Motivating adults/ Teaching advanced learners

In November 2015 I had the pleasure of attending the Oxford Teachers’ Autumn Seminar, hosted at ELC in Brighton. Around 50 teachers and ELT practitioners attended the event, for which OUP arranged a book display and provided refreshments, and teacher trainer Verissimo Toste was also there to give two short talks.

Verissimo’s first talk was on Motivating Adult Learners, which began by identifying characteristics of adult (as opposed to young) learners and looked at ways of creating activities for adult learners which would in turn motivate them to develop classroom practices such that they become habits and tools for self-study.  As Verissimo stated, adult learners

  • bring a range of life experiences into the classroom
  • want to apply their learning outside the classroom
  • want a certain amount of autonomy

In fact I don’t think these points apply solely to adult learners.  Younger learners also bring a range of life experiences into the classroom, for example – albeit different experiences – but the challenge for us as teachers is supporting those learners in identifying and articulating their experiences, which for adults are perhaps more readily accessible.

Verissimo took us through several activities during the session, two of which particularly stuck in my mind.  One was a grammar or language review activity in which learners complete a sentence on a scrap of paper or post it note, which the teacher then collects, selecting a couple to share with the class.  The example Verissimo used was “When I was younger I used to…” and when sharing with the group asked “When you were younger, did you use to…?” – modelling the form several times before requiring students to do so, essentially making the activity a more varied and interesting way of drilling.  Having collected the scraps of paper though, teachers can return to the activity at other point in the lesson (or subsequent lessons), revisiting and reviewing the same language point.

Asking learners to complete sentences with real-world examples of course makes the activity more personalised and thus memorable, but in all honesty again I didn’t feel this was exclusive for adult learners, and is something I strongly believe that teachers should all be doing as much as possible anyway, so didn’t feel that this was any new revelation.

Verissmo went on to talk about using graded readers, giving students less time to read than they need in order to peak their interest and encourage them to read more outside the classroom.  I must admit I’m a little sceptical about this idea, as so much depends on the complexity of the language classroom, (the individual learners in relation to the material at any given moment).  I did enjoy the subsequent activity though, in which learners select important words in the text, going on to justify their choices and create a word search of their chosen items.  Our tendency here as teachers though is to use the materials in the class amongst the group – students testing their peers, whereas what Verissimo was suggesting was that we return to the same tasks (in this case the word search) several days or a week later, giving them not to peers to complete but to their original creator.

What particularly appealed to me about this activity is the concept of self-testing – getting learners to write their own testing materials – which I’m a great advocate of for both its motivational factor and because it fosters learner autonomy.

Verissimo also proposed a number of discussion questions to use in class when learners are reading different texts at home: ‘what would your character do if they won a million pounds?’, ‘where would they go on holiday?’, ‘what did they do last weekend?’ to name a few examples.  That the questions can be applicable to any character in any context means that learners can describe and discuss their texts, as well as using their imagination and critical thinking skills to answer the questions.

With regard to reading, Verissimo summarised by saying that if students enjoy what they read then they’re motivated to make reading a habit, and reading can become a learning tool (nothing particularly surprising here).  Whether the activities would motivate learners to read in the first place would depend very much on the context in which we’re working (and all its component parts).   Reflecting on the content of this part of the session, the activities seemed to me to be more of an (albeit motivating) aid to learning than an inspiration to actually start reading.

The second talk, entitled Advancing Advanced Learners, began by examining the characteristics of advanced learners, and discussing how, as teachers, we need to refine their level of English by making them aware of where they need to improve by noticing their current difficulties and addressing, rather than avoiding, these issues.  I’ll describe here two activities that I particularly liked and anticipate using with my own students.

The first requires learners to look at a series of sentences and identify the mistakes.  The sentences contained a range of different types of mistake, from spelling to collocation to punctuation, and initially Verissimo told us there were 10 in total.  In actual fact there were only 9, but by telling the group there are more mistakes than there actually are, we make them work harder to re-check the text to see what they’ve missed.  The activity encourages deeper learning by challenging learners and prompting further discussion about the relationship between form and meaning.

Another task gives students a collection of (5) words and asks them to write a sentence using all of the words, so that the learners create the grammar.  I tried this out the following day with a group of B2 learners and found it to be a really nice segue into a topic I wanted them to discuss.  It’s one of those activities with a great deal of room for extension as the sentences that learners create provide a lot of stimulus, not only for discussion but also closer analysis of language.

Both of Verissimo’s talks seemed to be well received by the teachers present, and contained some interesting and useful activities along the vein of Demand High and critical thinking – both areas that I believe to be extremely important in the ELT classroom.

by Jade Blue