How to Design Perfect ESL Lessons for Adults at Any Level

The difference between teaching English as Second Language (ESL) to children and to adults is like that between living in the heat of the tropics or in the cold of the mountains.

Both terrains are interesting and come with unique challenges and benefits, but they require totally different wardrobes.

Whereas you have to really push younger learners to keep them involved, adults are generally more motivated and self-disciplined. That said, you may encounter reluctant learners if it is a company or corporation that is requiring that the students attend your class.

Why Adult ESL Students Have Different Needs

No matter what level of adult ESL students you are working with, it is important to connect with them as people and to appreciate their individual differences. Always remember that adult ESL students are your peers. One of the worst mistakes an ESL teacher can make with adults is to be condescending.

ESL students will not want to waste any time. In the case that they are paying for these classes themselves, they will certainly want to get their money’s worth in a way that younger learners often do not, simply because they are learning in school or having classes paid for by their families. No matter what the financial situation, they will want to make the most of their time and energy, so they expect high quality teaching from you.

To meet their expectations you must be sure to select the appropriate materials for each lesson. This is why an important element of teaching adults is planning the lessons well. The planning should include a review of the previous lesson, a summary and evaluation of the current lesson and a brief introduction to the next concept to be covered.

In teaching—as in architecture—it all goes back to the plan.

Remember that adults want to learn the language as quickly as they can—particularly speaking—so get them involved in activities to expand their verbal skills.

And do not forget that they will always appreciate structure and knowing what is going to happen next. Regularly encouraging your students to keep learning more, studying independently and practicing in any spare moment will give them the extra incentive they need.

How to Create Practically Perfect ESL Lessons for Adult Students of All Levels

Lessons for Adult ESL Beginner Students

Adult students at the beginner level may come to class without any prior knowledge of English or, most commonly, knowing only “hello,” “thank you” and “yes.” That is fine, as everyone has to start learning a language with the most frequently used words. With adult beginners it is important to take a deep breath, slow down and enunciate your words clearly.

What they may already know

Adult students whose native language is Latin based—languages like French, Spanish or Italian—or Germanic may, in fact, know far more English words than they think they do.

Thanks to William the Conqueror and the Battle of Hastings in 1066, many English words—particularly those related to education, finances and religion—are shared. Similarly, many Germanic words are similar to English ones.

The key to unlocking this word-gift is to teach the students how to listen for the differences. Patricia in Spanish, for example has four syllables—Pa-tri-ci-a—and the stress on the second one. While in English it has three—Pa-tri-cia—with the stress on the second. They should try to recognize patterns of syllable stress and accent changes that transform their native language’s words into English ones and vice versa.

Unfortunately for students from Eastern Europe, Asia or Africa, they may find very few shared words, except for the “modern” ones such as “Internet,” “download” or “laptop.” These will eventually come in handy, though!

What they need to learn

The mantra for lessons for beginning adult students is practical, practical, practical.

Survival English

You need to get them functioning at the basic survival English level: Greetings, simple social questions and responses and the vocabulary for job interviews.

The methodology for beginner adult students is to get them involved in the lessons as quickly as possible. Get them speaking and writing as soon as possible. Speak to them in English the majority or the entirety of the time to immerse them more quickly.

The value of mistakes

People from some cultures—the French and the Japanese, for example—find it embarrassing to make mistakes in public. Consequently, they may be reluctant to speak up in class. Reassure them by saying that what happens in class stays in class. Also point out that the best way to learn is to make a mistake and to be corrected.

How to get immersed

Another strategy is repetition, repetition, repetition. Think of how babies in any country learn their native language—by listening and repeating until they get it right.

Repetition can be a delicate balance as you need to get the adults involved, but you want to select materials that are appropriate for them. Songs offer the pedagogically sound principle of repetition without being demeaning. Music also often draws on local culture and the way people actually speak.

Cartoons are another great way to learn English. Check with your adult students first to see if this appeals and that they do not consider it too “baby-ish.” Similarly, comics are another excellent teaching resource.

Lessons for Intermediate Adult ESL Students

Now that the adult students know the basics, it is time to move on and teach them some more advanced concepts so they can spread their English-speaking wings.

What they may already know

At this level, the students should understand the purpose of pronouns, nouns, objects and verbs and know how to use them. They should also be able to carry on simple conversations, take part in guided group discussions and make presentations.

What they need to learn

Now that the basics are in place, it is time to expand the students’ knowledge and language skills, with an emphasis on speaking. By now they can read and listen without too much difficulty. It is speaking and writing that require more effort.

More colorful and descriptive language

Introduce lessons that involve adjectives and adverbs to brighten up the students’ speech.

At the beginning of any lesson, brainstorming helps to really get the concepts across. A sample lesson would be to show them pictures—a city scene, a countryside shot, an abstract form—and get them to see how many words they can find to describe it. Do a similar lesson with adverbs.

All the while, they should be busy filling up their vocabulary file or notebook so they can go back and review what they learned in each lesson.

Better speaking skills

Other activities include presentations—solo, in pairs or as a group—interviewing each other and in-class debates. By this stage they should be talking easily with their peers and able to move from topic to topic without hesitation.

Use videos as a methodology for promoting discussion. One approach is to present the students with a list of things they should look for in the film at the beginning of the lesson. If they don’t understand it from the first viewing, you can always show it again.

More polished writing skills

At this stage, keeping a personal journal can be introduced as part of the learning experience to get students writing in English. Some will use a translation program, but that is still better than not doing it at all. One way to wean them is to do in-class exercises where they have to write.

Dictating a paragraph and having them write it out is a good way to teach writing skills and listening skills to advanced students at the same time.

Other writing exercises could include emails and social media blogs. This relates back to the important concept of teaching them the things they need to know and that they will use in their everyday lives.

Lessons for Advanced Adult ESL Students

Although it may sound like a contradiction, advanced level adult ESL learners are both the easiest and the most difficult to teach.

They are the easiest because they can function in English and so you do not have to break things down into bite-size pieces. They are the hardest because you have to hone their language skills so that they sound like fluent native speakers. They are often quite hard on themselves at this point, and may demand perfection from their work and your performance as a teacher and role model for language use.

What they may already know

At the advanced stage, students will be thinking in English. While that may sound obvious, it is the skill that separates the intermediate learners from the advanced ones. They are no longer translating things directly back and forth between English and another language.

They will also be able to discuss more complex concepts, offer opinions and carry on conversations on a number of topics.

Advanced students need to be challenged. Some people theorize that when a student can dream in English, then they are fluent. While they might just be dreaming in English because they spend so much time studying English, that is the level you want your advanced students to reach.

What they need to know

At this level, ideally the students should be doing 80 to 90 percent of the talking.

Lessons can include tweaking pronunciation, watching and discussing video clips and conducting mock job interviews.

More natural accent and rhythm 

When it comes to refining an accent, watching the news is a good way to encourage it. Announcers are selected because of their enunciation and students can watch their mouths. Remember that this is how people with hearing challenges learn to speak.

To toss some fun into your lessons, add a few tongue twisters from time to time. Have a contest to see who can say the twister the fastest and with the least mistakes.

The way native English speakers use language

Another important concept at this advanced stage is to teach idioms. While there are literally thousands of idioms in English, work with the students to select five to 10 that particularly appeal to them. Then follow up in the next lesson with conversations where they can practice using their idioms of choice.

How to use professional English

Advanced students can learn to do presentations appropriate for conferences and meetings.

Another upper-level benchmark is being able to take part in video calls and conferencing, so be sure to dedicate a couple of lessons to learning this skill. Be sure to give the students plenty of time to practice.

At this level, they need the skills and the vocabulary to function in the business or the academic world. Visits to a university to discuss the enrollment process will help adults know what is involved. Invite someone from a corporation to give a presentation and encourage students to ask questions.

Another option is to attend social service club meetings—such as Toastmasters—to help with both language and social skills.

As advanced students move on towards reaching fluency, have them critique books, video games and movies. Learning how to create a strong analysis, incorporating both fact and opinion, will be key moving forward in their professional lives.


Teaching ESL to adults can be a very rewarding experience.

Often they need the language to progress in their careers, so putting the time and the effort into helping them achieve that goal is important.

As well as teaching, you will also be learning about the cultures and customs of people from other countries—a great added bonus.

The most exciting part of the process is knowing that you are preparing students for bigger and better things. You are enabling them to reach their personal and professional goals. You are empowering them with language.

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