Age Ain’t Nothin But A Preference

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Today’s article is written for the Reach To Teach Teach Abroad Blog Carnival, a monthly series that focuses on providing helpful tips and advice to ESL teachers around the globe. The host for this month is Rebecca Thering, and here‘s where you can read the rest of this month’s posts. I’ll be posting a new ESL-related article on my blog on the 5th of every month. Check back for more articles, and if you’d like to contribute to next month’s Blog Carnival, please contact Dean at, and he will let you know how you can start participating!

Now more than ever, people all around the world are starting to learn English. But which age is the best to teach? Kindergarteners? Middle schoolers? High schoolers? Adults? There are pros and cons to each, so it totally depends on your personal preferences. Oddly enough, I’ve worked with all four age groups this year, so I’ve enjoyed the following upsides and endured the respective downsides firsthand:

Snack time with Mr. Bean! Definitely don't get THIS in high school.

Snack time with Mr. Bean! Definitely don’t get THIS in high school.

Kindergarten & Elementary – During winter camp I worked at an elementary school for three days, which was a nice taste of what life would be like among the munchkins. I enjoyed their enthusiasm and playfulness. And I never worried about how to fill up extra time because they were still at the age where songs and chants were fun, and games involving stickers equated to life-and-death. The other nice thing about this age is that the students are more of a blank slate. Still new to studying English, they haven’t had time yet to fall behind their classmates or develop a total aversion to the subject. The downsides to working with younger learners is that it can be difficult to get them to calm down and sit still, and (if you’re not the babysitting type) they require more care and direction!

A relay race to write all the days of the week! This ultimately morphed into a  competition that had kids running across the length of the room!

Middle School – About a third of the regular classes I teach every week are with middle schoolers. In some ways, this is the most interesting age group for me because developmentally the students are somewhere in between the youthful silliness of elementary school and the intellectual maturity of high school. They are less afraid of me, the big-tall-scary-English-speaking foreigner, and they are starting to become more academically curious about the world around them. However, they still buy into games quite easily, which is great! All that being said, they’re also entering the stage where it matters what the opposite genders thinks about them or does, so coaxing out individual participation/speaking in front of others can be a bit difficult at times.

High School – Another third of my weekly teaching hours is spent with high school students. For me, the pros of working with teenagers largely revolves around cultural exchange. I enjoy showing them pictures and YouTube clips to share what American high schools are like. Occasionally I’ll introduce a slang phrase or word. And in return, I encourage them to show me their favorite K-pop videos, talk about their favorite Korean athlete/sports team, and teach me Korean phrases. And particularly with my high level classes, I also love challenging their critical thinking skills and finding ways for them to creatively apply the language. But, unlike elementary school students, often the hardest part of teaching them is not getting them to sit down, but wake up. The rigor of their studies is so intense that some days even the possibility of candy isn’t enough to rouse them. And for low-level high school students, their mindset is often along the lines of, “It’s too late for me to learn English. I can’t do it.” So while elementary school teachers have to be part-time baby sitters, high school teachers have to be full-time cheer leaders!


Adults – The last third of my classes each week is with adults: the other teachers, staff and coaches of my school. Even more so than my middle and high school students, their abilities vary widely; from How-do-you-spell-‘favorite?’ to fully conversant. The nice things are that classroom management is never an issue and they are much more willing to participate! They also are more independent learners and don’t require elaborate games to hold their attention. That being said, I still try to modify the games I play with younger students to inject some fun and variety into the lessons. On the less positive side, similar to my teenage students they sometimes lack the motivation/discipline to study outside of class and (in my case) the breadth of abilities within a single class makes it a challenge to balance everyone’s needs/skill levels at times.

So, what age group is best to teach? For me, it’s probably a tie between middle and high school students! But it all depends on your preferences. What perks do you want to enjoy? Which challenges are you willing to face? Kindergartners, middle schoolers, teens and adults each present their own set of these, and I’m glad I’ve gotten to experience them all during my year in Korea!

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