Talking Adults

In response to ‘Useful Thoughts on Teaching Adults’ – Applying these principles to my teaching context.
By Paul Finnerty

Just as I was about to sit down and embark on an article about how to cater to the needs of adult learners of English, I came across a great piece on here by Maroussa Pavli in the February 2018 edition which pretty much covered what I was going to describe.

So, I’d like to build on what was written in Pavli’s article and apply it to my own teaching context in Bari, south Italy.

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Why do adults study English?

Pavli mentioned a range of reasons why adults studied English, including preparation for further academic study, the ambition to get a job abroad and the desire to communicate with other English speakers.

I’ve selected two of my adult groups, both of which have an approximate CEFR B2 level. The groups are as follows:

  1. 6 adults that want to pass a Cambridge FCE proficiency exam
  2. 8 adults that simply wish to improve their communication in English

What affects the way you plan and teach a class?

I’ve picked out 3 areas that Pavli touched on and will compare and contrast them for the two abovementioned adult groups. They are:

  • The effect of prior knowledge of English and experience of language lessons
  • The negotiability of lesson content and methodology
  • The need to justify why you are doing things the way you are

To these 3 areas, I’ll add in the role that rapport with the class plays.

Group 1: Passing an FCE proficiency exam

This group ranges from 21 to 29 years old. In terms of their background , while all studied English at high school, only one had previously done a course at a language institute. Despite this, they have managed to attain a level, which stands them in good stead for doing a B2 exam. They all stated that their primary objective was to pass the exam in June 2018 (four months from now), although none of them had any experience of taking Cambridge exams, so were initially unfamiliar with the test format.

At the start of the course I analysed their needs. My impressions, along with what they said, combined to give me an idea of what areas required a particular focus, namely listening and speaking. However, there was a consensus that they’d go along with whatever I decided was in their best interests because I was the teacher. They’ve never asked to focus on a particular topic, nor have they suggested that we approach the classes in any different way than I have done.

That said, my experience tells me that as the exam looms ever nearer, some students might begin to ask whether they can focus on areas which they feel are troubling them, whether this be a wish to focus on a particular part of the exam, or to have a look at a language component that has cropped up several times in exam practice tasks and which they still can’t get their head around.

Everything we do in class pretty much has the exam in mind, and to justify the decisions that I make, I constantly refer to the exam. As any teacher who prepares FCE classes knows, structures such as linkers, relative clauses and conditionals are rather prominent, but there must be a reason for focusing on them, for example the likelihood of conditionals being present in Use of English Transformations.

My rapport with the group is strong and I consider my lessons to be meticulously planned and well carried out. They trust me as a teacher and as well as improving their English they appear to enjoy themselves too.

Group 2: ‘I want to improve my communicative English’

This group of students has a wider age range, with three of them being under 30 and the other four in their forties. Regarding prior experience, they have all tried studying English on various courses since they finished high school and therefore have an idea of what type of approach suits them. As it happens, three of them are former students of mine that were actually in an FCE preparation class last year although in the end none of them sat it.

Upon enrolling again, they made it clear that they wanted to focus on improving their communication and not prepare for an exam. Indeed, they started the academic year with another class and commented that they weren’t getting enough speaking practice, so another group was created with me to satisfy their aims. With that in my mind, and luckily reading Scott Thornbury’s How to Teach Speaking at the time, I justified an approach that was suitable for their aims of improving speaking and communication.

It consists of three areas: vocabulary, functional language and conversation skills, all linked together by topic.

As an example, in the first lesson, we focused on music vocabulary, looked at functional language to narrate a concert they’d been to, and then worked on back-channelling and HOW + ADJECTIVE and WHAT + NOUN comments as the conversation skill. They were immediately on board with it, evidently appreciative that I’d taken into consideration their priorities.

I also made it clear from the start that I was flexible and open to suggestions, and even asked them to think of specific topics they’d like to study. The content of the first four or five lessons was decided by me, but then the students began to ask if they could look at certain topics. They requested doing a series of situational lessons, such as taking the train, going to the pharmacy and asking for food at a greengrocer’s, which I gladly planned for, trying to stick to the three principles as outlined above.

While their main focus was on speaking, some commented that they would still like to maintain their grammar by doing some exercises.

I asked them how they’d like to do this, and we settled upon doing them for homework and checking them in class. As the course has gone on, I’ve found that these students are gradually taking more control of what they are learning and I have simply become their facilitator. That is not to say that I have no input. Indeed, for next week’s class, no requests have been made, so it’ll be up to me again to come up with a topic for them.

One thing that makes working with this group particularly straightforward is the fact that I have an excellent rapport with them and they get on well with each other. They feel that I listen to them and being involved in the planning process has led them to trust me to cater to their needs.

Another factor to consider: your boss

I’d like to add in a point about how a recent observation of this class from the director of studies has contributed to my approach. She was satisfied with the way I was going about things, but did mention that a key thing missing was a keener focus on accurate pronunciation and intonation. I dare say I’d gotten carried away with the students’ objectives of improving their communication and neglected to pick on the nitty-gritty of how they were saying things.

Since that observation, I have been throwing in activities on pronunciation and intonation (thanks, Adrian Underhill and Sound Foundations), such as weak forms, stress-timing and liaison, and the students have been very on board with it. But I can’t help thinking that if I’d gone in with a heavy focus on pronunciation at the start, it might have prevented me from focussing on their immediate aims of improving communication, and they may have felt their aims were not being met.


I’d say that the approach you take to teaching adults, how you justify it and how flexible you are with it definitely depends on the type of group you have. As I’ve suggested, an exam preparation class tends to let the teacher make decisions regarding class content, believing that they will guide them down the right path to the objective of getting a pass certificate. On the other hand, an adult class with no exam on the horizon perhaps feels the need to take hold of the reins to an extent, given that there is no tangible end point to their course of study. They do however have a clearer idea of the level they want to get to, and will often be informed as to good ways of getting there.

So, what type of adult classes do other teachers have? Do they have similar tendencies to those I’ve described? I look forward to hearing your thoughts.


  • Thornbury, S. (2005). How to Teach Speaking; Harlow: Pearson
  • Underhill, A. (2005). Sound Foundations: Learning and Teaching Pronunciation; Oxford: Macmillan
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