The challenges adult ESL students face can be daunting, from limited study time to difficulty understanding native speakers. However, you can help them break down these barriers by providing strategies and support. Keep reading to explore seven effective strategies for supporting adult ESL students, from accessing resources to staying motivated and expanding horizons.
Strategy #1. Balancing Time: Overcoming the Challenge of Limited Study Hours for Adult ESL Students
One of the biggest challenges adult ESL students face is limited time to devote to studying and practicing English. With full-time jobs and family obligations, finding the time and energy to focus on language learning can be difficult. By supporting your busy students and providing alternate resources, you can help them find success. This might require allowing a child to occasionally attend class with a parent, being understanding of a student constantly having to leave the room to deal with a business call because they’re still running their company back in their home country, or allowing a student who works in a family bakery starting at 3:00 am to sleep undisturbed while recording your class.
Your adult ESL students need your understanding, but they also need alternatives.
Maximize flexible and convenient learning options.
Online and evening classes allow students to fit language learning into their busy schedules, while self-paced courses can allow students to work at their own pace. However, teachers employed by programs such as IEPs (Intensive English Programs) may not have any control over the course format or schedule. That doesn’t mean you can’t provide adult ESL students with flexible and convenient learning options. Here are some ideas:
- Offer online resources: Provide your students with links to online learning materials, such as grammar and vocabulary exercises, audio and video resources, and online practice activities (think BOOM). This allows them to study and practice English at their own pace and on their own time.
- Provide flexible assignments: Instead of assigning homework that must be completed by a specific deadline, give students tasks they can complete on their own time. For example, you could assign reading or listening activities and ask students to complete a reflection or response at their own pace. Digital assignments can be the perfect fit for students with smart phones and data plans.
- Incorporate technology: Use technology to enhance your lessons and offer students more flexibility. For example, you could use online discussion forums or chat groups to allow students to ask questions and discuss course material outside class time. When your super-busy adult ESL students can still join in the class conversation via a discussion forum, they’ll be up to speed for those times when they can make it to class.
- Allow make-up work: Life happens, and sometimes students need to miss class, come late, or leave early. By offering make-up work or alternate assignments, you give students the opportunity to catch up on missed material on their own time.
Offer practical tips for overcoming time constraints.
Your adult ESL students are already dealing with a lot and might need some help making it all work. So, give your students practical tips for fitting language learning into their busy schedules. For example, suggest setting aside specific times of the day for practice, such as early in the morning or late at night when there are fewer distractions. Recommend using language learning apps on the go, such as during commutes or breaks at work, to make the most of limited time.
Encourage multitasking. Students can integrate language learning into their daily routines by combining it with other activities. For example, they can listen to English-language podcasts while exercising, cooking, or commuting. Or, they can watch English-language TV shows or movies while doing the laundry or other household chores. If they have kids who need supervision while doing homework, encourage your adult ESL students to do their own homework (or study) during this time.
Strategy #2. Cracking the Code: Strategies to Help Learners Understand Native English Speakers
One of the challenges your students may face is understanding native speakers due to differences in accent, pronunciation, and speed of speech. They need exposure to lots of voices and varying regional accents because you don’t want them to be limited to your voice alone. While still in university, I tutored a Korean student one-on-one for a couple of hours every day. His English proficiency grew quickly, but he was so accustomed to my pronunciation, intonation, and rate of speaking that he couldn’t understand even simple answers when he asked questions of others.
Provide opportunities to listen to and practice speaking with native speakers.
Give explicit instruction on pronunciation and accent reduction.
Another way you can help your adult ESL students understand native speakers is by providing explicit instruction on pronunciation and accent reduction. This includes teaching the sounds and rhythms of English and the rules of stress and intonation. Consider using minimal pairs to zero in on specific sounds.
Give your adult ESL students opportunities to listen to and practice speaking with native speakers. You can use authentic materials, such as podcasts and videos, that expose students to different accents and help them develop their listening skills. You can also use role plays to allow students to practice speaking in a controlled, safe environment before venturing outside the classroom to speak with native speakers. Consider recruiting native-speaking volunteers to participate in the role plays!
One of my most eager-to-speak students gradually lost her bubbly enthusiasm for speaking because while everyone in the class could understand her, she struggled to get her meaning across when speaking with others in her community. Her accent was strong, and it wasn’t a common one. Once we began targeting some of her biggest pronunciation difficulties, she blossomed and regained her love of talking to everyone who stood still longer than 15 seconds. 🙂
Strategy #3. Bridging the Support Gap: Helping Adult ESL Students Thrive
Inadequate support from teachers and classmates can be a major challenge for adult ESL students, leading to feelings of isolation and frustration. Remember middle school? Well, people don’t always grow up and magically shed any unkind tendencies. Instead of keeping an eye out for any bullying in your classroom, prevent it from ever starting. Here’s how you can help your adult ESL students feel supported.
Individualize the attention and guidance you give.
Go beyond calling on them by name. It’s a necessary start, and when you stop there, your adult ESL students will quickly feel like you don’t know or understand who they are. It helps when you provide your students with the support they need by offering individualized attention and guidance. By that, I mean giving personalized feedback on their progress that addresses their unique needs and concerns.
Don’t stick to blanket comments that cover the entire class. If you are using a rubric to grade a writing assignment or presentation, make sure to write a few sentences specific to them. Say something when they’ve made improvements in any area. When you provide your students with individualized attention and guidance, you can help them feel supported and motivated.
Create a supportive and inclusive classroom environment.
If you have a supportive and inclusive classroom environment, your adult ESL students will feel welcome and included. This includes cultivating a positive and collaborative learning atmosphere, encouraging open communication, and creating opportunities for students to work together and support each other. A supportive and inclusive classroom environment will help adult ESL students feel more connected and motivated.
Yes, a close-knit family atmosphere might bring out a competitive drive where some students try to sabotage others in completely over-the-top ridiculous ways that inspire prank wars. It might also spark nurturing acts of caring where students band together to help a classmate who is hospitalized and unable to care for their family. (Surely I’m not the only one who has had students who are both deliciously devious and compassionate caregivers.)
You’ll also find that attendance will be higher and your stress level lower. That supportive and inclusive classroom environment is for YOU as well!
Encourage study groups and partner work.
Nudge your adult ESL students to form study groups or pair up with classmates for practice and support. Study groups and partner work allow students to practice their English skills with their peers and get feedback and guidance from each other. Sometimes they need this push from you. Don’t wait too long for them to do it themselves because working together can help them feel more supported and motivated.
My favorite example of this has to be a grammar class I taught that was 50% Saudi students and 50% Chinese students. They were almost comically stereotypical in that the Saudis loved talking and weren’t really on speaking terms with studying outside the classroom, while the Chinese students were super shy about talking but powerhouses when it came to studying. The more outgoing Saudis took it upon themselves to adopt their Chinese classmates and get them talking, while the Chinese students covertly got the Saudis to study, even on the weekends. Both groups improved more rapidly than I thought possible, and ever after, I played culture/nationality matchmaker whenever I could.
Strategy #4. Making the Most of What You Have: Helping Adult ESL Students Access Resources
Having access to resources and materials can be challenging for adult ESL students, making it difficult to improve their English skills and succeed in their language-learning journey. Knowing where to look and what to choose can be overwhelming. Imagine trying to find and then select appropriate learning material for yourself in a language you know little of or are not comfortable with!
Share online resources for language learning.
You can help your adult ESL students by providing them with a list of online resources, such as websites and apps, to help them improve their English skills. These resources can offer a variety of language learning materials, such as interactive exercises, grammar lessons, and vocabulary lists, that are tailored to different learning styles and levels.
Check out your TpT purchases to see if they include an Easel component. These digital activities can include audio and interactive elements such as drag-and-drop and clickable buttons, AND they might be self-checking! Not all sellers offer this, but Easel activities are included with many of my resources. You can “assign” these to your students as optional supplemental work or an assignment for a grade.
Point them to library resources for language learning.
Encourage your adult ESL students to take advantage of library resources to improve their English skills. Remember that not everyone comes from a background where libraries are available and utilized. Your adult ESL students might be astounded at the wide selection of language learning materials appropriate for different levels and interests, such as books, movies, and audiobooks. Librarians can also almost always be counted on to be patient with non-native speakers, making them a great choice for students to approach and try out a newly-learned phrase or question.
Strategy #5. Staying Focused: Helping Adult ESL Students Stay Motivated
Lack of motivation is a common challenge for adult ESL students, who may feel discouraged by a lack of confidence in their abilities or lack clear goals or incentives to learn English. Perhaps they studied English for years in their own country only to arrive here and discover what an English-only environment is really like. Or maybe they’ve been taking classes here for months, but they feel like they haven’t made the progress they expected to. Here’s how you can help.
Deliver regular feedback and encouragement.
Provide them with regular feedback and encouragement. As mentioned in the section earlier in this article, Bridging the Support Gap, this means giving personalized feedback on their progress and highlighting their strengths and areas for improvement. Regular feedback and encouragement can help them feel supported and motivated. Remember “report cards” from when you were a kid? If feasible, give your students report cards. They don’t have to be long or go into great detail. Telling them one improvement you’ve noticed they’ve made and one improvement you think they might like to tackle shows you see them and you care.
Create and celebrate achievable goals and milestones.
Help your adult ESL students stay motivated by setting achievable goals and milestones. Setting clear and attainable goals can help students stay focused and motivated. I wasn’t surprised when my level one student felt demoralized after failing the TOEFL. Her goal of passing with a high enough score to enter university was NOT attainable at her then level of proficiency. Once she reworked her goals to be more achievable, she regained her spirit.
Find out one or two of their English goals. If they are achievable, provide regular progress updates related to those goals. If not, help them create some that are within reach. And, of course, celebrate their accomplishments as they reach their goals.
Discover their personal reasons for learning English to connect to larger goals and aspirations.
One thing I always loved about teaching adult ESL was that, for the most part, my students WANTED to learn English. They weren’t taking classes because their parents forced them to. That’s not to say that they were always super motivated. Oh, no–some of the ones most insistent on learning English were the least motivated, often because they weren’t clear on why they wanted to learn.
So, help them identify their personal reasons for learning English and connect them to their larger goals and aspirations. It’ll make a massive difference in how and what they learn because once they understand why they are learning English and how it relates to their bigger picture, they will be more motivated to stay engaged and committed.
Give incentives or rewards for progress.
To further motivate your adult ESL students, you can also offer incentives or rewards for progress. These can be simple rewards, such as stickers or certificates, or if you have a fun-loving group, silly special privileges such as sitting in an elaborately decorated chair, choosing which review game to play next, or being gifted with the knowledge of your middle name, which you hate.
Some of my classes loved earning points toward a party (as soon as the class had acquired a certain number of points, we’d have a mini-party or a class pot-luck). Others preferred a grab-bag prize that varied according to the season (flower seeds for spring, cocoa packet for winter, etc.).
Strategy #6. Expanding Horizons: How to help learners with limited exposure to authentic English
Limited exposure to authentic English can be a tough challenge for adult ESL students. Without enough real-life practice, it can be hard for them to develop their listening and speaking skills and feel confident communicating in English.
But why do some adult ESL students have limited exposure to authentic English while living in an English-speaking country? Well, it could be because they’re living in a community where English isn’t the primary language spoken or because they don’t have many opportunities for social interaction in English. It’s not always easy, but you can help your students in these situations. Here’s how:
Present authentic materials for language practice.
Give them authentic materials for language practice. These can be anything from news articles or podcasts for language learners to movies or TV shows created for native speakers. Exposing students to authentic materials can help them develop their listening and speaking skills and become more confident and comfortable communicating in English. Plus, authentic materials just have a different feel to them that is immensely appealing to adult ESL students.
Encourage interaction with native speakers and participation in language exchange programs.
Interacting with native speakers and participating in language exchange programs can be a great way to help adult ESL students overcome the challenge of limited exposure to authentic English. These opportunities allow students to practice their English skills in real-life situations and receive feedback and guidance from native speakers. Check if anyone in your area is hosting a “conversation cafe.” Invite university students who major in education to come to your class for conversation and snacks. Find out what your students love to do in their free time and look for like-minded native speakers to join or invite them to join. The possibilities are endless!
Try role plays and simulation activities.
Finally, try role plays! As mentioned above, students can participate in role plays to improve their pronunciation and intonation, but don’t stop there. Even everyday role plays can help adult ESL students practice using English in realistic situations. Whether they’re using scripts like a reader’s theater or creating their own role plays based on given scenarios, these activities allow students to practice their English skills in a controlled environment. It’s all about taking baby steps. Once they’re comfortable speaking in the classroom, they’ll feel more confident speaking outside the classroom.
Strategy #7. Moving Up: Difficulty in Transitioning to Higher Levels of English Proficiency
One common challenge that adult ESL students may face is difficulty transitioning to higher levels of English proficiency. This can happen for several reasons, such as gaps in knowledge or a need for clearer progression from one level to the next. Or, perhaps there is a gap in content between levels. If only beginner, intermediate, and advanced classes are offered, you can count on a struggle as students move from beginner to intermediate or intermediate to advanced. That said, there are ways to help students make a smoother transition.
Draw a line.
One strategy is to use a structured and well-organized curriculum that makes the various levels of proficiency (as defined by where you work) clear. If a line isn’t drawn, the boundary is blurry. Your adult ESL students want to know when they’ve progressed to another level, not guess. I realize this is not always possible, especially if you teach as a volunteer in a community program. You might have to make up an arbitrary line, but give them something to work towards and to look back on with pride.
Provide additional support.
Another strategy is providing additional support and resources for students who need extra help. Don’t assume they will all need it (or that none of them will need it). Now, this can include one-on-one tutoring, review sessions, or extra practice materials. By giving targeted support aimed at specific gaps in individual students’ knowledge, you can help students overcome those gaps and build confidence in their abilities.
Lastly, encourage students to seek additional learning opportunities such as workshops or courses. These don’t have to be centered on learning English. Taking a cooking class alongside native speakers, for example, provides lots of rich speaking and listening opportunities without a need for students to first build common ground. This can provide a more immersive environment for students to practice their language skills.
In conclusion, adult ESL students can face a variety of challenges in their language-learning journeys, such as limited time to study, difficulty understanding native speakers, lack of support, limited access to resources, lack of motivation, limited exposure to authentic English, and difficulty transitioning to higher proficiency levels. To break down these barriers, offer flexible and convenient learning options, provide explicit instruction and authentic materials, create a supportive and inclusive classroom environment, set achievable goals, give regular feedback and encouragement, and help students connect language learning to their larger goals and aspirations.