Rachael Roberts has been an ELT teacher, trainer and writer for over 20 years, with experience in both the private and public sectors, in the UK and abroad. Her publications include General English coursebooks for adults and upper secondary, as well as coursebooks for IELTS.
Some adult learners of English, especially in more advanced classes, are incredibly highly motivated, with a strong love of learning. However, perhaps the majority of adult learners find motivation a bit more of a struggle. They have busy lives and a range of other commitments, and they may lack confidence in their ability to learn a new language to any degree of proficiency.
An adult approach to learning
Our approach to adult learners needs to be quite different from teaching younger learners, and even teenagers. The term ‘andragogy’, popularised by Malcolm Knowles in the early 70s, provides a contrast to ‘pedagogy’, which comes from the Greek words ‘paed’, meaning ‘child’ (as in paediatrics), and ‘agogus’ meaning ‘leader of’. According to Knowles, one of the key ways in which andragogy should be different from pedagogy is that it should take account of the greater life experience of adults.
Adults may have experience of work, relationships, children, different cultures, and of difficulties and challenges that younger students have yet to encounter.
Materials aimed at the ‘young adult’ market will often avoid such topics but, as Knowles says, while ‘to children experience is something that happens to them, to adults, experience is who they are.’
He goes on to say that ‘The implication of this fact is that in any situation in which the participants’ experiences are ignored or devalued, adults will perceive this as rejecting not only their experience, but themselves as persons.’ (Knowles, Holton and Swanson 2015:45)
Choosing the right material
Adults will be motivated by material which allows them to use their greater life experience. A truly adult course should provide an opportunity to explore topics which might not be appropriate or engaging for younger learners. For example, in Navigate B2:
Lesson 6.2 looks at new trends in living, such as one person households and co-housing, where resources and facilities are shared with neighbours.
Lesson 7.2 looks at work-life balance and the recent decision by some companies to ban emails outside of working hours and lesson
Lesson 12.1 looks at the question of family size, considering how many children is optimum, including the option of not having any.
Engage through experience
However, not all the topics we deal with in the classroom need to be adult specific. The key thing is to ensure that we engage adults by making their own experiences a central part of the lesson. This doesn’t mean that we can’t deal with something new to them. For example, another lesson in Navigate B2 is built around an interview with Amna, originally from Pakistan, now living in Norway, where it can be light for 24 hours in summer and dark for 24 hours in the winter. Students may not have actually experienced this phenomenon, but they will have enough life experience to imagine what it would be like, and to answer questions such as ‘If you moved to another country would you prefer to live somewhere very different to your home country or quite similar? Why?’
While teenagers may dislike too much personalisation, feeling unwilling to share too much in case of ridicule by peers, adults generally value the opportunity, provided that we give them options. For example, a set of sentences where students have to fill in the gaps with vocabulary can be personalised if we ask students to choose 3 of the sentences (so they can avoid anything uncomfortable) and change them so they are true for them.
A class of ten year olds are likely to have had quite broadly similar life experiences (unless, of course, some have been refugees or experienced other major challenges). A group of adults is likely to have a much greater range of individual differences. This is challenging, because it means the need for individualisation is even greater, but it also provides a wonderful opportunity for students to communicate about something real. I have never forgotten a class on the topic of extreme sport, where one class member suddenly told the class about his experience of playing Russian Roulette. No-one even noticed the bell for end of class.
Every learner comes to class with a lifetime of experience, but for a group of adult learners that experience is likely to be particularly full and wide ranging. So let’s use it.