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What are Differences and Similarities Between Teaching Adults and Youth?

What are Differences and Similarities Between Teaching Adults and Youth? | ITTT | TEFL Blog

When teaching English as a second language many considerations go beyond simply presenting language and relying on your expertise as a native speaker. Differences in age and life experience will have profound effects on how students learn and retain information. In this essay, I will look at the differences in young and adult learners in how they learn and important considerations for each group.

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

The Level of Motivation

For younger students, I'm considering the range of elementary to grade school. These students are put in the classroom by parents, and may not be as motivated as adult students, yet are intrinsically curious and are neurally plastic. They are like language sponges and are predisposed to learn from the minute they come into class. Interestingly, there seem to be critical periods of learning a language that starts to significantly decline by the time of puberty (Berken et al. 2016). This massive learning benefit should be used to the students' advantage. It has also been found that young students are predisposed to unconsciously receive language, and the younger they begin the better they will achieve later (Krashen et al. 1979). Young students are primed to absorb information. A teacher's enthusiasm, breadth of activities, and various materials are vital to keep their attention and provide lots of different avenues of learning English while their minds are open and receptive.

Also Read: The Principles of Classroom Motivation

The Level of Connection

Even though younger students are innately wired to process language, they still lack the discipline and social norms that adults have become accustomed to. Thus, building rapport and trust with young learners is vital. A smile and a warm demeanor will go a long way as they look to the teacher for feedback and guidance about how they should learn and behave. This is uniquely reserved for very young students, where one is not just a teacher but also a model and mentor.

The Level of Inclusiveness

Young students are also socially finding their place in the world and will be well suited for learning from the teacher as well as group and pair work. Research has shown that combining teacher and peer feedback leads to an increase in writing ability as well as the durability of the skill (Maarof et al. 2011). Group work is a very important method not only for allowing students to get their social bearings but also for them to receive different routes of feedback to learn as part of the group.

Also Read: The Necessity of Learning Teaching Skills

The Way of Absorbing Information

Creating stories about their day to day life using a new language will provide deeper ways of processing the information than mere memorization of the words or grammar. It is considered a deeper level encoding of information when it is processed in several different manners, especially when it is self-relevant. The fact that deeper level encoding of information enhances later retrieval is well researched in psychology (Galli, G. 2014). Alongside this, the child learner is immersed in the language without their conscious knowledge and will pick up more information each time they interact with it. McDonough used the example of a child reading the same book over and over each night. They are unconsciously absorbing more and more intricacies of the material every time they interact with it, and this unique aspect of child learning can be used to their benefit.

Thus, harnessing their innate ability to learn, understanding their need for modeling, providing teacher and peer feedback, using deep level encoding, and allowing them to become immersed in the language are all aspects of a child's learning process that should be taken into account for them to achieve their best outcome.

Receptiveness of Adults

On the other end of the spectrum is adult learners. Adults are thought to be less unconsciously receptive to a new language. However, adults have been found to move faster through the early stages of syntactic and morphological development than young learners (Krashen et al. 1979). This could be very helpful in the initial stages of learning so that more complex English can be approached.

Also Read: Comparing English Language to Chinese Language

Main Challenges

A noted difference in adults and children is the adult's preconceived notions and desire to “save face” and not appear foolish. The disparity between a lifetime of communicating freely in their native tongue and starting a new language where they can't express themselves creates a great amount of “language anxiety” (Raju and Eng, 2012). This could be a very important hurdle to teaching adult students who are dealing with a sudden inability to communicate and thus become anxious or shy. Rapport and respect, rather than modeling like in younger students, are important to overcome this challenge.

Despite this initial anxiety, adults will want to learn English to tackle problems in their everyday life and business. Whereas young students will need direction, adult learners are much more self-directed. Their learning can more accurately be described as collaborative rather than reliant upon the teacher, and they will want to know how they can incorporate the knowledge in real-life outcomes (McDonough, 2013). Adult learners also need a safe supporting environment, but one where they are recognized as equal to the teacher and their individualism and life experience are respected (McDonough, 2013).

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Thus we can see adults have different initial abilities when learning a foreign language. They will have to work through their roadblocks from years of speaking a native tongue, be self-directed and find real-world usage of the material, and feel equal and respected by their teacher.

Children and adult learners each have their unique strengths and weaknesses. An effective teacher will understand these innate and learned differences and will harness them to make the best learning environment for their classroom.

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