How to Teach English to Adults

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Teaching English to young learners is one thing, but how to teach English to adults is another thing entirely.

Teaching English as a foreign language (TEFL) is a very varied field, which many people don’t realise. When prospective teachers think about teaching English as a foreign language, they imagine being in a foreign country where nobody speaks English, and they imagine teaching children. Now this situation is very common and probably does account for a large portion of TEFL situations, but it most certainly is not the only one. In fact, many TEFL jobs can be found in English-speaking countries and these, for the most part, involve teaching adults.

Read more: 6 Differences between Teaching Adults and Young Learners

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This is because your students could be students preparing to study at an English-medium university, they could be immigrants who have come to this country to work or they could be businesspeople who have been sent abroad to study English for their work. As you can imagine, this is a massive market and with countries becoming more diverse and business becoming more global, this is only set to expand even more.

If you have mentally prepared yourself to teach children, though, teaching adults can be a bit difficult to get your head around. It’s important to understand the fact that your students may be older than you or more experienced than you. They have knowledge, intellect and experiences which have shaped the person that they are and it is necessary to be able to understand them individually in order to be able to teach them effectively. You need to prepare yourself with appropriate resources and lesson plans for your adult learners.

So here are a few guidelines to help you when teaching English to adults.

How to teach English to adults: Be authentic

Always be yourself.

Teaching adults is teaching your peers, so it doesn’t make sense to be anyone other than yourself. You don’t need to pretend to know everything and your students certainly won’t expect you to. Your learners will appreciate your authenticity and once everyone gets to know one another, your lessons can become much more relaxed, personal and enjoyable.

Rapport is a vital part of the learning environment. It’s important to ensure you create and maintain good rapport between not only you but also your students.

A great advantage of teaching adults is the fact that you can connect with them on a similar cognitive level. You could even find yourself becoming friends with some of your students and – if you can believe it – looking forward to seeing your students every day!

How to teach English to adults: Be authentic

How to teach English to adults: Use their world knowledge

Adult learners can bring a wealth of knowledge into the classroom. Learn to use this knowledge to make your lessons more interesting and enjoyable. Adults have a natural curiosity which means they are interested in finding out about their classmates and they enjoy sharing knowledge and experiences.

Again, consider yourself. If you are open to connecting with people and finding out about their lives, it’s likely your students are too. As the EFL teacher you have knowledge of the English language and the skill to teach it. Your learners could be bankers, philosophers, artists, writers, plumbers – who knows? They might just be able to teach you a thing or two about a thing or two.

How to teach English to adults: Use their world knowledge

How to teach English to adults: Respect their experience

Especially if teaching Beginners, it can be difficult not to treat your students like children. Always remember that even though they may not be able to communicate in English, for all you know they have a PhD in aeronautical engineering. In other words, make sure the content and activities of your lesson are aimed at adults and not younger learners.

Yes, this is a fine line to judge, so consider these top tips for how to teach adult Beginners:

  • Grade the language, not the task. You can ask your learners to do complicated cognitive tasks, but the English involved needs to be simple.
  • Don’t forget to scaffold. Take it step by step. Make sure everyone is on the same page before moving on.
  • Give them thinking space. Allow time for the language to be processed. This might mean repeating yourself or your isntructions, but this is to be expected.

The bottom line for teaching adults is simple: would I enjoy this? If you would, chances are your students would to. If you wouldn’t, maybe you need to rethink your strategy for teaching adults.

How to teach English to adults: Respect their experience

Note: This blog post was updated 19 may 2022.

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