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Feb 2019 - Year 21 - Issue 1

ISSN 1755-9715

You Are Never Too Old to Learn But You Can’t Teach an Old Dog New Tricks… Some Reflections on Teaching

Małgorzata Szwaj is an EFL teacher trainer based in Gdańsk, Poland.  She has run teacher training courses in Poland, and – on behalf of Pilgrims – in the UK, Georgia, Russia, Belgium and other countries.  She is a co-author of a coursebook Cambridge English for Polish Schools, CUP.  Email:

The philosophy and practice of learning at a later- senior - stage in life seems to be based on some kind of a contradiction. On the one hand, the potential number of people in Europe who are 60+ is growing fast and   by 2020 a quarter of Europeans (ca 184 mln!)  will be over 60 years of age and all European governments have apparently agreed to implement changes in the policy to deal with it. On the other hand, the statistics available (mainly through Eurostat) do not provide an answer to the question of how many senior citizens aged between 60+ to 80+ are actually involved in lifelong learning. The statistics take into account a very wide band of age – 25-64 and, as a result we know almost nothing about the scale of learning that takes place in the group of 50+ or 60+.   If the statistics do not focus on such issues, then it is a clear sign that, for geo-politics, members of the   50+/60+ generation, called sometimes - the greying or silver generation – do not count.  In other words, the politicians are not interested in the personal development of the silver generation, despite the fact that more investment in education for this age group could pay off massively in reducing the costs of health care. And does it mean that educators need not pay attention to the needs of this group?

About 27 years ago when we  started a special group for  people 50+  at our language school  (English Unlimited in Gdańsk, Poland  ) , the teachers  soon discovered that, despite having library  shelves well-stocked with modern  coursebooks for teaching English, they could not use them   with our silver students; at that time, coursebooks for foreign language learning were written  with  - children, adolescents or young people - in mind. What has changed since then?  

As a young  foreign language teacher in Poland in the eighties and nineties of the past century,  I experienced a period of great professional  interest  in  different and- new -  methods  and attitudes  towards  teaching foreign languages and professional development, to mention  a few : the Communicative method, Total Physical Response, Community Language Learning, Learner-Based Teaching, Action Research, The Silent Way, Suggestopedia,  teaching towards Autonomous Learning, Lexical approach, CLIL ( Content and Language Integrated Learning ), Project-based Learning,  Accelerated Learning, Multiple Intelligences , VAK  and NLP. All of these approaches  have left a  mark on my teaching and training styles as well as  my professional development; all of them  came with  many   different resources  that would support me  as a teacher and trainer.

Forty years on, I would still struggle trying to find a coursebook that would fit the needs of our silver learners and there are very few resources for those who teach this age group. The most  popular publications on teaching  language  courses, not to mention CELTA or TEFL  courses,    distinguish  mainly among   three age groups  for which  they provide resources : children, adolescents and adults;  the latter   being a  very large group  which spans four generations ( ! ) . Nowadays, these four generations   25-45, 45-65 , 65- 80, 80+ operate in  different   life contexts,   have got completely different  learning needs  and, therefore, – different motivation to learn.  Isn’t there a need now to change the perspective with which we approach teaching languages to adults and adjust the lenses?

I’d like to propose  a motion that teaching languages to a silver generation requires  a separate  chapter  in methodology guides where   teachers can learn  about the process of assimilating knowledge and skills at this age  and  the  preparation of   course materials, how to approach evaluation  or communication in the classroom.   How to motivate, give feedback, where to pitch the level of task difficulty, how to negotiate topics and aims.  I’m not suggesting we need a new method. The approaches I mentioned before can effectively be incorporated into the classes with the silver generation.  What we need is the recognition of the importance of their learning needs, an informed way of being able to set up language courses made to age measure and respect for the richness of their life experience.  We also need quality practical resources, examples, teachers’ books etc., which set the standard. 

It is not a radically new idea; academic institutions have been running gerogogy   studies for some time and the world of ESL has probably quite a lot to share on this topic.  But for the time being, the internet does not provide   easily accessible and good quality materials for the trainers of silver students to use or learn from. Like with many things in education, we follow our intuition and learn from mistakes.

Some things are changing, though. There are some Erasmus Plus European projects, like Training Adults Online ( ) , where we are working on a Guide and an App for the educators of the silver generation. You can also search for similar projects and articles related to teaching the silver generation on the EPALE platform (  Maybe HLT could also coordinate the input from trainers of senior learners if there is a need for it?

Well… , as Winston Churchill once said: Personally, I am always ready to learn although I do not always like being taught.


Please check the English Course for Teachers and School Staff at Pilgrims website.

Please check the English Update for Teachers course at Pilgrims website.

Tagged  Various Articles 
  • The What, Why and How of CLIL for English Teachers
    Aleksandra Zaparucha, Poland

  • Stories: Their Importance In and Out of the Classroom
    Andrew Wright, Hungary

  • You Are Never Too Old to Learn But You Can’t Teach an Old Dog New Tricks… Some Reflections on Teaching
    Malgorzata Szwaj, Poland