Questions and agency in the older adult language classroom

As life-long-learning initiatives have spread around the world, there are now more language courses offered to older-adults. However, we know very little about the interactional dynamics of classrooms in which older-adults learn languages. In this guest blog post, researcher Mara van der Ploeg (University of Groningen, the Netherlands) and her colleagues share their research findings on the interactional dynamics in classrooms where older adults have been learning English. The researchers specifically focused on questions the learners ask. The full text of the research article is available open access, and can be downloaded using this link. Please scroll down for a short, accessible summary.


As the world is ageing and people age more healthily, older adults have more time and opportunities to enjoy and pick-up new hobbies. One of those hobbies might be learning a new language. Despite the widespread belief that older adults cannot learn languages anymore (or at least not as easily as younger learners), research has shown that this is very much possible and that seniors also enjoy learning languages. Moreover, it has been suggested that learning a language later in life might contribute to healthy ageing by delaying the onset of age-related illnesses such as Alzheimer’s. When it comes to the older adult language learning classroom and classroom interaction, however, next to nothing is known. Therefore, we investigated language-related questions seniors asked during an English course in the Netherlands to gain insight into older adults’ language learning practices. 7 Dutch seniors (65+) participated in this English course specifically developed for, and targeted towards, seniors. After video-recording, transcribing and analysing their classroom interaction, we identified three different categories of language-related questions.

The first category of questions we identified are production-oriented questions. These are questions about the pronunciation or translation of a word or sentence that need to be answered (i.e., a question on vocabulary: ‘what is X in English?’) before the teacher and the students can continue with the lesson. Interestingly, the older adult asking the production-oriented question does not only address the teacher but directs the question towards the other learners as well. It is, however, the teacher who provides an answer to the question.

Secondly, we identified comprehension-oriented questions: questions regarding something someone else has said but that is not understood by the listener (i.e., ‘what does X mean?’). While in production-oriented questions both the teacher and other learners are addressed, in comprehension-oriented questions only the teacher is addressed. And where it is only the teacher answering production-oriented questions, other learners can also answer comprehension-oriented questions. Below we have provided an example of a production-oriented question and a comprehension-oriented question.  

Production-oriented question:

(The class discusses pronunciation of the letters in the alphabet; Loes asks for  the English translation (‘so’) of the Dutch word ‘dus’ in order to produce her next utterance) 
Loes:Dus, dus, what is dus?
(translation: so, so, what is so? & looks around the room)
Loes:So it’s a b c d (continues listing the alphabet).
Production-oriented questions

Comprehension-oriented question:

(The class does a speaking exercise in pairs where they play the role written on the card handed to them; Koen asks the meaning of ‘stepmother’ in order to play his role)
Koen:We have a question, what is a stepmother?
Loes:Stiefmoeder (translation: stepmother)
Teacher:Can you try to describe it?
Loes:I am the second wife of Koen, and his children, I am the stepmother.
Teacher:So they are the stepchildren.
Koen:Step ah okay.
Comprehension oriented questions

Finally, we found a great number of wonderment questions: questions that are not necessary for the activity at hand but that learners wonder about nonetheless (e.g., ‘are X and Y synonyms?’). They operate more on a meta-level and were actually the most common type of learner questions in our dataset. Unlike the two other categories, wonderment questions are mainly directed towards the teacher and also answered by the teacher. The other learners do, however, join in the conversation by acknowledging the answer provided by the teacher. An example of a wonderment question can be found below.

Wonderment question:

(The teacher explains question types; Pim does not need the answer to his question for the task at hand)
Pim:Could I ask a question, what is the difference when you say ‘do you play tennis’ or ‘are you playing tennis’?
Teacher:‘Are you playing tennis’ means right now.
Cees:Oh yeah
Pim:Yes, of course.
Wonderment questions

What do these results tell us?

Our study shows that (1) older adults mainly ask wonderment questions and that (2) they often turn the interaction into a multi-party interaction. While classroom interaction is usually teacher-fronted and typically involves the teacher and one learner, senior language learners include other learners in these interactions as well. Together, these two findings show that older adults display agency over their own learning process by inserting their own agendas into the interaction. Language teachers can use this ownership to allow and stimulate wonderment questions and multi-party interaction to enhance seniors’ language learning process. This can be done by explicitly inviting other learners to answer their peers’ questions and including discussion activities that create more room for the older adults to ask their questions.

To read the full text of this research article, please follow this link.

Mara van der Ploeg (University of Groningen, the Netherlands)

Annerose Willemsen (Linköping University, Sweden)

Louisa Richter (Otto-Friedrich-Universität Bamberg, Germany)

Merel Keijzer (University of Groningen, the Netherlands)

Tom Koole (University of Groningen, the Netherlands)

Published by Olcay Sert

I work as professor of English language education at Mälardalen University, School of Education, Culture and Communication (Sweden).

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