What age group is Best to Teach ESL English to?

So you’re looking at teaching abroad or teaching online and you’ve figured out that within the ESL industry you can teach different age groups. So which one is best?

In short, there is no “best” age group. It really depends on your personality, energy level and teaching style. We’ve worked with numerous teachers who are current VIPKID teachers and simply love their starlight program which is focused on very young learners.

Other teachers simply don’t enjoy young children and much prefer the more advanced material associated with VIPKID’s level 6 and beyond classes. The same applies for teaching abroad.

A broad overview of the different age levels you can teach as an ESL instructor

As we just stated, there is no one age group that is best to teach English to. It really depends on the student and their language needs and ability. Some students need a lot of language input while others can handle more difficult material as they learn at a different pace from other people.

The thing about teaching English abroad though is that it’s not just about teaching kids how to speak another language; it’s understanding their culture as well and trying to bridge the gap that exists.

With that said, from our time teaching abroad we would say that language learners are typically broken up into the following three groups:

  • Kindergarten (under 5 years)
  • Young Learners (6 to about 16)
  • Adults (17 and over)

Within these broad groups there are obviously many sub-groups but regardless, a 12 year old and a 6 year old are still regarded as a young learner while a 19 year old or a 27 year old are adults.

Kindergarden in all countries and online is always for learners 5 years and under. So regardless of where or how you teach, if you’re wanting to teach small children then kindergarden is for you.

Teaching kindergarten as an ESL teacher – pros and cons

Kindergarten is a unique experience as an ESL teacher as you’ll be part babysitter, part default parent, part educator. Often you’ll be dealing with children who are just experiencing being away from their mommy and daddy for the first time.

Your focus as an ESL teacher is to prepare fun educational material that demonstrates the basics like sharing, being nice to other people, developing motor skills through activities and learning the fundamentals of how to read and write.

The use of non-linguistic cues in the classroom is essential at this level. It’s important for any new ESL teacher to be aware of each student’s level when it comes to their understanding and to be patient.

At this level, you should speak to them in English as well as model the task you wish them to complete. Non-verbal cues with props can help with this process immensely.

Where you will work

For kindergarten it depends on the country. Some countries operate specific private language centers where children go, other countries operate in a similar fashion to America where kindergarten is a separate section of an elementary school.

Pros:

  • Children at this age typically go to class half the day, providing you with a lighter schedule than other ESL teachers.
  • There are no tests or quizzes to prepare at this age level.
  • Your students get nap time and snacks which make your job a bit more relaxed.

Cons:

  • You must be patient and engaging for students at this age.
  • Singing songs and being animated in the classroom is expected and required.
  • If you think kindergarten is just glorified babysitting then you’re not a good match for teaching this age as it is fundamental for their success in higher levels.

Teaching young learners as an ESL teacher – pros and cons

The term “young learners” is an actual term in the ESL industry and it’s used to describe children between the ages of 6 and 18. To us here at Teach and GO we would break it up into young learners who are aged 6 to about 12, and then 13 to around 17.

The main aspect of teaching students who are aged 6 to 12 is that they are good at learning concrete topics and the language you choose to teach should reflect that. Language around topics that involve physical objects and actions are appropriate at this level. While young learners of any language would struggle with more esoteric concepts based on behavior.

Sometimes it’s hard to know how to engage students at this age and to help them and make the learning process more meaningful for them, in part because this is the age where you will have a few super-star students, a few struggling students and the rest somewhere in the middle.

So here are some Teach and GO tips for ESL teachers for young learners:

Set the lesson context before presenting something new

Picture books can be a fun way to demonstrate a new lesson topic before presenting any new information. By helping them associate an object or situation (like greeting someone for example) on their own and to remember what they recognized, it makes it easier to understand a new concept.

Use visuals and model desired behavior

Modeling behavior for young learners is essential at all age groups and levels, but is particularly important when educating young learners. Modeling means using applicable TPR in coordination with props or any teaching material you have developed.

Reinforce positive actions with feedback

Reward systems exist because they are effective at motivating young learners. Of course, once a student is over 12 they become a bit silly and irrelevant, but for children under 12 any type of feedback or use of a reward will make the focus on the lesson and meeting the language objectives.

Stick to concrete learning and avoid abstract topics

Young learners of any language struggle with abstract topics. Try teaching a 6 year old why a specific object is “rare.” The more rare an object is, the higher it’s value. Young learners simply don’t understand these concepts of “value” and “rare” at such a young age. Children in general have difficulty with these sort of abstract ideas.

Even more so as if they are learning English as a second language. So instead, focus on concrete topics that you students can grasp. You can even use fun projects like having them collect example in the real world and share example in your lesson.

Where you will work

These are typically the most common, in-demand jobs. You can work anywhere from a low paying government school, to an after school private language center to an international school.

Pros:

  • Students are beginning to develop their language ability and are able to share ideas with you as a teacher.
  • You’ll be able to create more engaging, fun lessons for both you and your students.
  • Lessons are simple but do require appropriate lesson planning.
  • Your students will develop a close relationship and bond with you if they like you as a teacher.

Cons:

  • Lesson planning for this age group can be time consuming.
  • Expect your school to require you to create mid terms and finals.
  • Children at this age are exhausting to teach all day.

Teaching adults as an ESL teacher – pros and cons

Seniors in high school, university under grads and professionals looking to improve their business English are all considered adults, though each group does have specific needs.

In general however, at this level students tend to be more serious and focused on completing the lesson objectives. You don’t need to do any games or use a reward system as it’s inappropriate at this age, but a good language warmer is always helpful.

Instead, depending on the students ability, you’re finally able to get into more complex and abstract topics. But again, it does depend on your students language ability. Just because they are now adults does not mean they have a strong comprehension over English so take that into consideration as it’s case by case basis.

You may have students who can read and write well, but are unable to communicate effectively through small talk. Regardless, older students tend to be more technical oriented with language learning and require an ESL teacher to have a greater understanding of English as language.

They are now learning aspects like passive voice, active voice, present perfect vs continuous tense and so forth. You must understand the difference and the why. Yes it’s your native language and you just know it, but it needs to be explained to speakers of other languages.

Business English

Business English is typically a major at numerous universities abroad with the specific goal of enabling their students to work at a company and leverage their ability to speak English.

While this may seem odd as a native speaker, if you’re a Vietnamese or Thai national who can speak and write close to fluently, it’s very easy for you to land a good paying job at numerous companies as laws and regulations and expected pay make it advantageous as opposed to hiring a foreigner.

As such, business English in addition to any listening and speaking classes help a student focus on cultural differences and expectations.

For example, small talk is a uniquely American concept where it’s expected you ask about each others day or what they did on the weekend. In other countries like Germany for example, these sort of questions are deemed as personal and inappropriate for workplace dealings.

Where you will work

For this age level expect to have at least a masters degree in English or related field to land a position teaching adults. You can work at a university, international school or private language center. The most common job however is being a university lecturer where you teach business English or a listening and speaking class.

Pros:

  • University positions are the most sought after. Decent pay and typically 1-3 months off paid per year.
  • Teaching adults required more planning, but it is not as exhausting as teaching children.
  • Difficult positions to land, but if you land a university position it’s stable and enjoyable employment.

Cons:

  • Golden handcuffs. Many ESL teachers who land these positions tend to get “stuck” there and not move on.
  • Expect to have long lessons. Typical adult classes can go for up to 2 hours or more so you will need to be well prepared.
  • You must know what you’re doing as you’ll be teaching more advanced concepts.
  • The required work for maintaining grades, finals, mid-terms and so forth as well as grading homework is incredibly boring.

Best age group to teach English to as an ESL teacher – final thoughts

So to recap, the most common and easy to get positions are where you’re teaching young learners. This age group requires a high energy person, lot’s of games and prep work. This age group is also the most exhausting if you end up teaching a lot of classes.

Kindergarten is a fun, easy position often sought after by teachers because it’s much less demanding in terms of preparation and required energy to teach. However, it does take a specific sort of person to be an effective kindergarten teacher. You should already know if you’re cut out for that type of work or not.

Last is the most sought after and competitive positions where you teach adults, typically at universities. Everyone wants to teach adults because you don’t have to be animated in class or conduct any sort of games. However, the prep required for class, the additional paperwork required and the education requirements to be a teacher make this option out of reach for most new ESL teachers.