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Are we teaching adults the same way we teach children?

A view on an andragogical approach to English language teaching

1. Introduction
When seeking opportunities for professional development in teachers’ conferences, it is common to find courses, workshops and talks on teaching techniques for young learners and very young learners. These age groups have their idiosyncrasies and should definitely be explored. However, it seems that the teaching of adults, andragogy, is usually overlooked in teacher conferences regardless of the rise in the number of adult students in English language programs (Ur, 2012). Why does it happen, then? Could it be that teaching adult learners is considered so straightforward that it requires no specific research and training? In the lines that follow, I am going to talk about some main differences between teaching young learners and adults, some principles that might aid teachers in pursuing a more andragogical approach, and practical tips in the form of a list of “do’s” and “don’ts”.

2. Differences
Among the main differences between adults and young learners, I would like to address three: affective filter, learner motivation, and cognition.

2.1. Affective filter
Adult learners of English might have some authority in their workplace and a feeling of self-efficacy as full-grown adults. Coming to a language classroom with their heads bubbling with ideas, thoughts and opinions which they are unable to express in the target language might foster a high affective filter in class, which works as an emotional barrier that might stand between the learner and learning. According to Krashen (1987), teachers should work towards lowering this filter so that learners are more susceptible to learning.

2.2. Motivation
As well put by Harmer (1998), adult learners often come with a high degree of extrinsic motivation (for example, a job or college requirement) and, especially when they are the ones paying for tutoring, might be very critical of teachers’ work when compared to children. According to Penny Ur (2012), adult learners might see the teacher more like a hired coach rather than an educator or authority, and this relationship has implications for teaching. Telling students the lesson objective and, from time to time, explaining to students the reasons behind some classroom procedures might give the teacher the ‘authority’ of language expert before their learners.

2.3. Cognition
When it comes to cognition, it is clear that adults and children have different levels of language processing. Adults are capable of abstract, analytical processing and dealing with language that is not embedded “in a ‘here and now’ context” (Brown, 2007). Adult students can be told to imagine complex situations with different characters and specific contexts. They can analyze language as a system and benefit from this analysis when working on rules and forms. Adults usually like doing so, perhaps due to their history of trying to learn the language through more traditional methods in elementary and high school, which might closely resemble grammar translation with its complex explanations of grammar and its intricacies.

3. Principles

Having these aspects in mind, I believe we can draw five main principles towards a more andragogical approach to language teaching:

3.1 Adult learners are usually well-equipped to handle abstract rules and concepts. However, that doesn’t mean that language should be taught purely deductively and out of context (Brown, 2007). We should not overlook the importance of deep language processing and the benefits of inductive teaching (teaching that happens through students` analysis of examples towards hypothesising rules and putting this new knowledge into practice.)

3.2 Adult learners have longer attention spans than children and are able to engage with material that doesn’t seem intrinsically motivating to them at first. This means that while adults will benefit from material they find meaningful, they will also endure activities that are not naturally interesting and motivating.

3.3 Adults usually have better developed abstract thinking, which can be useful in setting up imaginary contexts with clear characters, place and purpose of interaction. The teacher can easily ask students to imagine a situation and assign roles to students in a role-play or communicative activity.

3.4 Adult learners benefit from clear goals and a clear sense of purpose and direction. This means that they usually benefit from knowing the reasons behind classroom processes and activities.

3.5 Finally, it is important to note that we cannot pool all adult learners under one single umbrella term. When talking about young learners, for example, it is possible to subdivide the group in very young learners, primary, secondary and teens. Bearing in mind the same rationale, the ‘adult’ bracket should also be subdivided into more specific groupings. For instance, a 25 year-old learner who has just left college differs wildly from a 60 year-old, recently retired adult. Their needs and goals are likely to be different and teachers’ approach should also be individualized.
The bottom line is: adults are not children and should not be taught as such. Adults have characteristics and peculiarities that teachers should keep in mind when helping these learners develop language proficiency.


As a conclusion to this discussion on andragogy, I would like to propose a short list of do’s and don’ts which include not only the opinion of the authors researched but also my experience in teaching adult learners of English and should not be taken to the letter.

4.1 Do’s

  • Show respect for the complex feelings and thoughts that might be “trapped” inside students due to their lack of linguistic and communicative ability to convey them.
  • Tell students what you are doing and what you wish them to achieve through such procedure.
  • Establish clear goals and objectives at the beginning of the lesson and give AND ask students for feedback when you are done. Did students achieve their goals? How could this have been further facilitated?
  • Give students choice. Adult learners (all learners, to be honest) tend to feel motivated and take on a more active role if they realize they are protagonists in the learning process rather than mere spectators in the classroom.
  • It’s ok to talk about language rules and systems and to explore language forms and functions as well as use. However, beware not to overdo it and overemphasize accuracy at the expense of fluency.
  • Keep in mind that adult learners have the ability to learn how to learn. Teach them strategies and techniques they can put into practice when they are inside and outside the classroom.

4.2 Don’ts

  • Don’t oversimplify language. Adult learners can easily grasp when the teacher switches to “caretaker” talk and might feel patronized when spoken to as if they are children.
  • Don’t forget that in class you are the language teaching/learning expert, but do listen to your students’ feedback. Even if you are not fond of, say, grammatical explanations but your students are, it might be a good idea to compromise. Remember that your students might know their strengths and weaknesses and might be able to help you do your job better.
  • Don’t remove the element of fun from the lessons just because they are grown- ups. Adults also enjoy fun classes with games, discussions, videos and interesting audios. Allow students to enjoy their time in the classroom as this might help lower their affective filter and facilitate learning.
  • Don’t give up on them. Students might come from a streak of failed attempts at learning the language and might have developed an “all or nothing” mindset. Show students that they can learn the language even if it seems daunting at first.
  • Don’t be as strict with homework as you would be with children. Instead, make sure you stress the importance of doing homework and its possible impacts on their development which would contribute to making the adult learner more of a protagonist of their own learning.
  • Be wary of the “break them down to build them up” way of teaching. Students have to experience success from the moment they step into your classroom to the moment they leave. Of course they are going to make mistakes and struggle, but these moments HAVE to be overshadowed by moments of success and feelings of self-efficacy.
Troika | LinkedIn
About author

In ELT with vast experience teaching primary and secondary learners, adults, and teachers across all proficiency levels. Multi-skilled professional who works as teacher, trainer, speaker, author and editor of teaching materials, and course designer. Educational consultant at Troika, Vice-president of BRAZ-TESOL São Paulo and member of the BRAZ-TESOL national advisory board. I firmly believe in the power of teacher education and how its cascade effect can positively impact thousands of students.
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