The #1 Curriculum and Assessment Partner for Educators

4 Things to Keep in Mind When Teaching Adult ELL Students

4 Things to Keep in Mind When Teaching Adult ELL Students

In the nation’s public schools, the government expects that 25 percent of the student population will have limited or no English proficiency by 2025. That number does not count the millions of adults who are learning the English language for the first time too. Many adults see learning English as the first step toward success in a new country. As programs to serve these students grow, it helps to keep in mind the things that make English language education for adults unique.

A greater depth and breadth of background knowledge 

Unlike children, adults come into the English classroom with at least some background knowledge of the language. Even those adults who have recently immigrated have still possibly had a lifetime of watching American movies and buying American products. Because of this, formative assessment is even more important when teaching English to adults. Some basic skills with which you may start a curriculum for children may not be necessary in the adult classroom. 

Adults are less fond of surprises 

Novelty engages children. Adults are less so, especially if the surprise involves something they view as risky to their social image. Keeping this in mind, limit the number of ways adult ELL students can be “caught out” in your class. Interactive practice is invaluable but you may do more harm than good if your strategies include singling people out without warning.

Tailor activities to the life of an adult

An ELL curriculum for children may include tasks such as writing stories and materials such as cartoons and comics. Adults are less interested in such tasks. Instead, use activities and materials that reflect the daily life of an adult. Role play trying to accomplish something over the phone to a customer service agent. Fill out practice job applications and resumes. Have students give and receive directions to a particular location in town. These activities and more offer practical tasks of which learners can easily see the benefits.

Positivity is important

Helping learners  maintain a positive outlook is important in any setting, but because adult learners are more directly the “customers” of your class, it bears repeating that the feedback you give should be overwhelmingly tipped toward positivity. Not only do you risk turning students off of the course because of negativity (how many learning experiences have you stayed engaged with when all you hear is what you are doing wrong?), but adults are also more aware of how ineffective such behavior is by an instructor. Once those doubts creep in, the more likely they are to wonder how effective the rest of your instruction is.

Looking for more resources to help your adult learners achieve success in and out of the classroom? Check out these 5 Steps to Targeted Instruction for Adult Learners!

scott.sterling's picture
Scott Sterling

Scott Sterling is a former English teacher who worked in Title I middle and high schools in St. Petersburg, Florida who is now a freelance writer who focuses on education. He is also a stay-at-home dad to his 4-year-old daughter Lily, who will soon be starting her own educational journey.