How to start with Adult Beginners
It can be daunting for adults to learn a new language. Perhaps they are learning for the first time in their lives, or for the first time in thirty years. Perhaps they are not so interested in the language per se, but feel that it is necessary for their careers. Whatever the reason, there is one thing that seems to unite most adults, more than children; the fear of failure. Adults are generally more embarrassed and less willing to make mistakes than children, and this alone can make progress more difficult.
Likewise, it can be daunting for a teacher to begin classes with a low-level adult group. It can be a challenge to come up with lessons that cover basic language, while also being interesting. Here is a little guide to starting with adult beginners, in a group or one-on-one.
(1) Use what they know already:
If you plan correctly, it can be possible to make your new students learn thousands of words almost instantly. The trick is simply showing them what they already know. I can break this down into two groups of words:
(A) Make examples using English words that are very much universal, like e-mail, bar, pizza, internet, camera, jazz and most sports! Like this, they can concentrate on the formation of their sentences, rather than vocabulary that they don’t know!
(B) Use cognates to your advantage. For example, if your student’s first language is Spanish, there are thousands of words that are almost identical in English; only the pronunciation (and maybe spelling) has to be learned. For example, I always teach very early that all words in Spanish that finish in -cion are the same in English, but with –tion.
Following these rules, you can make what seem like very complicated sentences, using basic grammar. For example:
“La globalicasion es importante para la economia”
“Globalisation is important for the economy”
Having your students produce language like this may leave them feeling like they are learning quickly. This can be useful when they feel bad about not being able to say sentences that appear simple, but are not, such as:
“No hay muchos autos en la calle”
“There aren’t many cars on the road.”
Focus lessons on what your students can say, rather than what they can’t.
(2) Concentrate on speaking early.
Linguists and teachers now all generally agree that students learn best when they are active in their learning. This means producing language from day one.
To get students used to speaking early, take turns in reading simple articles out loud in class. There is nothing wrong with occasionally using an activity that you usually use with children, like games or drama activities.
If you are able to give your students something to do at home, then tell them to make a short presentation on a subject of their choice. Like this they will have time to practice the language they will use.
Try to teach five verbs a week, as these are the building blocks of sentences.
(3) Personalise your classes
Why are your students learning with you? Do they need to use English in their business life? Or do they just want to know how to speak to people when they go on holiday?
If you have a small group in which all of your students are learning for their careers, base activities around what they will need to know. If all of your students work in medicine, try to find simple articles about health to read in class. I sometimes take articles from the simple English Wikipedia page.
In your first class (or to take home), give your students a questionnaire about themselves, including why they want to learn English, and what is important for them.
Repetition does NOT mean simply making your students repeat words until they remember them! In fact, if you do it right, your students might not even notice that they are repeating things.
For example, in your very first class with new students, you will probably focus on simple greetings and presenting yourselves. In your second class you should repeat everything that you do in the first class, but you can do this in ten minutes by simply talking to your students! If in your 6th class with your students you taught “there is / there are”, then in the 7th class in which you are teaching some basic adjectives, form little sentences with “there is / there are”.
This might seem like basic advice, but as you course progresses, this will really help the language come together, and will greatly help your students to form their own sentences.
Keep a good record of everything that you have taught, so that it is easier for you to know what to do next.
(5) Have fun
This is the same for kids as it is for adults – if they enjoy their classes, they will learn faster! Some students will naturally be more shy than others, but using the right activities, all students will speak and learn.
If you would like advice on specific activities to try with new adult learners, let me know in the comments section below.
The disadvantages of teaching adults are that they are more likely to be too careful and not be willing to make mistakes. However, the benefits of teaching adults is that they are more likely to be involved in the learning process, and it is easier to ask them directly what they want to learn. Use this to your advantage when teaching your new adult students.
Hopefully, the jump from nothing to something won’t take too long.