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#EFLproblems – Teaching the over 50s

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Older man with Help Me signWe’re helping to solve your EFL teaching problems by answering your questions every two weeks. This week’s blog is in response to Simone’s blog comment requesting extra hints for teaching the over 50s. Stacey Hughes from the Professional Development Team responds.

Hi, My name is Simone and I run a prime school for seniors, they complain a lot about understanding and using the language abroad. Do you have any extra hints for teaching people over 50 years old?”

“You can’t teach an old dog new tricks” or so the saying goes, though perhaps the adage, “you’re never too old to learn” is more accurate. While older learners may face some hurdles younger learners don’t, the lifetime of learning through experience that they bring to the class makes them, in some ways, better learners. They have learning skills they may not recognise – the ability to solve problems and think critically, for example. They may have a clear perception of their own strengths and weaknesses or they may have strategies from learning another language in the past.

Perhaps the biggest advantage adults have is their positive motivation: they have chosen to learn or they have an expectation of what they want to do with the language they are learning. This means that they want learning to be applicable to their lives. If, as a teacher, you can show this link, you will have very enthusiastic students!

Here are some tips for teaching older learners:

Make sure learning meets needs

Find out about your learners’ goals and expectations. What do they want English for? How fluent do they hope to be? What problems do they have when reading/ writing/ listening to and speaking English? A simple checklist and follow-up discussion can go a long way in clarifying what your students want and will show them that you are interested in making the lessons applicable to their needs.

Make lessons immediately applicable

Adult learners are unlikely to be learning for learning’s sake. They want to be able to use what they have learned in real situations, so they are unlikely to want to learn language that they don’t perceive as useful for them or that seems a waste of time.

Use activities where learners can use their strengths

Some research suggests that older learners may not be as fast at rote learning as younger learners, and they may not learn as quickly. However, they will be very good at the types of problem solving and critical thinking activities they employ in everyday life and work. Use role play and simulations to practice language and provide lots of opportunities for discussion in small groups. Older learners are also good at reflection, so after a discussion activity, ask them to say what they did well and how they think they can improve on their weaknesses.

Create a comfortable atmosphere

Older learners have a certain status, so putting them into a classroom situation where they feel belittled or where their life experience is unappreciated will hinder learning. Create a classroom where learners feel comfortable about making mistakes. Build confidence through praise and encouragement. Set achievable goals and help learners see when they have reached them. One useful strategy is to tell learners about your own embarrassing experiences when using a language abroad (we all have them!). This can help them see that everyone makes mistakes and that it is OK. It may also help to point out that most people are forgiving of language mistakes and appreciate the effort learners make when speaking their language.

Not too fast, but not too slow either

How demotivating it is to feel confident when listening in class, but find that in the ‘real world’ of films and native speakers, people just speak too quickly! By all means, build listening skills with materials in class, but teach students to listen to authentic texts, too. Help them feel confident in knowing that, even if they can’t understand every word, they can get the main ideas. Point out websites where students can listen to newscasts and podcasts, especially when they are relevant and topical. So, for example, ask students to familiarize themselves with today’s news in their L1, then ask them to listen to an international newscast giving the same news, but in English. Or point them to a podcast that gives information related to an individual student’s line of work or expertise. Encourage film buffs to watch films in English with the English subtitles on for extra support.

Capitalize on learners’ experiences and interests

Learners naturally want to talk about what they are interested in, and adults have a wealth of experience to bring to the classroom. Extend course materials when necessary so that you can bring in more vocabulary and structures students need in order to be able to talk about things they want to talk about.

Make lessons practical and authentic

If your learners need to be able to use English abroad, then teach the language they will need to use abroad. This is applicable at any level. For example, at a lower level, you might help students understand train and airline announcements, language for commercial transactions and directions, etc. Higher level students may wish to understand and be able to discuss news and current events when abroad, so build in lesson time for this. Supplement and extend course materials with relevant materials from the web. For example, supplement a unit on sports with sports news, blogs or gossip about sports figures, podcasts or news about the impact of sporting events in the local area – whatever is current and relevant and of interest to the students.

Make use of 24/7

Adult learners are generally willing to learn anywhere at any time, so provide plenty of materials for them to continue learning outside of class. Many course materials have online components, but students can also listen to English on their smartphones on the bus or to a CD/ MP3 player while driving. Those who love fiction can be given graded readers to read at home, or they can listen to downloaded audiobooks. Those who like writing can communicate by posting comments on blogs or by writing emails to another student in class.

Revise, revise, revise

Older learners may need more revision than younger ones, so build in plenty of revision. This doesn’t mean repeating lessons. Find new contexts and situations for your students to use the language they have learned. Don’t be afraid to repeat listening texts again for revision in the next lesson, especially at the lower levels.

Have fun

Adult learners are likely to be learning in their own time and may be attending classes partly for social reasons. It is obviously important to set learning goals, but you can still have fun reaching them.

Invitation to share your ideas

We are interested in hearing your ideas about teaching the over 50s, so please comment on this post and take part in our live Facebook chat on Friday 24 January at 12pm GMT.

Please keep your challenges coming. The best way to let us know is by leaving a comment below or on the EFLproblems blog post. We will respond to your challenges in a blog every two weeks. Each blog will be followed by a live Facebook chat to discuss the challenge answered in the blog. Be sure to Like our Facebook page to be reminded about the upcoming live chats.

Author: OUP Professional Development

The Professional Development Team has 65+ years of teaching and training experience between us. We regularly attend and speak at local, national, regional and international conferences as well as running workshops and seminars and delivering webinars to teachers all over the world. We take part in social media channels such as facebook and twitter and do our best to stay up-to-speed with current trends and discussions through various media (blogs, new publishing etc.) and by talking to and working with other educators (teachers, trainers, authors etc.).

12 thoughts on “#EFLproblems – Teaching the over 50s

  1. I have been doing private lessons for more than 25 years in Italy,to every age and grade………using as a base OUP Departures and Connections(I have never used Arrivals! – no need!)…….I would just like to repeat what I tell my students:- you must never worry about the mistakes you make – laugh at them and they will remain better fixed for the next time……..also,just remember when you are speaking english abraord,that english may well not be that person’s mother-tongue either!!!

    Keep up the good work!!!!

    Bob Woodbridge (Italy)

    • So good to hear that you too love Departures and Connections. I’ve been using tons of different textbooks in my 25 year teaching career but I am so fond of these old ones. I still use some texts from them (The Smuggler being one of my favourites)

  2. Thank you so much. I appreciated that because I am 50 years old. With my best regards Hazis Aliu Albania

    On Thu, Jan 23, 2014 at 11:26 AM, Oxford University Press wrote:

    > OUP Professional Development posted: “Were helping to solve your EFL > teaching problems by answering your questions every two weeks. This week’s > blog is in response to Simone’s blog comment requesting extra hints for > teaching the over 50s. Stacey Hughes from the Professional Development Team > “

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  8. Thank you for sharing.I mean i am aware a lot of these tips, but a summary is always useful.Thanks!

  9. And I also think these tips are also good for adults between 30 and 40 or a bit above .

  10. And one more thing: listening has always been in focus in my teaching experience. It is really demotivating, or can be, as the article says, when someone cannot connect to real listening in or outside classes. I had always given my students tasks and tips to develop this skill on their own, and it takes time,but it is worth it, because doing some listening with tasks develop speaking skills as well.So this is very important.And it is very important to choose the right level, context , etc. for an individual.

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