It happened the same way every morning: with the force of a tidal wave, the door burst open, and a tsunami of 12-year-olds poured into my classroom. “Hi Miss! Hi Miss Andrea!” they shouted, rushing past my desk and howling with laughter as they rough-housed around the room. It was barely 7:50 am. By this point, the caffeine in my instant coffee still hadn’t kicked in, and I just marveled at their energy so early in the morning.
Without a doubt, your students will have the biggest impact on your teach abroad experience. There is no easiest age group to teach, as every level has its unique challenges and rewards. Some of us know right away that we don’t have the energy to teach 5-year-olds, or that we prefer a business setting.
Other times, you might not get a choice - some schools will assign you classes with various age groups. If that’s the case, you’ll want to make sure you’re mentally prepared for the differences. Either way, once you decide to teach English abroad it's important to have a good sense of the age group you're teaching so you can help your students learn as much as possible.
There are a few crucial differences between how and why children and adults learn. Keep these differences in mind so you can cater your lessons specifically to your students.
Children and adults learn languages differently
No matter what age group you’re teaching, it helps to understand the different stages of language-learning that happen throughout life.
Children’s natural ability to acquire new languages is strong before adolescence. Pronunciation comes easier, and vocabulary sticks during this time. Sure, a classroom of 6-year-olds may be a handful, but in terms of English instruction, everyone will be more or less on the same page.
Adults, on the other hand, will have more varying levels and difficulties. Around puberty, the natural ability to pick up a second language drops, and continues to do so as we get older. As adults, we must deliberately and consciously learn a language if we want proficiency or fluency. If you’re teaching adults who are absolute beginners and have no previous experience or exposure to English, this can be a big challenge for them.
Children and adults have different motivations
Why are your students learning English? The sooner you pinpoint this answer, the more solid your lessons will be.
Small children don’t have a driving motivation to learn languages. Their attention is fueled by curiosity and imagination. Keep this in mind, and plan your lessons to appeal to their senses. Adults, on the other hand, will have very specific reasons for learning English. They might be preparing for university abroad, or are just trying to gain a new skill for their career at home. Your job will become more strategic, and you’ll need to closely monitor their progress to help them reach their specific goals.
Small children don’t have a driving motivation to learn languages. Their attention is fueled by curiosity and imagination. Adults, on the other hand, will have very specific reasons for learning English.
Tips for Teaching ESL to Children
The key ingredient in great ESL teaching to children is to deliver on fun. Their attention spans are short, and they’re driven by the here-and-now. While it takes a lot of energy to teach this bunch, if you’re creative and enthusiastic, you might be perfect for the job. Here are some things to keep in mind when teaching children.
1. Keep the momentum moving
Classes with children don’t run on autopilot. You need to be steering the wheel around each turn. One common pitfall is turning your back to the entire class to write something on the board. Sure, it’s only for a few seconds, but just a few seconds is all it takes to loose the class.
If a group of 6-year-olds doesn’t have something to do, don’t expect them to sit quietly like angels and wait until you’re ready. That’s why it's important to always have your materials prepared before class and have backup lessons at hand for times when Plan A takes a nosedive.
2. Don’t over-correct
Young children learn English just as they learned their native language: through experience and interaction. They aren’t consciously studying structure and grammar rules, so keep your corrections natural. If they make a mistake, just repeat back the correct sentence. For example, if your student says, “He goed to the park,” you could respond, “Yes, he goes to the park.”
3. Movement and activity is key
Not only is movement and activity a part of childhood, but it actually helps the learning process and keeps students involved in your lessons. In your classroom, try games like “Simon Says”, or pass around a ball and have each student answer a question when they catch it. Start your class with some yoga stretches, and end with a game of charades.
4. Use songs
Think back to your high school language classes. I’m sure we all remember the words to at least one catchy song, even if we still can’t give directions or order food to save our lives! Music is powerful, and fun songs will keep your students engaged and help them pick-up new vocabulary.
5. Remember classroom management
It’s a big part of teaching dozens of small kids. But it’s doable. Using a consistent “quiet signal” is an effective way to manage a big group.
Young children learn English just as they learned their native language: through experience and interaction. They aren’t consciously studying structure and grammar rules, so keep your corrections natural.
A good signal is clapping three times, and having students repeat the rhythm back and fall silent after they’ve finished. No matter what happens, never shout over them. Raising your voice to get their attention can make them used to talking over you, so stay calm.
Tips for Teaching ESL to Teenagers
Teenagers are in the middle of figuring out their personal identities, and these transformative years will definitely impact your classroom. It’s an interesting experience. You may have classes with students who sit motionless, in absolute apathy, along with students who are extremely inquisitive and curious. Your biggest challenge is planning activities that engage everyone.
1. Their interests are key
This is an amazing loophole. As soon your first week of classes, take an interest survey. In Chile, I asked students to write down their top 3 favorite bands. I planned activities using the most popular music and lyrics. Other great topics to dive into are their favorite sports teams, recent movies, celebrities, pop culture, and current events.
Start your class with a Youtube clip from a funny TV show, or get a debate going about social media. One of my students, who I’d never heard utter a word of English, suddenly came alive one day when I asked him why he liked one soccer team over the rival.
2. Hone your empathy
Academic stress. Crushes. Self-consciousness. There are a lot of moving parts here. The best thing you can do is to create a comfortable classroom for your teens. Be especially aware of the kinds of activities you plan — yes, you want to challenge them, but don’t continually put students on the spot in front of their peers. Self-consciousness flourishes now, and speaking English in front their peers can compound these feelings.
3. Create a strong rapport
It’s surprising how something as simple as asking a student how their day is going can open up so much. It breaks down this invisible barrier. Talk with them after class if you notice they’re lingering at your desk. After I started making these individual connections with my students, classroom management suddenly became a lot easier. Depending on your country’s social norms, if you can comfortably make these friendly, personal connections then go for it!
The best thing you can do is to create a comfortable classroom for your teens. Be especially aware of the kinds of activities you plan — yes, you want to challenge them, but don’t continually put students on the spot in front of their peers.
Tips for Teaching ESL to Adults
A diverse kaleidoscope of experiences and backgrounds, a classroom of adults offers a complex but very rewarding teaching experience. Your students will come to you from all walks of life, and you’ll be adapting your lessons to suit their needs. Therefore, classes will be more formal and structured. You’ll be focusing on improving their English for a specific reason, be it conversational business lingo or preparing for a job interview. Keep these things in mind when teaching adults.
1. Never equate language ability with intelligence
If your student is struggling to understand something that you think is a simple concept, make sure you’re responding with patience and respect. Your tone, body language, and actions will all reveal your attitude. Students pick up on this, no matter how little English they know. Remember, learning English is just one slice of their life, and even though you have more skills in this area, they may have more professional and life experience than you do. Stay humble and respectful.
2. Teach casual language and idioms
Many students are interested in getting practice with everyday, colloquial phrases. This kind of language, ever-changing, can’t be taught in textbooks, and many adults need it for professional (and personal) situations. If you’re teaching business English, for example, make it a point to practice common workplace phrases, such as “on the ball” and “kept under wraps.”
3. Use age-appropriate activities
Even if your adult students are basic beginners, make sure your lessons are relevant to their lives. Using children’s storybooks or songs, while simple and effective, may appear condescending to them. Instead, plan your lessons around their present goals, such as how to fill out a job application, prepare for a citizenship test, or practice interview questions for a new job.
4. Provide detailed and encouraging feedback
Encouragement is paramount with adults. They may be easily discouraged if they feel like they’re struggling. Before beginning to teach, get a clear picture of your student’s language level, and use what they already know to help build their confidence. From there, you can start adding new language, and they’ll feel better knowing they have a foundation to stand on.
Remember, learning English is just one slice of their life, and even though you have more skills in this area, they may have more professional and life experience than you do. Stay humble and respectful.
Every age group process new languages in a completely different way. Once you understand these differences, it'll be much easier to cater your lesson plans to fit the needs and abilities of your students.
Avoid going into your year of living abroad with the mindset that "one size fits all" in the classroom -- just as you no longer play Bingo with popcorn kernels (crying shame if you ask me), older students may likewise not respond positively to all types of activities - no matter how simple the materials seems.
No matter what age group you teach, you can never go wrong with a solid lesson plan, patience, and an understanding of your students’ goals and needs. Take your job seriously and your students will too!