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What’s Different About Teaching Second Language Reading to Adults?

by Barbara Gottschalk |

Early in my career, I used to be jealous of reading teachers. They had so much native speaker reading research to back them up, they had curriculum, they had progress tests, and they had ways to diagnose deficits. In contrast, as an ESL teacher, it seemed like I had…nothing. Even worse, I was sometimes expected to use methods and materials that weren’t appropriate for my students. The differences with young English learners are just as great with older students. To prepare to write this blog post on what’s different about teaching second language reading to adults, I talked with a teacher who has been on both sides of this scenario.

Pat Lathers is an instructor of English for Academic Purposes at Macomb Community College in suburban Detroit, Michigan, USA and holds a master’s degree in teaching reading as well as a graduate certificate in teaching ESL. She grew up in Singapore and speaks three languages—English, Tamil, and Malay. Pat teaches reading in English to adults—both native speakers and to students who speak another language—so her answers offered a valuable perspective to the following questions:

1. What Are Some Misconceptions About Teaching Reading to Adult English Language Students?

The biggest misconception is people think the process of adults learning to read in a second language is the same as children learning to read in their native language. Not true! Most adults already know how to read in their native languages. They don’t need to be taught to read; instead, they need help in transferring the reading skills they have to reading in English. That’s a big advantage most adults learning a second language have over children.

People also mistakenly assume adults who lack English skills also lack formal education. Adult students often have background knowledge in many different topics as well as reading skills in their native language. A “beginning” English reading level for a 7-year-old student and a 27-year-old student means very different things.

2. What Can English Language Teachers Learn From Teachers of Reading to Native Speakers?

When Pat taught reading to native speakers of English, she realized they often felt they couldn’t read and in turn, weren’t motivated. They needed instruction tailored to their individual needs. In the same way, adult English learners will be motivated by visuals, recycling, and explanations tailored to their individual needs. What might be boring repetition for native-speaking students—a cultural concept, for example—is necessary background building for adult English learners. Both groups need reading teachers who start with what students know and then progress from there. This reduces frustration and increases motivation.

Teachers of reading to native speakers at all age levels emphasize the importance of wide reading. Pat agrees. In fact, she’s even created an ESL academic reading and vocabulary course that stresses reading, but also asks students to respond to that reading through the other domains—listening, speaking, and writing. Strong reading classes for both native speakers and nonnative speakers will look like this.

Although Pat feels native speakers are more easily independent, she expects all of her students, including English learners, to be independent readers, especially in the higher level courses. Pat reminds us it’s even more important with adults to assume as well as encourage reading independence. Adults can do it because they already do lots of things independently!

3. What Are Some Pitfalls to Avoid When Teaching ESL/EFL Reading to Adult Students?

Adults students aren’t in elementary school, so, of course, elementary methods aren’t appropriate for this population. Teachers think they have to provide all the information, forgetting their adult students know a lot of things already. A wise teacher will acknowledge their students’ knowledge. Pat advises finding out what your students know first so you can fill in gaps later. This is the most efficient method. When students are able to share their knowledge with classmates as well, everyone benefits.

Pat has observed that, unfortunately, some teachers who have learned a foreign language themselves teach ESL or EFL reading the same ineffective way—for example, teaching lists of isolated vocabulary words. Instead, Pat encourages teaching collocations and helping students to use vocabulary in context. This gives students a “bigger picture,” as she puts it. She also tells us it’s important to let adult students know why they are learning something. Adult students have no time to waste, so they want to know how everything will be applied.

Pat also reminds us to be patient with our students. She used to get more frustrated when her students weren’t 100% successful, and she took it personally. Now, she realizes she’s dealing with adults who are leading full lives outside of reading class. That’s why Pat makes a point of learning more about the context around her students; for example, finding out what they are studying in their other classes or learning about their family and work responsibilities. When a student isn’t catching on, teachers are sometimes too quick to think “What’s wrong with this student?” An adult student can struggle for many reasons; knowing the whole student can help a teacher understand why.

Talking with Pat helped me better understand what’s different about teaching reading in another language to adult students. I hope her insights have helped you, too!

About the author

Barbara Gottschalk

Barbara Gottschalk is a veteran educator. She has taught English language learners from first graders to graduate students in five states in three very different parts of the United States plus Japan. Gottschalk has written many successful grants and served as a grant reviewer for TESOL, the National Education Association, and the U.S. Department of Education's Office of English Language Acquisition. She is the author of "Get Money for Your Classroom: Easy Grant Writing Ideas That Work" and "Dispelling Misconceptions About English Language Learners: Research-Based Ways to Improve Instruction."

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