When the student is ready, the master appears. Never has this Buddhist proverb held more meaning than now, with the exploding popularity of English courses for adults. More and more folks are returning to school, often under the tutelage of someone half their age.

Although the idea of educating adults can scare a new teacher, the demand is high and the experience is rewarding. Whether you’re interested in working with refugees in your own country, looking to teach ESL online, or hoping to relocate to a classroom overseas, there are an abundance of opportunities to help adults learn the language.

Photo credits: Jirka Matousek.

Teachers of adult ELLs have an extra flexibility in choosing a program, due to the ever-growing need for English courses. Most countries now actively promote English learning through an assortment of school types, and are in constant need of educators.

Public and Private Schools:

The most common type of program, typically arranged through a public school system or a private institution, teaches general English and life skills. Teachers are hired on a contract basis to help adult learners increase language skills that can be used in daily life. Like an elementary, or primary, education, these programs often incorporate levels of knowledge, from beginner to advanced.

Government-Run Programs:

Some governments hire teachers for literacy and civics programs. These help adult learners study subjects on civic participation and responsibility. Countries like the United States operate these programs to transition immigrants and refugees into citizenship.

Corporate Classes:

In Asia and the Middle East, it is common for a large corporation to hire teachers for its employees. The English studied may either be vocational – preparing adults for specific company positions or fields; or, general workplace – providing employees with broad, in-depth language practice to better perform in an international business environment.

Online Teaching:

Over the last few years, online tutoring schools have grown in reputation and enrollment. These allow teachers to run courses via Skype, or a similar Internet platform, instead of physically standing in front of a classroom. These types of English courses tend to be shorter-term, with greater flexibility in hours.

Teaching Children vs. Adult Learners:

One of the first things teachers of adult learners notice is the experience their students bring to the course. Unlike a child who has limited interaction with the world, many adult students have professional careers and families, connections to various mental and physical health issues, or personal familiarity with natural disaster, poverty or international conflict.

Often, these experiences form the motivation to study. While young students learn English for school exams or to suit the wishes of parents, most adult learners are studying voluntarily. They tend to have longer attention spans for a subject and demonstrate more passion for improvement.

A large percentage of adults also enter an English course with some basic levels of previous language instruction. They expect to advance their limited vocabulary into communication techniques that will assist them with daily English, like that used for written, online, phone and personal interaction.

Finally, many adult learners are unfamiliar with, or slower to adapt to, technological advances in the classroom. Depending on their background, some may not be familiar with touch-screens or online banking. Patiently assisting students across this knowledge gap is an important part of many adult English courses.

Adult Student-Teacher Relations:

Though many new teachers are nervous to address these issues with adult students, the following basic techniques can ensure positive teacher-student relations:

  • Offer encouragement without being condescending. This means giving positive feedback and allow students to ask questions and make mistakes in a comfortable environment.
  • Let your students teach you. Linking lessons to their own experiences will further help them understand the language and its applications in daily life.
  • Focus on personal standards. Since most adult learners are studying for their own development, and not to pass a standardized school exam, emphasis should be placed on individual improvement.
  • Smile and have fun! Teaching styles have changed dramatically since most of your students were last in school, and many will not be familiar with positive, open methods. Show enthusiasm and it will go a long way!

When preparing lesson plans for adult learners, it helps to know what your students want to learn. If you base topics and activities on the needs of the students – for example, helping Burmese immigrants learn how to speak with a doctor, or working with Korean businessmen on common office English – students will be more interested and involved in the class. Here are some tips to help you get started in the classroom:

  • Make the "why" clear. Be aware that most adult learners are not concerned just with grammar, but need to know the why of each lesson. The more applicable a subject, the more your students will pick it up. Start each lesson with an introduction that connects the topic to the why.
  • Present the essentials. Next, provide your adult students with the basic vocabulary and grammar of the lesson. This is often referred to as the presentation. But don’t lecture too long – adult students should have plenty of time to practice and utilize this information.
  • Application and fun! Play a game. Watch a short video. Have students write directions for each other, and then use them to find something in the building. Apply the lesson several ways and remember – conversation is key!
  • Simply have them talk! At the end of the lesson, one of the best ways to evaluate your students’ comprehension and allow them to demonstrate this is to facilitate a conversation. Don’t rely just on questions and answers, but give students plenty of time to discuss, debate, listen and challenge each other over that day’s topic. In the long run, practicing this basic human skill will expand their knowledge AND self-assurance in the language.
Contributed by Kelli Mutchler

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