One of the first things that new teachers tend to think about is which student age level do they want to work with. This can be tricky as many people tend to have preconceived notions of what traits students at a particular age level are going to display and how they will act. The problem with basing your decision on how you think students’ at a particular age are going to act is that you may be completely missing what it will be like to actually teach at that student age level and therefore missing out on the perfect opportunity for you. Let’s take a look at some of the different factors at play here so that when it comes time to find the right job you know what to expect from different student age levels.
Why are we using student age level and not skill level?
Before we really get started it is important to understand exactly why we are using student age level as opposed to skill level which should normally be taken into consideration. There are many different ways that students are broken down into levels and what you will come across is going to vary widely.
If you are looking at it specifically from the perspective of language acquisition, for example, you could use the Council of Europe’s Common European Framework of Reference for Languages which is broken into A1, A2, B1, B2, C1, and C2. This doesn’t look at the age level of the student but instead the skill level.
You could also look at traditional grading systems such as primary school, middle school, etc. This is generally what you are going to come across when you actually begin working and this is also why we are using student age level as a breakdown for deciding which group is right for you to teach as opposed to skill level.
In an ideal world every student learning English, no matter how old they may be, would be broken down and placed in a classroom according to their individual skill level. This would ensure that when you teach a lesson for students at one skill level it will be neither too difficult or too easy and will address the needs of every student in the room without some students feeling bored and others feeling lost.
But, as any TEFL teacher with a bit of experience can tell you, this is rarely the case and we don’t live in a perfect world. Instead, we live in a world where a 12 year old student who has never taken an English class in their life and has had no exposure to English will get put in a class with other 12 year olds who have been learning all of their life because the parents want the student to be “challenged” or they don’t want the student to feel bad by putting them in a classroom with younger children at the same level.
The obvious problem with this is that you may have a classroom of students who are all at the same age level but out of 20 students five of them are near fluent and have been immersed in English all of their life, seven of them have never had English lessons before the current class and were lost on the very first day, and the other students are exactly where they need to be.
This is, unfortunately, what you are going to find on most occasions. Students are going to be put together according to the student age level and not their skill level. So, the facts being what they are, it is more important for you to look at what traits are common among students at different age levels to figure out which group you want to teach.
What are the student age levels we are going by?
Just to have a framework to have this conversation, I am going to outline different student age levels as I have come across them. It should be noted before we begin that the majority of my experience has been in Asia and most of that working with Chinese students. As of right now, this is where the largest market for ESL learning is. This may change in the future. However, for right now I am going to assume that most people getting into TEFL teaching for the first time will be going somewhere in Asia.
With that in mind, I will be using what my experience has been working with Chinese students to break down student age levels by what I have commonly seen. This is by no means a guarantee that these are the exact student age levels you are going to come across. The particular school you work at may break up students differently. So, this should be used more as a general guide to gain an understanding of what student age level you want to work with as opposed to hard and fast rules for what you will come across.
That being said, let’s take a look at some of the different student age levels that you could come across and what it might be like to work with these different levels.
- Students age 4-8
- Students age 9-12
- Students age 12-15
- Students age 15-18
What are the different student age levels like?
Students age 4-8
These are going to be the lowest levels of students. Generally, in my experience working both online and offline, this will be how they have the bottom level of students broken up with students of similar ages in similar groups.
This is actually one of my favorite age levels to work with for the simple fact that they are generally tabula rasa when they come into the classroom. What this means is that they haven’t had years of poor English, improper pronunciation, bad grammar, and awkward phrasing taught to them by non-native teachers from their own country or from their parents who probably learned a number of things incorrectly.
Another thing I really like about this groups is that they sponge up information very quickly. This means you don’t have to constantly repeat yourself because the students are having trouble remembering what you are saying. When it comes to working in Asia, one of the other benefits of this groups is that they aren’t yet getting shoved into a million different classes so they are more focused (as focused as a four-year-old can be at least) as they have less on their mind.
Ye,s they are going to be more energetic and you are going to have to try harder to hold their attention and won’t be able to do one activity for too long. But, this is offset by the other benefits that were talked about above.
If you are working with students privately outside of a school setting there is also another major benefit of working with younger students and that is stability. Because the parents are paying for the class and bringing the student to the class they are not going to just decide one day they are too busy to show up or that their work is interfering. This means you can generally rely on having that student to tutor for a longer duration than you might be able to count on an adult who might cancel due to work or other commitments.
Students age 9-12
I will be upfront and honest. This is probably my least favorite group of students to work with. However, if the right student comes along, I find it to be interesting. This is because this group has often had a few years to work with local English teachers who have taught bad pronunciation, awkward grammar and phrasing, and other idiosyncrasies that you are going to have to clean up.
Students at this age level tend to be shy and don’t want to talk. I find this to be especially true in many Asian countries in contrast to my experiences growing up in the west. An added issue in countries such as Korea and China is that the parents often have this student doing many things. Imagine working with a student for one hour twice a week who is also taking piano lessons, learning French, taking extra math tutoring, extra tutoring for their own language, probably doing on to one English tutoring along with their regular school hours and a private language school, perhaps participating in a sport, and then doing hours of homework every day including weekends and holidays. As you can probably imagine when you spread students, especially young students, this thin they often have difficulties remembering what you teach them in the two hours each week they are working with you.
As I mentioned, this is not always true. There are plenty of students at this age level that will simply amaze you with their English speaking abilities. What I mention above is what I’ve generally found to be true from working with thousands of students in Asia.
Just like students age 4-8, if you are doing private tutoring for students in the age level of 9-12 you can generally take comfort that they are going to be more stable as it is their parents who are paying for the lesson and bringing them to the lesson. This means you can feel more comfortable that your income is going to be a bit more secure.
Students age 12-15
Students at this level are generally going to be mid to upper level as far as their speaking ability is concerned. Though, not always. Generally, I’ve found, you may still come across many shy students. However, this is usually offset by their higher levels of speaking and therefore potentially more confidence in what they are saying.
Something to consider with students in this age range is that while they are improving in their English speaking abilities they are also learning more about the world around them. This means that not only are they going to know more words but they are also going to be able to use them in more creative ways. They will be able to talk about more complex topics and you will also be able to talk about higher level subjects with them.
As with students in the age range of 8-11 if a student at this level has been learning English for a while and has developed bad habits they are going to be particularly hard to fix. This can oftentimes be frustrating for native English teachers who have to correct these issues.
One thing to take note of is that students in this age range may be focused on standardized testing depending on whether or not tests are important in the country you are teaching in. This will be especially true in Asian countries such as China, Korea, Japan, and even Thailand. Therefore, you may be asked to focus on teaching proper grammar as opposed to conversational skills as these students will be more focused on learning English to past a test than for conversational purposes.
Students age 16-18
I can honestly say that I don’t have any experience working with students at this age level. Because of this, I don’t have an idea of specific issues that may be involved with students at this age level. However, I do have some general knowledge that does apply.
The main thing to remember is that students in this age range are going to be entirely focused on test prep for university admissions exams. For Chinese students, this is going to be the Gaokao. Korean students will be focusing on the CSAT. Each country will have specific tests their students have to take to leave grade school and enter into university. Many more students will also be taking the SAT or ACT for entrance into a university in the United States.
You will probably also be working heavily with students preparing for the IELTS or the TOEFL. So, when working with students at this level the main thing to remember is that they are going to be less focused on conversation and more focused instead on learning what they need to receive high marks on the specific test they are taking. This will mean their primary focus will be on grammar, vocabulary, sentence structure, and so on.
What are some final thoughts?
The main thing to remember is that every group of students is going to have individual pros and cons. What you are going to have to look at is what do you want to get out of teaching English. Are you looking to get experience working with young learners so that you can move onto teaching in higher paying markets such as the Middle East? Probably best to work with students at that age level. Do you want some experience teaching test prep so that you can market yourself for higher paying private tutoring lessons? Better to work with older students. It is better to look at what your specific career goals are and then work with the student age level that aligns best with those goals than to look at how easy or hard you think it will be teaching any specific level.