Teaching Adults


Have you ever met a student who seemed bored, discouraged, barely motivated, with low self-esteem who seemed on the verge of giving up? It sounds like a typical student coming to the Literacy Coalition for the first time. We have to face the fact that for these students, school didn’t work, classrooms didn’t work, the things that worked for you and I did not work for them. The only conclusion I can draw from that is if we continue to put them back into the same situations we are setting them up to fail.

So obviously for them to succeed we have to do something different, but what? Here are some suggestions I have after working with low literacy level adults for the past 15 years:
  1. Help the student identify their personal learning style. You can use simple learning style inventory tool available for free on the internet to help them see what their dominant learning style is. This allows you to support that learning style with teaching aids that activate that preferred learning style
    • Visual learners love display boards, diagrams, illustrated books, overhead transparencies, videos, flip charts and handouts. They interpret body language and facial expressions. Understand that they may become easily bored by lectures but respond well to tables and infographics.
    • Auditory learners love lectures, discussions, and talking things through. They interpret tone of voice, pitch, speed and other nuances. They may struggle to read books but do better with audio books, short stories, magazines as well as reading our loud.
    • Tactile learners enjoy hands on learning and actively exploring their physical environment. They interpret feels and textures. They may become easily distracted by their need for physical activity and need to explore. They might enjoy field trips, lab activity, and shorter sessions marked by differences in levels of physical activity. Incorporating other physical activity such as walks during their instruction is a great way to engage these students.
  2. Get an accurate assessment of the student’s skill level. Begin their instruction below that level so they can begin feeling successful. Keep in mind that most adults have not been in an educational setting for several years so they need time to acclimate themselves to learning and if faced with immediate challenges they are likely to withdraw.

  3. Use staff and tutors to develop a caring and supportive relationship. It starts with building trust and respect to allow the student to develop a sense of academic accomplishment which appears to have a very strong relationship to retention and completion.

  4. Look for ways to include learning experiences into instruction. Remember many adults might not have had experiences that enriched learning for them. A trip to a museum might be an experience that gives them a whole new perspective to education.

  5. Put FUN into lesson planning. See if there are ways to incorporate games, movies, or other activities into your lesson plan. This requires that you learn about your student, their interests, and how they enjoy themselves. How can you make this a part of your lesson plan? And ALWAYS, end each session doing something the student enjoys. This could include reading about their favorite subject, etc. When they leave on a positive note they are motivated to come back again.

  6. Put the student in a different environment than those that they have previously failed in. One-on-one tutoring, independent technology assisted instruction, or small study groups can be more of a learning friendly situation for adults. Each of these has advantages and I would suggest using at least two for every student. The advantages of each are:
    • One-on-one tutoring is absolutely the best. It allows the student and their teacher to move at exactly the right pace for that student. If a lesson is too easy you can quickly move forward and if they need to review the same material three sessions in a row that is possible.
    • Using technology to allow independent study is a great way to supplement working with a tutor. Volunteers can only give so much time but students often want more. Using computers and other technologies is a great way to add to that experience.
    • Small guided study circles have several advantages for students. They can experience peer to peer instruction that can be invaluable. They learn that they are not alone in their struggles with literacy and can be a support for each other.
It is important that you try to adapt your teaching style, the environment, and everything else you can control to maximize each student’s chance for success.
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