What age group to is Best for ESL Teachers?

By Editorial Staff •  Updated: 04/03/23 •  Teach Abroad

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 depends on your personality, energy level, and teaching style. We’ve worked with numerous current VIPKID teachers and love their starlight program, which focuses on young learners.

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

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

As we just stated, there are better age groups for teaching English. It depends on the student and their language needs and ability. Some students need a lot of language input, while others can handle more challenging 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 and trying to bridge the existing gap.

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

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 young learners, while a 19-year-old or a 27-year-old are adults.

Kindergarten in all countries and online is always for five years and under learners. So regardless of where or how you teach, if you want to teach small children, then kindergarten 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, and 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 vital for any new ESL teacher to be aware of each student’s level of understanding and to be patient.

You should speak to them in English at this level and model the task you wish them to complete. Non-verbal cues with props can help with this process immensely.

Where will you work

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

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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. Here at Teach and GO, we would break it up into young learners aged 6 to about 12 and then 13 to around 17.

The central aspect of teaching students aged 6 to 12 is that they are good at learning concrete topics; the language you choose to teach should reflect that. Language around issues that involve physical objects and actions is appropriate at this level. In comparison, 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 fun to demonstrate a new lesson topic before presenting further information. Helping them associate an object or situation (like greeting someone, for example) on their own and remember what they recognized 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 feedback or use of a reward will make them focus on the lesson and meet 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 a thing is, the higher its value. Young learners don’t understand these concepts of “value” and “rare” at a young age. Children, in general, have difficulty with these sorts of abstract ideas.

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

Where will you 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.

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Teaching adults as an ESL teacher – pros and cons

Seniors in high school, university undergrads, and professionals looking to improve their business English are considered adults, though each group has specific needs.

In general, however, students tend to be more severe and focused on completing the lesson objectives at this level. You don’t need to play 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 student’s ability, you can finally get into more complex and abstract topics. But again, it does depend on your student’s language ability. Just because they are now adults does not mean they have a strong comprehension of English, so consider that on a case-by-case basis.

You may have students who can read and write well but cannot communicate effectively through small talk. Regardless, older students tend to be more technical-oriented with language learning and require an ESL teacher to understand English as a language better.

They are now learning aspects like passive voice, active voice, present perfect vs. continuous tense, etc. You must understand the difference and the why. Yes, it’s your native language, and you 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, intending to enable 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 straightforward for you to land a well-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 helps 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 other’s day or what they did on the weekend. In other countries like Germany, for example, these sorts of questions are deemed personal and inappropriate for workplace dealings.

Where will you work

For this age level, expect a master’s degree in English or a 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.

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

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, lots 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 takes a specific person to be an effective kindergarten teacher. You should know if you’re cut out for that type of work.

Last is the most sought-after and competitive position where you teach adults, typically at universities. Everyone wants to teach adults because you don’t have to be animated in class or play 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.

Editorial Staff

I'm David Unwin and I head the editorial staff here at Teach and GO. I've taught as an ESL teacher in Thailand for 5+ years at all levels of education, from elementary to University. I was also one of the first 1000 VIPKID teachers. I and my team now share my extensive experience as a teacher here at Teach and GO. Learn more.