The 3 Ds of Creating Advanced ESL Lessons for Adults

When I was first invited to teach ESL to adults, I was a bit perplexed.

These students were “grown-ups” with families, interesting professional lives, plenty of experience and travel behind them, so I wished to discuss more complex topics with them. However, as beginners, their English language skills were so limited that I feared we might not get far beyond, “Hello, how are you?”

I needn’t have worried. Adults are just as keen as young learners to talk about what’s on their minds, and they quickly gain ways of doing so. Provided the content is presented simply, modeled clearly and practiced carefully, there’s nothing stopping you from discussing more complex, sophisticated topics with your adult ESL students—even at the earlier stages of learning.

Discover, Design, Deliver: 3 Steps to Creating Advanced ESL Lessons for Adults

1. Discover: Learn About Your Students

Even more so than with younger learners, it’s important for you to quickly figure out where your students are from, what they do for a living and what their ESL needs are. You could, perhaps as early as their first day, hand out a questionnaire about these topics, but it’s far more interesting to listen to what they tell you (and each other) and keep notes as you go.

Quite quickly, you’ll have a clearer picture of who these people are and what they need. The more new classes you meet, the faster this process becomes.

Use your class list, along with any information your school can provide, to augment this knowledge. Ask plenty of questions; ESL students (just like everyone else!) love talking about themselves so, as soon as they’re able to respond somewhat in English, begin asking about their work, families and professional needs.

2. Design: Choose Content Your Students Will Love

Generally speaking, adults respond well to the feeling that their individual needs are being addressed. Make a list of the professions you have in your classroom, and design a syllabus which covers the kind of language they’re likely to need. This doesn’t have to be particularly specialized. After all, everyone needs conversational skills, situational language for travel, food, banking and such, plus plenty of reading practice for current affairs and websites.

As much as you can, though, focus on topics which will help out there in the real world: Holding meetings, negotiating, clarifying, agreeing and disagreeing, solving problems and creating compromises.

Consider, also, their ethnic and religious backgrounds. There are some topics (nearly all of which will be abundantly obvious) which you should avoid with certain religious groups. I had to promptly excise, from a syllabus I’d been handed, an article on recent developments in pig farming, because 90% of my students were Muslim and would have taken a dim view of this topic. A little sensitivity, and perhaps some background reading on their ethnicities and the recent histories of their regions, will clue you in.

A good mix of practical, business-based topics, ethical and moral dilemmas, substantial current affairs themes and a generous dose of the lighthearted will stand you in good stead.

3. Deliver: Create First-class Exercises for Adult ESL Learners

Exercises for adult ESL learners will generally be longer and more in-depth than those for their younger counterparts. Adults can handle more complex context and (generally!) have longer attention spans. They bring a more robust worldview, and so a greater range of topics will be relevant to their personal experiences and knowledge of human life. Consider including the following exercises.

Negotiation exercises

There’s nothing more satisfying for an ESL teacher than setting up a negotiation activity, getting the students good and riled up about it and then standing back to watch the language pour out. The topic suddenly becomes personalized, and its outcomes are of genuine interest to the students, despite the whole topic being couched in an unreal world, with no actual impact on their lives.

Consider any area of real-world, high-level negotiation—border disputes, trade deals, immigration policy, government funding, censorship, etc.—and prepare a short briefing for your students. Then divide them into groups, which will prepare to achieve a set of aims. Give the two opposing teams plenty of discussion time to work out their agreement, and then ask them to report back with their action plan. Monitor closely to ensure everyone’s properly engaged.

More complex readings

Not all of your reading work need take place in the classroom; adult students can be entrusted with preparatory homework, and perhaps also research requirements which pertain to their professional fields. In-class readings can be a jumping-off point for comprehension questions, further research, debates and the kinds of negotiation exercises mentioned above.

Real-life speaking activities

Students respond well to these topics, among others: job interviews and performance reviews, press conferences, presentations with Q&A sessions, and team meetings. Specific topics for situational practice can include arranging travel, hiring, salary negotiations, scheduling and travel. Include a little theater to add a realistic tone.

Realistic listening

Although the textbook-based listenings might work well for younger learners, adults will appreciate something more challenging and realistic. The BBC and Voice of America are still world leaders in this regard. Cable news programs can also be a good source.

Audiobooks are a whole different way to consume literature. Whichever you assign, make sure to contextualize the topic and explain any difficult vocabulary—in advance, if at all possible—and to ask good comprehension questions afterward; by this, I mean questions which require a thoughtful, complete-sentence answer.

Activities based on TV shows and movies

Students who have reached their majority immediately enter a much broader world of media and entertainment. Much of this is confusing to the ESL student, as it relies on slang and cultural references which will be alien to them. A steady introduction to movies, music and theater is a good way to break down some of these barriers, and happily, there’s an enormous amount of help available to the ESL teacher. Capitalize on the experience by extending the exercise to include comprehension work, additional research into topics mentioned in the film, writing from the point of view of the characters (or a film review), discussions, etc.

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Writing tasks

Again, these can be longer and more demanding than the tasks you might give to younger students. Your adult students likely have some experience writing lengthier assignments, even if they only have that experience in their native language. This will help them to calmly manage the task and get the work done.

You might require research into a particular topic. If so, ask for citations in one of the more commonly received styles (APA, MLA, Chicago, etc). Accept a first draft, which you’ll comment on and help improve before the students submit their final paper. You could also ask student to peer-review each other’s work—this won’t always go well with younger learners, but is great with older students—and perhaps to arrange interviews with local figures, other students, etc.


Teaching adults is extremely rewarding and can be some of the most engaging and memorable work in an ESL teacher’s career.

Preparation is of great importance, as the students’ respect for you hinges on their having confidence in your ability to help them achieve their professional and personal goals.

Rapport is key, also, so learn quickly about your students and engage with them on topics you know they’ll enjoy.

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