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Teaching English Online to Elderly Students

With so much emphasis in the online ESL industry on teaching young learners. It might be time for us to consider teaching English to seniors. It may not happen often, but if you teach adults online for long, you’ll probably encounter a lesson with ESL students over 65, even in their 80s and possibly 90s (yes, I’ve taught such classes).

In my experience, teaching English online to seniors isn’t uncommon. And what I’ve noticed, is that they need a little more care than the average online ESL student. They can come across as shy, quiet, and non-participative, perhaps because we fail to realize the dynamics involved with teaching them.

This OnTESOL Graduate blog today will give you a few pointers on how to manage elderly students in your online ESL classes. These tips are not meant to stereotype older learners but to be used as general rules of practice when teaching them.

Patience Needed

The first pointer when teaching seniors, is that you’ll need an extra measure of patience. As is the case when driving a car, walking across the street, speaking, paying at the cash register, or other activity, elders sometimes need a little more time to get things done.

It’s the same in online ESL classrooms, and perhaps even more so because they may be in an environment that they aren’t completely comfortable with. That means we may need to give them more time than average to find classroom tools, to respond to comments, to formulate their thoughts, or type.

It may have nothing to do with their English proficiency level, but that they just need more time to use the computer than others. So, give them a break and try not to hit them with rapid-fire questions, activities, or classroom actions.

Learning English May Be More Difficult

There’s research out there that suggests younger people pick up a language faster and to a greater extent than older people. That’s because younger minds are more malleable while older minds have solidified or fossilized more. That means their ways of thinking have been fixed culturally, academically, and perceptively for periods of up to 50, 60, or even 70 years.

To manage this, we need to first be aware of it. Secondly, set reasonable expectations for their progress.

Tips for teaching English to Older people online

Be Respectful

Seniors come from a different era. They come from a time when courtesy and basic civilities were more fashionable than they are now. That means if you’re a younger teacher and you speak to them as if they are your buddies, they may not be used to it. They may feel that you are treating them discourteously. And that’s not something we want in any online ESL class.

So, we need to be more sensitive to it in classes with older folks. One example might be to replace “excellent point, man” with “that’s a great point, Mr. Jung.” These may not be your cup of tea in terms of expressions, but hopefully, you get the idea—try to communicate with them on their terms.

Read: TESOL Certification valid for ESL teaching jobs online, abroad, and in the United States

May Not Be Overly Tech Savvy

Keep in mind that senior class members, again, come from a time when computers, the worldwide web, and especially online classes were not the norm. These could be our grandparents who were watching black and white TVs, answering telephones (not cellphones), listening to record players, and talking to people face to face.

Of course, some have kept up with the times, no question about that. But others have not. And it may be the case that in your class, they’ll be ashamed to say anything about it. But as teachers, and as is the purpose of this blog, we need to be aware of and sensitive to these points. So what do we do about it?

We take it easy and explain things politely to them. If it seems they’re quiet, it may simply be that they’re trying to adjust to the environment. And if it’s a group class, they may very well be intimidated by the younger class members. So, once in a while, stop the rushing flow of the class, and ask them directly what they think about something. This gives them an opportunity to activate their mic, share their thoughts, and be participating class members.

teaching online conversation to older students

Are a Wealth of History, Experiences, and Information

Elderly students are a wealth of information. They’ve seen and experienced things we may never understand. Some of them can tell you what it was like going through world wars. Others can tell you about impacting political events, such as the fall of the Berlin Wall and its results.

There is just so much they can share. Tap into it when you want to make a conversation. Relate current events to what they may have experienced in their younger years.

Read: Teaching English Online: How To Get Started

They Want to Speak So Let Them

Having such a wealth of information and experience, elderly folks are likely to want to share these things with their younger counterparts. I think it’s just natural for older people to want to do that. As teachers, we can tap into this as a way to get them speaking and participating.

Then, give them some time to share. By relating current topics with their history, or by viewing current events from a historical perspective, we can bridge the language as well.

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3 thoughts on “Teaching English Online to Elderly Students”

  1. These are all useful tips! :D I’ll make sure to apply all these pointers in my next class with my 75-year-old student. Thanks for the article, Sir Jerry!

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