Adapting materials for different age groups

This teaching tips looks at how to adapt materials for different age groups.

In the last teaching tip we looked at how to adapt materials for mixed ability groups. This is the most common type of adaptation that teachers have to do. However, there are times when you may have to adapt materials because of the age of your students. In order to look at this topic I will divide it into the two possible scenarios:

Using materials aimed at older students with younger students

In the world of young learners we often find that students’ linguistic ability is way beyond the typical course book that is designed for their age. Therefore some adaptation is often necessary. To give an example, I am currently teaching a group of 11-15 year olds on a First Certificate (upper-intermediate) level course. We are using a course book designed for older teenagers and adults so adaptation is an important part of lesson planning. The main thing to bear in mind when adapting tasks is to think about how you can make the task more real for the student. Last week we were writing formal letters, something which none of the students had ever done in their lifetime and therefore they needed a lot of support. After looking at several models of formal letters we turned to the task in the book which was a letter to complain about the service received from a tour operator on a recent holiday. This was obviously something they would be very unlikely to do even in their own language. However, I knew that some of the students had recently gone to a concert and had been disappointed by the performance. So, using those students, we adapted the task together. I asked the students what had been disappointing about the show and we made a list. These points became the content of the task. The functional language of complaining was the same but the task became more alive as it was more personal and closer to the students’ own experiences.

Speaking activities may often need adapting too. The job interview could become the interview to get onto a summer course or to help out at a scout camp.

Questions to consider when preparing your lessons:

  • Will the students know anything about the topic?
  • If not, how can I introduce the topic?
  • Will the students be interested in the topic?
  • If not, how can I make it more interesting and bring it to life?
  • What support will the students need to tackle the task?

Using materials aimed at younger students with older students

If you find yourself using material that is aimed at younger students with older students you have to be careful. Teenagers especially can find it insulting to be presented with childish material when they believe they are ready for something more grown up. If you can’t find more appropriate material then use what you have as a starting point.

Games and fun activities that work well with young learners often work equally well with older teenagers or adults. If you explain the reason for the game or activity and make it clear what the students are practising by playing it, then most students tend to respond positively. Older students will quickly suss you out if you’re just killing time and there’s no real point to the activity. I recently played word formation bingo with a group of adults and was amazed that they got really excited and competitive and were all trying to win so they could become ‘Bingo King’ or ‘Bingo Queen’ for the next round. After a hard day at work I think they enjoyed the chance to revert to their childhood for twenty minutes!

Questions to consider when preparing your lessons:

  • Is the activity appropriate for the age group?
  • If not, how will I bridge the gap?
  • What’s the point of the activity?
  • What will students be learning?
  • Should I explain to the students why we’re doing the activity?

The main thing to bear in mind with any adaptation of materials is how you can personalise the task and make it more relevant to the learner. If you are clear about why you are using certain material and what your objectives are then students should feel happy with the activity as they’ll be able to see the point of it. Take time to chat to your students and find out what they do in their free time and what they are interested in. By doing this you will be able to find more material based on topics they’re interested in.

By Jo Budden

First published 2008


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