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Monday, March 30, 2009

The advantages and disadvantages in teaching English to Adult Learners

The advantages and disadvantages in teaching English to Adult Learners in the Current Situation in Vietnam

A brief look at the current English language teaching and learning context in Vietnam will show that the demand for English learning is very great. This is clearly seen in the multitude of institutions and centers that offer English courses as well as in the great number of learners who go to English classes. Among these learners adult learners form a big special group. Due to some of their characteristics the teaching of English to this group of adult learners has some advantages and disadvantages as follows.

The first advantage is that adult learners have some degree of extrinsic motivation. They may study English for a variety of reasons but they all do so because they want to or need to. For some students, the motivation may be in the form of integrative motivation because they wish to integrate themselves into the culture of an English-speaking country like Britain, America, Canada or Australia. For others, the motivation is instrumental in the sense that the mastery of the English language is seen as an instrument that can bring them a better job or position. When these adult students go to class with some motivation they are easier to teach than those who bring no motivation to the classroom.

The second advantage is that adult students can transfer those study skills and learning strategies they have acquired in their first language to their study of English. Unlike children and adolescents, adults are autonomous in some way. They have finished their studies or have undertaken at least some in their own language, so they must have gained some basic skills like reading, summarizing, identifying and applying formulae and information and such critical thinking skills as analyzing, synthesizing, hypothesizing, speculating, etc. Moreover, they may also have some well-established strategies for learning. Therefore, the English language teacher can make his job easier by creating conditions for adult students to reactivate these study skills and learning strategies and apply them to their study of a new language.

One more advantage is that adult learners can make use of whatever kind of knowledge they have accumulated in their own language. Again this advantage cannot be seen in other groups of learners like children and adolescents. First, adult learners have extensive experience of using a language, which is their mother tongue. Now that they start learning English, they can remember the new langue system better by making use of what they know about their own language. It is not uncommon to see learners comparing and contrasting their first language with the foreign language they are learning to find out areas in which the two languages are different or similar so that they can learn the new language more quickly. Second, adult students’ life experience, world knowledge and specialist knowledge can contribute much to their learning a foreign language. It can help them a lot when they have to read about or discuss complex or controversial topics in English. So the English teacher can engage adult learners more easily if he knows how to tap the knowledge they have gained over time.

On the contrary, there are some disadvantages to the teaching of English to adult students as well. The first disadvantage is that English learning makes a strong demand on adult learners in terms of time. As a matter of fact, it is really difficult for adult students to make time to learn English. As most institutions and centers teach English in the evening adult students have to study after work. Three one-hour-and-a-half sessions or three three-hour sessions a week seem not to add up to a lot of time but not all adult students can manage to set aside that much time for study purposes. The simple reason is that they all have their own lives to live outside the classroom or they all have other commitments in life than learning English. As a result, some students fail to invest as much time and effort in learning as they should. Of course, teachers will have difficulty in monitoring the performance and progress of those students who cannot attend class regularly.

Another factor that can interfere with or even impede adult students’ learning English is their fear of failure and frustration with lack of progress. As can be seen, some adult students are very successful professionals or have a high status at their work place. And now, at school they are just normal students coping with tasks, assignments, examinations, etc. as they have been successful in their career, they do not want to fail to achieve their desired goal of mastering English. They may therefore put themselves under unnecessary stress if they do not give themselves enough time to achieve their goals or if they set themselves unrealistic goals. Other students may be hard on themselves in a different way. For example, adult intermediate and advanced students, those who already know a lot, may find progress difficult to perceive. In this case, the teacher has more work to do: they must help these students get the level of challenge right or view success in a broader sense.

In addition, the lack of well-qualified teachers and the poor physical conditions of the classrooms at some English language schools and centers can be damaging to student motivation. Currently, in Vietnam a great number of institutions and centers provide English courses and they range form universities and their satellite centers, joint-venture centers, privately-owned centers to privately-run home-based classes. Such proliferation of schools and centers is useful in the sense that it offers students a wide variety of programs to choose from. However, because of a lack of quality control, the reality of some schools and centers may fall short of student expectations. Some teachers are untrained or inexperienced, delivering boring or uninteresting lessons; the physical classroom conditions and resources for learning are just basic. All this cannot of course supply students in general and adult students in particular with any intrinsic motivation, a crucial factor for successful language learning.

In general, this analysis of the current teaching context for adult learners of English in Vietnam in general and of the characteristics of this group of learners in particular partly reflects the increasing need for English language learning and mainly shows the advantages and disadvantages that adult students have in their English study. Both teachers and students need to be aware of these findings of the analysis so that they can find ways to maximize the advantages and minimize the disadvantages. Only in this way can teachers deliver quality English language programs for students to benefit from.

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