Published 25th July 2017

Teaching children

Many people, when they think of teaching English as a foreign language (TEFL), think of being in a classroom in China (or Italy or Mexico) teaching the colours of the rainbow to 5-year-olds. This is indeed the reality for many teachers (think farm animals, fairy tales, and days of the week) but there is a whole different world of teachers who teach English to adults and it’s chalk and cheese to teaching children. So lets take a look at what materials to use when teaching English to adults.

What are the differences between teaching English to Young Learners and teaching English to adults?

If you compare a 6-year old and a 25-year old, you can probably come up with a few differences immediately. However, teaching English as a Foreign Language is the same whether you are teaching Young Learners or adults. What will change are the materials you use and the approach you take. In other words, while the basic foundations of your teaching will remain the same, there are a number of behavioural and cognitive differences you need to be aware of between Young Learners and adults which will affect how you teach them.

Materials to Use when Teaching English to Adults

  • Young Learners are obviously not as cognitively advanced as adults so they need materials and activities which are relatively simple even if the language is of a high level.
  • Young Learners enjoy movement, so games, songs, and drama work well to keep them entertained.
  • Young Learners have short attention spans so your lessons will include a variety of 5- to 10-minute activities.
  • Young Learners may need more help in other senses, such as going to the toilet, snack time, or help with cutting or painting.
  • Adults shouldn’t (!) require as much discipline as Young Learners.
  • You can expect a lot more from your adult students by way of capabilities for activities.
  • Adults have longer attention spans and can concentrate for longer periods of time, while also being able to focus on activities over extended periods of time.
  • Adults bring life experience into the classroom, as well as a fair amount of knowledge. This can be great to include in your lessons.

Read more: 6 Differences between Teaching Adults and Young Learners

How do I know if I will be teaching children or adults?

You don’t, really. When you are applying for jobs you shouldn’t necessarily search for a job based on the age group. Rather, look for a job at the destination of your choice. Whether that job is teaching kindergarten or university students shouldn’t matter to you, as long as it’s a stable job.

As to whether you’d prefer teaching children or adults, that’s anyone’s guess. If you have had any experience teaching or tutoring both age groups then you might know but if you are new to teaching then you probably have no idea what either will entail. The only way you can tell if you prefer teaching one over the other is if you actually teach them.

Bear this in mind when you are applying for jobs: don’t be too picky when it comes to the age of your students if you are new to TEFL and don’t have experience teaching both. Who knows, you might find you absolutely love teaching kindergarten!

There are loads of websites and blogs which give you advice on teaching English to Young Learners, but you may not be so comfortable finding materials to use when teaching adults. So for today, let us focus on teaching adults and what materials you should be using.

Selecting the right materials for teaching English to adults

Probably the trickiest thing about choosing the right materials for adult EFL students is balancing their language level with their cognitive abilities. Even though adult Beginner students need to learn basic vocabulary, that doesn’t mean you need to use children’s books and nursery rhymes to teach them. You need to find content that is suitable for more mature minds but is pitched at the right English level.

 Even materials that are aimed at teenagers may not be appropriate for your adult learners because even though they may be close in age, adult learners bring a lifetime of experiences into the classroom which teens have just not had yet. What’s more, adult learners also have background knowledge, learning experiences, as well as fully-formed opinions on any topic under the sun.

This is not necessarily a bad thing. We can use this “baggage” that our adult students bring with them into the classroom to liven up our lesson materials. Wouldn’t you rather talk about your own work experience and hear about your classmates’ real-life experience than learn about a fictional person from some random city (which is what you will invariably find in the coursebooks)? Of course, you would! And your students are just the same.

While teens and younger learners may feel self-conscious talking about themselves in the class, adults enjoy talking about themselves and getting to know their classmates. What’s more, talking about what they know and are familiar with is helpful to the learning process as they are building on what they already know; they are taking advantage of the foundation of knowledge they already have.

Materials to Use when Teaching English to Adults

Read more: 5 Ways to Make Language Learning Meaningful

Then there are authentic materials. We are firm believers in the use of authentic materials in the EFL classroom for any age and level. However, authentic materials are easier to introduce into your adult lessons than your Young Learner classes. Since we want our lessons to mimic the real world, using materials like menus, tourist brochures, newspapers, magazines, novels and films are good practice for our students for what they want to use English for.

There is no denying that authentic materials are a lot more interesting than coursebooks – with the added bonus of being current and on-trend – so make sure to include authentic materials for your adult lessons. When teaching English, you need to be sure that the materials you are choosing are relevant to your learners. This will ensure usefulness as well as interest.

Read more: How to Choose Authentic Materials for the EFL Classroom

This is not to say that you can’t use conventional materials with your adult learners – we don’t expect you to re-invent the wheel – but utilise them in a way that relates directly to your learners. Take advantage of what your students bring with them into the classroom and focus on their lives outside of the classroom. Make sure you personalize your lessons and relate the context and the language directly to your learners.

Don’t forget: you are just as interesting as your students, so your students would love to hear about your life as well!