Teaching Adults

Teaching Adults and Classroom Management Issues

By Maroussa Pavli*     

Are you teaching adults or thinking of doing so? Those of you who have already worked with adult learners can easily understand the relevance of the title of this article. Those who haven’t done this yet may doubt that classroom management is a topic to consider, but if you do read on, you’ll find out that everyday teaching practice shows that classroom management is an aspect of teaching adults.

The good news of teaching adults is that discipline doesn’t seem to be an issue. However, there are other factors that you need to consider when working with adults.

Teaching adults can be different from teaching children or teenagers, but then once they assume the role of a learner and find themselves in a classroom context, they often adopt the psychology and the practices that younger learners use. But it’s not only this. As we’ve explained in previous articles here, adults have more responsibilities than children and teenagers who mainly have school responsibilities, family and professional ones, and their participation and classroom behaviour can be influenced by them. Below you can read examples of issues you may need to deal with and some trialed and tested ideas that have worked in my classes. I hope you find them useful.

Issues in an adult language class

Learners dominating the group and wishing to be the decision-makers or leaders. They think that they know everything and their answers are always correct. They often tend to speak for too long when given the opportunity.

Learner requests to do only tasks that will meet their immediate language needs [e.g. academic or professional ones], disregarding the syllabus and the set learning resources.

Limited learner participation, especially in speaking activities, because of fear of exposure to everybody’s criticism and limited confidence.

Lack of learner motivation and interest in the lesson classroom and ‘switching off’.

Not bringing course books or other learning resources to the class.

Not doing work assigned by tutor, even when learners have the time at their disposal to do so.

Varying learner reading or writing speed when classroom tasks are set.

Ways of dealing with them:

Show the class that you manage what’s happening during the lesson. Before a learner-leader starts speaking, specify the number of points you want them to mention and if they carry on, thank them for their contribution, stop them politely and ask somebody else to contribute to the discussion.

When planning your lesson for your group, always set time for this kind of requests and be flexible in your plans. Make sure that you’ll be able to cover the syllabus as well as deal with specific learner requests. Alternatively, ask them to prepare beforehand their requests and email you so you can use them as part of a revised lesson plan for the next session you can have with them. If you can have a list of learner requests well in advance, you could easily adapt your lesson plans and keep everybody happy; yourself, learners, employer or director of studies. Easier said than done, though.

Pair less confident learners up with learners who are slightly more confident than them, but not people who are too chatty, or ask them to work with you. Avoid asking them to present something in front of a large group, because they are usually too afraid to do that, especially at the start of a course.

Always choose suitable material that meets learner language needs and link what you do with why, when and how they can use it. In other words, show the relevance of the material and the tasks with the context the learners are in and their learning goals. Ask them to practise this by having them discuss the links in groups or pairs or as a whole class. Once they see the relevance of what they do, they will be more motivated to participate.

Part of your lesson planning should include a plan B, because anything could go wrong with your plan A [e.g. resources, coursebooks, technology]. For example, you need to have both digital as well as hard copies of material that you can use with your learners in case technology fails. At the same time, do remind your learners of the importance of bringing to class their resources.

Ensure that the self-study tasks you assign are manageable within the deadline provided and that it’s relevant to your learners’ context, ideally linked to learner requests about material and tasks. If these criteria are met, learners will have every reason to complete the tasks assigned.

Make a note of learner speed differences in reading, brainstorming or writing in class and have additional practice activities to give those who finish first. Explain to them that each learner has a different speed and this is perfectly all right. Set a time limit for an activity before they start and allow more time if needed later. You can tell your group something along these lines: ‘Have 10 minutes for this task and we’ll see how it goes. If you need more time, I’ll give you a few more minutes’.

This article looked at an area of teaching adults that we often think isn’t that important. However, given the fact that when working with adults a lot of work is actually ‘classwork’ and not ‘homework’ because of the limited time this age group has, it’s vital to manage what happens in the classroom in the best possible way in order to maximise the benefits for our learners. I hope that I’ve shown you some ways in which you can do that. •


*Maroussa has a BA in English Language and Literature from the University of Athens and an MA in 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. 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..