Many teachers who are new to adult ESL are not new to teaching and/or not fresh out of university. Perhaps you’ve decided the field you were in was not your passion, and you’re trying something completely unrelated. Or maybe you’re a long-time teacher, but you’ve always taught kids. You’re new, but not new. What follows are my responses to some of the most common questions I’ve been asked.
Paralyzing Curriculum Freedom–How to Choose What to Teach Adult ESL Students
Let’s say that you’re teaching part-time a few nights a week. This type of program is generally not an IEP (Intensive English Program), so, likely, most of your students are not university-bound. They’re probably learning English to live their lives in their community as fully as possible and/or improve their job situation. Whatever the motivation is, you want to find out WHY your students are learning English. This will determine so much–what you teach, how you teach it, what you focus on, and what you let slip by. It’ll also help you choose the resources that will help them the most.
Now, if you teach in an IEP, you’ll probably be given a curriculum to use. However, we all know we have to supplement even a great curriculum because students don’t come in cookie-cutter shapes. Again, finding out your students’ purpose in learning English will help guide you in choosing the supplemental material to help get them there.
Get to Know Your Adult ESL Students
When you start, the number one piece of advice I can give you is to get to know your students. Yes, you need to know what they want/expect out of your class, but adults, like kids, will work harder for people who care about them.
Knowing them beyond their names will help show them you care and give you valuable insight into making what they learn relevant to them. Social media can be your friend! If they are into it, either add them to whatever platform you use or make a “teacher” account.
I found out SO MUCH about my students by following them on social media, and I used what I learned in my lessons. For example, when I found out that someone had gone kayaking with some friends, I added “kayaking” to the sports vocabulary we were studying later that week and asked that student to tell us about it. Knowing their jobs will help you add relevant vocabulary to whatever lesson you are doing to make it more personal to them. If your students’ level is already quite high, try using some reflective writing prompts with them.
Teach your students about learning strategies and how to implement them will help them learn English with less frustration. Yes, some of your students will already be proficient in using these skills because they did when studying in their home countries. But not all will have had that experience. The students who have already mastered these skills? They will be in-class experts who can personally validate everything you say about how these strategies will be helpful.
Take a Look at How You Dress
I feel uncomfortable writing about this, but if you’ve previously taught or worked where dressing casually is acceptable, take this advice: dress up. I rarely wore jeans when I taught adults. If we had an outdoor field trip, I would, but that’s about it. Outside of the States, most cultures view teachers as professionals and expect them to look like it.
Adult ESL students will take you more seriously and give your word more weight if you wear slacks than if you wear jeans. Don’t wear a top that shows cleavage or your shoulders (this goes for men and for women)–many students come from very conservative countries. Again, I feel weird saying that, but I’ve seen elementary school teachers and office workers wearing clothes that would result in adult students disrespecting them. We are so casual in the USA that it’s easy to think it shouldn’t matter, but for many of our adult students, it really, really does.
I wore what I considered to be my job’s uniform. It didn’t express who I was; it wasn’t what I enjoyed wearing. It was for the job. Outside of the job, I wore what I pleased.
Going from teaching children to teaching adult ESL
It’s a learning curve to go from kids to adults–I know because I did exactly that. It’s really different, and there will be days when you miss kids, but you will fall in love with teaching adults. Adult ESL is a whole other level of a rewarding experience. Plus, you can always use what you know about kids while teaching adults who are parents. They will appreciate the connection. You could even have mini-lessons on how they can communicate with their children’s teachers, and you’ll be coming from a place of true authority there. I answer this a little more thoroughly in Two Adult ESL Teaching Tips to Remember.
Meeting the needs of groups with diverse purposes for learning English.
There is no magic bullet here. Really, the key is to be flexible. You’ll need to be flexible with your lessons, the material will need to be flexible, and your students will also have to be flexible. Remember that lesson plans are not set in stone…they are just plans, outlines for what you’d LIKE to do with them. Be open to repeatedly tossing them out the metaphorical window on a daily basis.
You’re not going to meet everyone’s needs during every class, and your adult ESL students shouldn’t expect you to. If you can group them according to their purpose and differentiate the instruction, by all means, do so! This would greatly benefit them, but it’ll also likely burn you out faster. Even then, you don’t have to have them in these groups all the time. Do some activities together that can meet everyone’s needs as well as split them into purpose/target groups, level groups, etc. Make the types of groups match the activity you will do.
How to ensure heterogeneous adult ESL groups
You can’t always, and that’s okay. It’s perfectly acceptable to mix the groups up now and then. You could have set groups according to the activity. Be aware of how they are working together so that you can rearrange the groups as necessary. Just don’t let them get too accustomed to any group. They need to be able to count on each other for encouragement and support as well as to challenge each other. They also need to have the opportunity to work with people they are not used to. Also, having them sometimes work with people they DON’T work well with can help them expand their social skills. They might try a task in a way that they wouldn’t have thought of on their own.
They still have something in common.
That group of adult ESL students who want to pass an English proficiency exam and go on to university? Mix them into a group that is learning English to improve their job prospects. Add the ones who want to be able to continue doing the job they used to have in their country. Both groups will need to learn specific vocabulary subsets. They will both need to be able to work with people with goals they don’t share. Both groups will have to improve their grammar and make themselves understood when they speak.
The secret is to TELL the students you place into a group what they have in common. You want them to understand why they are working with the people they are. When they know their common goals, it’s easier for the dentist who has to take the NBDE (National Board Dental Examination) to feel comfortable learning together with the student who needs to pass the IELTS (International English Language Testing System). Adults are big on understanding why. Two Things to Remember When Teaching Adult ESL.
How to Avoid Offending Anyone
That is not really possible. You are going to offend someone. It’s just going to happen. What will help is creating and maintaining relationships with your students. You want them to be comfortable with letting you know when it happens so that you can avoid doing it again if possible. You might even share a story of someone being offended and what they did/said to make others aware. Tell them how the whole thing was resolved. Share with them a positive story as well as one that didn’t go well. They need to what might be an unrealistic expectation.
That time all hell broke loose.
For example, at one of my previous schools, all hell broke loose. A young Saudi woman got extremely offended when a group member touched her shoulder while praising her work. The group member was a man who was not aware of Saudi culture. He didn’t know that a simple touch to the shoulder would be taken the way it was. Here’s what happened next: she told her husband. He then showed up at the school demanding that police arrest the man for sexual molestation and that we kick him out of the school. Yes, that happened.
He also wanted assurances that his wife would never be required to speak to a man, work in the same group as a man, or sit near a man. (Any man, not just the man who touched her shoulder.) This was a young woman who intended to go on to university. We had to explain to her (and her husband) what she would be required to do at a university and that none of their demands would be met.
We were always careful not to have a Saudi woman and an unrelated Saudi man work together as a pair. If they hadn’t been in the country long, it was a hard no. Those who had been here longer were sometimes more open to it. However, part of the language school’s purpose was to prepare international students for life in America. They needed to be ready for university life. They had to find a way to live within the community.
Nip it in the bud when possible.
After that, however, I was always conscientious about explaining to incoming new male students that they need to be very cautious when dealing with Saudi women. (They made up a large proportion of our population.) I suggested that they take cues from the women in how familiar they could be with them. If they didn’t know enough English to understand, I made sure there was someone to interpret.
I’ve also shared this story many times when introducing class discussions on cultural differences. Invariably, all the Saudis who heard it would express shock that she and her husband would react this way. They said that the man was wrong to touch her but that the couple needed to understand his ignorance of their culture. This is generally not an issue with high-level students because they can tell their classmates themselves, but imagine being a low-level student who can’t. (By the way, female teachers can touch Saudi women but should be cautious about touching Saudi men. Some might be offended, and others might take it in an entirely different wrong way.)
Dealing with cultures you don’t know anything about.
For now, learn whatever you can about the cultures of the students who are in your classes. Also, encourage them to teach each other about their cultures. If they are of a level that this would be possible, consider having them do group/individual presentations to teach the class about common cultural differences. If you’re looking for something to get conversations going, check out my Cultural Differences discussion cards.
Inconsistent Class Attendance/Population in Adult ESL
School teachers accustomed to having the same group of students for a full school year or multi-month semester can be taken aback by how adult ESL students seem to drift in and out of classes. You never know from day to day how many students you’ll have. Some of the language schools I taught at had “terms” that were only a month long. New students were constantly dropping in even during week three of a four-week term. Even the schools with longer terms (two months) would have new students dropping in when there was only a week left.
Do you want to hear about a real challenge? At one school where I worked, I taught three different leveled classes simultaneously in the same classroom. They weren’t even always consecutive levels! For example, I might have level 1, level 3, and level 4. Yep, three different textbooks even! This was when I started making PowerPoints like mad to switch from one to another easily. I was always swamped with work, just trying to keep up.
So what to do?
Tie a knot at the end of your rope and hang on. And to be honest? Look for another job. While you might be able to pull it off for a while, you’re going to burn out so fast your head will spin, especially if you are teaching without breaks during the summer or winter. This is not something you can do well consistently year-round, and you shouldn’t be expected to.
See, part of the problem is that we are TEACHERS. We want to teach, and we want to do so to the best of our ability and serve our students well. Not being able to eats away at us until we lose all our passion, and then what’s left? The high salary and attractive job perks?
There are other teaching jobs. Find one that isn’t expecting miracles. Look for one that will be a supportive environment for you to be your best so that you can give your students the best. The students you left behind? They can also find better learning environments so that they can be their best. None of us are being FORCED to work/learn like that.
Getting to know the students new to an established class while still challenging the OGs.
You know how there is always a student who finishes things early or who wants more speaking practice? That’s the student you assign to interview and then do a presentation on the new student. This lets everyone get to know a few things about the new student without the newbie under pressure right away. Give the new student writing homework to give personal responses to questions that will let you know them better. I prefer ungraded homework with no deadline. Ensure that they understand the assignment is for you to get to know them as a person, and they will be more eager to do it.
Repeating lessons but still giving everyone what they need.
Instead of repeating the lesson, repeat the skill. Or, if it is vocabulary, use the same vocabulary, but differently. Or, split your time…teach the repeated lesson to the new group while having the old group work on something they can do with minimal help from you, and then switch. Give the first group time to review what you’ve taught while checking in with the second group. I did a lot of this when I had multiple classes.
Sequencing and pacing in adult ESL
Again, be flexible. Think of sequencing and pacing as happening in a spiral instead of linearly. You’ll figure out appropriate sequencing and pacing once you know your students, their needs, and the pace they can handle. It’s different for each class and can change as time goes on.
Dealing with adults who are out of practice with learning
They might have been stellar students back in the high school days, but those days are long gone. Or maybe they graduated top of their class in university, but years have passed since then. These students need extra care because they will likely have high expectations for themselves, possibly completely unrealistic expectations. They require a delicate touch, but at the same time, they need to relearn how to learn. Focusing on learning skills and strategies and not just English can help.
For example, I had this student who was determined to pass the TOEFL soon even though she was a low-level beginner student. I always pointed out the skills we were using that were also test-taking skills. I called it what it was. When I asked them to glance through a text to find the answer, I called it scanning. I explained how it would help them pass a test, and we also discussed how scanning is a useful strategy in other situations. Adults, being adults, likely already have some experience with diverse strategies. Get these experts to share how their favorites help them succeed in tasks like tests, class assignments, and homework, and in the workplace.
Teaching content you don’t know well yourself.
With adult ESL students, trust is important. They need to trust that you know what you are doing. Many students, especially from Asian countries, are NOT reassured by being told, “I don’t know, but I’ll find out and tell you tomorrow.” Doubt will fester after such a statement. Your ability to teach is suddenly in question.
So what to do instead? Chances are that if they are asking you a question that you don’t know the answer to and you’re always well-prepared, they’re asking something that is above their level. When that happens, what I’ve found success with is telling them, “Congratulations–you’ve just come up with a higher-level question. Learning English effectively is a step-by-step process, and we’re not ready to talk about that yet. We will in the future. I’m so proud of you for coming up with that question–it shows a real desire to learn!” Naturally, I’d phrase that according to the student’s comprehension level.
I also took note of each question as well as who asked it. Then when it came up later in the week or the course, I’d say, “Hey, remember when Mesfer asked about ___? That’s what we’re going to learn today”! This showed my students that they could rely on me to eventually answer their questions–when they were ready to understand the answer. Of course, this also works well when they really ARE asking for answers they don’t yet have the foundation to understand.