Today's learners are indeed more diverse than they ever were. With the huge influx of people from other continents we are faced with completely new challenges. It used to be simpler to teach school children just because we have to follow the national curriculum. Thus we have a certain program, a set schedule; our academic year is more or less neatly divided into terms. We know that each year we have to achieve new levels, and to reach the final exams requirements by the time our students finish school. We are also aware of the fact that all classes are mixed-ability ones. What is perhaps most important is the fact that we can tell teenagers that we all must follow the curriculum, adhere to the established rules. It is our fallback strategy, our staple. That familiar question from a teenager, "Why do we have to study this stupid topic?" has a quick answer. They have to be ready for their finals.
• Here is one simple strategy which always works. Just tell your rebellious youngsters that " this stupid topic" is a must due to the curriculum. Suggest that they write an essay or hold a round table discussion on why exactly they find it boring. You will be surprised by the results.
Now the familiar situation is changing rapidly. We are used to,working with children who are required to attend school for ten-twelve years by law. Universal education has been around for quite a long time.
Newcomers from other countries who probably never went to school before, who have no notion of discipline and motivation, who see themselves as adults, may be obliged to attend lessons. We teachers know perfectly well that one or two problem adolescents may disrupt the whole process. Quite often they are not accompanied by parents, so we do not have our usual support from adults.
• One strategy that works is a short preparatory course. Rather than plunging them into an unfamiliar surrounding and strange situation, and creating an awkward or even dangerous environment for children who have always been in this or that school, it pays to conduct classes for small groups and prepare them not only academically but also psychologically. Actually there is a wealth of similar experience in many countries. Children who have developmental or health problems, who for instance have dyslexia, are taught in specialized schools and classes first. Many of them have no trouble later when they are transferred to regular classes and have to follow the traditional curriculum.
Teaching adults, no matter if they are locals who need to study a foreign language for their work, or newcomers who need it to function in the new country, may be both more difficult and easier than teaching children of any age. If an adult needs to learn English in the hopes of finding a job or getting a promotion, they are more motivated, discipline is not an issue. But as adults they have more baggage, they have more difficulties remembering the new lexis and grammar rules. And naturally their abilities are as diverse as can be.
• One strategy that always works for me is an individualized approach. I would always inquire about each student's interests, about their aims, ask why they need English. Then I would try to find some materials which cater to their needs. It takes some extra time but it is quite possible to do it. The main topic may be the same for the whole group, say the passive voice or the continuous tenses. What we may individualize are the basic texts, the exercises. Try to see the familiar teaching aids with a new eye. A text on genetically modified food is as full of the definite articles as the text on movie stunts or nail design.
Finding the new materials, working out new approaches is relatively easy though time consuming. Where do we find enough men to teach people who do not see women as persons of authority? Should we even try to do it, or should we persevere and uphold our own traditions?
It is an ongoing process, and there are as yet no ready-made answers.