Basic Concepts in Teaching ESL to Adult Learners Objectives Common Denominators and Variety

An adult learner of ESL will be in the classroom for a variety of reasons. In order to make the learning experience the most fulfilling and productive for all of the members of the class, clear objectives should be outlined from the outset, common denominators should be found among the learners and a variety of classroom activities should be implemented.


Adult learners will enter the ESL classroom with certain expectations and goals. Most adults will be coming from a busy life, work, family, social life making up the majority of the daytime activity. The ESL class will become a part of that activity.

In some cases, the adults may be taking a training course paid for by the company to improve their proficiency in business English. Some adults sign up to small group situations for personal reasons that range from wanting to meet other people with similar interests (English, for example) to wanting to communicate in an English speaking country when on vacation. In general, adults are in the class because they want to be. This primary motivation is a launching pad for the outlining of objectives.

The teacher will have certain academic objectives that will need to be met. These will include vocabulary, structure, pronunciation and the like. However, it is the objective of the adult learner that has brought the learner into the classroom and this must be voiced and noted for future evaluation.

A simple “Why are you taking this ESL course?” question will prime the pump. More detailed questions will provide the teacher with useful information to better plan the classes and choose materials. Noting the objectives, perhaps posting them on the wall, will keep the course on-track and will help in the moment of evaluating during and, at the end, of the course whether those objectives were respected.

Common denominators

Adult classes are usually heterogeneous. Some learners may have studied English in the past but not gotten far in their proficiency. Other learners might have had no contact with English at all. Placement tests are often given to attempt to gear the group towards a particular, similar level, but realities such as needing to fill the class quotas can often place learners of varying proficiency together.

The teacher should listen to the learners during the sharing of objectives and try to identify those that most have in common. This could include pronunciation of complete sentences, embarrassment in speaking English or the incapacity to improvise during a conversation.

These common denominators can serve as a basis for the choice of material and activities used in the classroom. If pronunciation is the common problem among the learners, then structure and vocabulary can be taught through that filter. Learners who are unfamiliar with a particular structure will learn it while practicing it orally; learners who already know the structure will get valuable practice in putting that structure to use orally. All learners feel that they are working at the same level of proficiency.

Pair work is a valuable asset in this case. Pairing more advanced learners with those who have particular difficulties, making one a tutor or informant, allows the adult learner to relate to peers who will usually be willing to help. The teacher should monitor this work but not interfere, taking notes that can be shared with the remainder of the class at the end of the pair work exercise.

Variety in classroom activities

An adult learner is not a student per-se. The adult learner has probably lost the habit of study. A normal class of text work and exercise work can become uninteresting and unproductive for the adult learner. Because an adult faces multiple challenges throughout the day, multiple challenges should be offered in the ESL classroom. This will build a bridge between the material to be learned and its usefulness in the real world.

Class cycles should be established in which learners become accustomed to a series of activities. Text work, vocabulary work, explanation of structures and culture can serve as a base for additional activities. Regular game playing or sing-alongs or video work can be used to support the material presented in the text.

About half-way through the course, learners and teacher should review the objectives discussed the first day and evaluate if they are being followed and met. A teacher who is creative in addressing these objectives will have more attentive learners and a better record of attendance than a teacher who simply works through the book and gives an exam.

Adult learners will appreciate the efforts of the teacher when they can see that their personal objectives have been respected and worked towards, when they feel comfortable studying with their classmates and when they find the classes interesting and enjoyable. Offering these three basic concepts to the learners from the outset, being faithful to them throughout and to the end, can lead to a satisfying learning experience.