How to maximise the language learning of senior learners

There are many benefits of studying for older learners, such as increased self-confidence, increased feelings of health and well-being, reduced feelings of isolation, and increased engagement in the community. 

Kieran Donaghy

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.

Life experience

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.

Great motivation

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.

Social element

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, an award-winning website providing free resources for teachers wishing to use video effectively in their classrooms. 



Submitted by bendecko on Thu, 03/25/2021 - 17:27


As someone who is rapidly approaching his 'senior' years I can tell you we just don't take things in as easily as when we were young.   Agree completely that motivation levels are higher for the older groups, as they not doing it for a diploma or CV, but rather for the enjoyment and social.

Submitted by boxodir on Sat, 06/16/2018 - 05:23


In the article ‘’ Are we just ‘language’ teachers or are we teachers?’’, Emanuel Kontovas, May 2018, the teacher in this ever-changing world are described as a people who are responsible not only to transmit knowledge but also to shape characters, being supportive and caring. He believes teachers should continue teaching style of ancient Greece as not only a transmitter of knowledge but also an educator. They provided their students with the principles of how to live their lives, with role models, with values but also they were there for their students whenever they were sad, lost, confused.This is a strong argument.For example, Ron Clarck is an American educator who has worked with disadvantaged students in rural North Carolina, creates warm atmosphere in the classroom with special attention to each students behaviour and life style with valuable help going their home and discussing with their parents. Moreover,teachers have to observe and notice any change in the behavior of a student trying to find real reasons why for example a good student suddenly does not do well anymore with safe way of private discussion to show genuinely worry about student’s behaviour. Another important way mentioned by author is to create a safe, supportive and encouraging environment in the classrooms where students should feel that whatever worries them in their real lives cannot touch them inside the walls of classroom which happens Only with Love.

Submitted by Quidditch1966 on Thu, 02/22/2018 - 16:11


I found the article useful and reassuring. I teach EFL to adults (and some are retired people) in Italy. It' s great to have people who are so motivated and interested in learning. Vito

Submitted by Lester Lee on Fri, 01/12/2018 - 07:31


It's a wonderful article. I've learned a lot and benefited from it. Thank you so much.

Submitted by Berna Fitzpatrick on Wed, 10/25/2017 - 10:52


What a great article, I couldn't agree more. I have started teaching one to one senior students and I am doing most of what he suggests. I find walking a great way to learn new vocabulary and to improve fluency. My senior learners love to walk and learn new language at the same time. Thank you

Submitted by clingua on Wed, 10/25/2017 - 08:21


Thank you so much Professor Kieran Donaghy for your helpful article. I have had Senior Learner's classes for years but only recently I have noticed that the new coursebooks and their advanced technology may cause them some stress and accordingly reduces their motivation. I am always eager to teach with new course books and I am fond of the new technology and the possibilities that it offers. But when I assign some video or listening track on the DVD or MultiROM as homework, the senior learners have often not been able to do their homework, be it because they were not able to find the right track on the multi level DVD or be it because they could not understand what was said in the films. So I have decided to use new technology only in class. In this way I am the one who provides the material and in class we are able to deal with the problems the students may have in understanding the speakers.

Submitted by Nick Correa on Fri, 08/19/2016 - 12:40


I found this article to be very useful and reassuring. I started teaching ESL recently in the context of an institute and I have a class of 6 students. Their ages are 80, 60, 35, 14, 15 and 16. Also, I`m doing a case study research regarding the implications of teaching in such a colourful setting. I have problems finding previous research on the later point because of the unique nature of a class that has an age range of 80-14. I would be very thankful for any guidelines regarding authors, previous research or other resources I could use to find information on such an specific setting. Thanks for sharing such a helpful article. I hope to have a reply soon!

Submitted by Zhang Yuanzhong on Sun, 06/12/2016 - 08:14


Professor Kieran Donaghy provides an excellent overview of the aspects and dimensions of the advantages of older learners in second language acquisition (SLA). The child-adult differences in SLA has been examined extensively in the research literature. According to noted linguist Stephen Krashen's synthesis, for instance, adult learners tend to be more efficient than child acquirers in following the instructions of the lessons designed for the initial levels of second language (L2) learning, while child acquirers catch up and outperform their adult counterparts in the subsequent stages of L2 development. Generally speaking, child acquirers are more likely to achieve a higher proficiency level in L2 than adult learners. As a parody of the much debated legislation "No Child Left Behind" in the US, conscionable precautions should be made, at least for L2 acquisition, to ensure "No Adult Left Behind". The wealth of professional and cultural experiences, knowledge, insights, and perspective brought by adults as enumerated by Professor Donaghy is definitely a resource for a productive and successful L2 learning experience. As the adage goes, one is never too old to learn.

Submitted by jvl narasimha rao on Mon, 04/25/2016 - 01:02


This is wonderful article on the advantages of teaching young learners.Though it is better and easier to start teaching learners when they are young, even old age people can learn and they have certain obvious advantages over the young learners. Mr Paul excellently put forth this blog supporting his points and views

Submitted by Rashedo2016 on Sat, 04/02/2016 - 03:52


Looking forward to become a learner soonest and meet up with the mind-alike here in Kuala Lumpur.

Submitted by Reyna Díaz Cortés on Sun, 03/13/2016 - 15:07


I find so useful all this information. I am about to start teaching a group of older learners and it is very important to me knowing about their capabilities, needs, expectations, etc. This will help me a lot. Thank you so much. P.D. I will be telling you how it is going.

Submitted by Kieran Donaghy on Sun, 03/06/2016 - 11:35


Hi Abarbareena, I'm happy that you found the article useful and that you feel reassured by the article. Best wishes, Kieran

Submitted by Abarbareena on Wed, 03/02/2016 - 14:29


I agree entirely with Kieran's article - and was delighted to find that I already follow most of it. This has to be within the confines of my situation, notably the rooms which are not intended as classrooms and no access there to the internet. I work alone, giving English lessons as part of the activities provided by the commune, alongside, Scrabble, Keep fit, walking etc. A former teacher, I try to bear in mind OFSTED standards, and my 26 learners are all retired except two. I was reassured by the article.

Research and insight

Browse fascinating case studies, research papers, publications and books by researchers and ELT experts from around the world.

See our publications, research and insight