Who are My Students? The Adult ESL Learner

Teacher teaching classGetting to know your ESL learners should be one of your top priorities. Here are a few characteristics of adult learners to keep in mind.

Adult Learners may:

  • Represent a wide range of educational backgrounds. They may have from little to no formal education in their native language, to completion of university and advanced degrees in their native languages. In addition, they may or may not have some previous education in English and/or in the United States.
  • Be goal-oriented and highly motivated. They have come to you for a specific reason. Their goal(s) may be long or short term. They should be involved in sharing and setting their learning goals.
  • Bring different skills, interests, backgrounds, and life experiences to the learning situation. They have rich life experiences, and the instructor should capitalize on this diversity in the learning environment.
  • Want or need immediate application. Adult learners need to apply what they are learning. The learning tasks must be practical, have a clear purpose, and directly relate to their everyday lives.
  • Have different learning styles. Adult learners often relate to their previous educational experiences. Some may learn by doing, others by listening, speaking, reading, or writing. Many students learn better when there are visuals (pictures) or realia (real things, such as articles of clothing) to use.
  • Be very busy. They may work more than one job in addition to going to school and taking care of their families. They may be tired during class and have difficulty staying on task for long periods of time.
  • Have different levels of proficiency. Student levels may differ in listening, speaking, reading, and writing in both their first and second languages.
  • Have a poor self-concept. Many people do not see themselves as learners. Some do not think they can learn or that they know how to learn.

Excerpted from the ESOL Starter Kit, Virginia Adult Learning Resource Center. October 2002, p. C-2.

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