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Overcoming the Challenges of Teaching English to Diverse Adult Populations

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Teaching English to adult non-native speakers from a wide variety of backgrounds poses unique challenges, such as learning insecurities, stigma surrounding adult learning, differences between first and second language acquisition, cultural differences and representation, time management and more.

As every educator knows, teaching methods are not one size fits all. With instructing adult learners, there are general factors and individual needs to consider. The obstacles in teaching adult students are very different from those with younger learners. It is beneficial for educators to understand that adjusting and adapting their teaching methods are ways to ensure that adult learners grasp concepts and gain the English language at a faster rate.

An online Master of Science in Education with a Concentration in Adult Education ESL from Southern Oregon University (SOU) prepares graduates to teach English to a diverse population of adult learners and ensure learner success in the workplace and beyond.

Obstacles and Solutions Involved in Teaching English to Adult Learners

There are many reasons why an adult may want to learn English — to communicate more effectively, find employment in an English-speaking country, enjoy social situations or expand their travels. Teaching adult English language learners can be an exciting experience. Many adult students are motivated and eager to learn a new language, improve their education and contribute to making their lives and their families’ lives better.

Educators are faced with the challenge of finding the most effective instructional approaches and lesson plans to accommodate the varied backgrounds, experiences and needs of their students. Below are a few common situations of teaching English to adults and some helpful solutions:

  • Establishing respect. Respect in the classroom goes both ways. A teacher needs to understand and respect the differing backgrounds, cultures and life experiences their adult students may have. There may be learners who have little to no formal education and others who have earned advanced degrees in their native languages. When planning lessons and activities, it’s critical to not assume ignorance or patronize adult learners. It’s essential for educators to treat their adult students as respected peers and eschew condescension and assumptions at all costs.
  • Decreased neuroplasticity of the adult brain. It’s believed that as we age, the plasticity of our brains, or the ability to form new neural pathways, diminishes. This mindset has encouraged the thought that adults have a more difficult time learning a new language than younger learners. Research has shown that bilingualism can delay the symptoms of dementia in an aging brain and that learning a new language prolongs mental health and keeps the brain healthy. Interactive classroom activities that engage adult learners physically and mentally in addition to role play activities are good ways to practice language patterns, spur on natural conversations and keep students engaged.
  • Pronunciation difficulties. When learning a new language, children seem to pick up pronunciation and language nuances easier than adults. With adult learners, the intonation, inflections and subtilties of their native language are ingrained deep within them. Older learners may struggle with fluency in a new language. Using multimedia resources and lots of encouragement can help with mastering accuracy in pronunciation.
  • Having high expectations. Many adult learners hold themselves to a high standard and get frustrated with what they think are minimal results. They will also hold their teacher to a high standard as well. Providing feedback to the students and conducting surveys to discover what types of activities helped them during the lessons can provide helpful feedback.

Next Steps

SOU’s online degree program takes an innovative, modern approach to overcoming the challenges of learning English as an adult non-native speaker. With a focus on culturally responsive language education, adult learning theory and methodology, ethical leadership and more, the coursework can prepare graduates to pursue careers as an ESL program director, TESOL instructor, adult ESL educator and more.

Learn more about Southern Oregon University’s online Master of Science in Education with a Concentration in Adult Education ESL program.

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