Seven Factors to Consider When Teaching Older Students

Kieran Donaghy, Director of the School for Training, writes about teaching older adults learners

I taught older students (from about 55 to 85 years of age) for over ten years. I loved teaching them because of their enthusiasm, motivation, positive attitude and kindness.

Kieran Donaghy, Director of the School for Training, writes about teaching older adults learners

I taught older students (from about 55 to 85 years of age) for over ten years. I loved teaching them because of their enthusiasm, motivation, positive attitude and kindness. I’ve recently produced a short film about some of my older learners at UAB Idiomes Barcelona. You can watch the film below.

 

 

If you’ve watched the film, you’ve probably already got an idea of the why older students can be excellent language learners. In this post I’d like to propose seven factors that teachers should bear in mind when teaching older students.

 

  1. Great motivation

Older students do not normally need a certificate, or university credit; their motivation for learning English is intrinsic. They study English for intellectual enjoyment, to socialise with their peers or because it is something they have always wanted to do. In fact, senior learners are very often more highly motivated than younger learners. Their high level of motivation is a great advantage as motivation has been identified as one of the most important factors in determining successful language learning. From my experience of teaching older students, their motivation is reflected by the fact that they rarely miss a class, participate very actively in the classroom and always do their homework.

  1. Positive attitude

My experience is that senior learners have an extremely positive attitude toward language learning. They treat both their teachers and their classmates with the utmost respect and politeness. When other teachers ask me about teaching older students, I always tell them how positive, kind, considerate, and hardworking they are, and what a pleasure they are to teach.

  1. Social element

Older people are often isolated in society and suffer from loneliness. We have discovered that there is a strong social component in seniors attending English classes. They often attend class to mix with their peers, forming very strong friendships and socialising together after the class and in their free time.

  1. Helping students hear

Older students often have hearing loss, and this may have a direct impact on learning and performance. In order to decrease the negative effects of this auditory loss, teachers can help students hear in a number of ways by:

  • speaking clearly and ensuring that the students can see their face and lips.
  • adjusting the volume for listenings and videos.
  • repeating listening texts more often than with younger learners.
  • using short films and videos which aid listening comprehension as students can see the face and lips of the speakers.
  • ensuring that your classrooms have little background noise.
  1. Helping students see

Older students often have poor eyesight. To help older students see better, here are some steps to follow:

  • Use a larger print type for printed text.
  • Make sure that students sit as close to the board as possible.
  • Write very clearly on the board.
  • Make sure that classrooms have a lot of natural light and that there is direct lighting for the whiteboard.
  1. Helping student remember

Research shows that cognitive development, recall, and problem solving may show decline with aging. In order to overcome this cognitive decline which may make it more difficult for older students to learn a new language, teachers can help seniors develop and maintain their cognitive ability in a number of ways:

  • Integrate memory exercises into classes. Use visual and auditory mnemonic devices, examples and memory associations to help seniors rehearse and later retrieve vocabulary and expressions from long-term memory.
  • Systematically repeat and recycle grammar, vocabulary and expressions.
  • Encourage students to draw on their wealth of experiences and to use cognitive strategies they have used successfully in the past in their current language learning environment.
  • Allow more time for students to produce language without being interrupted.
  1. Building confidence / Reducing stress

Many older learners fear failure and are more anxious than younger learners, perhaps this is because they accept the stereotype of older students as a poor language learners or because of previous unsuccessful attempts to learn English. Older learners need to feel comfortable and trust the teacher and the other students before they participate fully in the language classroom. A key role of the teacher is to reduce anxiety and build trust and self-confidence in the senior learner.
Here are some of the things teachers can do to reduce stress and build self-confidence in older adult learners:

  • Find out what our older learners’ motivations are for learning a language and adjust your methodology accordingly.
  • Use humanistic techniques to build empathy between the teacher and students, and among the students.
  • Reduce the focus on error correction to build learners’ self-confidence and to promote language production.
  • Avoid timed tests which may make older learners anxious.
  • Give senior students more time to complete activities.
  • Promote a friendly and relaxed atmosphere in the classroom.

 

My experience of teaching older students is that any difficulties which they may experience in the language classroom can be overcome through adjustments to the learning environment and material, attention to physical, affective and cognitive factors, and the use of an effective teaching methodology which focuses on the learning process rather than academic achievement.

Have you taught older students? Have you got any tips for teaching senior learners? Let me know in your comments below!

 

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