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Top 3 Differences in Teaching Approaches With Young Learners and Adult Learners

Top 3 Differences in Teaching Approaches With Young Learners and Adult Learners | ITTT | TEFL Blog

When it comes to teaching English as a foreign or second language (TEFL/TESL, Introductory Unit), it is no secret that there are important differences between children and adult learners. These differences determine how teachers approach each group and the techniques employed in the classroom. As a teacher, it is necessary to tailor your teaching approach and methodology depending on whether you are teaching young learners or adults. The paragraphs below will outline some of the main differences between these groups and how lessons might be planned around the age of the students.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this blog post are solely those of the author, an alumni of ITTT (International TEFL and TESOL Training). They do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of ITTT. The content provided in this post is for informational purposes only and should not be considered as official endorsement or representation by ITTT.

Defining Young Learners and Adult Learners

First, it is helpful to define who we are talking about when we talk about young learners versus adult learners. Young learners can fall into one of three categories, outlined in Unit 1 (page 5). Post-puberty, or early teen learners, are ages 13-18; pre-puberty learners are 8-12-year-olds; and very young learners are aged 7 years and under. Each of these subgroups of young learners also requires different teaching approaches and can come with their own unique challenges. For the sake of clarity in this essay, young learners aged 18 and younger will generally be referred to as one category. Adult learners include anyone 18 years and older.

Motivation Matters

One of the biggest differences among these groups is the level of motivation. Young learners probably have not made the decision to be in a language course, and depending on their age, may lack motivation to participate in class discussions and activities (Unit 1, page 5). Adults, on the other hand, have often made the decision to take part in a course and will, therefore, be more motivated. With adults, it is also easier to discuss what they want to get out of the course and conduct a needs analysis to tailor the syllabus and activities to those goals (Unit 19). However, since adults often have work and family obligations, attendance can be more sporadic in this group than with young learners (Unit 19). This can start to impact motivation if a student starts to miss many classes.

Managing Attention and Engagement

When teaching children, it is important to remember that children’s attention span and concentration are less than that of adults, so young learners are going to need frequent changes of activities (Unit 19, page 5). Additionally, in class, children require a lot of repetition, positive encouragement, and frequent praise, simple games, slow and direct speech from the teacher, and rewards for good work and behavior (Unit 19). Many of these approaches may not be as important with adult learners. However, adults can often experience more anxiety in a classroom than children, so positive encouragement can be an effective motivator for students regardless of age (Unit 1). Whereas the fear of making mistakes can negatively impact adults’ participation in the classroom, children, especially young children, are generally not as concerned about making mistakes.

Classroom Management and Language Use

Another important difference between young and adult learners has to do with classroom management. There may be more discipline problems with younger groups as a result of their immaturity and shorter attention spans. Discipline problems can arise for a number of reasons, but there are ways to manage them and prevent them from happening in the future (Unit 5). Another aspect of classroom management is using appropriate language. The language a teacher uses should be in line with the level and ability of the group of students being taught (Unit 5, page 3). A class of very young learners, who have still not mastered all aspects of their native language, is not going to be at the same level of ability as a group of adults who might have more exposure to the language. In this situation, a teacher is going to have to be more careful with his or her choice of words so that there is no confusion. In a class of children, it can also be helpful to use a higher pitch and exaggerated intonation (Unit 19).

Tailoring Teaching Approaches

There are certainly many more differences between children and adult learners, and those differences and their impact on teaching are the subject of many articles and books. For the purposes of this short essay, only a few differences were addressed to show the importance of tailoring teaching approaches to various age groups. A teacher should take all the unique features of teaching children and adults into consideration when lesson planning. An ESA (Engage-Study-Activate, Unit 3) lesson should not be the same for both young learners and adults. What works for one group will not necessarily work for another group, and in order to best serve students, a good teacher will take that into consideration before beginning a course.

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