Designing a course for adult learners: An analysis of the process and some tips

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In my previous article I looked at the basic concepts in designing a course for adults. This article analyses the steps followed during this process and offers suggestions for each of those steps.

The design process starts with an initial needs analysis followed by goal and objective setting, material selection, specification of the tasks to be used so that learners can achieve their language goals. Instruction and course monitoring and evaluation, which are related to the design of a course will be discussed in forthcoming articles.

It needs to be stressed, though, that the process outlined above is not in fact simply linear, with one stage following the previous one, but rather circular as well. In general, the design and the implementation of foreign language programmes can be described as a complex system of parts [the steps presented above] that interact with each other. A change in one part of the system will most certainly influence other parts. In the case of adult learners this is even more common, mainly because of the changing nature of their needs.

By Maroussa Pavli*

Needs Analysis: This was analysed in a previous article which examined the basic concepts in course design. However, I’d like to emphasise now that the more information the teacher manages to collect about the learner, the more accurate the analysis of their needs will be. A detailed learner profile can then assist the tutor in setting goals and objectives and selecting the appropriate teaching material. Combining a variety of need analysis methods is recommended.

What I do is asking my learners to complete a form with questions about their education, professional context, foreign language learner experiences, reasons they would like to study English for, learner style and habits, even their views on aspects of language teaching and learning and their expectations from the course. The form includes both multiple choice and open-ended questions, so I can also evaluate their writing skills. I give them plenty of time to complete the form, because their replies will actually shape the course. I then ask them to talk to me through the form and in that way I can evaluate their speaking skills.

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Goal setting: Using the information collected from the needs analysis, teachers should realistically think about their teaching situation and the specific learner, examine the constraints under which they and their learner may be working and draw learner attention to those constraints. If this is done, both sides will be able to look at the desired goals in a realistic way. Ideally, goals should come from learner needs, but they can also be externally enforced. An example of this is when the company that the learner works for would like them to improve their speaking skills, while they would like to focus on their reading skills. In this case, negotiation with all parties involved should take place.

After reaching an agreement about the general goals, the teacher needs to produce specific objectives related to learner goals through the use of types of skills or/ and tasks. The objectives can be described in the form of can-do statements or functions and this can later be used as a checklist by the teacher for judging effectiveness of the learning process and by the learner for self-evaluation purposes. All this should be recorded and be easily accessed by both teacher and learner when the need arises.

A general rule of thumb in order to decide about objectives and skills development is to think about what the learner should be able to do, in what kind of context, who the receiver of the message would be, when they would need to interact, how they need to interact [e.g. emails, Skype, face-to-face communication] and why they would need to do it.

The development of the following skills can also be some of the goals set, as they lead to more effective learner study habits and foster independent learning/ learner autonomy: in and outside of class use of resources, speed reading, oral presentations, vocabulary recording, introduction to independent study resources, time management and setting their own objectives.

Content selection – At this stage all available resources should be utilised and learner suggestions are needed. Initially, an adult learner may argue that it is the teacher’s exclusive responsibility to choose materials, but when teachers explain the reasons that learner involvement is needed and are encouraging and supportive, learners will understand the benefits of their contribution and feel in control of their learning. They can be asked to bring in documents and other resources used in their workplace and think about situations in which they need to use English [both current professional needs and post-course communication needs].

Using a coursebook is a good idea, but is not mandatory. After all, it usually needs to be supplemented by extra material. The truth is that nothing beats a tailor-made language programme designed to cover the communication needs of specific individuals. This is the case especially in teaching specific/ academic English to professionals or university students. Individual needs and language level can guide teachers to the appropriate kind of materials and tasks. Tasks can focus on grammar [e.g. forming the past form of regular verbs], functions [e.g. expressing certainty], macro-skills [e.g. listening to the main ideas of a presentation], learning skills [e.g. creating spidergrams with word derivatives], cognition [e.g. using information from a spoken text in order to produce a title], culture [e.g. comparing the concept of punctuality in various countries] and topic [e.g. reading about speed trains in Europe and Asia]. Teaching materials and tasks should provide a clear link between the lesson and the wider world, ensure learner active involvement, be easily available, meet the learners’ expressed needs and express clear pedagogical objectives. The key question that teachers need to ask is whether their learner will need to perform the same task in a real communication situation beyond the classroom and how to help them do that in a successful way.

Throughout this article the importance of learner contribution has been shown very clearly. Their active involvement in needs analysis, goal-setting and content selection is of utmost importance for the reasons already explained. Convincing adult learners to become involved can be a challenge that a teacher has to face, but then, again, is that the only one?

*Maroussa has a BA in English Language and Literature from the University of Athens and an MA in Applied and TESOL from the University of Leicester, UK. She has taught EFL for 20 years, working with learners of all ages and levels. She worked as a Tutor of English for Specific Purposes at Private institutes of Vocational Training and Harokopio University of Athens. Maroussa has also taught English for Specific Purposes to a large number of professionals from the sectors of Business, Marketing and Advertising, Information Technology, Banking and Hospitality. For the last five years she’s been teaching General as well as Academic English to undergraduate students at IST College in Moschato, Greece. Since 1997 she has also worked as a Tutor in English for Academic Purposes and Study Skills on Pre-sessional courses for international students at various universities in the UK. Her interests are in the fields of adult learning, English for Academic and Specific Purposes, age, motivation and psychology in EFL. Maroussa has been a member of TESOL Greece for more than 17 years, was a Board member for the period of 2007 -2010 and is currently the coordinator of the EAP/ ESP SIG, the TESOL Greece Special Interest Group which focuses on adult language teaching [e.g. for professionals, tertiary education students, etc]. She can be contacted at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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