Mon, 12/03/2018 - 12:24


By Panagiota Frytzala

Lecturer, BA in TESOL

New York College


In today’s world, the number of adult English learners is increasing rapidly due to the fact that more and more adults are motivated to learn English either for study or work purposes, or even just for their own self-fulfillment. Therefore, teaching adults can offer quite a few job opportunities for teachers of English in their own country, abroad, or even on a distance-learning basis. However, teaching adults may seem more challenging, and therefore harder, to many teachers. Actually, it can be so, but it is also very fulfilling as adults are usually more highly motivated and more experienced than younger learners. Within this framework, this article will start by briefly presenting the main characteristics of adults as learners and will then move on to offering some suggestions of relevant activities.

Starting with cognitive characteristics, and contrary to popular belief, adults are able to reach high levels of proficiency in a foreign language as they have greater cognitive capabilities and conceptual complexity than younger learners. In addition, they have a longer attention span and the ability to engage with abstract thought, not to mention a more developed understanding of how a language works due to their higher level of L1proficiency. Lastly, they are usually more accurate and thus more likely to acquire solid knowledge.

As for the attitudinal characteristics of adults, in most cases they are more highly motivated as they have a sound reason for learning English, which can facilitate the instructional process as they aim at reaching personal goals and improving their self-esteem. Even more importantly, adults are able to sustain that motivation for a longer period by holding on to a distant goal. Therefore, they tend to be more cooperative and more experienced learners as they have already accumulated some learning experience and thus possess well-developed learning strategies.

Finally, adults share some behavioural characteristics which can facilitate the instructional process. More specifically, they are more disciplined and willing to struggle, thus they take their learning very seriously. Therefore, they tend to be more honest with the teachers as to their needs and abilities, and they are more willing to cooperate with them in order to achieve their educational goals (Cozma, 2015).

At this point, and before moving onto some suggested activities, it would be worth looking at the findings of certain studies which investigated adults’ views of the teaching process. According to such studies, when asked to rate the difficulty of the four skills, adults find listening to be the most challenging, followed by speaking, writing and reading in this order. This can be attributed to the fact that most adults, especially working people, need to develop listening and speaking more quickly in order to face the on-the-job challenges. Studies have also shown that the most difficult language aspect is believed to be grammar rather than vocabulary as most adults aim for accuracy more than younger learners. As to the teaching methods they favour, pair work and role-play seem to be the most popular, which means that adults enjoy cooperating and trying out their language skills in simulated real-life situations (Duboviciene and Gulbinskiene, 2014: 144-146)

The findings of these studies show that adults tend to favour practical learning activities that enable them to draw on their prior skills and knowledge as they have accumulated life experience and they have established opinions, values and beliefs about education. In addition, they seem to learn best in a democratic, participatory and collaborative environment, and they need to be actively involved in determining how and what they will learn. In other words, they need active learning experiences.

In that light, they come into the classroom with their own views of what a teacher should say and how he/she should behave and of how the English language should be taught. As they are intrinsically motivated, the material taught should be relevant to them, inasmuch as it should cater to their particular needs and interests. Therefore, activities should take advantage of adults’ past experiences and connect them to the new learning. They should also be practical with a clear purpose and relevant to the issues which adults consider to be important for them (Duboviciene and Gulbinskiene, 2014: 139-140).

Some more specific suggestions for activities, taking into account the above mentioned characteristics, would be first of all to include activities which help them to get to know each other better so as to overcome their potential insecurity of being “too old to learn” or even “the oldest person in the classroom”. In addition, teachers should bear in mind that adults are more task- or problem-centered than subject-centered. This means that teaching methods should be varied so as to put forth the adults’ valuable contribution (Grahan and Walsh, 1996:9).


Finally, two more areas that should be taken into account when teaching adults concern error correction and homework. Starting with the former, it should be less patronizing and should focus on the positive aspects of the progress made by adult learners. As for homework, teachers should bear in mind that adults are autonomous and self-directed and thus prefer to work at their own pace. Quite often, they require homework so as to feel they are learning something. On the other hand, they can be quite busy professionals and/or family people, which means that they should not be overloaded with homework but rather be given more time within the classroom to combine the already mastered elements with the new ones presented by the teacher. As a result, the teacher will have to accommodate accordingly as much as possible.

As can be seen from this brief analysis of adult learners within the language classroom, teaching them can be challenging as they know exactly what they want out of the learning process and have their way of demanding it from the teacher. On the other hand, it is for the same reason that teaching adults can be quite pleasant and fulfilling as the teacher is dealing with reliable learners who are highly motivated and goal-oriented.


Cozma, M., (2015) “The Challenge of Teaching English to Adult Learners in Today’s World”, Paper presented at the 7th World Conference on Educational Sciences, Feb. 2015, Athens, Greece.

Duboviciene T. and Gulbinskiene, D., (2014) “Learning/Teaching EFL to Adult Learners at Language Courses” Man and the Word: Foreign Languages Vol. 16, No 3, pp. 138-149.

Grahan C. R. &Walsh M. M.,(1996) “Adult Education ESL Teachers Guide”, Adult Education Center, Texas A&I University KingsVille, Texas.