Many seniors wish to study a foreign language and there is now substantial evidence that they can learn a new language effectively. My experience is that senior learners are excellent language students for a number of reasons.
Senior students have a wealth of life experience and when they bring this to the classroom they enrich the learning experience of the whole class. Our teachers comment that older learners are excellent students to have in the classroom as they are always happy to talk about their experiences and give their opinions on a wide range of topics.
Senior learners do not normally need a certificate, diploma or university credit; their motivation is intrinsic. They may study for intellectual enjoyment, to socialise with their peers or because it is something they have always wanted to do. In fact, senior learners are very often more highly motivated than younger learners. Their high level of motivation is a great advantage as this has been identified as one of the most important factors in determining successful language learning. The motivation of senior learners is reflected by the fact that they rarely miss a class, participate very actively in the classroom and always do their homework.
We have discovered that there is a strong social component in seniors attending English classes. They often attend class to mix with their peers, forming very strong friendships and socialising together after the class and even in their free time.
Our experience is that senior learners have an extremely positive attitude toward language learning and life in general. They treat both their teachers and their classmates with the utmost respect and politeness. Our teachers often comment on how kind, considerate, and hardworking senior learners are, and what a pleasure they are to teach.
So our experience is that the life experience, motivation to learn, and positive attitude of senior learners provide them with many advantages as language learners. However, there are cognitive, affective and physiological factors which can affect senior language learning. We are going to identify these factors and then look at how you can adapt your courses and practices to meet the needs of older learners.
Helping students hear
Hearing loss may have a direct impact on learning and performance for senior learners. In order to decrease the negative effects of this auditory loss, teachers should try to accommodate the aging ear in a number of ways by:
- speaking clearly and ensuring that the students can see their face and lips.
- adjusting the volume for listenings and videos.
- repeating listening texts.
- using short films and videos which aid listening comprehension as students can see the face and lips of the speakers.
- ensuring that your classrooms have little background noise.
Helping students see
Defective vision increases dramatically as people age. Visual ability is particularly important in education as it is generally accepted that approximately 80% of all learning occurs through vision. To accommodate this loss in vision, here are some steps to follow:
- Use a larger print type for printed text.
- Make sure that senior students sit as close to the board as possible.
- Write very clearly on the board.
- Ensure that classrooms have a lot of natural light and that there is direct lighting for the whiteboard.
As people age the body tends to lose some strength, flexibility and mobility. They may also suffer from arthritis and rheumatism. These changes may make it difficult for older learners to move around the classroom. To compensate for these changes we recommend doing the following things:
- Ensure that older learners have comfortable chairs and tables.
- Allow more time for older students to do whole class communicative activities where students have to stand up and move around the classroom.
Research indicates that cognitive development, recall, and problem solving may show decline with aging. In order to overcome this cognitive decline which may make it more difficult to learn a new language, teachers can help seniors develop and maintain their cognitive ability in a number of ways:
- Integrate memory exercises into classes. Use visual and auditory mnemonic devices, examples and memory associations to help seniors rehearse and later retrieve vocabulary and expressions from long-term memory.
- Systematically repeat and recycle grammar, vocabulary and expressions.
- Encourage students to draw on their wealth of experiences and to use cognitive strategies they have used successfully in the past in their current language learning environment.
- Allow more time for students to produce language without being interrupted.
Building confidence / Reducing stress
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. Older learners need to feel comfortable and trust the teacher and the other students before they participate fully in the language classroom. A key role of the teacher is to reduce anxiety and build trust and self-confidence in the senior learner.
Here are some of the things teachers can do to reduce stress and build self-confidence in older adult learners:
- Find out what our older learners’ motivations are for learning a language and adjust our methodology accordingly.
- Use humanistic techniques to build empathy between the teacher and students, and among the students.
- Reduce the focus on error correction to build learners’ self-confidence and to promote language production.
- Avoid timed tests which may make senior learners anxious.
- Give senior students more time to complete activities.
- Promote a friendly and relaxed atmosphere in the classroom.
My experience is that any difficulties which senior learners may experience in the language classroom can be overcome through adjustments to the learning environment and material, attention to physical, affective and cognitive factors, and the use of an effective teaching methodology which focuses on the learning process rather than academic achievement.
Kieran Donaghy is teacher at UAB Idiomes, Barcelona. He is also the creator of http://film-english.com/, an award-winning website providing free resources for teachers wishing to use video effectively in their classrooms.