The Beauty and Challenge of Working with Adult Learners

As a teacher, it can be a joy to work with any age group. The secret is finding the right approach to make the learning experience positive for everyone. Next, you determine which specific strategies align with your basic approach. The strategies are compiled into a toolbox you tote with you to every lesson.  When I worked with children in the past, I found ways to teach through music and movement. I also took advantage of their willingness to play games and listen to a good story. When I worked with teens, I kept on top of pop culture and tried to weave the information into my classroom examples and activities. What about adult learners?

The beauty of working with adult learners is two-fold: They are usually in the classroom because of their own choosing. Also, they bring knowledge and skills that can be transferred into their language learning experience. By skills, I am not simply referring to academic ones such as being able to use a dictionary or scanning for information. Adults have had the time to develop expertise and confidence in their various jobs and hobbies. That is what we the teachers must tap into because our adult learners can all too easily leave their confidence at the door along with expertise they have in other areas of their lives. Students’ confidence must be high enough for a positive learning outcome to be achieved. Doubt and self-criticism hinder progress.

I believe in finding ways to transfer confidence from outside the school walls to a classroom. This can be done by reminding adult learners of their expertise in a particular area and making that expertise integral to a lesson. For instance, I once taught a man with less than clear speech who attended my pronunciation classes.  To encourage him in his efforts to master English sounds and rhythm, I incorporated exercises that placed him and his classmates at the front of the room making short oral presentations. Why? He was a minister and very comfortable on his feet facing a group. In this familiar position he gained confidence from those who returned his kind and steady gaze and listened to his warm yet authoritative voice. I also recall a sweet older mother who usually struggled with grammar and conversation, but blossomed the day everyone was required to share a favorite recipe with the class. She was in her element. Much like her recipe for tasty chicken and rice, a lesson that allows students to draw on their world knowledge and utilize individual skills yields satisfying results.

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