The Basics of Teaching ESL to Adults

Having taught ESL to both children and adults all over Asia and in many parts of the USA, I have found the experience to both challenging and rewarding. I have also found that there are indeed a few basics to teaching ESL, both to kids and adults. However, it is certainly true that teaching ESL to adults is much different from to kids. Here are some general guidelines to keep in mind.

This is the most important tip. Treat the students like adults, because they are. You want to keep your material at an adult level, no matter the proficiency of your adult students. For example, using kids’ books for adults is not a good idea, despite the fact that kids’ books are easier to read and understand. The adult student will feel condescended to and will not actually be learning much in the way of useful knowledge. Why? They are adults and the book is kids’ language. So stay away from Frog and Toad and stick to good graded readers.

A further example of how not to talk or teach down to adult ESL learners is in your actual teaching. Don’t talk so slowly that your language is not natural. Do not use caretaker speech. Do not raise your voice. Moreover, if you allow the adults to help determine both class format and the material, they will feel empowered and will increase in proficiency much faster.

A second issue in relation to the basics of teaching ESL to adults is teaching to proficiency levels. For young children, it is not actually as important to teach to individual proficiency levels. Children are usually more willing to jump into a game and participate, even if they think they know that language already. My oldest son is about the best in his Spanish class, but he continues to participate fully. However, adults may get turned off easily if the language task being covered is something they know and feel they have no more need to work on.

So in order to teach to proficiency levels, it is important to determine such levels with good assessment instruments at the outset of the program. Some good examples of assessment methods include one-on-one interviews, reading comprehension passages and questions, listening tasks and others. The one-on-one interview is vital in this.

A final issue in the basics of adult ESL is that of interest and motivation. An adult is usually more intrinsically motivated than a child. The adult will likely have personal goals as well as some external career and educational goals. So we need to understand those goals and help them feel like they are reaching them. This will keep the adult learner more engaged in class and will help them see how each language task we cover helps them reach those goals.

In conclusion, we must not think that teaching ESL to adults is as simple as 1-2-3. However, if you can make a connection with your learners and have them help in determining texts and class content, you will be taking a step in the right direction.