Everything depends on the level of the student taking the class, but on the whole I have found that older/retired students are low level students wishing to try English again.
For these students, I’d probably pick a thematic book with basic grammar. I like the Side by Side series because they go fairly slowly and are full of conversation exercises. I also think using Essential Grammar in Use is good because it goes very slowly and is laid out in a very organized fashion. Finally, the Future Intro book lays out the information in a less busy way then Side by Side but is equally understandable for beginners.
For the higher level older/retired students I have taught, I liked using the Compelling Conversations book because it had topics that weren’t related to work but were interesting to them and related often to their experience.
In Chile, I worked with a sixty-six year old, working student. We were supposed to be plowing through a Business English book, but I found that almost every time I asked him to open his book, he got a phone call or had to check his email. One day he said to me that the words in the text were just too technical and specific. What he was looking for was conversation about everyday life.
Sometime after that, we started leaving his office to have the classes at a coffee shop. We barely used the book again, and to be honest, I sometimes fudged the truth on my lesson reports with him. We spent the remainder of the classes talking about his memories as a child and adult in Venezuela, his concern for his country, and his opinions about just about everything. We seldom ended the classes on time. Usually, we ended early because he was stressed about getting back to work. The class was 100% on his terms, not on mine or even my company’s.
My only regrets in that experience were that I sometimes felt that he needed to learn more vocabulary. Sometimes I think I let him have his way almost too much. However, I introduced him to some through opinion pieces. In other words, I gave him hypothetical situations and asked for his opinion about them. During our conversations, I also tried to introduce new words and idioms–not easy to do on the spur of the moment! I would have continued to work at increasing his vocabulary as I do with every student, but work finally took over and he suspended the classes with me indefinitely while telling me several times that I was his favorite person.
My other experience with an older student was less happy. It happened during my first year of teaching ESL. She was retired; actually, I don’t think she had ever worked. That is to say she had had a full-time job keeping care of the kids and the house in Brazil and now probably the grandchildren in Massachusetts. Her level of English was very low as was her motivation. She had made several attempts to learn English and quit after each one. Now, she was in my beginner class and probably the lowest there. Thankfully, her friend of the same age was with her. Her friend was slightly more advanced in English and much more motivated.
I’ll never forget the fateful class that I taught everyone how to say their age. I don’t think I was the proverbially culturally inept new teacher. Rather, I tried to teach them with sensitivity to the fact that the majority of my students were older than me and for that fact women. However, in the middle of my explanation she started crying because she was so self-conscious about her age and level of English. The other women did their best to comfort her, but I’m not sure if she made it through that class. She may have called her husband to take her home. It probably didn’t help her that her husband was taking classes at the same school but several levels above her.
When she left my class, the administration and other teachers told me that it wasn’t the fault of my teaching. These things just happen, and there isn’t much to be done about it. I have also wondered what I could have done to make her stay if anything. She always responded well to music; I wonder if she would have stayed if I had somehow created a light, musical atmosphere in the classroom. Her homework exercises were often correct, but she couldn’t stop thinking that everything was too hard for her and that she was incapable of advancing. She often refused even to try reading her exercises aloud because she was so self-conscious of her pronunciation.
That student showed me just how hard it can feel for a student to deal with their age in a classroom filled with younger students. She also illustrated just how corrosive low self-esteem can be when you are trying to learn something. Most likely, their were other factors besides age in her mind such as competitiveness with her husband. I think all of these other factors were made much more harder by her seniority. Her memory will always make me feel a little sad and pensive.
Those are the stories that stand out in my mind. I’ve heard other stories of teachers teaching students who didn’t care about their progress and were simply learning English to stimulate their brains and ward off atrophy.
Feel free to write about your experiences working with older students below. Also check out my conversation topics for older/retired students.
Below: Compelling Conversations