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Teaching Different Ages

Teaching Different Ages

Did you train first to teach adults or younger learners? With many specialist courses for face to face and online, this all means that teachers are becoming more specialized right from the start. This is great in professional terms, but what when your circumstances change, and you need to switch? What catches you out?

I have zig-zagged between working with children and adults for most of my career, with younger learner summer-school work and course book development, interspersed with work on online courses and academic management of adult schools. Recently I made the switch again. As I need to unlearn as much as I need to learn, I wanted to share the experience of change.

The easy start is recalling the main differences between the younger and adult language learner:

Cognitive differences:

Adults can deal with more complex or abstract material and are able to work things out more. Younger learners need detailed, explicit support. While adults will want to work on rules and explanations, the language younger learners use needs to be contextually immediate and usable.

Sensory differences:

Children need to be stimulated on all five senses to stay engaged. This offers a wealth of learning activities that adult learners are likely to have moved away from, although they can still benefit. Adult learners may feel strongly about how they learn best.

Learning skills:

Adults can take notes, use reference material, have a more expansive vocabulary, and draw on other learning experiences to make sense of things. Children are more intuitive learners, curious about the world and looking for models, comfortable to mimic, repeat and practice.

Motivational differences:

With younger learners, you need to make everything intrinsically motivating. In contrast, adults will want to see the value of an activity and course. Adults can be prepared to work hard if the activity helps them make progress.

Affective differences:

Adults may feel trapped and embarrassed by their limited expression at a lower level, experiencing what is called ‘reduced personality’ or childlike. Younger learners can be eager to try things but may still lack self-confidence and are vulnerable to peer pressure.

But simply knowing the differences is not enough – I see a lot of teachers’ well-practised habits getting in the way of connecting with their new students. So, from the points above and recent classroom observations, I came up with the following checklist to ensure you notice the habits to change.

Switch summary – are you changing?

  1. Age is a continuum, so do not use a puppet with teens, but some of these points may surprise you:

Kids to adults:

  • Speak more naturally with less name repetition and non-specific praise.
  • Offer more autonomy and choices to the student.
  • Be open to working with resources such as business correspondence, apps, or old course material the learner has and likes using.
  • Expect the student to take notes, do some preparation and refer to reference materials – allow time for this.
  • Expect that the student has other teachers who have explained things differently and will have questions about learning – embrace these.
  • Students are likely to want creative input and variety rather than repetition or simply copying.
  • Include more writing work in lessons and beyond.
  • Expect to have to show the students how much they are achieving in your lessons.


Adults to kids:

  • Keep the student engaged with your voice and body language.
  • Expect to motivate the student by making learning fun.
  • Make your classroom space intriguing with posters, maps etc. on your wall and use realia whenever possible.
  • Make tasks shorter and with more variety – tasks can be repeated often.
  • Reduce or remove the writing load on students.
  • Try to follow student interests but do not expect them to make choices or guide lesson content.
  • Use more hands-on activities – keep learning multisensory.
  • With very younger learners, be ready to sing and over-act.
  • Remember you have to model behaviours as they will look to copy. This also means a clear switch in behaviour when you need to focus our attention.

Want to know more? Some excellent resources:

Teaching by Principles, H Douglas Brown


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