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ESL forum > Techniques and methods in Language Teaching > Help, I cannot make my students learn ANYTHING!    

Help, I cannot make my students learn ANYTHING!


Help, I cannot make my students learn ANYTHING!
Hi, I īm a desperate teacher of English for adults. After a couple of years trying to teach adults, I think I īm losing hope in making them learn anything. I am aware that the learning curve is not the same with children and adults, but the latter have the power of will, which should compensate somehow. There are a few more problems: this is distance course, so the students only have 10-12 tutoring lessons. There are so many factors I think involved in them not learning, but I īll try to enumerate the most important.
1. Adults don īt remember how to study or they even didn īt learn it in their lives.
2. Obviously they don īt know anything about studying techniques
3. English looks very alien to them, their cultural background tends to be very poor
4. It is IMPOSSIBLE to me to make them learn anything, I focus on telling them to learn vocabulary,  which I think is the best way to learn a language, firstly the pieces of the puzzle, then the rules to make it. I only have 10 hours every four-month period, so I have to concentrate in teaching grammar. Imagine teaching the passive to people who cannot describe their classroom or say/write a sentence in English.
5. They don īt usually have time for studying, they have full-time jobs, families, children...
At the end of each four-month period I have to make a test. It is ridiculous easy (sometimes so easy it seems stupid but they still keep on failing . I feel shame to acknowledge that I have to write the formulation to the questions in Spanish, otherwise they wouldn īt understand a word of what they have to do. 
I write here to ask anyone here for desperate help about this matter. I feel unmotivated, because I can make my adult students learn anything. I īd love them, at least, to learn a few hundred words in four years here, I recommend website links, give them lists of words, plenty of activities, but it īs been useless so far. 

9 Feb 2015      


Hi, opez!


Last year I taught adults and the two classes were completly different. One had a more advanced level  whereas the other had a less advanced one.
The first thing I did as I always do when I start a course was to ask them to fill in a questionnaire so they can tell about their previous learning experience as far as English Language is concerned.
At the very beginning it was pretty hard to motivate them but then I decided to take a more personal appproach and out of classes I managed to build a good relationship with them.This helped a lot as they felt more at ease to ask questions and  to start them getting interested.
Don īt loose hope.Keep on struggling and trust your intuition!It īs going to be great! Keep positive no matter what.It īs really importante to be optimistic about their progressIoN....
Hugs from Portugal! 

9 Feb 2015     

United Kingdom

Hi Opez!
I encounter this all the time with business students that are made to do English lessons pretty much against their will. Just use games that require simple answers. Before you know it they will have aquired enough vocabulary to get through a simple test and they won īt be sitting there rolling their eyes during the class. Always start with a simple 20 question game (famous people, what īs my job, famous dead people etc.) and try and get them to answer using the correct short form responses. Try and finish with an over-the-phone spelling bee using names that are tricky to spell - plenty of vowels and Bs, Vs, Js and Gs. Don īt try and blast them with grammar, English grammar is very anarchic and there are way too many exceptions and contradictions to teach it that way. You need them to sit up and start speaking, they are more minded to do that if they have fun. If you set them homework, keep the exercises short.
I īll PM you a link with some material.
Keep your chin up, there are always some students that will be a challenge.

9 Feb 2015     


Teach communicatively through repetition of different clusters of language in different contexts and activities. If their overall cultural level is low, this is the only way to go. Don īt follow the book, work out your own set of topics which directly relate to their area of work, find examples of real life situations when they might need to use English. Stress the benefits of knowing English in terms of employability. Find some testimonials from real people from your country who benefitted from knowing English.
Don īt make them learn vocabulary, teach them, equip them with techniques to learn vocabulary. Itīs better to intoduce smaller chunks of vocabulary but making the outmost of it to ensure the retention than overwhelm your weak students with long vocabulary lists. Don īt move on to the next stage, until you see your students use the language you taught more or less confidently.
There are loads of speaking cards and activities here that you can benefit from. 
As to tips on teaching vocabulary, here īs what I sometimes do with my teens when they refuse to learn a list of phrases on their own: I put the list of the phrases on the board and start drilling the pronunciation with the whole group, then students take turns to read out the whole list (I make sure they get the pronunciation right) Then I randomly start wiping off some words but the students continue taking turns in reading out the whole list, I keep on doing it wiping off one more, then another one untill all the words are gone and all the students can say all the phrases from memory. We then write a dictation- translation (I dictate the words in L1 and they write them down in English) and they usually get them right with some minor spelling errors which we deal with right away. I hope this will work for your adults and will give them the boost in self -confidence as to learning English and hopefully they īll be able to enjoy it which will make it easier for you to teach them.

Some more ideas

9 Feb 2015     

United States

There is a method called "Learners īLives  as Curriculum" by Gail Weinstein.
Adult learners write their life story, or any memorable experience in their llives. Because they are talking about something important to themselves, they will be motivated to learn some vocabulary relevant to their lives. Then, as demonstrated in the pdf, you can devise exercises based on the learnersīwritings.
Weinstein, G. (2002). Learners’ lives as curriculum. Washington, DC: Center for Applied Linguistics. 

9 Feb 2015     


Thanks a lot for your kind responses. You provide me with pretty useful clues here, but anyway, I should īve made more emphasis on my exact biggest problem. TIME. I don īt have time enough, just a few lessons, 3 or 4 a month,  because it is a distance course and the students are left alone with their learning. I have zillions of great activities, both from eslprintables and mine, plenty of good books, but nothing proves useful, I recommend them vocabulary websites, but they aren īt very keen on the internet... I don īt have time to estimulate or make fun activities with them, I have to concentrate on structures like the first conditional when they are unnable to remember (no matter how hard I drill it) they have to add an "s" to the 3rd person singular in present simple. Why? because they are tested on the conditionals, passive, using past perfect vs past simple... at the end of the term when they even don īt know basic vocabulary like food, family, clothes, buildings... They are pretty much alone, and I īd like to get a miracle method for them to learn big amounts of vocabulary as fast as possible (I īve mentioned they virtually have no time/attitude when they are back from work, take care of their children, and so on) If they made a solid vocabulary base after 3-4 months, half of my/their problem would be gone. They always comply they aren īt unable to hold vocabulary in their memories, and I understand it, but my job is ckecking their knowledge at the end of the term, and the final results are disheartening. I have to pass a lot of people who haven īt learnt anything at all. I do it because I just want to motivate them for life, they usually have lost their jobs, are in difficult finantial situations, and I can destroy their hopes making them repeat course, they would lose interest. I feel my job is useless, I can īt make anyone learn English.

10 Feb 2015     


Hi Opez!
In my belief, adult students learn 10-20% of what we teach, no matter what you do in a class. But even so repetition is key. If you introduce new vocabulary, you have to prepare a good number of worksheets going around speaking practice on it and probably it is a good idea to leave some of the handouts as a revision of that vocabulary for a different day as a reminder. Only like that you can increase the chances of learning a bit more than that 20% in the classroom. 
Apart from that, looking for real contexts (videos) of the topic you teach is also paramount. The more they listen and see how native speakers do it, the more they learn to imitate. So, always try to screen an example of what you want them to do. You can find an example on my two worksheets for Would I lie to you?  (A British TV programme) http://www.eslprintables.com/printable.asp?id=704616#thetop and http://www.eslprintables.com/printable.asp?id=804440#thetop 
There are many objectives involved in making them to be the main characters in a role play like that, but above all they will be able to speak about their experiences. 
Remember that every class group has its own personality and they do respond in a different way to stimuli.  I currently have a good example of that with my Pre-intermediate students. I actually do the same kind of activities and one of the groups is really motivated and talkative while the other is rather withdrawn and quiet. The only thing I sometimes do differently is to change the people in the groups, to move them and prevent them from being seeing the same faces all the time. It works most of the time, though I have to admit that some of them are just difficult students who will be a challenge as spinney says.
Hope all these ideas can help you in due course... 
Best wishes 

10 Feb 2015     

Peter Hardy

Our friends above mentioned many good ideas and techniques. But most require what you don īt have: regular classes and TIME. Hence I īd advice not to teach vocabulary, but short sentences. I īve had good successes teaching people to speak in about three months. When they understand a sentence, and are able to change a few words, they īll know a few sentences. That īs good for their self esteem, and they īll learn grammar on the go. With this basis you can focus on their background and experiences (children and work and so on).  (I īm not supposed to advertise my work, but I made a PPT with about 1000 most used sentences.) Drilling any part of a language is boring. Speaking almost immediately is much more fun. And fun sticks, so they will learn in the end. Keep smiling, use pictures (which you already do?), let them work together and keep it simple. Cheers, Peter



10 Feb 2015     

United Kingdom


Itīs great - worth it just for the visuals! ;-)

10 Feb 2015     


Hi Opez
I know exactly where you are coming from, believe me. These students have far more pressing survival needs than learning a second language when they believe that they can (and do) survive without it. 
Distance learning is difficult - your students need to be highly motivated to do the work outside of your classroom lessons. In my experience most DLs progress very slowly (and I know myself, I donīt like doing distance learning either - it just doesnīt happen. Itīs actually very common).
So, with all that in mind, your challenge is to make them feel like they must do your course for the benefits that it brings to them irrespective of what you are required to test them on.  How do you do this?  Put yourself in their shoes and think about what do they really need for day to day survival and tailor your lessons around that. Thatīs what I do and it works for me.
Maybe you could put together a list of topics and they choose the (best 5) topics that really interest them.  You could even do this as a class survey and build some grammar into that activity.
I generally use a topic based approach, on everyday survival topics and loosely integrate the grammar where appropriate. I do lots of speaking using authentic materials and lots of modelling on the board. They photograph the board work with their smartphone or write it in their note books. We use the recording function in their smartphone to record standard phrases which they can then use at home to listen to and practice repeating.
The topics that I do include:
- Using the local public transport (and using authentic hardcopy and internet timetables)
- Understanding and leaving voicemail messages - for work and survival purposes (doctor, childīs school etc)
- Telephoning your workplace (or childīs school) re absence
- Understanding/accessing emergency services (ambulance, police, fire)
- Local welfare services (understanding letters, SMSs, reporting requirements etc)
- Work issues - rosters, payslips,  safety in the workplace, talking to people in the lunch room
- Childīs school - understanding the education system, homework
- Government services
- Everyday household matters - paying bills, rubbish pick up, trades people, mail etc
Students with children are very keen for their children to be successful so anything related to that is motivating for them.
Also, do group work in class, preferably in groups of 4.  They learn so much from each other. If you can get success happening in the class session, then maybe some will do the additional work via DL.
I hope that some of this helps you.

10 Feb 2015     


Hi Opez, from my experience you should provide your students with the same vocabulary all the time. The method is to provide texts, pictures, puzzles with certain words which they will use most. Then, by repetition they will acquire certain range of words and if you do what Peter wrote - provide them with couple of sentences mostly used, you īll have enough for them to learn for the start. I suppose they īll be pretty interested in learning after they learn something.
I had one group of adult students who simply had no time for learning. They had  been learning English for three years and were supposed to attend classes at least three times  a week. What actually happened is that they had classes once in two weeks, basically  waste of time I then thought. However, by repetition of vocabulary and grammar constructions they managed to learn something. We need to continue and I still search for best methods to teach them :)
What I also found as a good practise is to come up with examples (while practising grammar) with their names in it something personal that would engage them into the subject.
I wish you all the best,

11 Feb 2015     

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