Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Rising to the Challenges Faced by Mature Age Students

by Eve Pearce

Learning foreign languages in one’s late childhood early teens is often wrought with challenges but for mature learners, these can sometimes seem insurmountable. Those who take the time to enrol in an English course will often do so for a specific set of reasons: to improve their qualifications, increase their chances of promotion or simply indulge their passion for a language they have always wanted to master. Despite the strong motivation they usually possess, however, mature age students can also have higher dropout rates (around double, in some Universities and academies), for a number of reasons, which include economic hardship, insecurity and a perceived lack of support from their learning institution. As teachers, we can sometimes find ourselves in the precarious position of wanting to help our students, yet being limited to do so by the regulations/ time limits imposed by the academy or school we are working for. In this article, we discuss some of the most pressing concerns for mature age students learning English, and look into ways we can ameliorate their situation:
  • Fragility: An abundance of free time, which younger students often take for granted, is often scarce for mature age students. Often, they will have to reduce their workload in order to attend and prepare for class, which can make them feel like they are putting their own and their family’s welfare at risk. The student’s sense of vulnerability is exacerbated when age-related conditions such as heart disease, hearing loss, or high blood pressure are brought into the equation, since frail health can detract from one’s confidence when it comes to multi-tasking and juggling the competing responsibilities posed by work, family and English classes. As teachers, it is vital to work on increasing the student’s sense of autonomy, targeting specific courses at mature age students if necessary. For instance, if part of the course content or homework is provided on the Internet and students are insecure as to their computing skills, a short introductory course can be offered focusing on these skills (the class can delve into useful computer language in English while teaching practical skills). Students can also be referred to useful online computer training courses.
  • Inflexible timetables: Mature age students require more flexibility and understanding. Sometimes, despite their best endeavours, family and work demands may force them to miss more than one class, or fall behind on set tasks. Opportunities should be provided for students to attend make-up classes and if this is impossible, teachers should work on providing material or notes that summarise important points. Quick, 15-minute tutorial sessions can also be useful to go over missed material.
  • Wasted time: Mature age students have a very heightened awareness of time – i.e. they want to feel like very minute they are spending at the academy/learning institution counts. Make sure you are not wasting class time on activities such as reading or writing, which they can do at home. Use your time together to practice their conversational skills and answer their doubts. Provide students with target language areas prior to class to give them a head-start.
  • Social isolationOlder students in English academies or learning institutions can feel isolated from younger students. Some of the most popular English language classes take place in social settings; make sure that the next museum, pub or theatre visit includes students from a wide range of ages. If you have quite a few mature age students in your class, you might suggest that they form a mature age/ part-time students study group. While this is a useful way for students to share resources and tips, it is important that they do not limit social interaction to this group exclusively.
  • A lack of support from friends and family: This challenge often lies beyond our control as teachers, yet it is also one of the most important challenges many mature age students will need to face. Family members, friends and work colleagues may question the utility of learning English to the student’s life, sometimes because they feel threatened by the student’s desire to improve themselves. The most teachers can do in this regard is to provide all the support we can to our students, keeping them motivated, stressing the importance of consistency and discipline, and providing a social network where students can feel like they are understood. One of the most important ways of making a mature age student feel valued is by encouraging them to share their life experiences in class – older students are a vital component of an interesting, lively class, where opinions, stories and advice are shared.