Skip to main content

Module 3: Meeting the Educational Needs of Adult Learners

This module will provide you with a basic understanding of the characteristics and educational needs of adult learners as well as how their needs are different from other learners.

What should I know about adult learners' educational needs?

Adult learners have different educational needs than children. Adult learners often have work and family responsibilities that take precedence in their lives. Some adult learners attend classes to acquire information and to learn skills that will improve their lives. For example, they may want to learn English to become U.S. citizens, to get better jobs, to be more involved in their children’s activities and education, or to participate in their communities. 

According to educator Malcolm Knowles, you should appeal to the needs and interests of adult learners and allow them to use their knowledge and skills. Knowles points out the following as important things to know about adult learners: 

  • Adults are self-directed in their learning.
  • Adults are reservoirs of experience that serve as resources as they learn.
  • Adults are practical, problem-solving-oriented learners.
  • Adults want their learning to be immediately applicable to their lives.
  • Adults want to know why something needs to be learned.
What are some common traits among adult learners?

Research from the Center for Applied Linguistics shows that adult learners in the United States vary in their background, culture, economic status, formal education, life and language experiences, as well as in their learning styles and abilities. In the United States, people over the age of 16 can enroll in an adult education program. There is no upper age limit.

What are the different types of literacy categories for adult learners?

Information on the six different categories of literacy, as defined by the Center for Applied Linguistics, is below:

  • Preliterate – the native language does not have a writing system.

  • Nonliterate – the native language has a written form but the learner has no literacy.

  • Semiliterate – the learner has minimal literacy in the native language.

  • Nonalphabet literate – the learner is literate in a language that is not alphabetic.

  • Non-Roman alphabet literate – the learner is literate in a language that uses a non-Roman alphabet.

  • Roman-alphabet literate – the learner is literate in a language that is written using the Roman alphabet.

What are some basic educational strategies for adult learners?

The following list, adapted from the Center for Applied Linguistics (Moss & Terrill), provides a few helpful instructional strategies:

  • Communicate clearly and concisely. Keep instructions simple. Write what you say on the board. Speak slowly while facing learners.

  • Keep instruction organized and relevant. Write the day’s agenda on the board. Develop and use a lesson plan. Be sure to relay how instruction applies to learners’ everyday lives.

  • Keep learners involved and allow for interactions. Conduct activities where learners can work together. Vary the types of skills and activities.

  • Recognize that everyone learns differently. Know that learners have different preferences in the way they like to take in information—some people prefer to learn by doing, other people prefer learning by seeing or through listening. Use a variety of methods to present the information and enhance learning.   

  • Create a safe and friendly environment. Develop a learning environment that allows learners to engage and feel at ease. Encourage learners to practice their skills and let them know it is okay to make mistakes.

  • Be patient – learning is a gradual process. Do not get discouraged if your learners continue to make the same errors or do not seem to be making progress. Prioritize which mistakes to correct; try not to over correct learners.

  • Celebrate success. Offer praise and encouragement. If allowed, make certificates for the learners. Give small prizes for accomplishments like perfect attendance.

  • Take advantage of training opportunities. Observe master teachers and experienced educators in the classroom. Attend free workshops and training events. 

  • Be flexible in your lesson planning. Keep a journal or notes of what worked and what did not work and adapt lesson plans accordingly.


This module was designed to provide you with general information on adult learners. You may work with people of varying ages, backgrounds, skills, and abilities. Understanding the different literacy levels and employing a variety of strategies will help you meet the diverse educational needs of adult learners. 

Other Resources