3 things I’ve learnt from kids classes about teaching adults

Flickr -  woodleywonderworks

Flickr – woodleywonderworks

Next week is “la rentrée” in Dijon, meaning that all the kids are going back to school after their two-month holidays. I remember when I was younger our summer holidays felt like they lasted an eternity and I always almost forgot what school by the time I needed to go back. Some of the French kids I know have been to summer camps in the mountains and having fun zip-lining, rock climbing and visiting fun parks. This week, however, is the week where they start preparing for next week’s classes and I am lucky enough to be able to work with a couple of kids one-on-one to get them back up to speed. I spend most of my time working with adults and these kids classes have really got me thinking about some similarities and differences between working with kids and adults.

Here are some of the things I’ve been thinking about:

  • Some kids are shy, so are some adults. We need to make them comfortable.

Two of my 11-12 year-old students are really shy. In our first classes they had real troubles saying “hello” or even “bonjour”. This has absolutely nothing to do with their English ability, but rather their shyness. But by no means is this something exclusive to kids. I have also had adult classes where certain students were initially afraid of speaking, in a group setting in particular. Perhaps they were afraid of making a mistake or felt that their level wasn’t as high as that of their classmates. In my experience the French school system is more lecture-based, where students are expected to listen and take notes rather than use the language they are learning. This could partly explain why kids can have a hard time speaking and why adult students, who learnt in the same setting, have the same difficulties.

So how can we make speaking easier for kids and adults? I think it’s important to go gently in each case to begin with, until you’ve built some rapport and made them comfortable with anyone else they’re working with. Another thing to think about is keeping it relevant. I remember my CELTA trainer Mo Killup telling me about a trainee who had designed a lesson that included a ten-minute freer practice activity where students were asked to “discuss the differences between Beethoven and Mozart, and tell your partner which you prefer”. Needless to say this activity bombed, given that this group of students was not made up of classical music buffs. Just as I’ve had to take the time to figure out what my younger students are into (one likes koalas and another likes fastfood and martial arts), my adult students also respond better to topics they know about and are interested in.

  • Kids like songs and games. Adults too can learn better using them.

My first fun-sized student was a ten-year-old boy who loved everything musical and had ants in his pants. He wanted to dance, sing and jump around. After making the rookie mistake of wearing high heels to the first lesson, every week I dressed for a workout. We covered actions with “Simon says” (run, jump, stand up, sit down, turn around) as well as singing songs for learning animals and body parts. One of his favourite games was running to post-it notes with different vocabulary items spread around the room. Is a game-based and song-based approach appropriate for adults? Absolutely! Keeping in mind that business English students probably don’t want to be seen singing in front of their colleagues, or running around the room sweating in their suits. Adults enjoy a challenge every bit as much as children do. Games with competition between colleagues (for example the ‘circle board game‘ can lighten up the dullest vocabulary revision exercise. Throw a ball around the room for grammar drills, eliminate students as they make mistakes and it will all of a sudden become more of a challenge. Teaching kids reminds me that it’s always possible to teach whatever I’m teaching in a more stimulating way.

  • Kids like and need repetition. So do adult learners.

Last summer I had the opportunity to teach some groups of kindergarten-aged kids (4-5 years old) everyday for two weeks. Our theme was Julia Donaldson’s the Gruffalo, a mystical beast who lives in the forest with his little animal friends. On the first day, after our “hello, how are you?” song and a few flash card games, I read the book to the class. They sat and listened, and one or two were already telling me the names of the animals on the pages. On the second day, near the end of the class, we read the same book again, this time looking not only at the animals but also at the different colours. The kids really enjoyed it and more of them were participating. On the third day I figured they could do with a little variety (or perhaps the reality of the situation was that I was bored of reading the book again and again, and naively assumed my students were feeling the same way). I gave them a colouring activity which they were happy with, but when they were done and I told them the class was over, they were absolutely gutted that they couldn’t read the book again and tell me he names if all the animals. The following day when we did read the book, even the quieter kids were participating and telling me the animals and colours hey saw.

I think that deciding how many times to review content with any particular students, is a skill that is developed through experience. Over time I’ve become better in tune with students’ needs and won’t hesitate before I squeeze in extra review. It can never hurt to present target language in a new way and to make students more just a little more familiar with it.

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