Teaching English as a Second Language to Adults

If you will be working with adult learners of English, start by assessing their needs. Many English as a Second Language students know what they want to learn. At the beginning their needs will most likely be "survival" phrases (i.e. Where is the bathroom? How much does it cost? Traffic sign reading.). Then they will need basic functional English for filling out job applications, getting medical care, and signing their child up for school.

Ask your students to identify what they want to learn by using any of the following methods or a combination of them.

1. Have the students look through their textbook or picture dictionary and place Post It Notes on five pages with the information they think is most important.

2. Have students check off things they want to learn on a pictorial list depicting different activities (grocery shopping, reading a note from school, filling out a driver's license application, job applications, etc).

3. Show students a pictorial strip illustrating three reasons why Antonio wants to learn English; then brainstorm with the class and substitute their reasons for learning English.

This gives the students a voice in their instruction and makes the content relevant to their lives. It also gives you a chance to evaluate what skills your students have already and what they need to strengthen.

Once you know what your students hope to achieve, use the principles of adult learning. Adults are problem solvers, self-directed, and disciplined. They already know how to think and they know how to learn new things. They will want to know why something needs to be learned and that it is applicable to their life.

Language tasks involve integrating the four language skills of reading, writing, speaking and listening. Plan your classroom time such that all four skills are used in every class session. Learners find this engaging approach reinforces each skill. Include field trips to give your students a chance to practice with you close at hand for assistance. Visit a museum, grocery store, post office, restaurant, or library.

There are a number of classroom activities which provide useful practice prior to class outings. Try an assortment of these activities to stimulate interest and discussions.

Dialogues associated with key activities. Start with simple scripted three-line dialogues.

I would like a hamburger, please.
With pickles?
Yes, thank you.

Next, have students substitute vocabulary in the dialogue, on cloze worksheets, during role play, or dictations. For more information on cloze worksheets and how to use them, see my article titled "Cloze Worksheets - What They Are and How to Make Them".

Build Vocabulary. Practice vocabulary with flash cards, concentration games, labeling, vocabulary journals, picture dictionaries, and bingo activities. Homework exercises can include other word games. Word searches build word recognition and standard letter pattern recognition. Crossword puzzles match definitions to words.

Class Surveys. Class surveys involve students questioning their fellow students and recording the information on a form. Questions can be of this type, "What is your last name?", "Where do you live?", "What month were you born?" Or students can be directed to find someone who likes ice cream or who comes from South Korea. In this case, students must ask class members questions in the form "Do you like ice cream?" or "Do you come from South Korea?" Answers can be collected and presented on a graph or list as appropriate. Lists can be alphabetized.

Phonics Exercises. Identifying initial letter sounds or rhyming words are important parts of literacy-level learning. Meld this with vocabulary instruction. Minimal pairs (i.e. cat/hat, can/fan) are one possible exercise. You can also expand minimal pairs by changing the first letter to find more words (bat/cat/fat/hat/mat/pat/rat/sat/vat). Simple rhymes and songs are good ways to pick up vocabulary and practice making the sounds of the English language. Alliterative phrases where every word starts with the same letter can be a fun and useful way to practice clear pronunciation and enunciation. "Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers", "Sally sells seashells by the seashore", and other tongue scrambling phrases make a delightful break to textbook work.

Use authentic materials. Use handbills, flyers, brochures, menus, job applications, driver's license applications, grocery lists, and receipts to make the learning relevant to your learners. Have your students answer questions about the information on a flyer, write out a grocery list, read a receipt. These activities build their confidence and give them real world practice with all the language skills.

Adult learners want to be able to function. They are focused, practical learners with a need to solve everyday living situations. Design your instruction to meet their needs by giving them plenty of opportunities to build their vocabularies and practice all four language skills - reading, writing, speaking, and listening.

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