A Case Study in Senior Citizens’ Education

Liting Liu

During our preparation for last presentation about social class and time, we have read many papers talking about adult education and senior citizen education, some of which are about senior citizen’s learning motivation. Such articles stroke a chord with me. I could not help recalling the days when I was working in an adult education institute back in China.

Most of the students there are office workers or businessmen. There are some well-off elderly students too and most of them are well educated. Otherwise they would not have the sense of studying at all, let alone torture themselves to study a new language at such an age. Speaking of their motivation, it varies from person to person. Some signed up merely for killing time and protecting themselves against Alzheimer’s, which makes perfect sense according to the findings of psychologist Ellen Bialystok and her colleagues at York University in Toronto – those who were bilingual had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s about four years later, on average, than those who spoke just one language. Some signed up out of the zeal for travelling. Since they regard English as a useful tool which makes their travelling experience easier, they decided to come to the school and give it a try.

Different studying goals being set, their personal requirement of their own performance differentiated as well. As long as some students have learned something new and they managed to use it in a conversation, they feel happy and satisfied. Some retired scholars or managers, however, would like to pursue perfection in thoroughly understanding grammatical rules and expanding vocabulary as much as possible. Correspondingly, teachers ought to adjust the evaluation standards according to the student’s learning goal and background. That is a very hard criteria to be met in real classroom settings. As a result, some conflicts arise.

I remember very clearly that one student named Mary, at her sixties, was so mad when she got “Repeat” (which means the foreign teacher thought she was not doing well in this unit overall and suggested her to review the content and take the conversation class again). She evaluated herself had a even better performance than those who continued to next unit. Frankly speaking, the grammatical rules might retain in her mind, but the quality of interaction is not that satisfying even after another foreign teacher had the same class with her. Though the second teacher let her continue to next unit for the sake of keeping her motivated, she was still unhappy, saying that we should not require that much out of her taking her age into account, and she is not after high accuracy at all.

Mary’s case happen to fall into the Kim, T.-Y. and Kim, Y.-K.’s study on motivation and demotivation of elderly learners. The demotivational factor here resembles Factor 1: Negative Perceptions Toward Affordance. Therefore, a question about evaluation arose – should teachers should apply the same rigid standards on all the students and expect the same proficiency to be reflected on different students?

Feel free to share your opinions~



Kim, T.-Y., & Kim, Y.-K. (August 21, 2014). Elderly Korean Learners’ Participation in English Learning Through Lifelong Education: Focusing on Motivation and Demotivation. Educational Gerontology, 41, 2, 120-135.

Moskowitz C .( 2011,February 18). Learning a Second Language Protects Against Alzheimer’s. Retrieved from: http://www.livescience.com/12917-learning-language-bilingual-protects-alzheimers.html

2 thoughts on “A Case Study in Senior Citizens’ Education”

  1. By Wai In Chan

    Hi, this post actually relates to something I hope to do one day, which is teaching ESL adults. The case that you describe is very interesting because I find that happens a lot with the elderly in my family. Most of the adults in my family speak very little English and no French at all. They are always looking to us to help them with reading and communicating with others in English or French. When I tried to teach them how to say things properly, they would get very frustrated because they think they won’t remember or they simply think that they can ask me again so therefore, it’s not necessary to learn it in that moment. I have experienced this with my boyfriend’s mother and his extended family too.

    To me, I think education should be a right for all students that is fair and equitable. That means if the program or the curriculum is not working for even one particular student in the class (regardless of what type of class it is), then that one students is not being treated fairly. I feel like in Mary’s case, she was not passing the class because she felt it was very difficult and that it wasn’t at the level that was allowing her to pass. Therefore, she felt that the system was being unjust and difficult with her. I agree with her that her English and grammar did not need to be perfect in order to pass, it just needs to be enough working knowledge. I think teachers in these types of programs teaching the elderly, need to understand their limits and the reasons for why they are even learning the language at a later age. Some elderly may be naturals at learning a language, but most will have physical or mental difficulties that are not due to their lack of hard-work in the class. To expect them to have the same proficiency and apply the same standards to them as younger students would not be fair in my opinion.


  2. Dear Liting:
    Thank you so much for sharing your teaching experience with us, I think it’s a big problem now days in many language training institutions. I have worked in such an institution before myself, I was also teaching adults English, some of them have learned English before, some have never spoken an English word before. The lesson was provided to them as a training program offered by their company. They were all arranged in one class because of the limitation of time and fund. As a teacher of such a class, I have to say it was really a challenge for me, because I have to consider everyone’s English level, designing something that could fit all, so the students who learned English before can still learn something while the students who did not know anything would not feel that hard. The content of one of my typical class was a combination of the easy ABC staff with the lyrics of “Rolling in the deep” which was really popular that year. The problem really came when I need to design an exam for all the students, in the exam, I avoided the writing part, mainly focused on testing the ability of the students’ knowledge of what I taught in class with the form of choice questions. Another part of the exam was testing their oral English ability. There were different categories of topics arranged for them according to their English level. So I used the “unfair” testing and marking strategy. Because these people do not have any pressure of passing the exams, and they are mostly learning English for fun or for fashion. As a teacher in front of them, I think it’s important for me to have different expectations for different students to protect their confidence and motivation. I think this is an issue also in the education system in China, the teachers need to take the students’ unique personality and ability into account before criticizing them with a common standard. This is crucial for the healthy development of every child’s self-esteem. If the teacher can not handle this problem properly, it may be detrimental to the students’ future education life.


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