How to motivate adult ESL students?

For the past week or so, I’ve been teaching a new (to me) classroom of adult ESL students. Most of them have been in this level since September, and they are getting a bit weary from being in full time English school. Not to mention, I’m the third or fourth teacher they’ve had this year, due to changes in the program.

They have already learned everything in the regular curriculum, so I’ve decided to teach Canadian history and culture to prepare them for the Canadian citizenship test. I did not think through the fact that history can be… dry. So how can I motivate my students who are tired, and are learning something that is not particularly useful for daily life?

That’s where crafts and competitive activities come in. I used to be of the mindset that adult learners want serious activities and learning only. That was foolish. Of course, serious activities have a place in adult learning, especially in business contexts. But for general ESL, there is no reason not to include activities you might consider juvenile.

After going through a brief history of Canada, I assigned a chunk of dates to several groups of students and had them make a timeline on large paper. I brought out coloured paper, pencil crayons, glue, stencils, rulers, etc. I wasn’t sure how they might take to doing crafts, so I simply said those items were there if they wanted to get creative with their timelines. And boy, did they ever take to it! Not only were they solidifying their knowledge of the historical events in Canada’s history, but they were also freely using their knowledge of English to speak and collaborate with classmates in a creative way. There’s something about crafts that can bring out a lightheartedness that can sometimes be missing in adult education.

Competitive activities are also great to make a boring task into a highly engaging task. For example, it is quite important for Canadian citizens to be able to spell the names of all the provinces correctly. So why not have a spelling relay (with two teams, where 1 person in each time is told a word to write, and the first to spell it correctly wins a point for their team)? Not only will they learn the correct spelling, but they will have a good time doing it!

What do you do to keep your adult students motivated and engaged?

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