6 Differences Between Teaching Adults And Young Learners

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Thinking about teaching English as a foreign language to adults and Young Learners? Not sure what to expect?  You’re not alone – we’ve all been there.

We can tell you that one of the best things about being a TEFL teacher is the fact that you could find yourself in a range of different classrooms. You can teach kindergarten in Shanghai, teenagers in Buenos Aires, businessmen in Istanbul or even teach English online.

As TEFL teachers, we need to be flexible enough to be able to cope with whatever situation we may find ourselves in, be it teaching adults or Young Learners.

So if you are a bit unsure about what it will be like teaching different age groups, here are six differences between teaching adults and Young Learners.



Adult learners are very independent, while Young Learners aren’t.

It’s possible – and even beneficial – to give adults more autonomy in their lessons. You can do this by:

  • letting adults work things out for themselves rather than giving them the answers,
  • asking them to organise themselves into pairs or groups instead of allocating partners,
  • and even giving input into the topics or activities of the lessons.

With Young Learners, it’s necessary to:

  • be in charge of the lesson as you see fit,
  • give clear instructions,
  • monitor the learners closely, and
  • deal effectively with any issues of classroom management. 

For example, when teaching adults you don’t need to think about bathroom breaks (they can worry about that themselves!) but with Young Learners you need to ask them regularly if they need to go to the bathroom.

With online learners, you can expect your adult learners to do more while you need to lead your Young Learners step-by-step in whatever you are doing.

Read more: 5 Ways To Make Language Learning More Meaningful


Another difference between teaching adults and Young Learners is when it comes to learning.

In terms of learning, Young Learners need to be given a wide variety of activities which relate to the different senses. Young Learners are sensory learners and respond well activities which incorporate TPR or similar teaching techniques. Their attention span is short, so activities in a Young Learner classroom shouldn’t take too much time.

With adults it is possible to spend more time on learning tasks so they can engage more deeply with the learning materials. This means you need fewer activities for your lessons but you can utilise your learning texts more.

As you can imagine, with Young Learners physical activities and games work well. If you are teaching a Young Learner 1-to-1 online, make sure you include songs, pictures, props and energy into your lessons to keep them engaged.

Read more: Top Tips For Teaching Young Learners


Believe it or not, adults are generally more nervous in the classroom than Young Learners. Young Learners seem to have no fear and are willing to try anything – as long as they perceive it to be fun. Young Learners will mirror the energy of the teacher, so you need to be as upbeat and enthusiastic as you can manage.

Adults may feel anxious because of the fact that they are not the age of the “typical” learner. They approach activities with a sense of apprehension if they don’t feel comfortable. Because of this they will need more positive encouragement.

This can be especially evident in an online teaching situation, when learners may not know other people in the class. There may be times of silence, but don’t let that worry you. Make sure you give your learners plenty of opportunities to get to know one another and feel comfortable with each other and they will soon lose any inhibitions they may have.

young learners


Adults are more likely to be more motivated than Young Learners.

Adults are generally in the classroom because they choose to or because they need to learn English for work or study. In other words, their motivation levels are naturally high.

Young Learners usually have no choice, which means that they may lose enthusiasm if they are not interested in what is happening in the classroom.

This highlights the importance of tailoring your lessons not only to the needs but also the interests of your learners. Find out from your learners what they are interested in and plan lessons around those topics. This also relates to homework, as it is more likely for learners to complete homework activities they are interested in.

Read more: How To Promote Motivation In The EFL Classroom


Probably the most obvious difference is that of discipline. Teaching Young Learners is all about being able to deal with discipline calmly and effectively. If you’re lucky, you might have a teacher’s assistant or a co-teacher to help you if you are teaching Young Learners in a physical classroom.

When teaching adults, disciplines should not be an issue because, well, they’re adults.

When teaching online, discipline can be very tricky.

Again it shouldn’t be an issue with adults. If it is, it’s usually best not to engage with the difficult behaviour and try to move on. The worst thing that can happen is the learner leaves the lesson, which may affect your teacher rating if you are working for a company, but at least you won’t have to deal with the student any longer! For Young Learners, if a learner is acting out in an online lesson, it may be necessary to speak to the parents privately about the situation.

Read more: Co-Teaching In The EFL Classroom

Life experience

Finally, the biggest difference between teaching adults and teaching Young Learners is what the students bring to the classroom. Young Learners bring enthusiasm, curiosity and energy, while adults bring life experience. While Young Learners are still learning about the world around them, adults have already had a lifetime of experiences and have their own ideas and opinions.

With both Young Learners and adults you can use this to your advantage. Your lessons with Young Learners (both online and face-to-face) will be so energetic and lively that the time will pass really quickly. Your lessons with adults will be interesting and engaging for you as well as your learners.

As you can see, though there are a number of differences between teaching English as a foreign language to adults or to Young Learners, the fundamental practices will remain the same. Encourage communication and authentic language use, utilise your students’ previous knowledge and, above all, maintain a fun atmosphere in the classroom and you will be successful no matter the age of your learners.

Chinese teacher of English
                                  Differences Between Teaching Adults and Young Learners

Please note: This blog post was originally published on 16 January 2017 but has since been updated.



Another major difference I have found having taught both age groups is that adults come to learn English with a clear purpose in mind and it is usually to enhance their careers and by contrast younger children do not have a clear sense of direction. This has a knock on effect on motivation levels as it is evident that each age group has different reasons for being in class. Some 9 weeks on I have some experience of teaching small groups of 4 to 5 year olds. I would say that some days were like a battle to try and engage the children throughout the entire class. I found this particularly so as they would arrive to class in the afternoon at around m and I sensed they were already exhausted from the days activities. I found adult learners to have high motivational levels since they are committed to improving their English. In some instances the students were almost too enthusiastic and I experienced this with a couple of my adult students. The problem here was that they were too talkative in class and very often I was unable to stop them to correct any errors as they found it difficult to contain their excitement and listen.

Stremove.com, 29th July 2020

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