English as a second language (ESL) isn’t just for kids. Worldwide, including in Spain, millions of adults each year study English.

Let’s dive into all things adult ESL in Spain and how you can break into this exciting and rapidly developing industry.

Why do adults study English as a second language?

There are several possible reasons that an adult might embark on an ESL journey. Here are a few of the most common:

  • Visa. English proficiency is a baseline requirement to qualify for a visa in several countries.
  • Higher education. Often, to get into an institute of higher learning, applicants must demonstrate a baseline competence in English – even if their chosen field has nothing to do with linguistics.
  • Career advancement. A huge proportion of adult ESL students, especially businesspeople engaged in cross-border trade, study English as a way to bolster their resumes. In the context of Spain, the vast majority of the European continent does not speak Spanish, but they do often speak English as a second language.
  • Tourism. As the middle class grows worldwide, more and more of the global population has the means and motivation to venture abroad for tourism. English, often termed the “global language” due to its widespread use, is indispensable for traveling abroad. As an example of the primacy of English, one of the first times venturing abroad, I witnessed a Japanese tourist attempting to communicate with a Taiwanese hotel receptionist in English – despite the geographic proximity of Japan and Taiwan.
  • Making foreign friends. Sometimes, there is no real legal or career reason for an adult to study English. They might just wish to connect with the broader English-speaking world. 

How does teaching English to adults differ from ESL for kids?

Teaching ESL to adults differs from kids’ ESL instruction in important ways. Here are a few of the biggest distinctions:

  • Teacher-student dynamic. Adults may be more concerned about “saving face” than kids. Many of these students are respected professionals with established careers, so they might feel self-conscious about coming into the ESL classroom as more or less novices. A lot of them are bosses who are accustomed to directing social interactions, not receiving instruction in a subordinate social role. As such, they might have trouble transitioning to the function of “learner” as it can be viewed as demeaning.
  • Motivation. One of the biggest differences between adult ESL and children’s ESL is that, almost universally, your adult students are there of their own volition as enthusiastic, motivated learners. You will have much less difficulty getting your adult students “in the mood” to learn with warm-up drills or other tactics commonly employed in classes with younger learners.
  • Classroom management. Dovetailing with the concept of motivation, classroom management is much easier with adults. You don’t need to devote as much time or energy to enforcing rules and norms.
  • Classroom activities. Children generally require higher-energy, more kinetic activities to maintain their attention spans – like sing-alongs, dances, cooperative games, etc. If your teaching style is more laid-back, adults might be a more suitable audience for you.
  • Subject matter. When teaching children, you have to constantly filter your lesson plans through the lens of age appropriateness. These limitations are not present in adults ESL. While you wouldn’t want to include overtly obscene materials or activities in your lesson plan, you enjoy much broader latitude in this domain.
  • Aptitude/discernment. Adult learners, as a rule of thumb, are more discerning and sophisticated in their analysis of lesson content. As a consequence, teachers might be expected to have a stronger grasp of the technicalities and nuances of language. Expect tougher questions from adult learners.

So, given these differences, what are some ways you might want to structure your lessons to compensate for them and excel in your role as ESL instructor?

Tips for teaching English to adults in Spain

Here are a few tips to design effective, engaging classroom instruction for adult ESL learners in Spain:

  • Rapport building. To the extent possible, treat your adult students as equals. Yes, they are the student and you are the teacher, so you must convey authority in your domain, but you can do so without condescension or coming off as patronizing.
  • Self-effacing humor. You have more leeway to incorporate free-wheeling, edgier humor into your lesson plans. Corresponding back to the first tip here, why not sprinkle in some humor at your own expense?
  • Feedback solicitation. Adults are generally more capable of making constructive suggestions for how to improve lessons. Allow them the autonomy to influence the direction of the class so long as their suggestions don’t stray too far from the course objectives.
  • Slang, idioms, and informal language. To avoid confusion with kids, many schools require the instruction of only formal, grammatically correct English for their young learners. Adults are more capable of distinguishing between formal and informal language, and many are interested in learning the more informal aspects of the language that might better facilitate their real-world interactions with English speakers.

What are some ideal ESL activities for adults?

So, we’ve established that adults are likely to be less impressed with sing-alongs or other activities that might be perceived as juvenile. So what activities should you consider for your adult students in Spain? Here are a few ideas:

  • Bingo. Everybody loves a good round or two of Bingo, regardless of age. Plus, it’s a great way to practice listening. Incorporate a speaking element by requiring winners to read back their Bingo words. The internet is full of Bingo card makers.
  • Interviews. Your adult learners likely already have some experience in conducting interviews, either as the interviewee or the interviewer. Create a fictional workplace and position, and have your students role-play the common business practice.
  • Debates. Pick an issue (but be cognizant of any cultural sensitivities to avoid creating real conflict), divide your class into two opposing sides, and have a mock debate.
  • Group story writing. This is a personal favorite of mine because you can never really tell where the activity will lead. To perform it, each student contributes one sentence at a time on the whiteboard to an unfolding story, adding their own personal flair. You can customize the activity to focus on grammar, vocabulary, or the tenses, providing feedback and corrections along the way to any such mistakes your students make while crafting the text.
  • Improv. Have your students role-play any potential social situation – either outlandish or commonplace – before the class. If you’re focusing on a particular element of ESL, require that they incorporate it somehow into the performance.

Keep in mind any particular industry that your adult learners might be employed in. For instance, if they are airline pilots or staff, you might want to center your role-playing activities around something related to the profession. If your students come from a hodgepodge of professional experiences, just use your best judgment.

Reach out to RVF International to learn more about adult ESL programs in Spain

We specialize in connecting up-and-coming ESL professionals to reputable schools across Spain, including ones catering to adult learners. Contact RVF International to get started on your overseas adventure today.

Ben Bartee is a Bangkok-based American journalist, grant writer, political essayist, researcher, travel blogger, and amateur philosopher. Contact him on Linkedin and check out his Portfolio.