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Teaching English as a Second Language to Adults

Teaching English as a Second Language to Adults

Part 1   A description of adult strengths and weaknesses

If you’ve read my previous article titled ‘Useful thoughts on teaching adults’, you’ve seen a discussion of certain aspects regarding this topic. I’ve looked at reasons for studying English and the influence of these reasons on the teaching and learning processes. I’ve also analysed the roles that children / adolescents and adults adopt during the process as learners and how teachers need to differentiate their approach if they choose to work with adults.

Using the SWOT analysis tool

In this article, which is divided into three parts, I’ll examine adult teaching in more detail by carrying out a SWOT analysis. For the uninitiated ones, it’s a tool used in business and personal strategic plans.

The acronym stands for Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats. When we look at a product, service or an individual, we analyse strengths, [or advantages], weaknesses [or disadvantages], opportunities, or in other words aspects which if used effectively can enhance strengths, and threats, which are factors that if ignored can turn into weaknesses. Strengths and weaknesses describe present conditions, while opportunities and threats are related to future developments.

When examining strengths and weaknesses, we look at what we’re dealing with currently, while when thinking about opportunities and threats, we predict and plan in order to maximise opportunities for success and control factors that may undermine our efforts.


1.Older age means more life experiences, maturity, independence and a conscious interest in developing socially and professionally through English language use.

Children in EFL settings are interested in learning the language and use it, mainly, in the future, while adults want to have at their disposal useful language that they can use immediately. The time perspective adopted by them is clearly different from that of children/ teenagers and this, of course, influences the learning and teaching processes. The wealth of experiences that adults have helps them understand faster concepts, contexts and think about abstract ideas. This ability combined with their interest in their social and professional development can play a very important role in their motivation and performance in language learning.

Language familiarity and language learning experience.

Adults have prior language experience in their development of L1 and their existing L2 experience, no matter how limited that could be, and this means they have already developed their cognitive style, have their own ways of processing information and have established their own learning schemata. Their ability to think about language consciously and explicitly gives them a clear advantage. This learning experience does not come without a cost, though. It shapes their expectations about the course, the role of the teacher, the teaching methods adopted. They may even have strong feelings about the language and the people who use it and this can easily influence their learning.

Clear purpose and increased motivation.

Adult learners usually have a clear purpose when they decide to study English and this influences their motivation levels. Their motivation seems to have its origins in the context they find themselves, i.e. it is instrumental. If they are young adults, for example, they may wish to improve their language skills in order to meet the study requirements of English-speaking universities in their countries or abroad.

Professionals may need to use English at work, because they may work for a multinational company where English is the language of communication or their employer may be interested in expanding their business internationally and would like their employees to be proficient in English. Other, more or less experienced, professionals may wish to pursue a career abroad and need to improve their skills to do so successfully.

So what do you think? Adult learners seem to have all these strengths. But is teaching adults challenge-free? You may wonder. Of course not! That would be too good to be true. There are considerable difficulties, too, which we’ll look at below.


Limited time

Limited time for classes and home study – Adults don’t often have a lot of time at their disposal for classes or home study which, of course, comes at no surprise, since they have family professional and social responsibilities. This problem can demotivate them and result in stress, poor psychology [e.g. feelings of inadequacy and fear of failure], and self-image issues.


Demotivation and low self-esteem – These could result from the time restrictions mentioned above, but there also seems to be a strong interrelation between demotivation and previous negative language learning experiences and negative learner self-image. Adults sometimes comment on their limited language skills by saying things like ‘studying languages isn’t for me’, ‘I’ve never been good at languages’ or ‘I’m at this age and I still haven’t learned English’. They tend to have misconceptions about language learning, which can’t easily change as you’ll see in point

Resistance to change

Previous learning experience, learner style and strategies resistant to change. When we talked about strengths in the previous section, we said that past general learning and language learning experience can be one of the strengths of adult learners, but this experience can also have its disadvantages. The fact that experienced learners have their own views and specific expectations about the course, teacher and learner roles and teaching methods adopted could have a negative effect on learning.

Incompatibility on views and attitudes between learners and teachers and learner reluctance to adopt new roles can result in learner limited participation, passivity and resistance to change views and attitudes. This can lead to some friction between teacher and learner and sabotage the teaching and learning process.

After analysing the strengths and the weaknesses of adults in Part 1, we’ll have a look at the opportunities and threats in two separate parts.

  • Part 2 which will focus on how we can further strengthen adult strengths and turn them into opportunities.
  • Part 3 will explore how we can control the negative effect of the weaknesses and reduce any possible threats.

So, if you’d like to find out how to work on strengths and weaknesses for better teaching and learning results, there’s more coming! Watch out for Parts 2 and 3 of this article that will be published in the forthcoming issues!

Part 2 Adult Strengths and opportunities, and tips that work

This Part will examine how adult strengths, which were analysed in Part 1 [published in July in] can become opportunities and provide some advice on how we can do that during our lessons. Our aim is to increase the positive effect of the strengths and facilitate language learning.

Turning adult strengths into opportunities:

When adults understand that age and life experience are resources for further learning, they become better learners. They are very successful when they develop for themselves learning objectives that directly match their language needs. It’s also very important if course content is closely related to individual past experiences and present concerns. Learning must always be relevant to life experiences and immediate communication needs. They always need to see the reasons why they’re taught something and they enjoy task or problem-centred tasks.

Emphasise similarities

The language learning experience and metalanguage skills [e.g. ability to talk about L1 and L2, recognising similarities and differences in structures, remembering forms, distinguishing emerging, recurring or recognizable language patterns] can increase learner self-esteem by creating a sense of achievement.

Having a clear purpose

The fact that adults usually have a clear purpose for studying helps a lot with need analysis and course design. Each adult learner seems to have their own unique reasons for studying English, so tailor-made courses that meet these individual needs can be designed and offered to them. A course which caters for specific language needs and is based on purposeful tasks can make the whole experience rewarding and influence learner motivation positively.

Practical tips on how to exploit the opportunities:

Life experience is an advantage

We should show learners that their age and life experience give them an advantage in their learning process. This will actually bust the myth that learning languages at an older age is impossible. Learner background knowledge and life-experience should be used in order to demonstrate that they have world knowledge which they can use while building new language knowledge. We should also explain the connection between course content [what they learn] and their learning goals [why they learn something] and show them the practical value of specific classroom activities. In addition, when you use task-based activities, their need for immediate application of knowledge is met, so including such kind of activities is highly recommended.

Focus on Fluency

Focusing on fluency and meaningful communication rather than accuracy at the beginning of the course is essential. Avoid using terms such as grammar or tenses [choose ‘functions’ or ‘language context’ instead], since adult learners are usually more interested in meaning and the communicational purposes of language and dislike rules and theory about language. They may have already found themselves in situations when they’ve known the rules about the language, but couldn’t use them appropriately to communicate. They need and want to be able to understand and express ideas and not memorise rules, so we should create opportunities for them to use what they know for real communication.We should constantly use every opportunity to activate existing knowledge about language learning in general.

Do a needs analysis

We should carry out a detailed needs analysis with learner assistance before the start of the course. Learner communication needs have to be specified, learning objectives defined and a course that meets these needs and takes into account learner style and preferences should be designed. Needs analysis, learning objectives and course content should be reviewed regularly following discussions with the learner who plays an active role on the development of the course. Learning goals, activities and communication purpose are closely interrelated and learners should be made aware of this and be constantly reminded of this connection. When this is done, they work harder and perform better and this feeds the cycle of success, improved self-esteem, more work, more success and so on.

Help them recognise their strengths

When teaching adults, it is essential to help them recognise their strengths, because they tend to focus on their weaknesses, explain the language learning process, teach them useful techniques and strategies for learning, and involve them in course design. If we adopt this approach, learners will not only develop language and communication skills, but also be able to transfer these skills to similar contexts beyond classroom and become autonomous learners and communicators.

PART 3 Adult weaknesses

This part will examine how adult weaknesses, which were analysed in Part 1 [published in July], can turn into threats and sabotage language learning. Specific advice on what to do in order to prevent this will be provided. Our aim is to reduce the negative effect of weaknesses and encourage learners to focus on making the best use of their existing skills, instead of criticising themselves for their absence or limitations in specific areas.

Weaknesses becoming threats that can undermine learning:

  • Adults often have limited time for attending classes and self-study and this can lead to an inability to meet course requirements, attendance irregularities and time management issues which in turn can result in poor performance, little progress in learning, learner disappointment, even withdrawal from the course.

  • Low self-esteem can lead to demotivation, poor results, limited progress, low confidence and all these can undermine language learning. Positive psychology is essential in language learning. A positive attitude, confidence and high self-esteem help learners focus on their goals and plan their study and these can be success factors.

  • Previous language experiences can have a negative effect on teaching and learning as they can shape learner expectations about how they should be taught. It’s not unusual for them to wish to do things in the way they used to when they first studied the language. They tend to compare previous language experiences with new ones, love interfering in our teaching approach and more than often they’re reluctant to modify their learning style. This attitude is usually due to he fact that when asked to adopt new learner roles [e.g. managers of their own learning, need analysts, collaborators and team members] they may feel intimidated and stressed by the novelty of the situation.

  • They may also believe that this is incompatible with their previous experiences of learner and teacher roles. For example, if asked to describe their learning goals and suggest course content, they may blame the teachers for not knowing what they’re doing or complain that a course is unstructured and unfocused.

Practical tips on avoiding the development of weaknesses into threats

  • Learners who struggle with the aspects of time-management, study schedule and habits should be provided with guidance. Students should create a study timetable and stick to it. For example, they could choose two non-consecutive weekdays and specify the time they’ll use for home study [e.g. Monday and Wednesday, 6.30 – 8.30 p.m.]. It’s also essential they have their own study space, away from distractions. In addition, they need help in setting doable specific learning goals and should be assigned homework that can be completed within the time available. When adult learners manage to complete set home study tasks, they have a sense of achievement which boosts their confidence and self-esteem.

  • During the first lessons show learners that they already have some English language skills and stress the importance of positive psychology and attitude towards language learning and demonstrate their development as learners. At various stages ask adults to self-assess their learning and help them create lists of strengths comprising of their accomplishments and aspects of language they have improved.


Moreover, encourage them to commit themselves to working on specific language aspects with a view to developing their skills. For example, if they say that they need to improve their grammar, ask them to specify which aspects of grammar they need to work on. Helping them specify their needs is the first step towards meeting them. When adults work towards clear and achievable goals and see the immediate and specific results of what they’re doing, their self-image is improved, because they can see that they receive their return on investment of their time and money through the development of their skills.

 At the very start of the course teacher and learners need to talk about course expectations

including aspects such as roles, content, teaching methods]. New learner roles [needs analyst, collaborator, team member] should be clearly defined and explained in detail.

Teachers have at their disposal special orientation activities to help learners familiarise themselves with these roles and demonstrate their significance in learning. In addition, we should raise learner awareness about aspects of teacher roles [e.g. facilitator and consultant] which may be unknown to learners.

Features and benefits of innovation in teaching and learning should also be clearly communicated to learners. They need to realize that teaching methods are different now as a result of research into language acquisition. Because of these changes, it should be stressed to them that they simply cannot expect that the classes they attend now are the like those they did when they first attended English language classes. You also need to constantly monitor learner changing needs and preferences.

Help them specify their goals

When teaching adults, we should get them involved in coming up with ways to overcome their weaknesses, help them specify their goals and discuss with them their changing needs. If they are aware of their aim and work with materials which match their needs, they’ll focus on the course and find that their effort is rewarded when they improve their skills.

And, if they stay focused on what they’re doing, they won’t think of their weaknesses, but the tangible course benefits. If they feel responsible for what they’re doing, they’ll be more motivated and think positively about their experience. Through all these, adult learner focus will change from what they can’t do to what they can so, so their perceived weaknesses will not turn into threats that can affect their learning.


This article examined the ‘bright’ and the ‘dark’ side of SWOT analysis for adult learners by looking at strengths and opportunities arisen from these strengths as well as the weaknesses that adults often exhibit, the negative effect of these weaknesses in teaching and learning.

We’ve also looked at how we can work in order to increase the huge potential that adult learners have and ways to limit the influence of weaknesses and how to minimize threats. The SWOT analysis provided here is by no means a comprehensive one, but I think that it has given us a good overview of what to expect, and this, I hope, will help us in our teaching.

I’d love to hear from you about your experiences of teaching adults. What are the sources of pleasure of working with them or areas that you’ve struggled with?


  • Cook Vivian (2001) Second Language Learning and Teaching (3rd ed.) London: Arnold
  • Mckay, H. & Tom, A (2000) Teaching adult second language learners. New York: Cambridge University Press
  • Nunan David (1988) The learner-centred Curriculum. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press:
  • Richards Jack (2001) Curriculum development in Language Teaching. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

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