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4 Key Differences in Teaching ESL to Adults vs. Children

By Guest Writer, Lauren Bailey

Teaching ESL

For several years now, I’ve actively participated in a local literacy organization, which aims at teaching reading to recent immigrants. Although I’ve tutored and taught children before, this was my first experience teaching adults. And what a learning experience it was! This particular organization allowed volunteer teachers to use whatever methods they thought best. Input from the class—that is, teaching adult learners what they wanted to learn specifically—was key in crafting lesson plans. Based on my experiences, this is what I’ve learned when teaching adults how to read and write in English:

Tips for Teaching ESL Adult Learners

1. Adults in particular always look for real-life application.

This is perhaps the most important lesson I learned while teaching adults English. Most adults have outgrown their curiosity about everything that young children naturally have. As such, adults need an immediate sense of purpose to keep themselves motivated. For my class, I usually culled reading material from things like job applications, newspapers, citizenship tests, online reviews of consumer products, etc.

2. Be aware that just because your students don’t know English doesn’t mean that they aren’t established professionals in their home countries.

Of course, as an ESL reading teacher, you know intuitively that foreign language proficiency is certainly not an indicator of intelligence or ability. Although you may know this theoretically, it can be difficult to understand this precept in practice, especially when you cannot communicate with your students fluently. Many of my students were well-established professionals—doctors, lawyers, and journalists—in their home countries. Always respect the fact that your students are just as intelligent as you are, if not more.

3. Figure out each student’s learning style.

It can be easier to teach young students based on one learning style, simply because learning styles aren’t necessarily inherent; they’re learned over time. Adults, on the other hand, have long-established their personal learning styles. Be sure you learn each student’s favored style, whether it’s auditory, visual, or kinesthetic, or something else, and try to teach to that style as much as you are able.

4. Give detailed feedback.

Young children do not yet have a very developed notion of what it means to “make progress.” They’re often happy just being immersed in the learning process. Adults, however, need constant feedback in order to keep them motivated. As such, be sure to give detailed feedback—including sincere praise and suggestions for improvement.

Teaching ESL to adult learners, even in a casual, voluntary capacity, has been one of the most challenging experiences of my life. But when you see a mother from Korea break down crying from happiness after she sent her first email to her son who is fluent in English, you can’t help but want to continue, despite the difficulties. Good luck!

Learn about a curriculum and software program for teaching reading to multilingual students

Lauren Bailey is a freelance blogger who loves writing about education, new technology, lifestyle, and health. As an education writer, she works to provide information and advice to online college students and welcomes comments and questions via email at 

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