The Only Thing They Have to Fear is Fear Itself

Teaching adult beginner groups can be quite challenging, as most teachers (if not all)  who have such groups know. Each age group we teach has its specific challenges, and in my experience, when it comes to adult beginners the main challenges are time (they usually have little time to dedicate to English studying other than the time they spend in the classroom, since they have many other responsibilities and priorities. Many times they have trouble even coming to classes) and fear. Fear of making mistakes and making a fool in front of others. Today I’m going to address the latter.

Adult beginners are anxious to learn and more often than not they have a real, meaningful reason for learning. This woks in their favor, because they have real motivation. On the other hand, they are afraid. They are afraid of making mistakes in front of others. They are afraid of not being able to learn – very often they have tried learning English before and haven’t succeeded. They come with pre-conceived ideas of things they have difficulty with, either because someone told them or because they decided so. If I had earned a penny every time I heard a student say  “I have difficulty with listening.” I would be a rich teacher. The way I see it, the worst consequence of adult English learner’s anxiety is actually two-fold.

First it makes them try to give steps much wider than it’s good for them. They want to learn fast, they want to be able to answer to a question in as much detail and eloquence as they would in their mother tongue. To deal with this issue I do lots of leaner training. I tell my students that in the first years of their language learning experience they have to exercise being satisfied with communicating the main message. They have to simplify what they want to say, without compromising the main message. For instance, if they are asked to describe their living rooms, they have to use the language they have, not focus on the one they don’t. So if they have a love seat they should be satisfied in saying they have a sofa. The message won’t be as detailed, but it will be effective. I like to tell them they have to fit what they want to say to the language they already have – not the other way around.

Second, it makes them doubt their capacity, it lowers their self-confidence. In this case we have to work in building their self-confidence. We have to teach them to see their little victories. Learner training comes in handy here as well. Give them tasks they can accomplish and point out things they can do now that they couldn’t before. Remind them that language acquisition takes time and is a process. Reassure them they will get there.

This has been working for me. Most of the time. Every now and then we have a student that we can’t reach, no matter how hard we try. But we have to focus on the victories we have, the students we do break through. Teaching adult beginner groups can be quite challenging, but it is also extremely rewarding.

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Cecilia Lemos has been working with ELT since 1993 and is an Academic Coach for Educate Bilingual Program. She has worked a teacher trainer, writer, coordinator and teacher, presenting at local, national and international language teaching events. She’s a member of IATEFL’s Teacher Development SIG committee. Her main interests are feedback, correction and lesson observation.

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