We assume that our students will learn English because that’s why they are there–to learn English. But, it’s not just a case of “we teach,” so “they learn.” Read on for two adult ESL teaching tips.
Take the Time to Teach the How and the Why
I remember when I would ask students to read a text, and then, to check their understanding, I’d ask them a few simple questions that had the answers right there, in plain sight, in the text. Then I’d stand there, waiting, while each of my students re-read the text from the beginning until they found the answer. They did this for each question.
That was when I started to teach the strategy of scanning. And everything went well after that. Except it didn’t. I developed wonderful lessons on scanning, constantly tinkered with them to improve them, and looked forward to teaching them to each new class of students. Invariably, those students all hated the lessons, resisted doing them, and questioned my teaching ability. They didn’t understand why I was making them scan when they already had a strategy they had been using for years and were very comfortable with. Start from the beginning. Read every word.
Strategies are meant to enable students to speed up and optimize their learning. Who wouldn’t want to be able to do something faster, more effectively, and better than before? The problem was that I hadn’t explicitly explained to my students why scanning was hot stuff in a way that was meaningful to them. They didn’t really care that they would find the answer faster because that just meant that I’d ask another question.
Of all the adult ESL teaching tips I’ve ever gotten, teaching the how and the why is one that helped me the most.
Match the why with their goals.
After I told them that it would help them do better on the TOEFL and IELTS reading portions, more of them were on board. It wasn’t really whole-heartedly though because they still didn’t see how that was going to work. Why would scanning, which they weren’t comfortable with, be better than the strategy they already knew?
So I asked the ones who had already taken the TOEFL or IELTS at least once if they felt like they had enough time during the reading section. None did. Many expressed the stress they felt at not even finishing the reading. They couldn’t answer any of the questions before time was up. “What if I taught you some tricks to use to improve your speed and your comprehension so you could answer all the questions within the time limit?” Their eyes grew bright when I asked them that. They started clamoring to learn the very same strategies that they had resented doing until then.
They had their why and knew how it matched their goals instead of “my” goals.
Adults can be set in their ways.
For one thing, adults have usually gotten all their previous instruction (from kindergarten onwards) in very traditional ways. Think of the much-maligned “sage on the stage.” They are accustomed to the teacher doing the talking and the students doing the listening. Break out a completely foreign-to-them activity like a linguistic investigation, and they will likely give it the stink eye. They’ll probably do it out of respect for you as a teacher. But, they’ll be questioning your ability to teach. They will eventually go to whoever is above you to complain, or just stop coming to your classes entirely.
They rely on whatever strategies they’ve used in the past, whether those strategies are effective or not. Your students don’t want a new shirt. They want the old comfy one unless you can convince them the new one’s merits are worth some discomfort.
Without exposure to new strategies and plentiful opportunities to practice, adult students are not likely to venture beyond what they already know. Yes, even if it’s not working well for them. They could be missing out on what will.
They want the comfort of that threadbare old shirt.
Adult students have already had a lot of experience with learning. They expect it to arrive in familiar packaging, and when it doesn’t, they could resist opening it. They might believe that you don’t know how to teach because how you are doing it is alien to them. Adults who are used to teachers who simply hand out information and expect students to later parrot it back are likely to doubt that you are even giving them what they need to learn.
To get them to see the value in what and how you are teaching them, you must explicitly explain it to them. Definitely mention any research which shows that whatever you are doing is a very valid and effective teaching/learning strategy. With my higher-level students, I would often give them links to such research. I encouraged them to check it out once they got home. Low to intermediate-level students could never understand it. But, just looking at the website would often reassure them that they could trust me. We’re all more willing to give something a shot when we can see the value and trust the source.
Being explicit rather than general or vague is definitely one of the adult ESL teaching tips that made a difference in how I taught.
Adult ESL shouldn’t take place in a rut.
Explicitly telling the how and the why of any new activity or strategy will ultimately open your adult ESL students to more effective learning. You’ll increase their cooperation, motivation, AND English proficiency when you remember to focus on being explicit about why they should learn how to master a certain approach and how it will meaningfully affect their goals. Teaching them how NOT to be that fly that repeatedly throws itself against the window will shape their very lives. They’ll use that information when achieving their targets and setting new ones beyond those.
Teaching adult ESL in an IEP? Read about five steps to take when teaching young adults in an Intensive English Program.
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