Teaching ESL to Adults vs Teaching ESL to Kids

So, you’ve taken the time to thoroughly assess your current opportunities, and you’re confident in your decision to become an ESL teacher . Now you’re unsure about the next step you should take. First, you should decide whether you’d prefer to teach ESL to adults or teach ESL to kids.

Many new teachers, like myself, had to make this decision when we first joined the ESL education industry. Do you join one of the established adult training companies or focus on younger learners? What can you expect from these two sets of learners? What are the major differences between them?

Here are five key differences that I’ve noticed during my time teaching ESL in China to both adults and children that you’ll find in virtually any country you choose to teach ESL in.


Differences between adults and children in the ESL classroom


1. Motivation:

The biggest and most notable difference between adult ESL learners and young ESL learners is the motivation of the students to learn English. I found that kids need to be constantly motivated in order to learn, whereas adults usually show up already intrinsically motivated.

You will find that adults usually have specific reasons for learning the language, such as getting a promotion at work or preparing to travel around the world. Adult students willingly put themselves in your classroom. They push themselves because they understand the financial commitment they have made, and they know their ‘why’ for being there. Kids are pushed to be in that classroom by their parents with no comprehension of why they need to be there, so they need a bit more motivation from the teacher.


2. Classroom management:

Stemming directly from the students’ level of motivation, one can also see the difference in the classroom management approach that is required for dealing with discipline and behavior within both groups.

While teaching ESL to kids, you may find yourself having to state and reinforce the rules of your class way more often than you would with adults. Kids may see the lesson as a time to substitute the classroom for a playground, especially if they are not interested in learning.

While teaching ESL to adults, you’ll find that most of them can discipline themselves, hopefully. So essentially, teaching young learners requires you to have more patience than is required with adults.


3. Classroom activities:

It is important for teachers to know the most effective ways to engage different learners and age groups. Kids learn better through high-energy games, songs, storytelling, and physical movements, while adults may require you to be much less active in the classroom.

It would be quite odd to make your adult students run around the classroom shouting and repeating the target language of the day. You would usually find yourself engaging more in deeper discussions and conversational activities with adults, versus various drilling and repetition games for young learners.


4. Students’ anxiety:

Do you remember when you were young and were not afraid to fail? – Well one thing I have learned while teaching ESL to kids, is that kids are more willing to take risks and are typically less afraid of being wrong or looking silly.

It seems that as we grow up, we tend to be less willing to try things because we are afraid of making mistakes and what others may think of us. I have seen this contrast between adults and young learners; kids are not so shy, and in fact, they are usually more than eager to participate in different activities. Even when they are pronouncing a word wrong or giving you the completely wrong response to a question, kids are far less anxious than adults when being corrected, especially in front of peers.


5. Expectations and pressure:

ESL teachers for adult students are required to have a very good understanding and mastery of English grammar. They must be able to explain why certain rules exist and the practicality of them. Adult students usually have more questions for you as a teacher, and you need to be able to effectively articulate weird and sometimes difficult grammar concepts.

The way we say things in the English language may seem obvious to you as a native speaker, but remember, these are new concepts to your students who want to understand why we say this and not that. Plus, English is a difficult language to learn, and you should be ready to learn some things yourself through the questions that adult learners may ask you.

Teaching ESL to young learners requires a much more basic understanding of grammar, and usually means you face less pressure in the classroom.


Get started teaching ESL to your ideal age group

Whether you decide to teach adults or young learners, both groups of students come with their own set of wonderful experiences.

Teaching Nomad provides wonderful resources to help you get started on your teaching abroad journey. We have job opportunities in many countries all over the world. We also offer TEFL courses if you’re not yet TEFL certified but would like to begin teaching ESL abroad!

If you want to teach ESL to adults, we also have a 20-hour online course specifically focused on teaching techniques for that age group. You can complete your 120-hour online TEFL course with us and add on the extra 20 hours, or if you’ve already completed your 120-hour TEFL and are certified to teach abroad, you can take the 20-hour course by itself to prepare yourself for teaching older students.

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