Teaching Spanish to Adults: Sharing Insights

Adult learners (iStock photo) - Literacy, Languages and Leadership blog by Sarah EatonI’ve been teaching since 1994. I’ve taught mostly post-secondary students and adult classes. Over the past few years, I’ve been trying to incorporate Stephen Lieb’s Principles on Adult Learning into my teaching practice.

In my adult education classes for Spanish, I now focus on three things: keeping it relevant, useful and actionable.

Here’s what I’ve been doing:

In every class, there are phrases they will actually use, but may not show up in the formal curriculum.

For example, Spanish phrases for expressions such as:

Speak slower, please.

I don’t remember.

How do you say…?

I’m lost.

De-emphasizing outdated aspects of the curriculum

While I absolutely honour and respect the curriculum I use, when I put myself in the place of a learner, I just don’t see the relevance of learning classroom vocabulary for items such as chalk (la tiza) and student desks (el pupitre). Who uses chalk any more, anyway? There’s not a piece to be found in the school where I’m teaching right now.

I spend very little time on this type of vocabulary. My idea is that if they can’t realistically use the vocabulary in normal conversations about life, work, family and other grown up topics, I don’t spend a lot of time on it.

Use examples of key words that they will realistically see when they travel.

Instead of la tiza, I’ll give them an example of la salida (exit), which is a word they are likely to see all over the place, over and over again when they travel.

Engage them in the learning

I encourage them to draw on their own experiences travelling to come up with words they feel they need to know and are relevant and useful for them. This helps to make the class more learner-centered and gives them a chance to have some input.

Challenge them to be resourceful

In my beginner class this semester, I divided them into pairs. I gave each pair a different situation that they could potentially encounter while travelleing. One pair were told that they were lost in a major Latin American city. Another pair had their wallets and passports stolen. Another two got a stomach bug and needed to go to the pharmacy for some medicine. You get the idea.

I said, “You have twenty minutes. Use whatever resources you have… Your textbooks. Your glossaries. Your dictionaries. Whatever you have. Come up with 5 new key vocabulary words, one key question and a new phrase that you would realistically use in this situation.”

One person pulled out his iPhone and immediately downloaded an app. Others saw what he did and followed suit. They learned that Google translate and apps, while helpful, are imperfect tools. They worked together. They asked me questions. I didn’t help. This was their time to be resourceful.

After 20 minutes, I drew lines down the white board to divide the board into columns. I told them that it was their turn to teach each other. Each pair were given a marker and asked to write their new key words, phrases and question(s) on the board. Because each pair had a different situation, they had all found different vocabulary and phrases.

Then we went through each pair’s column. They explained their new words, phrases and questions, and when they would use them.

Of course, because they were beginners, every pair had made grammatical mistakes. I corrected the most obvious mistakes for them and changed a word or two here and there. But in every case, they were able to convey the main ideas and ask for help.

As each pair presented their findings, the others madly wrote down the new vocabulary. These were useful, relevant words and phrases that they might actually use.

In a single class we had generated more vocabulary, gone through more grammar and talked about more culture than we could possibly have done by learning lists of vocabulary that might not come up in a conversation or travels for most people.

The best part? When they came back to class the following week, they remembered much of what they’d discovered.

As a I teacher, my takeaways from this were:

  1. The language we teach adult learners must have some relevance for them.
  2. Challenging adult learners to be resourceful, self-directed learners produces real results.
  3. Teach less (don’t throw information at them), guide more (let them discover and keep them on track).
  4. Focusing on communication and collaboration keeps them engaged.
  5. Let them help each other by putting them in the teaching role from time to time.


Share this post: Teaching Spanish to Adults: Sharing Insights http://wp.me/pNAh3-zX

Update – January 2018 – This blog has had over 1.8 million views thanks to readers like you. If you enjoyed this post, please “like” it or share it on social media. Thanks!

Sarah Elaine Eaton is a faculty member in the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary, Canada.

6 Responses to Teaching Spanish to Adults: Sharing Insights

  1. Hi Dr Eaton,

    In January I will be embarking on a new journey; that of teaching Spanish to adults. My experience lies with children and i’m a bit nervous.
    The class will be ‘Holiday Spanish’ rather than beginners Spanish. Would you be able to recommend any websites or materials?

    Kind Regards,

    • I have taught a similar course called “Spanish for Travellers”. I forget the exact book we used, but we found that a small book with phrases and “pronunciation” were the most popular with adult students. They wanted something they could take with them on their travels, not a big, heavy textbook. Good luck with your course!

  2. Dyah says:

    I just read some books and articles about adult learners, contructivist learning and teaching, and 21st century learning skills which make me completely agree with your ideas here. However, I am often confronted with questions from my fellow teachers who are sceptical about teaching ‘authentic’ vocabulary in a constructivist approach because of this national examination. In Indonesia, English language is tested through a multiple choice type of test which heavily focus on the testing of reading and writing skills only. I have tried to bring the discussion on the weaknesses of rote memorization approach in teaching vocabulary, but still they resorted to this one and only aim in teaching our students English language: to get them pass the national exam. I’d be happy if you’d like to share your opinion on this issue.

    • This is a tough situation. Often I think that standardized tests don’t reflect real world language usage. They are designed to ensure that they test a number of language functions and parts of speech, with less regard for how these carry over into practical language people can use in their everyday lives. In my case, the students are taking the class for the sheer joy of it. There are no tests or exams (and in fact, instructors are discouraged from giving them!) We learn for the joy of it. Most of them want to travel and so, incorporating real life situations may benefit them later on.

      My heart goes out to you. It’s a tough place to be in.

      • Dyah says:

        Thank you for your respond Dr. Eaton. It is challenging to be a teacher in my place. Maybe I’d better start small and big things may grow later 🙂

      • Starting small is a great approach. We all learn to walk “one step at a time”. Sometimes, you can see the potential far sooner than others… by starting slowly you allow them to keep up with you and join you on the journey.

%d bloggers like this: