Teaching English to Adults – The Pros and Cons

Maybe you’ve already been teaching for a few years and want to make a transition from teaching children to adults. Perhaps you’re a newbie with specific teaching preferences. You may be a seasoned professional who knows exactly what they want, or a starry-eyed hopeful fresh to the shores of a foreign country you never thought you’d explore before.

Whatever the case may be, you clicked on this article because you’re interested in teaching English to adults. It’s a little harder, but not impossible, to sift through job opportunities looking for adult teachers, but is teaching adult learners right for you?

Teaching Adults: What it Takes

You will likely enjoy working with adults if you:

  • You value independent learning.
  • You value life experiences.
  • You prefer teaching via lecture.
  • You prefer teaching via discussion/debate.
  • You prefer structured teaching.
  • You prefer one-to-one classes.

The purpose of this article is to evaluate the different pros and cons of teaching adult learners so that you can make the best decision for yourself. Let’s start with the pros.

Pros of Teaching English to Adults

Less Focus on Discipline

Most of the adults who take English classes do so because they want to. Often, whatever they are learning has a direct impact on their pocket-book or an impact on their overall feelings of contentment.  Adult learners don’t have to be told to sit nicely or asked why they didn’t get certain assignments done.

You Get to Work With Other Professionals

You never know who you might meet. You could very well meet someone who helps change your life for the better and vice versa. There are more opportunities to network when you are working with adults. Also, if the adults you’re teaching enjoy your classes, they could bring you more business.

Higher Language Ability

Normally, adult learners who want to take English lessons have had some level of prior training, even if that training was largely remedial. However, there is also a good chance several of the adult students you may encounter have high language abilities. Students who have a good grasp of English will be able to engage in more debates, philosophical discussions, critical thinking activities, and ask more questions. All of those things help to build and maintain a great classroom environment.

They Want to Learn

Plenty of children remain in school because they are told they ought to or because it is required by law. Adult learners tend to go back to school or remain in school because they find value in learning. They are drawn to the classroom environment because it is what they consider valuable to them.

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Smaller class sizes

Adult classes tend to be smaller in size than children’s classes. It is not unusual to have an adult class consisting of one-to-one lessons or group lessons of 4 to 6 students. You can give more personalized attention to the student when class sizes are smaller and go into more detail about subjects of interest to them.

Cons of Teaching English to Adults

Now that we’ve gone through the list of pros there are, unfortunately, some drawbacks to teaching English to adults. It may not be obvious until you’re in the situation or it may take you by surprise if you experience it organically (I sure was), but the list below will tell you what things to watch out for if you do decide on that adult teaching job.

They Have Higher Expectations

Many adult learners know exactly what they want to learn and expect the teacher to deliver. Sometimes, their expectations can be unrealistic- like expecting additional one-on-one tutoring from a teacher at inconvenient hours for no additional pay or expecting to be fluent after a few weeks of lessons.

While there’s nothing wrong with wanting to get one’s money worth, it’s important to tell adult learners what to expect and give them an accurate timeline of how long acquiring the knowledge they want to have might take.

Similarly, adult learners can be more critical of a lesson or delivery. In some Asian cultures, adult students may not complain about an aspect of a lesson or teacher to their face but may tell another employee or the teacher’s superior about the critique. That news usually makes its way back to the teacher in question and can be unpleasant to deal with.

Language is Harder to Learn the Older You Are

As people age, they develop more strengths and, at other times, new weaknesses. It is generally thought that the younger a person is, the more they are able to properly assimilate to a new language. The ability to pick up a new language with ease tends to wane around the age of ten.

Adult learners may have unique struggles and needs from the teacher regarding word pronunciations, accents, word choices, and sentence composition that may differ from young learners. It is important to be aware of that to know how to navigate those situations.

They Are More Anxious

Adult learners tend to be practical in their pursuit of language knowledge. They want to get the information that they need and eliminate any additional “fluff,” so to speak. They usually know what they want out of the classroom, and for that reason, they tend to take their educational pursuits very seriously.

Sometimes, adults can be more self-conscious about making a mistake and may need to be coaxed into giving their thoughts or opinions about subjects. They are not only more self-aware but also more aware of the people around them and concerned about how others perceive them, whereas young children are free-spirited and uncaring about how others view them.

Students May Be Tired

Adult students are often married or dating seriously, in university, juggling a full-time or part-time job, or otherwise dealing with some variation of those things in their daily lives. While children seem to have abundant energy on a daily basis, adults tend to be more reserved and can even seem a little bit tired in the classroom.

It is important to understand that they may have other obligations and that while they enjoy learning, they may still be recovering from a hard day or week, and therefore, there may be inconsistency among adult learners regarding their participation levels in discussions and assignments.

So…. Should I Teach English to Adults?

Now that you know just what teaching English to adults involves, you have a major question to ask yourself: Should I go for it? No matter what you decide, going in with a clear head, having an idea of what makes a good ESL teacher, good teaching methods, and the pros and cons can only help you.

Universities, private businesses, online course providers, and individuals are willing to shell out top dollars for teachers with valid credentials, so be sure to look for those institutions when you’re sending out your CV.  Whatever your choice, or if you change your mind, the perfect job is out there just waiting for you to snag it. Happy job hunting!

Check our TEFL job board for jobs teaching adults.

1 thought on “Teaching English to Adults – The Pros and Cons”

  1. Great article Emina! I’ve been teaching adult EFL learners for over 6 years, and you touched on a lot of very true points. I love teaching adults because they have have unique goals and needs, and so my challenge is to tailor my lessons to the individual students without overburdening myself with the preparation that individualization requires.

    In my experience, one of the biggest challenges teaching adults is creating and sticking to a plan, or a syllabus. Adults tend to want conversation lessons, and those conversations can be fun for both parties. But week after week they drift into the same topics, without a lot of progress of improvement. They start to get bored with the same topics and I start to dread coming up with something new every lesson.

    I solve this in a few ways: from the very start, I give them a placement test, to uncover the holes in their learning and discover their *true* level. I also have them fill out an intake form, which uncovers their goals & their interests. With the combination of the results from these two forms, I create an automated syllabus which gives us some structure for at least the first few months, with at least a dozen lessons themes and grammar areas we need to cover.

    As you mentioned, adults are much more demanding than kids, but personally I find it so rewarding to meet their needs. They need English to improve their lives in immediate, tangible ways (jobs, relationships, etc.), and I love helping them do that.

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