Editor’s Note: I recently invited readers to contribute short posts about their experiences teaching adult English Language Learners. Many have responded – and there’s room for more!

The first post was by Antoinette Perez.

The second one was by Leighton Suen.

Post three was by Coral Russell.

Today’s post is by Christy Olivera.


Christy Olivera has taught secondary ESL in Texas for over 17 years.  In addition to public school, she is also in her 3rd year as an Adult Education ESL instructor and instructional coach at a local community college.


Potato, Pataa-to, Tomato, Tomaa-to….  or should I say papa y tomate?  With an extensive background in working with grades 6-9 language learners, I thought teaching adults would be similar.  I thought I could just “tweak” some of my current materials.  Boy, was I wrong!  Over the past three years I’ve learned a lot about the unique joys and challenges of teaching adult ELLs.


Hungry to Learn On my first night of teaching adults, I listed our verbs on the board with the different tenses of the words we were learning and pencils began flying.  They literally hung…on… every… word!  You could have knocked me over with a feather!  My secondary ELLs usually groan when I ask them to get out their pencils!

Adult Humor At the end of a long day, dragging into a 3-hour night class seems daunting, but as soon as that first Adult Education (AE) student gets there I am energized! It is a blast!  Classwork is mixed with a heavy dose of humor.   Make a simple comment about needing a margarita and the laughter around the room makes everyone feel like they are at a party.

Flexible Curriculum In K-12, curriculum adoptions are driven by grade level Content and Language Objectives. AE in Texas has its own content standards, however, curriculum, resources, and even which content objectives you focus on, should be based on the needs of your learners. An example was when we were learning how to ask if someone felt alright.  One student piped up from the back of the room that her co-workers just say, “You look like sh-t!”  This lead to an impromptu lesson on identifying cuss words!

Feedback Make adults apart of their own learning. They all have such different needs and goals that their input makes their learning more relevant.

  • Thumbs up/down: After an activity ask, “Did you like this activity?”.  Thumbs up, thumbs down.
  • Exit tickets are a great way to get feedback. Put a sentence stem on the board and stand at the door so they can say the completed sentence to you as they leave. Example: I liked ________________ (activity)  but I would like more practice _________.        For my students, I found that they were hungry for phonics, writing practice, vocabulary study and practice with conversations.


Adult Language Learners come with hopes for a better life.  They also come with jobs, families, and responsibilities.  If there is a shift in any of those things, we often lose them. So, for retention, we have to focus on what we do have control over, relationships and curriculum.

Enrollment   In many AE programs, enrollments aren’t based on semester classes. Many programs have monthly enrollments,  so when new students step into a fast moving, fully functioning class, they can feel intimidated and drop out.   For grant-funded classes, retention is vital for the lifeblood of the program, so you sometimes have one class to hook them.

Games and Activities These are great for connecting people.  Quizlet Live[1] does this effortlessly because it puts them into random teams.  So, regardless of language levels, new students immediately “belong” to a team.  Games tend to lower their effective filters so not only are they open to learning but they want to return.

Speaking Mixers or Ice Breakers This another great way to quickly connect new enrollments. It is as simple as putting a conversational sentence stem up on the board that students have to ask and answer. I put mine into a PowerPoint slide so I can add visuals to help support the learners.

My name is ___ and my favorite candy bar is ______.  /  Oh, nice to meet you!

I’m ___ and I like to ____ (dance)   /   She’s _____ and she likes to _____ (dance).

This is ____ and his/her birthday is in_________(month).

 I’m _____, and I’m a _______(profession).   How interesting!

Name Tents In my junior high classroom, my roster changes very little throughout the school year, but my AE roster changes frequently so Name Tents (paper folded into a triangular prism) are an easy way to quickly learn names, especially in programs where there is a large turn-over. On the back of the name tents, you can even write class rules, or helpful phrases like: “Could you please repeat that?” or “How do you say…?”

Over the last three years, teaching adult ELLs has been challenging but extremely rewarding.  I am convinced that language learning matters. Growing matters. I encourage everyone to step outside of the box and try something new. Grow, laugh and enjoy the ride!


A Few Resources I Like

Phonics Resources:

  • Interactive English Pronunciation Fun with Pictures. It has word pairs with often mistaken pronunciations like  Gel/Jail,  Cut/cat.
  • Sounds American:  These are video lessons that show tongue placement and help with the phonetic sounds.
  • Phonics Strategies for Older Students by Phonics Advantage: This helps with vowel sounds and decoding.  They are short lessons that can be projected and done with a class.

Great Websites:

  • ISLCollective has good speaking games, and video lessons
  • Newsinlevels has extremely short articles;

Youtube Channels for language learning.

  • VOA Learning English
  • Learn English with TV Series
  • EnglishLessons4U – Learn English with Ronnie!
  • Learn English with English7Levels
  • Learn English 24/7 with EnglishClass101 TV





[1]  Note: Quizlet vocabulary can be printed into game cards. Print a free game board off of the internet, glue it onto a file folder, grab some small objects from your junk drawer as game pieces, and a pair of dice, and you have another game.