Instructors may take teaching adults for granted. They believe they have an aim so they turn up there expecting to find them dedicated and hard working. Yet instructors come to face unexpected challenge. They find them suffering from difficulties in grasping the language especially concerning the listening and writing.

Not only that, but they find that graduates are usually more enthusiastic than undergraduates. Undergraduates enjoy working with you especially when you apply different activities and direct discussions or a conversation. Yet when it comes to doing the homework or writing a short essay, they become reluctant.

They usually believe that they have a lot of stuff to study for the college – although they don’t often do that – and a lot of lectures to attend. They go home tired and burdened with work enough to hinder them from doing the course homework. On the contrary, graduates usually have a goal right from the very beginning: studying the language to get a better job, travel abroad, help their children study, help them with post graduate studies……..etc. 

Yet it remains a fact that adults are like school students, they need encouragement and consideration. Some adults are burdened with responsibilities outside the classroom and some of them have to do two jobs. They start enthusiastically; yet, they fall apart quickly under those pressures – some fight while others give up quickly.

Thus to start our discussion, I’d like to set forward the number of repeated problems that usually face adults learning the language and to which instructors should pay great attention:

  1. Listening difficulties.
  2. The fright of understanding and learning the language.
  3. Breaking the barrier of fright to pick up the pen and write a paragraph.
  4. Learning new vocabulary.
  5. Improving the understanding of reading passages.

Listening difficulties:

      As soon as you start playing a listening CD in class, many students get terrified. They close their ears and live through panic for the few minutes that follow. So when you ask them ‘what did you understand?’ they usually feel embarrassed and just sneer. The situation even gets worse when they find other students answering questions that show they really understood the listening.

They get a sense of inferiority. Consequently, the instructor/teacher has to start calming them down and ask them to close their eyes, concentrate and pick out any piece of information. If they follow the instructions, this phase usually takes a month to improve and get confidence. Yet we have to keep in mind that they have to go on revising their work for every class and do their homework; without this the results are not quite satisfactory.

Through my work experience and research work, the students reach a “good” level when listening to an English text after about six months of regular study. During this period, the students are asked to watch films at home and jot down ten sentences and questions they listened to. They are also referred to different listening websites to help them do extra listening work.

The fright of understanding and learning the language

     One also of the most important obstacles that face us as teachers as well as students is whether they understand the spoken language in class. At the beginning they feel confused because they don’t grasp all that is said in class.

Those students usually listen to the teacher and then get absorbed into translating the sentence they heard, so when they get back to the speaking teacher they have already lost a few sentences in between and so they fail to follow up and understand the issue in discussion. Whenever we explain this to the confused students, they smile surprisingly and say that that is really true!!

It takes us a long time to convince those people just to listen to the teacher and leave it to their brain to translate alone simultaneously without interfering. Whenever students accept this idea, they forget themselves in class and get on with the work somehow easily; if they remember this idea again suddenly, they get confused and miss the point of the lesson. 

Breaking the barrier of fright to write a paragraph

This problem would of course, lead to another important problem concerning writing. Students usually feel terrified once they are asked to write about any topic (I am here mainly concerned with adults at the beginner levels) even if it is too simple as ‘write five sentences about yourself’.

Thus I suggest this procedure after repeating it dozens of times:

  1. Whenever they answer a question, they should give a full sentence.
  2. They should be given a homework to write sentences using the new words given as well as using the new grammar structure.
  3. They should repeat examples of these not less than 4 or 5 times.
  4. At the end of every lesson or unit, they should be asked to write a short paragraph about simple subjects like: myself, my family, describe your friend, where do you go for the weekend?, how do you spend the weekend?, what will you do on the summer vacation?, what is your favourite dish? …………………etc. in not less than five to seven sentences.
  5. When they come to class, they should read it out loud and have it corrected by the teacher. If there is a serious mistake, his/her colleagues should be encouraged to share in solving it.

If this goes on for not less than three to four levels, the students would show great improvement concerning the ability to express themselves as well as the courage to speak out loud with lesser and lesser mistakes.

Repetition and insistence force them indirectly to think in English and thus express themselves in English too.

Learning new vocabulary

On the other hand, many students believe that learning a language means memorizing long lists of new words. They believe these are the magic wands that would help them speak English. You usually listen to the complaint ‘I have memorized lots of words, yet I can’t speak the language’.

Sometimes, you find a student giving an English word for another or using a word in a sentence without understanding its full meaning; when you ask him/her where did you get it from or what do you want to say exactly, you discover that he/she just memorized the words and doesn’t fully grasp its meaning; thus using the words in this case irrelevantly.

     The procedure (suggestion) to solve this problem would be:

  1. Vocabulary games and then asking students to put them in sentences.
  2. Using the new vocabulary to write about a topic related to it (which is usually the main topic of the lesson/unit and after being fully discussed through the class.

This way to practice using vocabulary is a better way than memorizing it one by one. Yet we shouldn’t forget about the fact that memorizing spelling is important.

On the long run, this also encourages the students to speak a lot. They would have already gained confidence and so they would, then, have the courage to speak out loud. The idea is of a balloon or glass of water which burst out or starts flowing as soon as it gets full.

Reading and understanding comprehension passages

     All these procedures would for sure lead to one of the most important items for learning the language which is reading and understanding ‘comprehension passages’. As it happens with the listening, so it does with the reading passages: people ‘panic’.

The most important thing they look for is to read the questions and to look for the answers not to understand the passage. Also what are the difficult words? They are afraid they will be worse than their colleagues; their colleagues would understand, they won’t. Their colleagues will have quick thinking, but they won’t – a sense of inferiority -. It’s a deadly feeling.

As a remedy for such a case, the students should be:

  1. Asked to read silently for five to ten minutes.
  2. Discuss the main ideas in the form of detailed questions.
  3. Different ability students should be given turns to answer and discuss whatever they understood. This adds to their confidence and helps them to speak out loud using full sentences.
  4. On the other hand, it would be advisable to ask higher lever students to summarize the comprehension passages in a given number of words or give the main idea of every paragraph in one sentence.

Reading …..Reading is one of the most important elements for improving the learning of a foreign language. The more they read, the better and the more confident they become.

Adult LearnersMaha Hassan, Teacher Trainer for about 15 years. Now Head of English Dept. at the Arab Academy for Training Technology credited by Warnborough College, England.  Hassan has given a presentation at the Global Education Online Conference and submitted researches /papers to Nile, Dubai, and Sudan TESOL.

She has a diploma in Human Resources as well as a Pre-masters in English Literature from Cairo University.  Also a member of many of the well-known teaching forums around the world. Hassan started a teaching blog to help teachers in teaching adults as well as school students.

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