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How to Encourage Frustrated Learners

adult learners authentic materials error correction praise vocabulary Oct 24, 2022

Language learning as an adult is a huge challenge to undertake. It doesn’t help that there is tons of marketing out there, from institutes to apps and everything in between, that says there is a proven, painless method. For those of us that work in language education, and especially those who are multilingual, we know that the truth is that it’s a rewarding, yet challenging (and certainly not short) journey to learn a language.

That doesn’t mean that our learners always come to us with that perspective in mind, however. Frequently, you’ll find adult learners that have been made to believe that language learning is as easy as any other type of learning, and that they’ll be speaking fluently in no time! Even worse, sometimes their supervisors at work are under the same impression, putting unrealistic pressure on the learner to progress at an unsustainable pace.

These situations inevitably lead to frustration on the learner’s part. That can complicate the learning process, stall progress, and generally damage the learning environment you’ve established for your learner. So how can you deal with an adult learner when they get frustrated? We’ve got some tips for you!

Tip 1- Get some easy wins.

Feeling that progress isn’t happening is a top frustration that adult learners have. All of us want to see a return on our investment of time, money, brain power, etc. So when our progress stops feeling linear and measurable, frustration can set in quite quickly. When this happens, a teacher can create some learning experiences for the learner that will bring about some easy wins.

Take a break from the curriculum and work with an authentic material to boost confidence and interest, or teach a small rule, like the difference between say vs. tell, or work with a short vocabulary set that is relevant to the learner’s job or life. Give the learner a lesson or two where the learning objectives aren’t too demanding but the target language can be used immediately to express ideas that they couldn’t express before!

Feeling a bit more progress in class is a great way to regain the motivation to continue onward! Not only that, but you’ll be able to point out how important it is that they’ve learned this or that, and how now they can use it to say something correctly, express a new idea, or sound like an expert on a topic! Pointing out those gains is an important part to helping the learner recognize that they’ve just added new language into their repertoire, and have actively learned how to do something in English that they didn’t know before.

Tip 2- Change your error correction and praise strategies.

Frustration can also set in when working with new target language. Think about the past simple– there are so many details to learn about that verb tense! It provides challenges at the syntactic, phonological, and morphological levels of language analysis– the -ed ending, sentence structure, and those irregular verbs are no joke! This is a prime example of a language point that can become frustrating for learners.

One thing to keep in mind is that error correction focused broadly can feel very overwhelming for a learner. When working with target language that has a lot of opportunities for errors, ask the learner to focus very carefully on the -ed ending, for example, or on the proper sentence structure. Correct those errors as they come up to help your learner focus their attention on one or two aspects at a time. If more errors are coming up with irregular verb formation or something else, you might save those for a final review at the end of the lesson– or you might not address them at all in this class.

For a frustrated learner, create instances of error correction where you are eliciting self-correction. Learners might not always recognize their own errors, but being able to fix it yourself feels much more empowering than having it fixed for you, so create those instances as much as possible.

Additionally, step up your enthusiastic praise. If your learner is going through a rough patch with grammar, that’s alright! It doesn’t mean they aren’t making a great effort in class, improving their pronunciation, sharing creative ideas, recalling vocabulary from past lessons, or doing something else that’s worthy of praise! Boost their motivation by reminding them that language learning isn’t always linear, and that even if you feel your aren’t improving as fast as you want in one area, there are many other components of the language and they likely are doing a great job in a different area that they aren’t focused on quite so much!

Tip 3- Check in with the learner about what their experience in class has been lately.

It can be hard to understand exactly where a learner’s frustration is coming from. Are they having a tough time at work and they’re bringing that energy into class with them, or are they frustrated with their progress, your lessons, or something else?

Getting feedback is a great way to get everyone on the same page, learn more about needs that may have arisen since the beginning of the course, and generally take the temperature of the learners in a class. That’s why we’ve created the Course Checkpoint Tool. It’s a presentation designed to be used in class that asks 5 simple questions about how learners have perceived their lessons lately. We recommend doing a course checkpoint every 6-8 weeks or so to make sure everyone is happy with how the course is going.

The questions it contains are designed to elicit feedback about the course, rather than your teaching. That sounds like a tiny difference, but when asking for feedback, it’s huge! Remember that in many cultures, providing somewhat negative feedback is seen as rude. With the Course Checkpoint, learners are encouraged to evaluate the experience of their course itself, rather than your methodology or you as a person. This creates an environment that allows you to get more honest feedback that will help you meet their needs, answer their questions, and understand more about their motivations and frustrations.

Tip 4- Share an anecdote.

If you’re a language teacher, chances are that at some point outside of childhood you’ve also been a language learner in some capacity (and if not, you should absolutely give it a go)! That means you’ve probably got your fair share of funny stories, mistakes, and other things that happen to a person when they’re learning another language.

Sharing an anecdote about a funny mistake you made encourages learners to see that these things happen to all of us as a natural part of the learning process. Sharing a time you overcame a challenge in the learning process is a valuable example for learners to persevere. Telling your learners about a part of their L1 that is very difficult for you to understand generates empathy (first for you, and then it’s easy to transfer that empathy to themselves). There is power in hearing others’ personal experiences with a challenging task, so don’t hold back. Sometimes an anecdote about how universally challenging language learning really is can be just the pep talk your learners are looking for– it reinforces that language learning is difficult for anyone, not them in particular.

Tip 5- Set a short-term goal. And then another. And then another.

Typically, the major goal for adult ELLs is to speak English fluently. That’s quite a big (and sometimes vague) goal. It’s not a bad one, but it certainly is going to take a long time to put a check next to it on your to-do list. If that’s a learner’s goal, encourage them to add a few milestones along the way. These smaller goals could be related to talking about specific topics, using specific grammar, or working with and understanding specific authentic materials, for example. Break those objectives into bite-sized goals so that every few classes, your learner has something to celebrate!

Those short-term, regularly reachable goals are essential to maintaining motivation on the long road to fluency, but learners aren’t always able to define them alone. Help your learners set these goals in class, and check in with them– how are their lessons helping them to reach those goals? How are their independent studies helping them reach those goals? What does success look like? These are things to talk about while setting these goals as milestones toward fluency.

Frustration in the language learning process is common, and it’s also nearly unavoidable. When it comes up in one of your learners, there’s no reason to panic. Besides being totally natural, it’s also totally treatable! Use these tips above to get your learners back on track and motivated.