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Tips for Tutoring Adults


Coquina Restrepo

Becoming an adult learning coach is an opportunity to reach out and make a difference in someones’ life. As literacy is one of the most important skills of the century, helping adults who may be struggling with a second language or reading and writing skills impacts the whole community. However, learning as an adult is significantly different from learning as a child outside of the school system. And teaching adults is a completely different field of education!

In order to make the most out of your teaching time and really know how to help your partner, here are a few basic things to know about adult learning and education. While every person is different and learning styles vary from tutor to learner, these tips are meant to give you perspective on how to teach and structure your lesson time together.

Learning a language as an adult is Goal-Oriented.

Every adult has a reason for learning a new language or re-learning a skill like literacy. Their goals came be simple like being able to have basic conversations and type up basic emails. Or they can be complex like studying for exams, preparing for certification classes or relearning their basic literacy skills after an accident.

Whatever their end goal may be, being aware of them is important when structuring your lessons together. They can serve as guides on how to structure your lessons and give you hard dates or events to prepare for. During your first meeting, ask them about what they would like to do with this skill or what they’d like to do in the future.

Also, be sure to check in on your learners’ goals as you keep meeting. Goals can and will change over time, either after they’ve completed one or developed a separate interest. Keep track of your learners goals and make notes on how you both can work together to achieve them!

Customize the learning process to suit you and your student.

Many people are tempted to immediately buy workbooks and learning manuals when they begin studying. Instead of investing in different vocabulary and grammar books, start off by finding a reliable set of materials that help give variety to your lessons. Things like magazines, short novels, newspapers, movies and music videos will help keep your learners’ attention up throughout the class and break up the monotony of vocabulary drilling.

Practical everyday speaking and realigning aren’t covered in study materials which give a restricted view of language. Workbooks only go so far in language learning, bringing in everyday materials to help create variety will give real world context to your lessons. Using a mixed media approach with videos, different reading materials and online resources will help build a practical vocabulary of everyday words and give your learners the context of how to regularly read and write.

Your best bet to finding these different resources is checking in at your local public library! You can put together materials that match your readers’ goals and interests yourself, even having the help you pick them out with you. If you are unsure what materials you could use, you can also ask a librarian for reference.

Learning progress is different, but don’t forget to measure it.

While the idea of progress checks for adults may seem intimidating or unnecessary in tutoring, progress displays can help with overall learning. Learners can stay motivated to keep trying more difficult tasks when they’re able to reflect on how far they’ve progressed, and it can also help you as a tutor to track what they’ve learnt and what they need to work on.

As adults are goal-oriented in their education, keeping them accountable to their own goals is central to making your time together matter. Learner accountability can take the form of regular updates, a shared journal or completing small tasks throughout their day. It creates a habit of practicing the skills from their lesson and monitoring their own progress in order to reach their goals.

Keeping track of your learners’ progress doesn’t have to be complicated either! You can use a variety of progress check apps and websites to keep each other accountable and have a visual progress display. Simple Google Excell sheets for task completion check lists or reminders on your phone will help make remind you both to complete your tasks and give you something to look back on during your lessons together.

Don’t be afraid to check in everyday - even just to say ‘hello’!

Regular updates with one another don’t have to revolve around your next lesson together. You can simply call or text one another about your day like casual acquaintances. This doesn’t just keep your lessons in mind, it helps learner become more comfortable with using casual conversation and reading skills.

Keep adding variety to your lessons by injecting casual conversation and offering to do things together outside of class as well. Offer to run errands with them, invite them out for coffee with friends or go to a community event together. These aren’t just to help them practice their language skills but also help forge new connections in the community. Soft skills like these can be very hard to develop once you’re an adult, so be a guide on how to work through issues of culture shock or social anxiety together outside of class.

Learning isn’t about sitting down and doing drills. Bring them outside!!

Adult literacy and communication skills extends past book work and watching videos, you have to bring your classroom outside as much as possible. Adults learn by actually practicing their skills and creating habits, activities like public speaking or visiting museums are the best way to put their lessons into practice.

Challenging your learner to practice their skills in public can be intimidating at first. Be sure to let them know that this is a safe environment and it’s alright to make mistakes! You can start small by practicing writing emails and letters, going to movies and restaurants to make casual practice. Then upgrade to harder things like community events, language exchanges and even attempting to go on trips! Make the push to challenge your learner outside of their comfort zone and you will be giving them the most rewarding kind of experiential learning.

Finally, remember that learning has never been just a “teacher-student” relationship. Learning is a cooperative and coordinated activity that is meant to serve both the learner and tutor. Be open and honest with each other about your abilities and goals with tutoring, as it will help guide you both on what you want to achieve at the end of your time together.

You will be surprised at how much you learn yourself while tutoring! So come in with an open mind and ready to change plans when you need to.

Coquina is an educator in Shanghai, China and Roanoke local who grew up speaking two languages with her family. She currently works as an early childhood educator and reading specialist as well as a freelance writer. Her current clients are design firms and education organizations such as Bright Design Studio, Bright Minds, ESL Passport and Compass Review. When she’s not writing, she draws comics and organizes events for the teacher community in Shanghai through her own organization Good Thoughts.


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