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Differences between Young Learners and Adult Learners in the TEFL Environment

Differences between Young Learners and Adult Learners in the TEFL Environment | ITTT | TEFL Blog

This post will focus on the differences English teacher face when they are working with a class of young learners compared to a class of adult learners.

This post was written by our TEFL certification graduate Rebecca M.

What are adults - what are young learners?

First, it is necessary to define what we mean by adult learners and young learners in the TEFL environment. An adult learner is defined as any student over the age of eighteen who engages in English language tuition. A younger learner, therefore, is a student under the age of eighteen years old.

There is a much greater variety within the young learner category due to the vast developmental changes that occur during this period. For example, a five- year- old is a very different type of learner than a fifteen- year- old. Because of this, the young learner category can be broken down even further into three broad groups. The first of these is the very young learners who include toddlers and pre-schoolers typically under the age of seven years. Next is the pre-pubescent category which encompasses primary school age children aged from seven years up until twelve. Finally, we have teen learners aged thirteen years and up.

Also read: 11 Fun ESL Activities for Young Learners

Typical Qualities of Adult Learners

There are a number of differences between young learners and adult learners in the classroom that teachers need to be aware of in order to adapt their teaching methods to suit the class. First, let’s look at some typical qualities of adult learners. One of the biggest advantages for a teacher of adult learners is that typically they will have made the choice to learn a second language for themselves and quite often, they are paying a significant amount of money to do this. For this reason, adult learners are usually very motivated students which means the teacher can focus on teaching as opposed to finding strategies to motivate an unmotivated class. One exception to this can be in the area of English for business purposes when a company has employed the services of an English teacher to improve the language skills of their staff. In this example, the teacher may find some of these adult learners to be relatively unmotivated as they have not made the decision for themselves and are usually not paying for the course.

Another feature of adult learners is that they will have a significant amount of learning experience having gone through several years of schooling and possibly further education. This can mean that quite often they will have a rigid, fixed view on how teaching should be conducted and what should happen in the classroom. This can be a little restrictive for teachers. Adult learners will also have a much higher level of proficiency of their native language which can at times cause problems in the TEFL classroom when the student attempts to “match” the new language to their native tongue.

Also read: The 5 Best TEFL Games For Adult Students

Typical Qualities of Young Learners

When it comes to young learners, they usually have very different motivations compared to adult learners. With young learners, quite often they have not chosen to take language lessons themselves, this decision has been made by their parents. Because of this, teachers will have to find creative ways of motivating their students to engage in learning. Keeping the classes fun and varied is a way of doing this. For young learners in the teenage bracket, often their motivation comes from a desire to pass certain academic tests or to impress their peers. Teachers need to be aware of the stress and anxiety that this can cause teen learners and at times, act as a counselor to ensure this stress does not detract from their learning. With regards to impressing their peers, this can often lead to teen learners not wanting to participate in activities that they might find embarrassing in front of their peers. Teachers in this environment need to be sensitive to these concerns and plan activities appropriately.

A feature of young learners in the toddler/pre-school age bracket which can benefit teachers is that they are much more capable of absorbing new language through the context in a similar way to how they acquired their native language. This means they are much less likely to have the problems adult learners often face when they try to match new language to their native tongue.

Also read: 10 Tips When Teaching English as a Foreign Language To Children

Behavioral Problems with Young Learners

One difficulty that teachers can experience when teaching young learners is behavioral problems due to the much shorter attention spans of young learners, particularly those in the younger age brackets. To help overcome this, teachers must ensure they enforce a fair and consistent discipline policy from day one of the class. Furthermore, teachers should also plan their classes keeping in mind the shorter attention spans of younger learners and ensure they include a variety of activities to keep the students engaged. For this reason, the teaching methodology of ESA (engage- study- activate), is often altered in the young learner environment to EP (engage- practice). This allows for more variety of activities to help keep the younger learners engaged.

Which type of students do you prefer to teach?

This summary has demonstrated that there is a vast difference between young learners and adult learners in a TEFL environment. Each group has positive features which can assist teachers but can also present their own set of potential problems. A teacher who is aware of these differences will successfully adapt their teaching to make the most of the benefits while minimizing the impact of the potential downsides.

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