7 Things I Wish I Knew as a New Teacher of Adolescent and Adult ELLs

Woman in adult learners class looking at camera

Learn some key strategies for teaching adolescent and adult ELLs in these lessons shared by a veteran adult ESL instructor.

Jose. V. Torres is an educator who has been working with adolescent and adult English language learners for many years. He has written his own textbook for adult ELLs and also publishes a blog on his website.

In this article written for Colorín Colorado, he shares some of the lessons he wishes he had known when he began working with older students.


When I first started working with beginner English learners, I wasn't sure where to start. I spent a lot of planning my lessons but did not see the growth I had expected. I often felt frustrated. Looking back, I didn't know what I didn't know.

Over time, I came to understand that there was no clear road map I could follow. I can say, however, that after many years of working with middle and high school students during the day and adults in community colleges in the evenings, the proverbial light bulb finally turned on. The deep immersion during that time afforded me time to refine my craft, and the tumultuous, hard lessons that come with being an ESL teacher actually reinvigorated my dedication. I rediscovered the profound passion I have always felt for this line of work.

The process of mapping out a semester for beginner ELLs comes more naturally now despite much trial and error and many disappointments along the way. In order to support other educators, I have compiled a pragmatic list of things I wish I knew before I started working with older ELLs in middle school, high school, and adult education programs. If I had adopted these pieces of ESL wisdom from the beginning, I likely would have been a far more efficient teacher much earlier in my career.

Lessons Learned

1. There is no "one size fits all" strategy

Beginner ELLs enter our classrooms with different perspectives from other cultures and completely different languages. One quickly learns in the field of ESL (as with any content area in education) that students in a class will undoubtedly have different levels of language skills and educational backgrounds. For beginner English learners, however, the variation is intensified by the linguistic and cultural diversity that cannot be dismissed as minor factors in the language acquisition process.

Two unavoidable questions in the classroom must be answered at the outset:

  1. 1.    What are my students' learning styles?
    2.    Based on those learning styles, which strategies work best for them?

Teachers often have to adjust their methods and comfort zones to meet the needs of their students. However, when working with older ELLs, it may take some additional trial and error to understand what methods work best for them. In order to get the maximum out of lessons, students need to be able to follow along. If teachers are not seeing gains in their students' language skill goals, it's time to think about changing strategies, even these strategies were successful with previous students. It is helpful to reassess their impact with current students who are unique based on their learning styles and background, and gauge whether or not to try something else.

Recommended resources

For ideas of appropriate strategies for older ELLs, see the resources at the end of the article.

2. Slowing down the pace helps students understand better

As teachers, we may want students to become accustomed to the normal rate of speech. It's a natural impulse rooted in a reasonable goal. With beginner level English learners, however, this is not the place to start. For students to decipher spoken language at its normal rate, there has to be a fluid separation of syllables in the words of the sentence. This separation (which must happen in real time) is a jagged and confusing process. This is a skill is not mastered without establishing the fundamental basics of the language first.

Oganian and Chang (2019) assert in their research the human brain can naturally convert the string of sounds in a sentence into a finely ordered arrangement of syllables. Their research indicates slowing of speech "increases time differences, and events become more temporally dissociated." Therefore, hearing natural speech more slowly is what beginner English learners need in order to better grasp what is being said.

3. Focus on fundamentals

Helping English learners succeed depends on your ability to meet their fundamental language needs in the classroom. For beginner adult learners, one important area to target is the basic mechanics of the language. For example, I often start with phonological awareness, which lays the foundation for phonemic familiarities and eventual comprehension. This means making sure students differentiate vowels, count syllables, familiarize high frequency words, discriminate between homonyms, decoding, etc.

Many beginner ELLs of all ages can benefit from lessons on phonics, word/picture associations (relevant to local culture), and repetitive conversational activities. I have found using online resources, in addition to those I created myself, provide opportunities for students to practice what we do in class at their convenience using their smartphone devices.

In addition, becoming more familiar with assessment tools is essential in assigning appropriate activities for individuals and the group. (Keep in mind that evaluating students' level of comprehension as a group can present some big variations.) Look for commonalities inherent in the classification of "beginners" that will present you with a myriad of options to establish more pertinent objectives.

4. Save idioms for more advanced levels

When working with beginners, it is important not to emphasize idioms, metaphors and figurative language at the onset. Instead, reserve these topics for a later time when students have a better grasp of the language. Introducing students to idioms as they become more advanced students will likely have a greater impact as their vocabulary and cultural acclimation expands. Chuang (2013) explicitly states that mastering idioms is a very difficult goal for English learners because their meanings cannot be determined analytically. For beginners, understanding the inferred meanings of idioms really should not be at the top of their list of priorities.

5. Plan smarter, not harder

I learned that obsessing over writing the perfect lesson plan did not always benefit my students. While there are no set limits as to how much time someone can spend on their planning, I realize now that often, the more I planned, the more I burned myself out. Sometimes, ironically, I was also disappointed with the outcome in spite of all the time I put in. Learning to properly target students' language needs cuts much of the "razzle dazzle" and centralizes instruction on the crucial elements. Otherwise too much time is spent focusing on material either too advanced or not linguistically valuable.

In addition, cramming too much into lesson blocks is counterproductive. In layman's terms, don't waste time on activities that don't increase students language skills. Keeping things simple and direct is the best approach with beginners.

One caveat: there always will be students with stronger skills in some areas in a group. One way I have been able to use differentiated instruction is by addressing the "gaps" all students in a particular group have in common. I found that assigning and exploring activities that concentrate on those "gap" areas helped us stay focused on the larger prize of accomplishing an objective for all students in a group. This also allowed us to use time efficiently.

6. Engaging students does not mean keeping them busy

Engagement is key for older learners and students require the right amount of stimulus to engage them. Keep in mind the following:

  • One strategy you can use is to draw on their background knowledge through relevant and practical activities.
  • Give students choice in activities and how they present their work. When students feel comfortable, they will increase participation and value the activity more.
  • Ensure students understand explicitly what their individual roles are. If they feel they are doing "busy work," they will tune out and not remain engaged.

Finally, remember that older students (middle and high school students included) may be juggling many other responsibilities. In addition, adult learners often have overcome many life challenges to take English classes — usually in the evenings after work. As a result, you will likely find that they take their studies quite seriously and are invested in a process that they see as important to their future success. Finding out why students are studying English can often help make a connection that allows you to tap into that motivation during the semester.

7. Grammar will come later for beginners

Teachers should resist the temptation of giving in-depth grammar lessons in the early stages for beginners. For example, staying within the bounds of the simple present tense would have been less frustrating for me and my students had I known this in the beginning. After some epic fails early in my career, I learned that staying within the limits of the simple present tense is a widely accepted practice, and for good reason. For beginners, it may be easier to conceptualize things in the "now." Keeping lessons in the simple present tense actually allows for basic grammar lessons to take place organically — such as the appropriate use of the verb "to be." Honestly, one could spend an entire semester on this grammar concept alone, depending on the skills level of students!

I have found that adolescent and adult beginners absorb the rules of grammar in small chunks as the semester/school year progresses. For example, focusing a lesson on health and safety, one might use people and objects (nouns) that involve some actions (verbs). The lesson wouldn't focus only on nouns and verbs, but they can help in categorization of words. Their actual grammatical functions can only be explained and understood once ELLs internalize their meanings and be able to identify them in the first place.

Closing Thoughts

As we refine our craft as educators of ELLs, we can better understand that being resourceful often means knowing where to look for answers. A wise teacher will never assume their students will understand every direction, every rule in an activity, or every word spoken to them. Adolescent and adult ELLs just beginning to learn English face an incredible challenge that may sometimes be overwhelming for them and their teacher. The good news is we don't necessarily have to keep reinventing the wheel with innovation — we just need to take one step at a time and remember that sometimes, less is more.


Oganian, Y. & Chang, E.F. (2019, November 20). A speech envelope landmark for syllable encoding in human superior temporal gyrus. Retrieved from https://advances.sciencemag.org/content/5/11/eaay6279/tab-article-info.

Chuang, Y. (2013). A study of the relationship between college EFL learners’ vocabulary size and idiomatic reading comprehension. NCUE Journal of Humanities, 7, 59–76.


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