Back to Blog

Transitioning from Teaching Children to Teaching Adults

adult learners instructions teaching children Oct 04, 2021

If you’ve gotten your start in the world of EFL for kids, pat yourself on the back. Teaching children is equal parts challenging and rewarding, and by now you’ve likely found several tips and tricks that you keep up your sleeve when planning lessons and teaching. But if you’ve been thinking about transitioning to teach adult learners, read on for a better understanding of how these two learner profiles differ!

Acquisition vs. Learning 

In applied linguistics, quite a fuss is made over the difference between second language acquisition and second language learning.  In fact, it’s a fascinating topic to study, but if you’d like to save yourself some time, think of it like this: Your first language was acquired.  Nobody sat you down in your earliest years and dictated to you the rules of your L1. You picked it up through exposure, and much further down the line, you were taught a few of the more formal rules in school.  In some cases, younger learners may be able to acquire their second language in a similar way, with exposure and implicit instruction. However, adults do not learn the same way.

The adult (or let’s say post-puberty) brain is highly specialized and is a master of its L1.  Through all of this specialization, research suggests we lose the ability to simply acquire a language. Instead, we have to learn it through explicit and purposeful study and instruction. Now, while you might pick up some important vocabulary and phrases through immersion, you likely won’t become conversational in a new language at this point in your life without learning some rules and purposefully studying vocabulary. This is the situation your adult learners are going to find themselves in.

Keeping this in mind, there are a few shifts that you’ll want to make in terms of your instruction in class, such as:

Implicit instruction -> Explicit instruction:  While children might be put off by needing to memorize grammar rules, adult learners typically thrive with this type of instruction.  Why? Because adults already have plenty of metacognitive processes that allow them to seek out patterns, test theories, and use previous knowledge to make sense of new information.  Give adult students a rule to follow and you’re defining parameters for them and creating a shortcut– by following this rule, they can throw out a certain number of errors that they would have otherwise made. Now they have something they can experiment with! Where you might need to give lots of examples and instances of a target language item to young children before they start to recognize a pattern (implicit instruction), an adult may become frustrated with this approach. Knowing the objective of a lesson from the start, and then gaining the tools they need from one phase to the next of that lesson in order to reach the objective is typically a priority for adult learners. This type of explicit instruction helps adults know what the expectations are for a lesson and helps them work actively to categorize information in their minds and make connections with prior rules and information that they’ve already learned!

Tabula Rasa -> Background Knowledge Reservoirs: Whereas children can seem like sponges in the classroom, soaking up new knowledge left, right, and center, we can think of adults as search engines (though perhaps less efficient than Google). They have already mastered one language in life, and they’ve learned many other things in life as well.  That metacognitive experience of learning (that is, thinking about their thinking and knowing how to learn) is a strength that adults have in the classroom, and as a teacher, you can encourage them to use it! Adults have likely had all types of run-ins with the English language– from ads to music and movies to foreigners in their country.  Not only that, but the same phonemic inventory (think of this as one’s personal library of sounds they can say and recognize) that allows adults to process accents in their own language can helpfully transfer to L2 phonemic inventories. Children build phonemic inventories as well, though adults typically have had longer to do so and thus usually have more extensive inventories. It’s this wider life experience in a variety of areas that translates to efficiency in adult learning, which can be a huge plus in the classroom.

Needing Structure -> Wanting Structure: While kids might not always love the structure of a classroom, it’s clear that some structure and routine is needed to help them learn successfully.  However, adults typically come to the learning process with the understanding that structure will be helpful, and their expectation will be that you have a methodology to teach and review, as well as assign them useful self-study work. By making sure your English courses with adults consist of a course plan, such as the curricula laid out in The TEFL Lab’s materials, as well as checkpoints that allow you to review and test knowledge (see our module review lessons for this purpose!), you’ll be creating the structure of a course that an adult learner will expect.

Extrinsic Motivation -> Intrinsic Motivation: You may have taught children that were plopped in front of you for English class because their parents decided they needed extra enrichment, or you may have taught them in the K-12 school setting.  While individual kids may have had some intrinsic motivation to learn English, you’ll have noted by now that external factors play a bigger role in their motivation to participate: prizes, grades, praise, etc.  Adult learners may also have some extrinsic motivation to learn, such as pressure from their work or opportunities for jobs or scholarships.  However, they often have more intrinsic motivation as well.  The chance to learn something new, to prove to themselves that they can take on a challenge, to give themselves a tool that will help them connect to the world and their interests, or other intrinsic motivators are common in adult learners.  This makes for interesting classes where you can almost always guarantee active participation, interesting questions, and an honest effort from the learners.  While you’ll still need some classroom management strategies for adults, keeping learners on task and motivated to learn won’t be quite the obstacle that it can be for kids’ courses.

General Learning -> Targeted Learning: Adult learners might take an English course for fun, but often you’ll find that they’re taking an English course because improving their level of English is the best way they can open doors to new opportunities or meet objectives in their careers. You’ll find that while some adult learners are happy to take general English courses, many of them need to focus specifically on English that they can use at work.  That means that teaching them about the family tree, weather vocabulary, or physical descriptions of people might not be the instruction they need to stay motivated and progress.  A professional English curriculum, like the one provided in our toolkit, is a great fit for these learners. Where children need to learn a little bit of everything, adults typically have a specific idea in mind of how, when, and where they need to use English. Knowing their motivation and their needs is an important first step to selecting your lesson materials, so make sure you have this detail clear for any adult courses you take on!

Child learning and adult learning have a lot in common, but they are also quite different! Some teachers prefer teaching one group over the other, and some teachers love working with learners of all ages.  The important thing to keep in mind is that when we go into the classroom as teachers, we need to be focusing on the needs of the learners, whoever they may be.  A huge indicator as to what those needs are is going to be the age of the learners!  What other differences do you expect between English courses for children and those for adults?