With so much emphasis in the ESL industry on teaching young learners. It might be time for us to consider teaching older people. They may not always be the students we want to teach, but they are still customers just the same. And, they’re still fellow humans with hopes, dreams and aspirations. So, if we’re not thinking of how to serve them better, we may lose them.
It may not happen often, but if you teach adults online for long, you’ll probably encounter a lesson with elderly folks—people over 65, and even in their 80s, and possibly 90s (yes, I’ve taught such classes). In my experience, teaching seniors isn’t uncommon. And what I’ve noticed, is that they need a little more care than the average student. They can come across as shy, quiet, and non-participative, perhaps because we fail to realize the dynamics involved with teaching them.
Our blog today will give you a few pointers on how to manage elderly students in your online ESL classes. These tips are not meant to stereotype older learners but to be used as general rules of practice when teaching them.
The first pointer when teaching seniors, is that you’ll need an extra measure of patience. As is the case when driving a car, walking across the street, speaking, paying at the cash register, or other activity, elders sometimes need a little more time to get things done. It’s the same in online classrooms, and perhaps even more so because they may be in an environment that they aren’t completely comfortable with.
That means we may need to give them more time than average to find classroom tools, to respond to comments, to formulate their thoughts, to type, and the like. It may have nothing to do with their English levels, but that they just need more time to do what others do faster. So, let’s give them a break and try not to hit them with rapid-fire questions, activities, or classroom actions.
Learning English May Be More Difficult for Them
There’s research out there that suggests younger people pick up a language faster and to a greater extent than older people. That’s because younger minds are more malleable while older minds have solidified or fossilized more. That means their ways of thinking have been fixed culturally, academically, and perceptively for periods of up to 50, 60, or even 70 years onward. To manage this, we need to first be aware of it. Secondly, we can’t expect them to readily get as much of the learning as younger learners.
Seniors come from a different era. They come from a time when courtesy and basic civilities were more fashionable than they are now. That means if you’re a younger teacher, and you speak to them as if they’re your buddies, they may not be used to it. The result could be their feeling that you’re treating them discourteously. And that’s not something we want in any class.
So, we need to be more sensitive to it in classes with older folks. One example might be to replace “excellent point, man” with “that’s a great point, Mr. Jung.” Or, instead of, “that’s dope, Jane,” you could express, “great idea, Jane.” These may not be your cup of tea in terms of expressions, but hopefully, you get the idea—try to communicate with them on their terms.
May Not Be Overly Tech Savvy
Keep in mind that senior class members, again, come from a time when computers, the worldwide web, and especially online classes were not the norm. These could be our grandparents who were watching black and white TVs, answering telephones (not cellphones), listening to record players, and talking to people face to face. Of course, some have kept up with the times, no question about that. But others have not. And it may be the case that in your class, they’ll be ashamed to say anything about it.
But as teachers, and as is the purpose of this blog, we need to be aware of and sensitive to these points. So what do we do about it? We take it easy and explain things politely to them. If it seems they’re quiet, it may simply be that they’re trying to adjust to the environment. And if it’s a group class, they may very well be intimidated by the younger class members. So, once in a while, stop the rushing flow of the class, and ask them directly what they think about something. This gives them an opportunity to activate their mic, share their thoughts, and be participating class members.
Are a Wealth of History, Experiences, and Information
Elderly students are a wealth of information. They’ve seen and experienced things we may never understand. Some of them can tell you what it was like going through world wars. Others can tell you about impacting political events, such as the fall of the Berlin Wall and its results. There is just so much they can share. Tap into it when you want to make a conversation. Relate current events to what they may have experienced in their younger years. And that relates to the next point.
They Want to Speak So Let Them
Having such a wealth of information and experience, elderly folks are likely to want to share these things with their younger counterparts. I think it’s just natural for older people to want to do that. As teachers, we can tap into this as a way to get them speaking and participating. Then, give them some time to share. By relating current topics with their history, or by viewing current events from a historical perspective, we can bridge the language as well.
And That Is That
In closing, please keep in mind that these are not meant to be one-size-fits-all pointers or stereotyping; they are simply general rules of thumb. So, the next time you have an elderly class member, please keep them in mind. They may help you manage elderly folks better. And, they may help you provide an improved learning environment that they would appreciate. So, treat them with respect, be patient with them, understand their difficulties, and tap into their wisdom and experiences.
Please tell us what you think. We’d be glad to hear from you. And of course, share what subjects you’d like to see discussed more.