The 8-part Questionnaire That Will Let You Know Your Adult ESL Students Inside and Out

Wish you could peek inside your students’ brains and read their minds?

Wish you could hear what’s inside your students’ hearts and could use that insider knowledge to instigate a passion for language learning?

Well, you can—and we’re going to show you how!

Different students have different wants and needs. That’s a given. Some want to speak better, some want to write formal letters and some just want to get by at work with the bare minimum necessary. But of course, who really knows?

Your students know, of course!

But, actually… many times the students themselves don’t know what they truly want! They just feel like their English isn’t as great as they’d like it to be, but they aren’t exactly sure what they want to get out of their lessons (#1 reason ESL adult learners exist, true story).

Sure, you could ask them the simple question “What do you want to get from this class?” or “What results do you want?” but the answers to these questions only say so much. They might not have time or the right guidance to really think that question through and give you the level of personal insight you need as an educator. These questions are like when the guidance counselor asks high school students “What do you want to do?”. How do you even start tackling that question when you yourself haven’t thought about it much yet?

What students really need is guided reflection. They need to unpack their own thoughts and feelings regarding English learning.

It’s up to us to do the guiding, so they can do their reflecting.

Asking some more simple yet purposefully targeted questions could help both the learner and the teacher get to the real meat of the answer. With some deeper, juicier questions regarding much more than abilities, ones geared more towards attitudes and aspirations, you could finally find out what your students truly want. Then you can figure out how the class can best be designed to accommodate the learners themselves.

After all, if you’re teaching ESL to adults, chances are you’re working with more of a business than a traditional school—making them more your customers than your students. That’s quite different than a primary school and the students there. ESL adults are customers and good business tactics tell us to cater to the customer.

For these reasons and more, I’ve developed the ultimate questionnaire for adult ESL students!

This questionnaire goes deeper than any other into finding out what students want to get out of their English learning experience.

With this in-depth survey, teachers can gain a further insight into the wants, needs and attitudes the students have towards English. Sometimes students may be unsure themselves why they’re taking English classes, which is a big challenge to overcome.

As they say, “how can you score the goal when you don’t know where the goalpost is?”

What to Expect When Teaching ESL to Adults

Now, before I go into the questionnaire itself, I’d like to share my own account of what happened while I was trying to find out what my adult ESL students wanted—before it ever occurred to me to create the questionnaire.

I was like most ESL adult teachers, asking the vague question of “What do you want?” to students and getting all sorts of superficial and fuzzy answers.

“I want to speak fluently.”

“I want to speak well.”

“I want to speak English.” (said while talking to me in English)

“I want to watch TV shows without subtitles.”

These were some common answers I would receive, which all tell me… almost nothing.

First of all, the definitions of these words and phrases—like “fluently” and “well”—are highly subjective. People have different opinions on what is “fluent,” “well” and other buzzwords that come up with learning English. Getting these kinds of answers, I realized the clarity I needed wasn’t really there.

That’s why I developed this questionnaire, to bring the clarity out of the fog and extract specific, measurable and achievable goals from students.

There’s a great resource that can track your students’ development when studying with native content, FluentU!

FluentU takes authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language lessons.

After learning about your student’s learning goals and desires, you’ll be able to manage an entire class and even identify trouble spots in your students. Get started by requesting a free trial to explore the program fully!

The Purpose of the Adult ESL Questionnaire

The questionnaire is intended to be given to students before the first class (if possible) or as the first homework assignment, then discussed the next day in class.

It works even better with groups so everyone can collaborate, relate to each other and develop an interest in each other since they may share similar feelings and objectives.

No matter how many students you’re working with, the next day’s discussion is vital and should be used to explain that the curriculum and rhythm will be catered to them. If there are varying goals and objectives, then it’s best to focus on the feelings towards English part and to keep the class more broadly focused. Then you can create special assignments where students can choose topics or work groups based on particular interests.

For example, if you have one private student who’s pretty clear that his only use for English is for his conference calls at work, which currently make him feel nervous every time they come up, then it’s best to focus his one-on-one course on helping him to feel more comfortable while speaking and listening, training his ear with different accents and practicing various scenarios of conference calls.

If you have a class of five adults with varying wants ranging from improving confidence to just chatting with their in-laws, it’s best to mix a little of each desired aspect into the class and focus more on the emotional aspect, generally helping the students feel more comfortable with the English language. Then you can set up certain classes and assignments to target all their different needs.

Ready to start assessing? All right, then!

The Structure of the Adult ESL Questionnaire

So, this questionnaire has eight parts that will help you nail down the needs and wants of adult ESL students.

1. Feelings towards English

In this part, students give their bare-bones feelings towards the English language including how they feel about speaking it, studying it, past feelings, present feelings and more.

It’s good to know how people directly feel about English to better understand their motives and they level of support they’ll require.

You’ll discover that some have a generally optimistic outlook towards the language and are genuinely excited to learn, while some feel blasé, despondent or completely unexcited about improving their skills based on some negative feelings they may have associated with studying or working with English in the past.

2. History with English

Here you can learn how long they’ve been learning, how they’ve been learning, how they’ve been using English in their personal and professional lives, if at all.

This gives a good insight on different aspects of their learning experience that may be of more importance. For example, you could discover that a student has only learned a bit of formal English in school and hasn’t spoken a word since then. From there, you could determine that some basics may need to be revisited just to brush up and make up for those years off—but you also know that there’s a foundation of English that you can work with.

3. Present challenges

It’s not uncommon that students write “everything” here. This usually speaks more to their level of confidence in their abilities than actual trouble areas.

Tony Horton, creator of the P90X fitness program, said it best: “Don’t say, ‘I can’t do a pull up.’ Instead say, ‘I presently struggle with pull ups’.”

This would be a great distinction to discuss with your students. Any flaws or setbacks one has had with English are better described as present works-in-progress rather than harsh-sounding “weaknesses” or “problems.” They shouldn’t be thought of as “things you can’t do,” but rather, they’re things you’re working on and that you’ll be able to do in the future.

4. Present strengths

This part is where students can get creative because they can write about anything English-related that gives them a positive vibe. They can write what they feel are their strong suits in English skills instead of letting the teacher do the judgment.

Sure, they may be a total beginner and understand close to nothing about the language, but they can write strengths that go beyond language knowledge such as “high desire to learn” or “ambitious outlook” or even “not easily discouraged.” Let students know this explicitly!

The key thing to remember and stress to the students is that there’s always something to write here, even if they feel not-so-good about their current English skills. If they show up to the class, that drive is enough to be a strength!

5. Specific goals and deadlines

The key words here are “specific” and “deadline.” Without defined goals and deadlines, students won’t really have anything to aim for.

Being very specific is important because some people write “speak better”… but what does that even mean? Learning a few new words and speaking a little faster is technically better.

Specific goals look more like: “Understand a whole episode of a TV show without subtitles by next month” or “Make fewer than five mistakes at my next meeting.”

As long as the goal is specific, measurable and achievable, along with having a deadline, the student will be more driven than one without any tangible objective in mind.

6. Definitions

This part is simple. There are some common words and expressions written here, all related to the stages and challenges of learning a language.

While they seem like they should be very objective and straightforward, or like the answers should be super obvious, you and your students might be surprised at just how subjective our personal definitions of these words and phrases are.

For example, the word “fluent” has various definitions depending on who you ask, so it’s good to understand how some students view these definitions so it can be clear what exactly they’re aiming for.

Students will need to write down their own definitions for each of them. Do they want “perfection”—and what does that even mean to them? Do they want to “speak well”? Do they want to be “proficient”?

Their definitions will really bring clarity to many situations.

7. S.L.R.W. Importance Scale

This part weighs the importance of Speaking (S), Listening (L), Reading (R) and Writing (W) on a scale of 100.

This varies by student and depending on the students’ needs, struggles and strengths. Knowing how they weigh each skill could help determine what to place the classroom focus on.

Some students may have an equal 25 on all fields. Some may have the scale skewed mostly towards reading and writing since they need to send English emails back and forth to the head office on a daily basis.

Who knows? The main thing is that this shows what students find to be most important—and it also shows that you’re willing to cater to their needs when it comes to the things they consider vital to their studies.

8. I will be content when… because…

This last part is the most important since it paints the picture of what being content would actually look like. Students may walk into class not knowing what it is that will actually make them content, but their answer to this could create a clear image—for them and for you!

Some could be content when they no longer feel worried when speaking, some may be content when they can finish a whole novel in English.

The “because” part is also crucial in giving some reasoning why that reason is so fundamental to their happiness.


Now without further ado, I present to you all, the questionnaire!

Feel free to print this out and give this to your adult students so you can understand clearly where these learners are headed and how to get them there.

Note: Let students know that it’s totally fine to translate anything they don’t understand. If you’re proficient in their native language and they’re complete and total ESL beginners, you may even want to conduct this questionnaire in their native language.

The 8-part Questionnaire for Adult ESL Students

This questionnaire was designed to help understand your feelings, desires and needs for English and to help you achieve your goals.

Please answer the questions as honestly as possible with as much detail as possible as well.

1. My feelings towards English

Answer the following questions about your past and present feelings towards English.

I usually feel ~ when I speak English because…

I usually feel ~ when I study English because…

I felt ~ when I started learning English because…

I hope to feel ~ about English because…


I usually feel nervous when I speak English because I think I make so many mistakes and I speak very slowly. Sometimes I think people think I’m not smart when I speak English!

2. History of English

Please briefly explain your history with English.

This can include when you started to study, how you have learned, what resources you use to study and when you have used English in your life.


I first started to learn English in high school about 7 years ago and a little bit in university but I haven’t spoken it too much since then. I only spoke English when I traveled outside of my home country on vacation, which was only one time when I went to the United States. Now I have a new job where I have a conference call in English every month.

3. Present challenges

Please write about any challenges that you may have with English.

These could be about your abilities, your feelings or anything you feel that is holding you back.

What do you want or need to improve?

I presently have challenges with…


I presently have challenges with listening to people from foreign countries speaking English like India, China and other places. Their accents are difficult for me to understand. I also struggle with staying motivated because I get discouraged easily.

4. Present strengths

Please write about what you believe are your strengths in English. These could be about your abilities, your attitudes or anything you feel that helps you learn English.

My present strengths include…


My present strengths include being optimistic and interested in learning. I am also good at reading quickly since I watch many TV shows with subtitles in English.

5. Specific goals and deadlines

Please write down three goals you hope to achieve with your English and a deadline for each one of them.

Be sure to make these goals specific, achievable and measurable.

specific goal will have details that make it clear what exactly you want to do.

An achievable goal is a goal that is very realistic to complete, given the amount of time and effort required.

measurable goal is one with a specific deadline and achievement. This way you will know exactly when you have completed your goal!


1. I want to watch an entire movie in English without subtitles and understand it by the end of next month.
2. I want to make fewer than 5 mistakes at my next presentation by the end of next week.
3. I want to study for 10 minutes every morning (total of 300 minutes) by this time next month.

6. Definitions

Write your own definitions to these words or expressions. Try to write what the words mean to you. Do not use a dictionary to define them.


Good English Speaker:


Conversational English:

Speaking Well:

Advanced Level English:

Intermediate Level English:

7. S.L.R.W. Importance Scale

Write down how important each category is to you and your English on a scale from 0-100 but make sure that all the numbers add up to 100. Then below, write down why you wrote down those numbers.

(S) Speaking _________
(L) Listening _________
(R) Reading _________
(W) Writing _________


(S) Speaking 50%
(L) Listening 30%
(R) Reading 15%
(W) Writing 5%

I want to learn English for traveling and meeting people in different places so it’s important for me to practice speaking and listening. Reading may be important for understanding signs and notices. I don’t imagine I would use writing very often.

8. I will be content when… because…

Fill in the blanks and write what it will take to make you content and why that will make you content. You can write anything you would like.

I will be content when ~ because…


I will be content when I no longer feel nervous or anxious when I speak English because it always makes me feel bad and I don’t want to feel bad anymore.

I will be content when I can express myself in English without thinking of the words I want to say or pausing because it’s my dream to speak English as good as I speak my own language.


So there it is, the questionnaire!

With it, you can really gain an insight into your students’ desires and needs and understand together with them what it is that they really want to get out of the classes, plus what would truly make them happy.

It’s much easier to know how to get somewhere when you actually know where you want to go. Once the student completes it you can discuss it and work together with them to help them achieve their goals. It works even better with group classes, so students can work in pairs or groups and relate to each other and share their feelings and views towards English.

Some students walk into a class hoping to learn English, but what does that really mean?

This questionnaire is the map to finding what the student really wants and, together, you can help them find what they’re looking for.

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