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How would you define an adult learner? A widely accepted definition comes from the National Commission on Higher Education and the Adult Learner, which defines "Adult Learner" as an individual whose major role in life is something other than full-time student. And we know from experience that that other role very often preempts education.  We need to understand some of the differences between adult learners and children to help shape our classes.

Here are a few general characteristics of adult learners as compared to children:



Children view the established learning content as important because adults tell them it is important.

Adults often have very different ideas about what is important to learn.

Children's readiness to learn is linked to both academic development and biological development.

Adults' readiness to learn is more directly linked to need -- needs related to fulfilling their roles as workers, spouses, parents, etc. and coping with life changes (divorce, death of a loved one, retirement, etc.).

Children learn (at least in part) because learning will be of use in the future.

Adults are more concerned about the immediate applicability of learning.

(Visit http://www-ed.fnal.gov/lincon/staff_adult.shtml to see the complete list of adult characteristics.)

In short, adults have formed an opinion about what they need to know now and how they can use this newly acquired knowledge to make their lives better. That’s why individualized instruction works better – the learner sets the goals and the instructor guides the learning. It also explains why some beautifully crafted and executed lessons fail – the learners didn’t want or need that particular knowledge. The content of what you teach adults is very different than what you teach children. Where we should see similarities is in how you teach.

What’s the Buzz?

Current educational research points to ‘engaged learning’ as the right direction to move in. Engaged Learning is a collaborative learning process in which the teacher and student are partners in constructing knowledge and answering essential questions. Students establish their own learning goals and work together in groups, exploring appropriate resources to answer meaningful questions. Tasks are multidisciplinary and authentic, with connections to the real world.

EEEngaged Learning seems to take all of the adult learner’s characteristics into account and provides a good model for planning our courses.  The teacher has a very different role in this kind of learning center: The role of the teacher shifts from the primary role of information giver to that of facilitator, guide, and learner. NCREL has an interesting article discussing engaged learning at http://www.ncrel.org/sdrs/engaged.htm. You can also complete this learning survey developed by NCREL at http://www.ncrtec.org/capacity/profile/profwww.htm, which allows you to generate a chart describing your current classroom. While this survey was created for K-12 classrooms and is focused on technology integration, it will give you a good sense of how interactive and engaged your students are.

RevRevisiting the Learning Pyramid

WhWhenever I think of engaged learning, I’m reminded of the learning pyramid (see image at bottom of page) that was presented to us in education classes as undergraduates.  When information is presented to you orally, you’ll remember about 5% of it.  If you read it, you’ll remember about 10%. It’s not until you actually start practicing it or teaching it to others that you can gain “mastery” of the information – 75-90% retention. That’s the real lesson for today – thinking of your classroom, how much time are your students sitting and just listening? How much time are they talking, debating, and learning?

WhWhat happens in your class when you ask, “Do you understand that?” At first when I asked that question, I got the smile and bobbing head, and thought everything was wonderful and I was a terrific teacher.  Gradually I came to learn that the student smile and nod most likely meant the exact opposite – they didn’t get it at all but were too polite to tell me. When they got it, they were full of questions and stories and examples of how it fit into their lives instead of the typical “Yes, Teacher.” I started to make a gradual shift to an engaged classroom and was amazed by the differences I saw: attendance improved, attitude improved, productive conversation increased, use of other languages decreased, students were much more willing to volunteer for things. I spent more time preparing lessons and less time in class “teaching.” In fact, on the days when I was most effective as a teacher I did little more than answer questions and provide materials.  The shoe was on the other foot – I was bored, but my students were not.

ThaThat’s what engaged learning can do in your class. It builds on the lessons of the learning pyramid and can help you find ways to lead your students through real learning experiences. It takes practice and effort to make the switch from a traditional classroom to an engaged learning center, and I suspect it will be even harder to do in an adult literacy classroom, but it’s worth the effort.

Strategies for Teaching Adult ESL Students

During my site visits this fall I saw many lessons where students were actively engaged in learning. I also saw some missed opportunities, where the teacher was doing all the work and all the learning instead of the students. This is a good time to look at one of your typical plans and see where and how you can add to it.  The National Center for ESL Literacy has compiled the following strategies to use with adult English language learners that will help you get started:

1.        Get to know your students and their needs. English language learners’ abilities, experiences, and expectations can affect their learning. Get to know your students’ backgrounds and goals as well as their proficiency levels and skill needs.

2.        Use visuals to support your instruction. English language learners need context in their learning process. Using gestures, expressions, pictures, and realia makes words and concepts concrete and connections more obvious and memorable.

3.        Bring authentic materials to the classroom. Use materials like newspapers, signs, sale flyers, telephone books, and brochures. These help learners connect what they are learning to the real world and familiarize them with the formats and information in such publications. However, do prepare learners beforehand (e.g., pre-teach vocabulary) and carefully structure lessons (e.g., select relevant, manageable chunks of the authentic material) to make this work.

4.        Model tasks before asking learners to do them. Learners need to become familiar with vocabulary, conversational patterns, grammatical structures, and even activity formats before producing them. Demonstrate a task before asking learners to do it.

5.        Foster a safe classroom environment. Like many adult learners, some English language learners have had negative educational experiences. Many are unfamiliar with classroom activities and with expectations common in the United States. Include time for activities that allow learners to get to know one another.

6.        Watch your teacher talk and your writing. Teacher talk refers to the directions, explanations, and general comments and conversations that a teacher may engage in within the classroom. Keep teacher talk simple and clear; use pictures, gestures, demonstrations, and facial expressions to reinforce messages whenever possible. Use print letters with space between letters and words, and do not overload the chalkboard with too much or disorganized text.It is certainly important for the teacher to understand the structure of the English language. However, it is not always appropriate to give learners explanations of each discrete grammar and vocabulary point. At times it is enough for learners to know the correct response.

7.        Use scaffolding techniques to support tasks. Build sequencing, structure, and support in learning activities. Ask learners to fill in words in a skeletal dialogue and then create a dialogue of a similar situation, or supply key vocabulary before asking learners to complete a form. Recycle vocabulary, structures, and concepts in the course of instruction. Build redundancy into the curriculum to help learners practice using learned vocabulary or skills in new situations or for different purposes.

8.        Don’t overload learners. Strike a balance in each activity between elements that are familiar and mastered and those that are new. Asking learners to use both new vocabulary and a new grammatical structure in a role-playing activity where they have to develop original dialogue may be too much for them to do successfully.

9.        Balance variety and routine in your activities. Although patterns and routines provide familiarity and support as learners tackle new tasks, learners can become bored. Give learners opportunities to experience and demonstrate their mastery of language in different ways.  Challenge them with a variety of activities that speak to their lives, concerns, and goals as adults.

10.        Celebrate success. Progress for language learners is incremental and can be slow. Learners need to know that they are moving forward. Make sure expectations are realistic, create opportunities for success, set short-term as well as long-term goals, and help learners recognize and acknowledge their own progress.


Available Resources

There’s an enormous amount of information about engaged learning on the Internet. Do a quick search and you’ll find thousands of lesson plans and activities to explore. Most are directed to the K-12 classroom, but many can be revised for our classes. Here are a few additional sites you may want to explore:

 Indicators of Engaged Learning  http://www.ncrel.org/sdrs/engaged.htm

 Active Learning Strategies   http://www.accd.edu/spc/iic/master/active.htm

 AL Strategies for the Classroom  http://www.acu.edu/cte/activelearning/classroom_main.htm

Teaching Low-Level Adult ESL Learners  http://www.ericdigests.org/1996-1/low.htm

 The Freirean Approach to Adult Literacy Education  http://www.paulofreireinstitute.org/Documents/Adultliteracyedby-Spencer.html


Learning Pyramid

Rhode Island Family Literacy Initiative