Teaching English One on One to 40+ year-old Adults – Some Insights

By no means is this post intended to teach techniques or activities to teachers working with older students on a one-on-one basis. As suggested in the title, I have written this article with the sole purpose of sharing some insights and reflections I have gathered from over eight years’ experience teaching this target group of students. For reasons of brevity, I will not compare the well-known differences across the teaching of the language to children, adolescents, younger adults and older ones. Rather, I will limit myself to making brief comments on two areas which I believe need to be considered if a more pleasurable and successful learning and teaching experience for both the student and the teacher is to be achieved.

– The students’ expectations

Quite a lot of the students (that I’ve had) in this age band don’t usually need English for any given purpose. Naturally, there are many exceptions, as is the case with professionals who need some degree of or a lot of mastery of the language in order to become or continue to be operative in their field of work (e.g. commercial pilots, people working in the import/export industry, government officials etc). However, because my reflections are based on students studying English for no (apparent) specific purpose, I have chosen to investigate the real reason why they meet me twice a week for a 60-minute lesson.

One of the first things which emerged was their need to improve mental performance. Because of the fact that they have at some point read that learning a foreign language can ‘do wonders for the brain‘ (e.g. grow new synapses), they believe that the effort put into memorizing vocabulary and understanding new structures, along with the hard work they need to do to learn the production of new sounds, result in the enhancement of mind sharpness and cognitive abilities. Added to this is their firm belief that learning a foreign language might prevent the onset of Alzheimer’s Disease and/or dementia later in life.

Another interesting, perhaps more typical reason why these students decide to have English lessons is their need to feel that they are studying something, not just working. It seems that sitting in a classroom with a teacher restores their feelings of “not too old to learn”. The large majority of my students tell me that they feel better about themselves when they can talk with their children about the things they’re learning, their difficulties and accomplishments. Some of them tell me that their “dependency” on their children for communication during trips to foreign countries is decreased, and because their self-esteem is boosted, they feel younger.

– The teacher’s expectations

In view of the factors stated above, it becomes obvious that the teacher’s role in these specific teaching situations needs to undergo some adaptations. The number one thing that needs mentioning is the need of lowering expectations towards the amount of learning that takes place in the classroom. Most teachers tend to feel really frustrated when they realize that, despite their efforts, their students seem to be learning much less than expected (by the teacher). I find it crucial to ask these students what their objectives are in terms of learning the language. Some of them might have really ambitious goals, which you should accept as legitimate ones so you don’t demotivate them from the start. What I usually do when I am faced with this sort of goal is ask them some questions about what they will do in order to achieve their goals. For example, I might ask them how much time they will set aside to study at home, do homework, and memorize vocabulary, among other things. Again, this is done not to make them shy away from their goals and expectations. What this really does is help them become more aware of themselves as learners and establish more doable objectives.

I must say, however, that in spite of the fact that I know, at least to a certain extent, that these students are likely to learn less than they hope they will, I do not let go of my convictions of the positive results of the high demand approach to teaching. If I think they are able to do more, to go the extra mile, I certainly invite them to speed up the pace to cover more ground. On the other hand, whenever I notice I am overwhelming them with more than they can cope with, and that varies from class to class, I step back to a less heavy-handed teaching practice. I often tell trainee teachers that it’s not really what you do, but how you do what you do. Finally, it must be kept in mind that these students often come to class not for the subject matter per se, but rather to be listened to and chat with the subject teaching the matter.



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Edmilson Chagas

Edmilson is a teacher, teacher trainer and materials designer. He has been involved with ELT for 32 years and and currently works for B.A. English School in Goiânia, where he teaches advanced levels and preparation courses for international exams. Former president of Braz-Tesol Goiânia Chapter, he is now a board member of Braz-Tesol Teacher Development SIG. His interests include reading, writing, translating and CrossFit.

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