities.
  • Promote a friendly and relaxed atmosphere in the classroom.

Any difficulties which adult learners may experience in the language classroom can be overcome through adjustments to the learning environment and material, attention to affective and cognitive factors, and the use of an effective teaching methodology which focuses on the learning process rather than academic achievement.
What can you do to help your adult learners succeed? Investing yourself in your students creates a positive atmosphere in the classroom; it enhances your relationship with your students and makes them feel important. A student is far more responsive to a teacher who cares, and is therefore more likely to learn and engage. Connecting with your students establishes trust, which is important to the students’ learning because it makes them comfortable enough to participate, ask for help when needed, and pay closer attention to advice and encouragement. Also, students feel better about themselves if they feel that a teacher has taken a genuine interest in them; they are motivated, and stronger self-assurance can make it easier for the student to challenge themselves academically. •

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