Teaching Older Learners: Less Pandering, More Researching

This month we are publishing Danya Ramírez Gómez’s new book Language Teaching and the Older Adult: The Significance of Experience. In this post, she introduces us to her own experiences with language teaching and the inspiration for the book.

The first time I taught a language to a group of adults over 60 was more than six years ago. And it was a disaster. I had previously taught adults of other ages, and I thought I knew what to expect. However, during the lesson I realized that the material, my approach, and my way of reaching these students were inadequate. They were different and I was unable to engage them as I had envisioned. I tried to understand why; I blamed myself, the material, the weather and, lastly, the students: “Well, they are older”– I told myself. Fortunately, I soon realized that if all my students have a poor learning experience, it can’t be them, it must be me.

I looked for information and materials that could help me teach these learners better and found virtually nothing. It was then that I considered researching this topic and so I asked colleagues who worked with older learners whether they thought this useful. I received all sorts of responses, but most can be summarized by a colleague’s piece of advice. He said: “Talk to them like they were children.” That was the last straw.

Language Teaching and the Older AdultMy book, Language Teaching and the Older Adult: The Significance of Experience, is exploratory and comprehensive. Exploratory, because the literature on the topic is scarce, and comprehensive, because it touches a myriad of pertinent fields and thus provides an informed context in which to start a discussion about older learners. Also, the claims made in this book are based on a multi-method analysis that should appeal to researchers in foreign language learning, and since teachers will probably desire something more practical, the book includes recommendations and checklists that I hope will make lesson planning more manageable.

The experiences described at the start of this post generated one of the most relevant aims of this work: to question our assumptions about language learning in old age. We all hold these assumptions; teachers, learners, researchers, administrators, the laymen. But how can we advance in foreign language geragogy – as I have taken the liberty to call this field – if we are constrained by our beliefs? Questioning our assumptions is the first step to understanding older adults as students of foreign languages and enhancing their learning process.

When they hear what I research, many people ask me whether I like older adults. Well, not particularly. I like them as much as I like anybody else. What drove the creation of this book was more a sense of responsibility to the students – to which many teachers can probably relate – and the dread of facing more lessons without a clear idea of the effects of my decisions as an instructor. Besides that, what motivated me to focus on this issue was the idea that when I am in my silver years, I want to be able to learn French, I want to be unencumbered by excuses, and I would certainly want to be seen by my instructors as the capable adult I hope to be.

For more information about this book, please see our website. You may also be interested in another of our books on the topic Adult Learning in the Language Classroom by Stacey Margarita Johnson.

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