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How to Teach English as a Second Language to Adults (Part 1)

Updated on October 8, 2016
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A Career Teaching English as a Second Language

Can you remember what people used to ask you, “What do you want to do when you grow up?”

Most kids respond by saying that they want to become a doctor, lawyer, firefighter or a professional athlete. Some fortunate people know exactly what their calling is before they enter grade school. The rest of us figure it out along the way or are still trying to decide what their ideal career path will be. People in this category quite often find themselves jobs as English teachers while simultaneously considering other job possibilities while working, teaching and traveling the world. If you follow this path long enough, you may find yourself actually liking the job and lifestyle that you found yourself stumbling upon accidentally.

Understanding how to teach English as a second language to adults can be both rewarding and exciting. It is a career that lets you to experience life in other countries, meet some amazing people, taste incredible cuisine, and allows you the flexibility to enjoy work while gaining a plethora of exciting adventures along the way.

How to Teach English to Adults with Classroom Activities

This article will introduce some useful teaching preparation strategies and activities for adult language learners that you can use in your classroom. We will focus primarily on teaching adults, but many of the ideas could be used for teaching younger students as well. It is important to cover all language skills in the classroom that will help improve students’ listening, speaking, reading and writing abilities effectively.

By focusing on the appropriate balance of core skills and using a variety of teaching styles, you will engage your students more and help them get the most out of your lessons.

ESL Listening Activities for Adult Language Learners

The best methods for improving students’ listening skills typically involve using a variety of audio content and media in the classroom. Focus on topics that your students are interested. This holds true for other core skills as well. Students learn better when the they are interested in the subject. In the initial classes of the semester or school term, get to know your students and what they are interested in and adapt the class material accordingly.

Once you know what they like, go online and find as much material as you can relating to the topics that they enjoy personally. Download podcasts, bookmark YouTube videos, prepare music and find any other audio that would be appropriate for their level.

When you have the content ready, listen to it and create worksheets and lessons based around what you have found. Make questions to test their listening for: general understanding, gist, specific information, inferences and other listening comprehension tasks.

Furthermore, reserving time or certain classes for notetaking practice is another valuable skill that students should work on. While listening to the audio or class lecture, encourage them to take notes on paper and write out key points about what they hear. Remember to add a discussion element to all listening exercises so students can get each other’s feedback on the listenings and apply what they have learnt in class conversation.

For in-depth examples of a number of these types of engaging classroom listening activities, have a look at the ESL Listening Activities for Adults and Kids outlined on ESL Expat’s website.


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ESL Reading Activities for Adult Language Learners

Teaching adult learners how to improve their reading ability can be a challenging task if the course materials don’t match their initial abilities. It is essential to know their reading ability before choosing the best textbooks and other supplementary readings. As a general rule of thumb, if students can’t understand over ten of the words on the page length of a novel, then assign an easier book. It should be challenging enough not to bore them, but not so difficult that it frustrates them to death.

Once you know your students’ levels, select a respectable textbook and find supplementary materials to accompany the main text, such as newspaper articles, magazines, novels or anything else that would be of interest. Most supplements can be found online for free. Most standard ESL reading textbooks will come with their own reading comprehension questions and exercises to accompany the articles within the text.

For the supplementary readings, you should try to create your own questions based on the articles that you find. Again, make sure the content is engaging for the students and related to topics that they like. The questions should test their reading ability for: understanding of gist, detailed information, scanning skills, skimming skills, inferences and vocabulary usage. During and after the readings, have the students summarize ideas from the text and emphasize a strong discussion element to the lessons so that there is a healthy balance between reading and conversation.

Remember, having the class read for the entire class is something that they can do at home when they are alone. So use the classroom time not only to read, but also as a time to reflect on what they have read and interact with other students.

For a comprehensive description of useful classroom reading activities, check out the ESL Reading Activities for Adults and Kids on ESL Expat’s website.


ESL Speaking and Writing Activities for the Classroom

To read more about how to improve adult students’ speaking and writing skills, read Part 2 of How to Teach English as a Second Language to Adults. In the meantime, please give your feedback or offer your own teaching suggestions in the comments section at the bottom of the page.

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    • prairieprincess profile image

      Sharilee Swaity 8 months ago from Canada

      @wiserworld, great approach to teaching ESL. I like how you stress making sure that the materials you select are at the right level. I agree that it also very important to make sure that the materials are of interest to the students.