Seven Factors to Bear in Mind When Teaching Older Students
I have been teaching mainly older students (from about 55 to 85 years of age) for several years now. I love teaching them because of their enthusiasm, motivation, positive attitude and kindness. I’ve recently produced a short film about some of my older learners at UAB Idiomes Barcelona. You can watch the film below.
If you’ve watched the film, you’ve probably already got an idea of the why older students can be excellent language learners. In this post I’d like to propose seven factors that teachers should bear in mind when teaching older students.
- Great motivation
Older students do not normally need a certificate, or university credit; their motivation for learning English is intrinsic. They study English for intellectual enjoyment, to socialise with their peers or because it is something they have always wanted to do. In fact, senior learners are very often more highly motivated than younger learners. Their high level of motivation is a great advantage as motivation has been identified as one of the most important factors in determining successful language learning. From my experience of teaching older students, their motivation is reflected by the fact that they rarely miss a class, participate very actively in the classroom and always do their homework.
- Positive attitude
My experience is that senior learners have an extremely positive attitude toward language learning. They treat both their teachers and their classmates with the utmost respect and politeness. When other teachers ask me about teaching older students, I always tell them how positive, kind, considerate, and hardworking they are, and what a pleasure they are to teach.
- Social element
Older people are often isolated in society and suffer from loneliness. We have discovered that there is a strong social component in seniors attending English classes. They often attend class to mix with their peers, forming very strong friendships and socialising together after the class and in their free time.
- Helping students hear
Older students often have hearing loss, and this may have a direct impact on learning and performance. In order to decrease the negative effects of this auditory loss, teachers can help students hear in a number of ways by:
- speaking clearly and ensuring that the students can see their face and lips.
- adjusting the volume for listenings and videos.
- repeating listening texts more often than with younger learners.
- using short films and videos which aid listening comprehension as students can see the face and lips of the speakers.
- ensuring that your classrooms have little background noise.
- Helping students see
Older students often have poor eyesight. To help older students see better, here are some steps to follow:
- Use a larger print type for printed text.
- Make sure that students sit as close to the board as possible.
- Write very clearly on the board.
- Make sure that classrooms have a lot of natural light and that there is direct lighting for the whiteboard.
- Helping student remember
Research shows that cognitive development, recall, and problem solving may show decline with aging. In order to overcome this cognitive decline which may make it more difficult for older students to learn a new language, teachers can help seniors develop and maintain their cognitive ability in a number of ways:
- Integrate memory exercises into classes. Use visual and auditory mnemonic devices, examples and memory associations to help seniors rehearse and later retrieve vocabulary and expressions from long-term memory.
- Systematically repeat and recycle grammar, vocabulary and expressions.
- Encourage students to draw on their wealth of experiences and to use cognitive strategies they have used successfully in the past in their current language learning environment.
- Allow more time for students to produce language without being interrupted.
- Building confidence / Reducing stress
Many older learners fear failure and are more anxious than younger learners, perhaps this is because they accept the stereotype of older students as a poor language learners or because of previous unsuccessful attempts to learn English. Older learners need to feel comfortable and trust the teacher and the other students before they participate fully in the language classroom. A key role of the teacher is to reduce anxiety and build trust and self-confidence in the senior learner.
Here are some of the things teachers can do to reduce stress and build self-confidence in older adult learners:
- Find out what our older learners’ motivations are for learning a language and adjust your methodology accordingly.
- Use humanistic techniques to build empathy between the teacher and students, and among the students.
- Reduce the focus on error correction to build learners’ self-confidence and to promote language production.
- Avoid timed tests which may make older learners anxious.
- Give senior students more time to complete activities.
- Promote a friendly and relaxed atmosphere in the classroom.
My experience of teaching older students is that any difficulties which they may experience in the language classroom can be overcome through adjustments to the learning environment and material, attention to physical, affective and cognitive factors, and the use of an effective teaching methodology which focuses on the learning process rather than academic achievement.
Have you taught older students? Have you got any tips for teaching senior learners? Let me know in your comments below!
Phot credit Ken Wu
16 comments on “Seven Factors to Bear in Mind When Teaching Older Students”
Some really interesting points there – I agree completely with the need for a more humanistic approach with older students and that there should definitely be a stronger focus on the affectiveness of the lessons, but I’m interested in how you would manage a class where not all of the students are older.. I work in a private language school in Dublin and we have students of all ages, so we could have people anywhere from 19 up to 70 in the same class. Do you think it’s reasonable to, as you say, allow extra time for the senior student to do exercises, or avoid timed exams when younger learners might expect them or require practice ahead of a big test?
I know it’s a delicate balancing act but I’m wondering if you’ve had that experience or have any suggestions on how best to manage it?
Thanks a lot for commenting. I understand exactly the difficulty of finding the right balance when you’ve got such a wide range of ages in a group. At my university language school we had this problem for a number of years and many of the older students were really frustrated because the younger students were much quicker, fluent and found listening texts much easier. The younger students were motivated by passing exams or getting university credits while the older students just wanted to learn for the sake of it. The older students complained to us about not feeling comfortable in the groups so we set up a group just for them; this group worked well and we’ve subsequently set up 15 groups exclusively for students over 55. I have to say that I think that groups just for older students is the ideal solution, but I realise that this is not normally possible. What I would suggest if you have older learners is to give them more time to respond orally in class, try to make sure they sit near to the board, write clearly on the board and speak slowly and clearly. Avoiding time exams for all students is probably not possible, or perhaps desirable, in most schools. I think you’re absolutely right when you say it’s a balancing act.
I hope this helps.
All the best,
Hi Kieran, wonderful article ineed, thank you! I too teach groups of students where the age range is wide, anywhere between 23-60, and women only. I am free to build my groups however I like so I’d love to take your advice and focus on the 50+ women, that would be a pleasure! I was wondering if you could share how you promoted courses for the 55+ students? Do I simply CALL it that? Thanks again, and for all your work, am a big fan!
Thanks very much for commenting and sharing your experience. At UAB Idiomes we promote our courses simply as Courses for Seniors, and Senior Courses. I hope this helps.
All the best,
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What a joy to read read your article. Read it in between studying for a German exam as just the older learner you describe. We do have great strategies and experience to bring to our learning. And in teaching older learners myself I find what you say rings true. i use supported role play and extended rehearsal time as well talk to yourself ‘dialogues’ and written responses to spoken utterances. Learning language and teaching it is fabulous. Cheers.
Thanks a lot for commenting. Great to hear that the article has resonated with you as both a teacher and a students. Supported roleplays, extended rehearsal time and internal dialogues are all great strategies. I hope your German exam went well 🙂
All the best,
Thanks for writing this wonderful and clear article. You spoke my mind!. I personally think is one of the most rewarding age ranges. I myself am an English teacher working with adults of all ages and I find them fascinating. Their wisdom brought to class translated from their languages into English is very gratifying. And I totally agree with your advice to give them their spaces. We have to consider always that teaching is the art of assisting another person to learn. So having them in the correct level group is very important.
Tank you again.
Thanks a lot for commenting. I’m very happy you found the article useful. I agree that the wisdom them bring to the class is wonderful.
All the best,
Hello, Kieran. I was delighted to read your post as I too have quite a few adult students — not exclusively over 50 but over 25 and a couple in their fifties.
Most of the points you make here apply to my students too, especially the part about socialisation and motivation. It is liberating for me to teach people who are not exam-oriented. I have formed some strong bonds with people and my teaching and knowledge is becoming enriched thanks to them.
Having said this, even those who are aiming at a formal qualification are focused and do not need any pressure to study. The results are often amazing and I derive great satisfaction from teaching them.
I am using all kinds of original material and poems that appeal to their interests. There is no limit to what one can use with adult learners. Powerpoint slideshows work miracles with them where applicable. In terms of memory boosters, I normally make vocabulary exercises to custom.
I would be glad if you shared this.
Thanks a lot for commenting and for sharing your experience of teaching older learners. I’ve also developed very close bonds to lots of my senior students and been amazed at their results.
All the best,
I’ve been teaching Seniors Students for about 6 years, which I find pretty rewarding.
As you mentioned, they’re extremely motivated, and their life experiences surely enrich the lessons. I created a Book Club, so they’ve been reading adapted books for English learners. They gained confidence and fluency, and they do have lots of fun. They became friends and do things together outside the classroom.
Some of them might be resistant to the communicative approach at first, but they usually get used to it as I tell them why they are doing things that way. Since there’s no material designed to target older students, choosing text books for them is not an easy task. This fact sometimes makes planning lessons a bit demanding.
Thanks for writing this article. I’m glad somebody finally attaches some importance to this audience.
Thanks a lot for taking the time to comment and for sharing your experience of teaching older learners. I completely agree that older learners are really rewarding to teach and that you have to guide them through the processes of a communicative approach in the beginning, but they do get used to it and enjoy it in the end.
All the best,
First of all, thanks for sharing your experience teaching older students.
I’ve been teaching one to one lessons and my first student was in her 60’s and she still has English classes with me, for about 4 years now.
I have similar opinions about what you’ve posted here, especially in terms of motivation – she doesn’t need English for her job but on the other hand she loves learning it.
I’ll definitely try to think more about all the items mentioned here and use them in my lessons.
Thanks a lot for letting me know about your experience with senior learners. Older students are certainly very motivated and determined.
All the best,
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