On teaching adult english learners

Social and economic changes in our society brought along the necessity of constant and continual education of an adult person. In modern conditions, knowledge obtained at school or university is not enough for successful career advancement. Within the lifetime period, it is necessary for a person to enlarge his knowledge, raise his educational level. Nowadays a person can do nothing without the English language due to the close economic relations of our country with foreign countries. Transition to market economy raised the situation when many people have to acquire new knowledge, skills and experience. This situation is especially troublesome for adults.

The group who suffered most from the unfavorable socio-political situation was the middle-aged group. This group also does not want to "give up." They want to tune in to the times of change and learn English, which in many cases they now need for their career. Their younger colleagues, people who graduated from universities just several years ago when the educational institutions had not yet started to see foreign language learning as a priority, also have a lot to catch up with. They did learn some English, but one could hardly call them fluent speakers of the language. So they too take up English courses. However, such people need special methods of teaching English.

First, it is important to determine an adult person. There are many definitions to adulthood. Y. Kulyutkin, a famous andrologist, defines an adult person in the following way: “An adult person is a socially formed person, able to make his own decisions according to the norms and demands of the society. It is a person who leads a great variety of lives: production, social, private… He makes decisions by himself and controls his behavior” [4].

An adult person has a high level of selfcomprehension: he perceives himself as a selfmanaged and independent person in economic, judicial and psychological spheres. An important distinguishing feature of an adult person is a great volume of life experience: household, professional and social.

Thus according to the key concepts, S. Zmeyev, another famous andrologist, gives the following definition to “an adult person”: an adult person is a person who possesses physiological, psychological, social and moral maturity, economic independence, life experience and the level of self-awareness enough for a responsible self-controlled behavior. [2] He states that an adult learner is determined as a person who has five basic characteristics, which differ him from “non-adult” learners:

  1. He realizes himself to be an independent self-controlled person;
  2. He accumulates great life experience (household, professional and social)
  3. His motivation is explained by his wish to tackle his life and professional aims and reach concrete objectives with the help of educational activities;
  4. He strives for quick implementation of his knowledge and skills;
  5. His educational activity is determined by time, professional, household, professional and social factors.

In common, these factors influence the whole process of learning and demand quite different organization of the learning process.

Due to the definitions of an adult person, it is necessary to rely on these characteristics that are to expect him to treat the process of learning in a responsible and conscious way. Moreover, as an adult person does real work, his interest in studying will be connected with the basic professional activities and other social roles. That is why an adult person will pursue concrete practical and real aims. It is also quite clear, if an adult person ventures educational activities, so it means he has a great motivation in it. With the help of studying adults want to tackle some life and professional problems, e.g. communication with colleagues from foreign countries, business trips or reading professional literature. Furthermore, an adult person wants to practice the knowledge, skills obtained in the process of studying in the shortest period of time.

If an adult person treats his studying responsibly, first he assesses his real possibilities and abilities.

What are the possibilities and abilities of adults to studying? Can they study well? These are quite important and difficult questions. It depends on physiological, social and other factors that influence the learning process of an adult person.

Naturally, with age some physiological functions of human body connected with the process of learning weaken a bit (eyesight, memory, thinking processes). But, first, these negative phenomena appear after 50. Second, at the same time some positive characteristics come: life experience, thoroughness, ratiocination, inclination for analysis, etc. [5]

The researches in the sphere of psychology showed that the learning potential of adults from 20 to 60 does not change essentially. And the teacher’s task is to take into account all age-dependent psychophysiological features of adults while organizing the teaching English process.

An adult learner is short of time because of his family and work duties, so he has little time left for studying. However, the main difficulties of an adult learner at the process of learning are of psychological character [1].

Why does it happen? Why do adults start their studying with mixed feelings of hope, expectations and anxiety, and even fear? Because, on the one hand, striving for a needful aim they really want to achieve it and change for better their life, work, position in the society, but on the other hand, they have fear of taken responsibility for their study. Adults are anxious about their abilities to learning, to reveal their incompetence in the given field, to lose in comparison with other learners. Some adult people feel discomfort at the idea of coming back to school, desks, studying.

To help adults to overcome their fear of studying, it is necessary for a teacher to know adults’ way of thinking when they enter the language courses classroom, and therefore to organize the process of teaching in a correct way.

P. Davies and M. Rinvolucri look at the problem of anxiety by examining the classroom environment and explaining circumstances in which adult learners may feel insecure [6]. Some classroom situations make students feel that they are constantly being judged, they are isolated, and they lack control. Often teachers neglect the atmosphere in the group and the behaviour of classmates lie at the root of such feelings of insecurity.

Teachers may not realize that they are often judgmental to their students in the classroom. They may show approval or disapproval verbally as well as by their body language. There are cases when teachers openly mocked their students or praised them without smiling or making eye contact, thus making their positive reinforcement seem insincere.

A powerful manifestation of a teacher’s judgment is error correction. Whether the teacher corrects the error explicitly, by providing the correction, or implicitly, by indicating the kind of error and giving the student the opportunity for self-correction, can make a difference. The latter technique gives adult learners another chance and tells them that they are capable of self-correction, while the former technique carries the message “You do not meet our requirements.” Such a message can also be communicated when the teacher answers her own questions before students can do so they, a very common classroom practice. It is not surprising that weak students, who need more positive feedback than their more proficient classmates, get less time (and teacher’s patience) to answer than high achievers in the class. They are just ignored by the teacher.

Adult learners are also judgmental when they express their approval or disapproval, show impatience, or mock one another. The teacher can control this behavior; as in many cases, it reveals in a competitive classroom atmosphere. If the teacher eliminates or minimizes competition for the sake of collaboration, there will be fewer opportunities for judgmental behavior by classmates. All the sneers, giggles, and snide remarks manifested by the show-off and aimed at winning teacher approval are out of place if the teacher makes it clear that students are expected to work together toward a common goal.

Adult learners may feel isolated if they are made to feel anonymous. Teachers should use students’ names when eliciting and asking questions [6]. Every student in the classroom is a person first, with a family, hobbies, likes, and dislikes. It is the task of the teacher to tactfully enquire about those areas of the student’s life and to get other students interested in them.

Feeling isolated may also be caused by feeling disregarded. Very often teachers tend to have their favorite students. Their favoritism is manifested in classrooms mainly by inconsistent error correction and unfair distribution of turns. The best-liked students have more opportunities to speak and their errors are often disregarded.

Students may also feel isolated if they feel deserted by the teacher left on their own in a classroom where no assistance is received from the teacher. Furthermore, adult learners have every reason to feel isolated if, in addition, they find that learning a foreign language is reduced to drills and has no connection to real life situations.

The feeling of being alone among one’s adult learners is not uncommon in highly territorial classrooms in which students never want to change their seats or switch conversation partners. Thus, peer favoritism, with manifestations similar to teacher favoritism, can contribute to feelings of isolation.

The arrangement of desks can also create or contribute to isolation inside the classroom. If students do not face one another, or if someone has a place that does not allow eye contact with the teacher and fellow students, feelings of not belonging will grow.

The failure to manage classroom discourse is the main reason students sometimes feel they are being deprived of control. When turn stealing replaces turn taking such feelings can occur. If a student is always late to answer a general solicit and personal solicits directed to him are frequently appropriated by others, the student will feel he lacks control over his role in classroom interaction. Similar feelings may occur if group members are not willing to listen to one another, openly show lack of interest, or interrupt the speaker. The teacher’s explanations, if unclear or unsatisfactory, may lead to comparable frustration, and the learners feel they have no control over the language as a system. Finally, the feeling of loss of control may be caused by a domineering, controlling teacher, who leaves students feeling that they have no influence over what is going on in the classroom.

A fourth aspect of the inhibiting language classroom has to do with feeling unworthy. If a course is held in sub-standard premises and taught by an unqualified teacher, students may subconsciously assume, “I get what I deserve.” In other words, if students receive substandard teaching, then they are likely to believe they are substandard learners.

There is a wrong statement that adult learners who feel anxious during the process of learning a foreign language cannot succeed in mastering languages. However, comparing such students with more successful learners A. Turula discovered that it is much harder for anxious adult learners to achieve success in this sphere [11].

Thus, a teacher should take into consideration all psychological characteristics of adults to make the process of learning for an adult learner much easier. An adult learner wants the learning process to meet all his expectations. Theoretical material should be given briefly and effectively. The content of texts and exercises should raise his interest. The methods, on the one hand, should coincide his ability to perceive the knowledge consciously, and on the other hand, to provide an active and cheery lesson after an intense working day.



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  11. Turula, A. 2004. ‘Language Anxiety and Classroom Dynamics: A study of Adult Learners’. English Teaching Forum, vol. 40, no 4.
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Year: 2012
City: Oskemen
Category: Philology