Vital Tips For Teaching Adult Students

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My students had at least ten years on me — a few were old enough to be my parents. I prayed that I wouldn’t blow it. They all knew that I was wet behind the years, that I was a new teacher.

After college, I started teaching ESL. I was 22, and while some of my friends were in Asia teaching middle schoolers, I was in San Francisco with adults — mainly working fathers and mothers.

While my friend’s young learners in Taipei were enthusiastic and enjoyed learning through song and dance, my adult students were cold and reticent. Understandably, they were often tired from work and uninterested in singing or dancing.

But they showed up everyday, because they wanted to learn.

I felt intimidated because I was young and inexperienced. But I didn’t take their taciturn demeanors personally. I understood that they were not there for entertainment. They intended to learn English. Honestly, I worried that I would disappoint them by not being a good-enough teacher.

During my first few months, I was professional but stoical. I smiled but didn’t laugh. I learned my students’ names but not their stories. I was a fine instructor, but a lousy learning companion.

It was hard getting through to my adult students. Thankfully, my supervisor gave me some important advice:

  • Make them feel supported
  • Make them feel valued

I had been too caught up with my own image that I lost sight of what was most important: supporting my students. They were the ones putting themselves on the line everyday. They were struggling to grasp a foreign language, make it in a new country and hold down a job.

So I put my pride aside and got to know them. It wasn’t easy. It wasn’t quick, either. But before long my students became more communicative, more enthusiastic. I was still professional, but I’d also become affable — easy to talk to. Which, when I think about it, is what I always wanted my teachers to be.

So, if you feel weary about teaching adults, don’t worry. Here are some ways that you can support your adult students:

Photo by Kampus Production from Pexels

You’re there to help

Although I was young enough to be their son, I was there to offer them my services. I had something that they needed. They’ll no doubt ask your age. Don’t be shy. Ensure them that you’re a trained and certified teacher. And remind yourself that you’re enough.

Rapport is crucial

Tell them your story and ask them for theirs. Be humble. Your students ought to trust you. Making students feel comfortable is crucial when learning a language. Learn what their interests are, what inspires them.

Personalize their assignments

Have them tell anecdotes. Get them to draw on their personal experiences. Just don’t forget to guide them and provide learning objectives. Your students are wells of infinite material from which you can draw. Use that to your advantage. Plan lessons around topics or situations that matter to them.

Course material is often dry but essential. Your projects needn’t be. Have them conduct interviews or teach skills. Make them feel important and that their knowledge is valuable.

Share the spotlight

As their teacher, you’re center stage. That doesn’t mean that it’s your job to entertain them the entire lesson. Stop talking!

Get students communicating in small groups. Assign groups one grammar point each to learn or a passage of text to read. Then have them come up to the board and teach it. This gets them learning, planning and presenting information. Additionally, it establishes trust between students. They’ll need to rely on each other in order to learn the material.

Maybe you’re thinking of becoming an ESL teacher. Maybe you’re someone who’s thinking of transitioning from young learners to adults. If you have any helpful ideas, comments or questions, leave them down below.

Plus, if you’re looking for any lesson plans or teaching material, check out some of my ideas that I wrote for EF’s Teacher Zone Blog. They address adult learners, C1/C2 levels and grammar.

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Jad Qandour

Jad Qandour

Writes about society and art. Musician (post-rock and anything loud). He / him.