Have you ever taught older learners? If you haven't, I must warn you: you probably will. A recent report by the Milken Institute Centre for the Future of Aging shows that the 60-plus cohort is the world’s fastest growing age segment. This population, which is of nearly one billion people today, tends to double by 2050. The report also points out that "for Latin America and the Caribbean, the 60-plus population will increase from 12% of the total in 2017 to 25%" by mid-century.
Of course, you may argue that you do not consider 60 as old age; neither do I. Nevertheless, for standardisation, I am using the World Health Organisation's (WHO) parameters, which consider people over 60 years as the elderly cohort of the world population. However, WHO also points out that although ageing brings with it some gradual decrease in physical and mental capacity, along with a growing risk of disease, these changes can only be loosely associated with a person’s age in years. The general physical and mental capacity of individuals has more to do with their lives and general conditions than with their age in numbers.
I have been teaching English for more than 20 years and, although having a favourite group of learners is usually frowned upon, I must say I only really fell in love with my profession when I started teaching my first group of older learners. To watch and to be part of their enjoyment, effort and improvement in our lessons together made me realise that was exactly what I wanted to do. In that case, I was teaching a group of women over 70, and they showed me how fulfilling teaching can be. We went through ups and downs, as in any course; but I must say that although I am positive they learnt a lot in those lessons, I tend to believe I learnt with them more than they did with me.
After that first group, others came, and although there are not two identical groups or students, two significant aspects seem to be common to all of them: motivation and demotivation.
Some of the most important aspects of teaching older learners, in my opinion, are related to motivation. Cook (2001) says that “learning a second language is not just the adding of rooms to your house by building an extension at the back: it is the rebuilding of all the internal walls”. Can you imagine rebuilding all the internal walls of a house you have been living in for 60 or more years and enjoying every minute of it? Yes, this is probably how it feels to learn a language after a certain age.
Most older learners are highly intrinsically motivated. Many of them want to learn English because it was something they had always wanted to do but never had the time or the means to do so; they may also do it to feel like “they are part of the modern world”. Other reasons to look for a language course include travelling, socialising, making new friends, keeping their minds active etc.
Extrinsic motivation is also a relevant factor nowadays. Learning English in order to find a new job (or to keep their current one), to communicate with new members of their families, to move abroad in search of better conditions; the list is endless. What is important to keep in mind is that motivation plays a crucial part when teaching older learners.
I understand it may sound contradictory to claim that older learners might feel demotivated, especially when I have just explained how motivated these learners generally are. However, I agree with Dörnyei and Ushioda (2001:139) when they argue that demotivation does not mean that the learner has no motivation; instead, it means there is a strong negative component that is acting on the learner and it should be investigated. According to Donaghy (2016), "many older learners fear failure and are more anxious than younger learners, perhaps this is because they accept the stereotype of the older learner as a poor language learner or because of previous unsuccessful attempts to learn a foreign language".
Challenging as it may seem, demotivation can be fought by teachers through the constant use of encouragement and the use of tools that help learners realise how much they have improved, such as progress-check activities. Encouraging learners to take risks and to use the language they have learnt also tends to bring positive results. Most of all, I can safely say that boosting learners self-confidence on a frequent basis is one of the best ways through which I have fought their demotivation.
According to Brown (2000) "teaching is guiding and facilitating learning, enabling the learner to learn, setting the conditions for learning". He goes on to say that teachers' understanding of how their learners learn will determine their approach, methods and the techniques to be used by them in the classroom. Therefore, it is of utmost importance that teachers analyse their learners' attitudes, strengths and weaknesses in order to be able to help them learn in a positive and confident way. However true this notion might be for all learning environments, I argue that, when teaching older learners, a teacher must be particularly aware of their feelings and reactions towards learning English and must act appropriately to create a proper learning environment.
My last advice is: when in doubt, never assume. Always ask your learners how they feel, what their fears or challenges are and work alongside with them in order to better the conditions for learning to take place.
Beamish, R., Burstein, A. and Irving, P. (2018) Silver to gold - the business of aging. [Online] Milken Institute Centre for the Future of Aging. Report number: 905. Available from: http://www.milkeninstitute.org/publications/view/905 [Accessed 3rd July 2018].
Brown, H.D. (2000) Principles of language learning and teaching. 4th edition. New York, Pearson Education.
Cook, V. (2001) Using the First Language in the Classroom. Canadian Modern Language Review, 57(3), 402-423.
Donaghy, K. (2016) How to maximise the language learning of senior learners. [Online] Available from: http://www.teachingenglish.org.uk/article/how-maximise -language-learning-senior-learners [Accessed 12th July 2018].
Dörnyei, Z. and Ushioda, E. (2011) Teaching and researching motivation. 2nd edition. Harlow, Pearson Education.
World Health Organization. (2018) Ageing and health. [Online] Available from: http://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/ageing-and-health [Accessed 3rd May 2018].
Bio: Heloisa Duarte has been involved in English language teaching for over 20 years as a teacher, teacher educator, materials writer, consultant and manager at prestigious national and international institutions in Brazil. She is a CELTA holder and is currently finishing her MA in Language Education at NILE.