Teaching older people new tricks

One phenomenon I have noticed over the past two years is the noticeable rise in the number of ‘elderly’ people wanting to have English lessons (by ‘elderly’ I am using the US Census bureau’s definition of anyone over the age of 65).

A combination of factors have probably led to this increase in interest. These factors are related to health, digital technology and the rapidly changing job market. Firstly, and most obviously, people are living longer. People also now have higher expectations of a longer life. Secondly, as life expectancy rises and disposable incomes grow, there is now more time and money to indulge in leisure pursuits. For example, older people are traveling more as opportunities for travel have opened up. This can be seen in the growth of the number of travel companies specializing in travel for the older generation. As people travel more, so the need for a second language, especially English, increases. Thirdly, the exponential expansion of the Internet and social media has led to the increased awareness of the need for English, especially when you consider that according to latest estimates, more than half of Internet content is still in English. Furthermore, over the past few years, there has been an rise in the number of elderly people taking online courses, which are still predominately delivered in English. Also, the growth in digital broadcasters such as Netflix, where most of the content is in English, must also have had an affect. Fourthly, is the greater realization that learning a second language can have health benefits. A number of studies have suggested that knowing or learning a second language can help stave off the affects of dementia by as much as five to ten years.

Whatever the reasons for an older person wanting to learn a second language, there can be no denying that the factors that I have mentioned above will have an increasingly greater impact in the future. If this is the case then all stakeholders in English language teaching will need cater for the increasing number of elderly people desiring to learn English. Just as they did with regards to the teaching of younger learners. This will, of course, require a reassessment of current courses, materials and methodologies, and the possible advent of new approaches to teaching.

Based on my experience and observations of teaching older students, there are a number of issues which educational institutions, coursebook and material writers, course designers and teachers will need to address:

1) senior students may be much more reliant on their first language, especially when it comes to translating into the second language;

2) they might be much less willing to take risks and  make mistakes, which may be a result of not wanting to lose face or anxiety levels. Teachers therefore need to find ways to reduce stress levels;

3) their educational backgrounds might be very different from that of their teachers and they are not accustomed to the new fangled approaches and methodologies;

4) there is also a question of status. The student will more often than not be older than the teacher, which might have an effect on student-teacher relations;

5) older students might have more entrenched behaviours and opinions and therefore be less willing to adopt new ones;

6) they will bring a rich mix of life experiences into the classroom. They have a lot to talk about, and teachers and materials have to cater for this;

7) seniors are also likely to be highly motivated, with many returning to education for intrinsic reasons. Teachers can take advantage of this;

8) although more and more older people are becoming digitally literate, some students might not be as au fait with technology as others, and therefore some digital training may be required;

9) there is also the social element which needs to be taken account of. Many of these leaders will be returning to the classroom not only to learn a language but also to mix socially as well

10) due to their age, some older students might have issues with mobility, and this needs to be factored in when teachers are planning lessons.

The issues which are raised here are incredibly generalized, and in no way can be said to apply to all ‘elderly’ learners of English. However, I do think that they are a starting point for schools, course designers and teachers from which to deliver effective courses to what will be a growing market in the future.

Dominic Walters

I am CELTA and DELTA qualified and have an MA in Educational Psychology. I have been teaching English since 1991, working in Brazil, Republic of Ireland, Spain, Portugual, Egypt and the UK. I am a DELTA, ICELT, CELTA, FTBE assessor and tutor as well as a CELTA online course tutor. I am also an examiner for the Cambridge, IELTS, Trinity exams.

2 thoughts on “Teaching older people new tricks

  1. These are great points, Dominic! Thanks for sharing them and spreading the word on how important it is to at least start talking about these elderly students. Here in Brazil, in the city of Curitiba, we have a school that caters exclusively for learners over 50 years of age. We’ve been working with them for over 5 years now, and our objective is to break some of the stereotypes that surround these students. It really is important to talk about them and share knowledge about this age group.

  2. Hi Dominic,
    This is an interesting thought, and one we’re seeing reflected in Poland too. One of the issues we have is that older students tend to end up in groups with younger ones as there are not enough students of either age to warrant separate groups, meaning you can sometimes have groups which range from 16 to 65. This can be very challenging for both the teacher and the students. Do you have any suggestions for how to approach this?

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