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Differences for Children and Adults When Acquiring a Second Language

Differences for Children and Adults When Acquiring a Second Language | ITTT | TEFL Blog

This post was written by our TEFL certification graduate Vemund V. Please note that this blog post might not necessarily represent the beliefs or opinions of ITTT.


  • Rely on others to decide what is important to be learned
  • Accept the information being presented at face value
  • Have little or no experience upon which to draw
  • Little ability to serve as a knowledgeable resource
  • Encourages convergent thinking
  • Use specific concrete thought
  • Subject centered
  • Motivated by external
  • Rewards/reprimands

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  • Decide for themselves what is important to be learned
  • Need to validate the information based on experiences
  • Have much experience upon which to draw
  • Significant ability to serve as a knowledgeable resource
  • Encourages divergent thinking
  • Use generalized abstract thought
  • Active learning
  • Task or problem-centered
  • Motivated by internal
  • Incentives/curiosity


  • Listening skills (attention span): short, unfocused
  • Speaking skills: Quick to pick up a new language with constant repetition
  • Reading skills: Repetition of stories and vocabulary makes it easier for children to comprehend the tasks that are set before them.
  • Writing skills: I can follow instructions on the writing board and copy them to their workbooks with supervision.

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  • Listening Skills (attention span): focused, attentive, serious
  • Speaking skills: Depending on the level, the slight difficulty can occur with pronunciation due to native language (accents)
  • Reading skills: Due to native language clashing with a 2nd language, it is often difficult to get the right pronunciation, phonetics or stressed vocabulary when reading an unknown text
  • Writing skills: Will be able to follow instructions on writing board to their workbooks

Natural abilities

Children’s natural ability to acquire new languages is strong before adolescence. Pronunciation comes easier, and vocabulary sticks during this time. A classroom of young students maybe a handful, but in terms of English instruction, everyone will be more or less on the same page. Adults, on the other hand, will have more varying levels and difficulties. The natural ability to pick up a second language drops, we must deliberately and consciously learn a language if we want proficiency or fluency. If we’re teaching adults who are absolute beginners and have no previous experience or exposure to English, it can be a big challenge for them.

Small children don’t have a driving motivation to learn languages. Their attention is fueled by curiosity and imagination, and we need to consider that they would prefer to be playing outside or drawing. Adults will have specific reasons for learning English, typically are more motivated because they have chosen to attend school, they might be preparing for university abroad, or are just trying to gain a new skill for their career. Teachers’ job will become more strategic, and need to closely monitor their progress to help them reach their specific goals. Although motivation differs among the groups, encouragement is always needed with both young and adult learners. If learners do not feel the information to be interesting, they are not likely to memorize it and use it in their communication in the future.

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Ways to teach

The key ingredient in great language teaching to children is to deliver on fun. Their attention spans are short, and they’re driven by the here-and-now. They learn English just as they learned their native language, so keep corrections natural and don’t overcorrect. If they make a mistake, just repeat back the correct sentence and always keep the lesson fun. Not only is movement and activity a part of childhood, but it helps the learning process and keeps students involved in the lessons. In the classroom, try games like “Simon Says”, or “pass around a ball” and have each student answer a question when they catch it. Music is powerful, and fun songs will keep your students engaged and help them pick-up new vocabulary.

A big part of teaching small kids is classroom management, it’s important to make discipline understandable, it is more profitable if they understand why their action is wrong decreasing the probability of repeating the action. No matter what happens, never shout over them. Adults and young learners students need to trust the teacher all the same. Good rapport is essential for productive and positive learning.

When teaching young learners, drawings, pictures, posters, and other visual aids are almost a necessity to help with understanding as young learners are still in the process to learn their native language, while it is not needed with adult learners.

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Adults have predetermined notions about education, learning styles and subject matter. They prefer to learn a certain way, even if it is not the most conducive to their individual needs. Unlike adults, children will try most new tasks and persevere, regardless of how well they do.

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