Teaching English to Senior Students

Scientific-based considerations to successfully teach senior students.
Education Trends

Teaching English to Senior Students

Challenges and opportunities

Senior students are highly motivated to enrol in an English language course. They attend language courses to socialize, to travel for pleasure, to visit their siblings living abroad and also for business or work. However, teaching English to senior students can be a challenge for the EFL teacher and the language school. 1st October is United Nations “International Day of Older Persons” and so today is the perfect occasion to reflect on the challenges and opportunities of teaching English to senior students.

Why can Teaching English to Senior Students be a challenge?

The older learner often has poor working memory and may have impoverished eyesight and hearing. Also, they have a reduced information processing speed caused by cognitive ageing. As a result, the learning process will be totally different from what we observe in other age groups. On top of this, teaching “the young at heart” is demanding on teachers due to the lack of:

  • A specific method and strategies to teach the elderly
  • Tailored teacher training
  • Teaching materials aimed at this age group

Luckily, teaching English to senior students is not only about challenges. Older learners are highly motivated and they are also keen on doing homework, studying, reading and they always pay a lot of attention in class. All these characteristics are a dream in other age groups!

Can senior students really learn English?

Of course, they can! According to recent research, it has been demonstrated that the older adult brain is plastic. Brain plasticity means that the brain is capable to react to stimuli allowing memory and learning to work properly.  For this reason, learning new skills, like a new language,  is possible and crucial at this stage of life.

“Learning a second language would be an optimal activity to promote healthy aging”

From “Foreign Language Training as Congnitive Therapy” NCBI

What makes a language course for the elderly successful?

In order for the elderly to learn or improve a foreign language, it is necessary to “identify the optimal learning method”  and it is also key  “that the material has immediate practical value” as suggested in the paper “Foreign language training as cognitive therapy”  by the US National Library of Medicine. Therefore, consider the following as success factors:

1. Teacher

The teacher plays a pivotal role in planning and running a course that meets the senior students’ needs, aspirations and limitations. The teacher needs to be patient, persistent and flexible. Besides, it is crucial that the teacher feels free to choose and adapt the activities from the coursebook that work best rather than to follow the whole coursebook.  Also, the focus of the teacher should move away from “perfection” and go on communication. After all these students want to socialize, enjoy themselves and stay mentally healthy.

2. Lessons

Senior learners will benefit from lessons that follow the “less is more” idea. In a recent Instagram Live Chat with Diego Bernardini MD PhD specialized in longevity, he shared his view of best practices when teaching the elderly:

  • Small dosis of content ( Less is more!)
  • Slow pace(Small constant steps)
  • Regular recycling of content (To aid memory)
3. Approach

 As Doctor Bernardini explained in this Live Chat, senior students have a life experience that they can bring into the classroom and share with others with the guidance of the teacher who becomes a facilitator. Above all, he says, older students want to enjoy the process. Thinking of making the necessary accommodations, from the classroom settings to organizing social activities to foster enjoyment, is the underpinning strategy towards success. Teaching English to senior learners requires an eclectic approach and open-mindedness while we wait for research to supply the foundations for the development of a method.

“Senior students have a wealth of life experience and when they bring this to the classroom they enrich the learning experience of the whole class. Older learners are excellent students to have in the classroom as they are always happy to talk about their experiences and give their opinions on a wide range of topics”. 

Kieran Donaghy, British Council.

What are the opportunities in teaching seniors for a school?

If you are a language school or independent language trainer, considering the opportunities that lifelong learning may bring you will put you at an advantage in your local market.

Basically, people are living longer and more healthily. The elderly have time, freedom to choose and they are keen on keeping active. Offering courses tailored for this age group means expanding your offer, increasing students’ numbers and also making a positive social impact on the local community.


It is also important to bear in mind that this is not a temporary situation. According to the United Nations, it is estimated that in the next thirty years the number of elderly people will reach record levels. There are currently more senior citizens learning English than in the past. Looking ahead we should expect a lot more!. So if language courses are organized for seniors and these cater to their age-related needs, then the chances are that enrolment will increase. All things considered, I personally think that teaching English to senior students through tailored courses for seniors can be a golden opportunity for a language school.

If you think this article may help a language school or independent EFL teacher, please feel free to share. For comments, questions or feedback send them through the contact form.

Leave your thought here

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.