Teaching ESL to Adults: Effective Strategies and Tips • Grade University

How to Teach English to Adults: Effective Tips and Activities for ESL Teachers

How to Teach English to Adults: Effective Tips and Activities for ESL Teachers


  • Writing
  • Speaking
  • Listening
  • Reading
  • Grammar
  • Teaching qualifications
  • Activities
  • Tips & Strategies
  • Methodology

When it comes to teaching English as a second language, not only the difference between beginners and advanced learners matters.

Teaching ESL to adults is not the same as teaching ESL to youngsters.  On the one hand, you are still teaching the same material, but on the other hand, you need different activities, approaches, and strategies. 

So, in this article, we are going to discuss how to teach English to adults and what activities you can implement at various stages of your lessons to make them more engaging and relevant. 

Interested in tips for teaching teens?

Teaching adults vs teaching children: what are the differences?

Contrary to pedagogy, which turns out to be a science of teaching children, andragogy, according to the Cambridge Dictionary, is the theory, methods, and activities involved in teaching adult learners. 

It states that teaching adults requires different approaches and methods as adult students are more motivated, self-directed, etc. 

While the exact timeline of when teachers started using andragogy principles in TEFL/TESL may vary, it is safe to say that the concept gained momentum in the latter half of the 20th century and has since significantly contributed to the development of effective approaches to teaching English to adult learners.

Malcolm Knowles, a pioneer in the field of adult education, popularized the concept of andragogy.  

As Knowles’ ideas gained recognition, educators in various fields, including TEFL/TESL, started to adapt and integrate andragogy principles into their instructional practices.

Let’s take a closer look at how Knowles’ key assumptions can be applied to  teaching ESL to adult students and consider general requirements for an ESL teacher who works with  the grown-up.

More tips on being as ESL professional

Key assumptions

  1. Self-concept: Adults are more autonomous and don’t like being taught explicitly. The preferred method of learning shifts from the instructor-led to a more self-directed one as we become older.
  2. Learning from Experience: Adult students are much more experienced than children as they have already mastered at least one language and developed certain learning patterns as a result of o their prior studying experience which may either ease the teacher’s work or make it extremely hard.
  3. Readiness to Learn: Adults are much more ready to work hard because studying English is directly linked to some other circumstances of their lives: getting a promotion, going abroad, etc.

Be ready to deal with any challenges of an ESL/EFL classroom

Study with our course
  1. Immediate Applications: Adult students look for the information that can be applicable to their everyday lives  straight away. If not, as statistics show, within one hour all the information you have discussed will be forgotten by 25% of average adults, while within one week the number rises to 85%.
  2. Internally Motivated: Unlike children, adults have control over their own motivation which may be high or low due to numerous reasons. That is why keeping topics goal-oriented usually increases motivation.
  3. Need to Know: Adult students often want to know why they are supposed to study something and where this topic leads them.  

Four Principles of Andragogy

Given that adults learn in their own special way, four guiding concepts describe  how to design training for them most effectively:

  1. Adults need and want to be active in the planning, delivery, and choosing the materials when it comes to learning ESL.
  2. When adults can incorporate prior knowledge into the learning process, they benefit more. 
  3. The best approach for adults to learn isn’t through  memorization of data and facts. To better process the information, students should use logic, intuition, context and authentic materials.
  4. Adults are interested in learning how they can use certain information right after they obtain it, so if you want your lesson to be successful, always give them an answer to this question at some point of the lesson. 

How to contextualize grammar?

Making teaching ESL to adults more engaging

Now as we know these peculiarities of teaching ESL to adults, it’s important to understand how to use them in practice, which activities and strategies to choose, and how to organize the lesson effectively. 

Here are some of our ideas of what you can do with your students as an ESL teacher for adults.

Reading activities

Scavenger Hunt Reading

Main idea: ask students to read a text and find certain information (pieces of grammar, particular words or expressions).

The tutor  chooses any newspaper, magazine, short story or even an extract of a novel that suits the lesson’s topic and asks students to find certain information: examples of grammar, vocabulary or functional language. 

This task requires students to be attentive and thoughtful as well as know what exactly they are looking for.

You may add a bit of competitiveness to this task and ask students to complete the assignment within  a limited period of time. 

Main idea: divide students into groups and present them a certain phrase on the screen. Groups have to read the phrase and take turns giving phrases that mean the same thing. The group that comes up with a bigger number  of phrases wins.

The teacher will need to create slides for this exercise that show one frequently used statement at a time

Students should also be divided into two teams. The teams’ aim would be to personify, metaphorize, or use any figurative language to rephrase the statement that was presented on the screen. 

For instance, you might alternatively say “It takes my breath away” instead of “it excites me.” 

Each team may use a certain phrase only once, and if they are unable to come up with a new original way to express it, they lose that round. The winning team is the one with the biggest number  of synonymous phrases

This task is competitive and requires a great deal of creativity. 

Moreover, it is perfect for revising idioms or any other type of vocabulary. It also gives a better grasp of how figurative language can be used in everyday contexts.

Want your students to master the idioms?

Where’s My Pair?

Main idea: students get pieces of the text and need to combine them into  one logical piece. 

The teacher prepares some texts and cuts them into pieces, after they are given to the students, one for every person. 

Students have to move around the classroom and look for a groupmate who has the part they need for their text to be continued. 

To make the activity more difficult, pick up texts on different topics or different points of view on the same issue. 

Also, include some extra parts to make the task even more complicated. 

This is a great task to increase students’ attentiveness, improve their  close reading and negotiation skills. 

Also, it works perfectly well if you need to work on the form of some piece of writing (letter of complaint, opinion essay etc.)

Writing activities

Reality Focus

Main idea: the tutor assigns to write a certain type of text and after asks their partner to give feedback. 

This is thought to be one of the most practical activities on the list. 

Adult students often have to know how to write a lot of different things: job applications, news articles, blogs, e-mails, interviews – the list goes on. 

Why don’t you help your students with mastering writing this kind of text? The only thing you need to do is to assign a writing task by completing which students unlock an important practical skill. 

To make the task more interesting you can divide students into  pairs and ask them to check their partners’ pieces of writing and evaluate them. It is especially useful when it comes to writing something like a job application, CV, motivation letter etc. 

Struggling with planning a writing lesson?

The Opening Sentence

Main idea: the teacher chooses the  opening sentence of a famous novel or short story and asks students to improvise on the further content of the story.

If we look at the majority of famous books’ beginning sentences, they actually look pretty intriguing because they aim  to grab the reader’s attention right from the start. 

Choose the first sentence of your favorite novel and give it to your students. Ask them to think about the possible ways to continue it. They may work individually or in groups. 

It is a really unconventional way of practicing writing, applying the new grammar rules or new vocabulary

After your students are done with the task, you may ask them to present their ideas in front of the class. It usually turns out to be extremely fun and engaging.

Listening activities

The Art of Listening

Main idea: the teacher gives verbal instructions which students need to carefully follow in order to create something with their own hands. 

DIY and painting are not only for kids! Adults also enjoy doing that from time to time. That is why you may introduce this unconventional type of listening to your students especially during some festival times  like Christmas.

The idea is pretty simple: students get a blank piece of paper or some uncolored picture. They need to carefully listen to your instructions and perform the actions you tell them to do. 

It turns out to be a peaceful and highly interactive activity after which students get some visible results of their efforts and choices.

The good  news is that you can easily adapt this task for other topics

For example, you may give students a map of the city and ask them to build a root from point A to point B by following your instructions. 

Moreover, it can be simply turned into a pair activity where one student gives instructions and the other performs actions. 

Discover the pros of using authentic materials

Who Said It?

Main idea: the teacher uses listening to famous quotations from the movies to teach new vocabulary, functional language or grammar.

We all adore movies and television shows. 

What could possibly be better than using the language from these films to teach people how to listen better? There are two methods to carry out exercises like this. 

The first option is to broadcast a movie or a television program to your adult students. They must pay close attention to each and every conversation. 

After that, you ask your students who stated a certain phrase. What did the character say when he lost his job, for example? 

Asking adults about famous quotes from movies and TV shows is the second approach to playing this game. 

Additionally, they may share their favorite lines from a certain series, episode, or film.

Speaking activities

Just a Minute/ Short Talk

Main idea: the student is supposed to use as many new phrases as they can in  only one minute. After that, the tutor and students provide feedback.

“Just a minute” is a great revisional speaking activity

You give students only one minute to present the topic you have discussed in the previous lesson. You may create a list of tenses or words which your student has to use in their speech during the minute. 

Start the countdown and after the student does their best completing the task, provide them with the feedback. 

This task is also a great way of practicing talking during a limited time which is a common task for many English level exams. 

When should we correct speaking mistakes?


To sum up, teaching ESL to adults indeed requires both understanding of appropriate techniques and pursuing working on certification

If you are interested in getting to know more about the peculiarities of teaching to adults, in finding out more about the most effective teaching tips and becoming an ESL teacher for adults, join Grade University’s courses to get even more professional advice

If you are looking for methodological support in teaching ESL for adults, you may need such courses on how to teach English for adults:

Now, let’s sum up everything we have learnt about teaching adults by answering some questions.

Adults don't need to know why they are learning certain material

Article authors & editors
  • Arina Kravchenko

    Arina Kravchenko


    Teacher of General English & IELTS



Leave your comment