Teaching Foreign Language to Adults

Tailored Lessons: 4 Foolproof Strategies for Teaching Foreign Language to Adults

In any of your college classes, did you ever stop to play a game of duck duck goose?

What about patty cake? Leap frog?

Probably not, unless you were studying pedagogy.

Certain activities are simply better for children than they are for adults.

While learners young and old have much in common, there are distinct differences in experiences and expectations that make age a significant factor to consider when designing a syllabus.

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The Difference Between How Adults and Children Learn

Adults bring with them extensive life experience. This can be both an advantage and a disadvantage. It creates a filter through which they view a new language. Children, on the other hand, are less set in their ways and can more easily accept a foreign language for what it is.

There are a couple of central differences in how these two groups of learners operate:

  • Adults have a stronger relationship with their mother tongue. This means that they not only have to learn a new language, but they also have to override other language habits.
  • Young learners are more flexible. They have less trouble adopting unfamiliar language structures and learn by identifying overarching patterns.

The andragogical model, the study of how adults learn, identifies additional ways in which adult learners differ from their younger counterparts:

  • They want to understand why certain lessons are being taught.
  • They particularly appreciate task-oriented learning.
  • They often have less free time outside of class.
  • They are more self-directing.
  • They are learning the language due to need and have more of a life- or task-focus.

With this in mind, let’s take a look at four tricks to help keep your adult students happy and learning.

4 Sharp Strategies for Teaching Foreign Language to Adults

1. Awaken Their Inner Child

Adults are kids too. They need encouragement, games and yes, even fun!

Studies, including this Procedia study, have found that fun and enjoyment are as important to an adult’s ability to learn and absorb information as a child’s.

Although adults appreciate clearly knowing the point or goal of an activity before beginning, that does not mean that it can’t be silly.

Because adults tend to draw from experience and are learning their new language for a specific goal, they prefer realistic games. Here are a couple that work well:

  • Courtroom: Split into groups and pretend that a real or fictional character (i.e. Cruella de Vil or Martha Stewart) is on trial. Half the class has to defend her and the other is the prosecution. You are the judge. Give students 10 minutes to prepare their arguments and 10 minutes to present. Then, you will give the final verdict.
  • Defend your view: Each student picks what they consider to be the best song of the ’90s. They have to defend this decision in front of the class and explain why it’s the best. At the end the class votes to determine the winner. Tip: You don’t have to choose songs. Pick a topic that reflects the interests of your class (i.e. best sports team, best holiday, best cuisine).

2. Wean Them Off the “Why”

You’ve explained a grammatical concept to the class. Someone raises their hand and you hear that dreaded question: “Why?”

While you’ll hear it from most age levels, children have an easier time simply accepting the realities of a language. The reason for this is that adults are constantly comparing a new language’s grammar to their own language, leaving more room for confusion.

Answer this question by reminding students to be patient. They will later develop a feel for the language, but for now they just need to accept it. This is better than simply telling them “because” or “it doesn’t matter,” because it assures them that with time everything will become clear.

One way to help students let go of needing to know all the answers is to have them use a newly taught part of speech before fully understanding it.

One way to do so is with a call and response circle:

Without an introduction or explanation, start going around in a circle and do call and response. For example, if you want to teach the present perfect, say to a student, ”I’ve never been to Alaska, have you?”

Have him answer and then repeat the question to the next student, “Yes, I’ve been to Alaska, have you?” Continue going around in a circle like this and switch up the questions a couple of times using present perfect. When everyone seems comfortable with it, briefly break it down and explain present perfect on the board.

In this way you show students that they can learn how to use a part of speech without 100% understanding the “why.” Instead they learn it by identifying patterns.

3. Make It a Team Effort

Adults are generally more aware of the abilities of their fellow classmates. They have a strong desire to want to help each other understand and succeed. You can use this to everyone’s advantage by assigning group work. This lets students learn from each other and everyone benefits.

We’ll call activities in which students help each other “information gap” activities. Here are some examples:

  • Check and correct: Let students compare assignment answers with a partner before going over them as a class. When you do review them as a class, make sure to ask students to explain their decision to ensure that they are not just giving one another the answers.
  • Study buddy time: Students work in twos or threes and take 30 minutes to clarify any questions they might have about anything learned in the course so far. Chances are that between three people, one of them will always have the answer and be able to explain it in a way that their fellow student can understand. This creates a safe environment to ask questions.
  • Group work: Pick a controversial topic (like global warming) and split class up into two groups. Have them come up with a plan to help fix this problem and present it to the class.

Not only will students better retain information by having to explain it to each other, but this will also contribute to a positive classroom atmosphere.

4. Stay on Track

Free time outside of class can be more scarce for adult students. They could do their homework or they could get an extra hour of sleep, an extra hour in the office or an extra hour with their children.

Older learners are often holding full-time jobs. It’s okay to be sympathetic to this, but don’t be too lenient. Encourage students to do homework. It’s for their own benefit.

Try one of these homework assignments for the busy adult:

  • Listening assignment: Have students pick any podcast, radio or audiobook in their target language. I recommend TED Talks. Ask them to listen to it for a minimum of thirty minutes. They can do so during their commute. Have students write a simple, one-paragraph summary of what they’ve heard. The active work required is minimal, but the passive learning is unavoidable.
  • Storybook assignment: Assign students a book to read for class. It needs to be simple, interesting, short and linear. In English I’d recommend “Lord of the Flies,” “The Giver,” “The Fault in Our Stars” or “The Outsiders.” Each class, randomly call on someone to summarize the chapter that was assigned. This is a relaxing assignment that they can do in bed or on the bus that requires no additional preparation.
  • News assignment: Most adults read the news already. Ask them to read one news story in their target language instead. Take the first five minutes of class to have them summarize their article and review any phrases they did not understand

Students without time to learn at home can quickly fall behind in vocabulary. Try playing some in-class vocabulary memorization games to keep them up to date:

  • Taboo: Give a student a card with a vocabulary word. The student needs to get the class to guess the word by describing it to them. There will be a list of related words beneath it that the student can not use in the description. For example if the word is “milk,” the prohibited words could be “white,” “drink,” “cow” or “calcium.” The student has 30 seconds to go through as many cards as possible. They can’t move on to the next card until students have correctly guessed the word. If students are struggling, encourage them to use opposites instead of the prohibited words.
  • Timed vocabulary competition: Students have two minutes to write down as many vocabulary words as possible that relate to a specific theme (i.e. holidays and words that relate to holidays). The student who has the longest list at the end wins. Review everyone’s list as a class and have students add any words to their list that they didn’t already have.

Another helpful tip is to have class reflections or progress checkups where you take the time to review the class’s progress and upcoming goals. Older learners particularly appreciate reminders of what they have learned and reassurance that they are headed in the right direction.

Now you have a toolkit of adult-centric strategies to help make your class a success. Have fun putting them to the test! You won’t be disappointed.


Natalia Hurt is a travel and language enthusiast who enjoys studying the connection between people and places from all corners of the globe. Explore her travel-inspired essays and photos here: www.aFarCorner.com


Download: This blog post is available as a convenient and portable PDF that you can take anywhere. Click here to get a copy. (Download)


And One More Thing…

If you’re digging these strategies, you’ll love using FluentU in your classroom. It’s designed to get students familiar with foreign vocabulary in a fun, friendly, totally approachable way. FluentU makes it possible to learn languages from music videos, commercials, news, inspiring talks, cartoons and more.

With FluentU, your students will learn the real language—the same way that natives speak it. They’ll hear their new vocabulary words in context, spoken naturally and casually. Every student is guaranteed to find videos they love to watch, and you’re guaranteed to find videos that meet your teaching needs. FluentU has a very wide variety of videos, as you can see here:

FluentU has interactive captions that let you tap on any word to see an image, definition, audio and useful examples. Now native language content is easily within the reach of any student, at any skill level, thanks to the interactive transcripts.

Didn’t catch something? Go back and listen again. Missed a word? Hover your mouse over the subtitles to instantly view definitions.

Top Apps for Learning Spanish

You can learn all the vocabulary in any video with FluentU’s “learn mode.” Swipe left or right to see more examples for the word you’re learning.

Chinese Idioms with FluentU

And FluentU always keeps track of vocabulary that your students are learning. It uses that vocab to give students a 100% personalized experience by recommending videos and examples.

You can organize chosen videos into “courses,” name your courses and assign them to your students for homework or in-class activities. They can each sign in using nothing but a secret password that we bestow to you, the teacher. Then you can track their progress individually and as a group. How many videos and activities have they progressed through? What percentage of the exercise questions are they getting right? You’ll be able to see all this information and more.

Start using FluentU on the website with your computer or tablet or, better yet, download the FluentU app from the iTunes store.

If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to teach languages with real-world videos.

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