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Adult ESL Classes – Tips for Teaching Them

Adult ESL Classes – Tips for Teaching Them

Every teacher has their tips and tricks for dealing with classes, regardless of the level, age or subject. Here are mine based on 20+ years of teaching University and other adult classes in Asia.


In their door, and out your own.

Asian students have all studied English for many years and most have failed to learn it because of a flawed educational system and outdated or ineffective approaches. Being able to speak English in and of itself is no longer a good enough motivator and so it is essential to tie lessons to their interests and needs where possible. When teaching young adults lessons related to dating, jobs, music and movies make the most sense, and can be even more effective if you add a twist. I make the students the ‘experts’ every few classes and have them share their own experiences, tips and ideas with the other students. This motivates them to pay attention especially during the remainder of the class days when we are dealing with issues or skills they may not see as interesting or important to their lives as yet.


 Caring is key or Be friendly, but not a Friend.

While maintaining a professional distance from our students is essential, this does not mean we should not treat them as people. I work hard to remember names as quickly as possible even with large classes by using pictures, looking at them as I call attendance and trying to remember a few details about them as classes progress. It does not always work but this means that – when they have a problem or a bad day – they are more likely to tell me and I am less likely to get upset when a typically good student is not on task or paying attention. On the other hand, I try not to pigeon hole students even after a few negative behaviours as I have seen students turn around if given a second or even third chance to participate in class or do an assignment.


Be a bit general in your expectations for assignments, presentations, etc.

I try to give them enough information to do any assignment well. Including an example from a previous class can be helpful. But, if you make expectations too specific I find they will do exactly as you tell them — no more or less unless they see an immediate benefit in it for themselves In this way, I have seen some amazing homework and presentations that went far past what I expected a given class or student to do. These are some of the most satisfying moments I have experienced as a teacher.


Give them enough rope to hang themselves.

I have clear rules and I enforce them but I do not make a big show of it either. The rules are on the class outline and I go over them on day 1. I remind the class when there are repeat offenses but otherwise I let them do what they want to do and make sure that I record infractions so that, at the end, their grades reflect what they did (good and bad) as accurately as possible. Then, if they challenge their grades, I can explain where they lost points for playing on their cell phones, not bringing their class materials, or any other specific reasons.


Democracy is good at times.

My discussion class spends a whole class period deciding on our topics for the entire term based on lists I provide but also based on what they are interested in (see tip 1). All classes vote on when to do their midterms during exam week (unless the class is big enough that it takes two or more classes to get through everyone). I even occasionally let them vote on whether to have homework or not that class. Once the majority has spoken, it is much harder for them to argue that the decision is not fair or that I imposed my will on the class.


Lessons are for learning, not covering the textbook.

As movements like ‘Dogme’ and ‘Flipping the classroom’ have gained traction, the idea that learning starts and finishes with the textbook is rapidly losing ground. The textbook is only one tool at a teacher’s disposal to encourage learning. While more and more school systems want to control what is being taught and even how, to the point of dictating what page or lesson classes should be on during any given lesson, the teacher has to be more creative in how they supplement or build on what the textbook has to offer. I rarely see my students eyes light up when we use the textbook. However, when they get off the book and discuss both sides of an issue or brainstorm ideas for a writing assignment based on what they know or think, they are far more interested and engaged.


Share, borrow and steal (but with permission!).

Almost no teacher has the time to create everything they use for every class from scratch and they should not have to. As someone who has created both full blown curricula and 16 week courses on topics in as little as a couple weeks, I can attest to this from experience. Luckily, I only had to put together a single course or curriculum at a time, but it was still a challenge. The best teaching resource an educator has at their disposal are the other teachers who teach the same (or similar) subjects. Talk to them, brainstorm with them, borrow from them, share with them and be sure to give credit to them when you borrow from them.


 Don’t be afraid of inspiration and apparent tangents when appropriate.

A few years ago, I had one of many requests from students in my freshmen classes to do an ‘outside class’. Usually, I said ‘No’ and let it go at that but then I decided to give them what they needed, and not what they wanted. I created a lesson to teach them about their university designed around a Scavenger Hunt. They had to collect free items from all over our very hilly campus.

The following class, I broke them into teams of 4 and sent them off to do the lesson with a 50 minute time limit. This being before the advent of Smart phones, they all returned 50 minutes or so later hot, sweaty and exhausted while I had been correcting homework. Suffice it to say, I never got another request for an outdoor class from that class and they learned an important lesson.


 Four skills are always better.

In my experience, students want to interact with each other more than they want to learn. In practice, I use this desire to involve them in group and pair work, peer editing, team debates and developing their own companies with a handpicked team of their classmates. While the course titles may say writing or reading, this does not mean students should not be talking to each other and sharing ideas. On the other hand, speaking classes still require some writing other than note taking so I request teams to designate a reporter and secretary during discussions. Also, their midterms are oral interviews based on short journals they write about current issues or social events of interest to them and widely reported in the media.


20/80 rule for class materials.

As I mentioned above, very few teachers can create all new materials for every class they teach -and very few do. However, this does not mean teaching a class with notes and materials which have not changed since the class was initially created 5 years ago either. My rule is to replace or redo at least 20% of my materials for any given class every time I teach it. For newer classes, the percentage may be higher until I find a core of materials I can successfully use for future versions of the same class. I often have multiple versions of the same lesson in my portfolio and pull out and modify the best one for each class as the lesson approaches. This keeps the class fresh and interesting for my students and myself.


“Go to” sites/materials that work.

Probably one of my only constants as a teacher of over 20 years is my love of books. I have built an extensive library of materials, including online and offline resources, which I use or regularly consult in preparing or teaching my classes. While a small number of those have found their way onto my Kindle or into my E-book collection, I still prefer the ability to pull out a printed book to consult when preparing or to pass around in class so students can see what I am talking about.

From professional books to textbooks and reference books to tabletop books, I never know what will inspire me the next time I need to do a lesson. While wandering around the internet looking at a website like Wikipedia may get my creative juices flowing, a fair number of my best ideas have come from picking up a random book or looking to see how another teacher teaches this lesson in one of my books and doing something entirely different.


 Bribery/rewards are no longer in my vocabulary.

Despite a few research studies to the contrary, I stopped giving any kind of material rewards to my students years ago. It was my trying to be frugal (getting all of my students a few candies got expensive when I taught 100+ students) but also to be consistent and fair (students would always talk and if one class got candy and another got chocolates, some might complain). Nowadays, I do give a few opportunities to get bonus points by volunteering at a conference (Presentations and Job Skills classes) or for writing something in English for the campus news magazine (writing class portfolios), though I also take points off for rules infractions, so it is rarely a problem. I have had a few students who got over 100% as a final grade.


Suit the evaluations to the course and objectives.

The traditional mode of having only two exams to assess what students know and do not know is something that should have gone the way of the Dodo in my opinion. Numerous opportunities and methods to evaluate the students is far more effective. It also gives both them and you a chance to see how they are progressing while being less likely to kill the students’ motivation and interest in the class or subject. While exams or quizzes are appropriate for some classes, I keep them at no more than 40% of the total grade and use journals, presentations, interviews, portfolios as well as participation and homework grades to adjust the work and focus to the particular class and skills being taught and assessed.


 Get input whenever and however you can.

Our school collects student evaluations once, which we see two months after the class has ended. This is a common experience, so it behooves a good teacher to get input at least a few times each term. This can be done informally when talking to students or by asking a class questions. What has worked for me is doing my own class evaluations around midterms and before finals.

I have also had students fill in needs assessments at the start of term. Based on the these, I know a bit about what my students as individuals expect from my classes. The anonymous class feedback form allows me to see what they like, what they would change or remove and what they would add to their class. As I get this feedback at midterms, I can retool classes during the second half and it makes it less likely they will vent their unhappiness on the school-wide evaluations as well in my experience.


 Be as transparent as you can be but….

I make it a policy to hand back all homework and tests as quickly as I can so that the students know exactly where they stand grade wise. I also have a detailed course outline with grading breakdown, rules, etc. Finally, each assignment has an instructions sheet and I make samples of previous students’ work available to students at least once in class and by appointment in my office. It is their choice whether to take advantage of those opportunities or not but they also have no reason to say that my grading is unfair or that they ‘did not know’ they had earned a C instead of the A+ they were hoping for. As grade negotiation and inflation are common here, it is simply common sense to cover all bases in as many ways as possible.


While these tips are based on my experience as a Professor and teacher in one part of the world, I believe they are still pertinent to other teachers in other environments and at various stages of their careers.

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2 Responses

  • Joe

    I feel the title of this article is misleading. I assumed this would be about teaching adults, but it's about teaching young adults in a university setting... ㅠㅠ


  • Tory Thorkelson

    Joe, While the examples are from my University classes, I have applied the same principles to varying degrees in classes from middle school to University and Conversation classes for Business people as well. Thanks for your comment!