Orientation in Adult Ed

If you’re like me, and surely you are, the word orientation still triggers posttraumatic flashbacks to August 2002: trustfalls on the quad when Sharon Yakomoto didn’t catch you when you trustfell to treat the ensuing concussion you had to wear that helmet all orientation weekend and then the RA Paul with the chip on his shoulder reported you to campo for being drunk but really it was just that your equilibrium was still all wonky.

But believe it or not, orientation doesn’t have to be like this. In fact, I’ve since come around to viewing a strong orientation process as an integral part of any successful semester. In this post, I’m going to explain the value of adding an orientation event to an adult ESOL course, and identify some components that will make yours a success!

The Value of Orientation

First, let’s talk about the importance of orientations. As the term itself suggests, entering a new school or class, especially if you’re still new to the country, can be the most total and extreme form of dis-orientation. Where am I? Where can I pee!? Who are these people smiling at me? How do they relate to each other and to me? What comes next? Just a few of the questions that arise in the mind of a newcomer. A strong orientation answers these questions, helping students to gain their bearings. It also helps students to more quickly feel themselves a part of a larger community, to recognize that their disorientation is expected, and that it will pass. All this will help to increase motivation, attendance, and persistence in your program or course.

Keep in mind that you don’t need to be an administrator to organize an orientation. While it’s ideal to have a program-wide orientation, that’s sometimes not an option, and some of the same benefits can be derived from an in-class micro-orientation.


So what makes for an effective orientation? Of course there’s no single answer. The best orientation will be designed with your student population and context in mind. But that doesn’t mean we can’t identify some common elements.

You’ll probably want to start with some kind of ice-breaker. It probably shouldn’t be trust falls. I recommend something like Find Someone Who… or Human Bingo: straightforward rules, minimal English required, and opportunities to meet lots of people rapidly. Include some items that will force students to interact with nonstudents as well (i.e., Find someone who is from the United States).

Then should come some kind of formal introduction to all the staff involved in the event. I recommend including a variety of roles. At my program, teachers, coordinators, program directors, the ED, advisors, and desk staff all take part in the event, introducing themselves and explaining their roles to incoming students. Thus all the new and potentially intimidating faces around your school suddenly become familiar and comforting. If students have met certain people already as a part of the intake process (a coordinator or intake test administrator), try to have them there as well, so there’s at least one familiar face in the room!

You’re also going to want to lay out some clear expectations for the upcoming course or semester. This can include a syllabus, rules and policies, the academic calendar, classroom expectations, etc. In this section, it’s important to be keenly aware of your students’ backgrounds. For instance, in my program many students have limited formal education, so reviewing the importance of completing homework and participating during class is crucial.

You might also want to familiarize students with the texts and materials they’ll be using. If you’re in a larger building, perhaps a tour is in order.


There are some structural concerns to keep in mind, as well. I’ve organized a couplefew too many snorientations in which I drone on for an hour at a roomful of blinkingly bemused newcomers understanding maybe 5% of what I’m saying. This doesn’t make for good teaching, so I’m not sure why I thought it would make a good orientation. To fix that, at my program, we got the whole staff involved: our ED talks about the organization’s history and mission, the advisor talks about career services that we offer, one teacher discusses the attendance policy, another U.S. classroom culture, and so on. It’s also fast-paced and highly dynamic, with skits and handouts and lots of interaction.

We also arrange things such that the more advanced speakers of a particular language translate for the beginners of the same language. If you have bilingual staff, get them involved, too. I know some teachers are pretty hardline about the “English only” thing, but orientation is a time to put comfort over learning outcomes.

For our program, it’s not actually a top priority that students absorb and retain every detail that we throw at them. In fact, that would be impossible. But because so much of it is important information, we make sure that every student leaves with a packet full of handouts and references. These include an academic calendar, contact info for teachers and staff, brochures, and so on. Some kind of tangible takeaway is always a plus.

These are just some starting tips. At my program, we’re still ironing out the kinks and finding improvements. Our most recent idea—still yet to be tested—is to have some graduates of our programs participate in the event, sharing the challenges and successes that they encountered, giving our new students a picture of success.

Good luck and happy orientating!


About Robert Sheppard

Robert Sheppard
Over the past 10 years, Rob has explored a variety of roles and contexts in the field. These include the cram-school culture of Taiwan and Korea; IEPs in Boston focused on academic English; advanced conversation and TOEFL prep taught via Skype to students in Japan; and nonprofit, community English programs for immigrants to Greater Boston. He currently serves as sr. director of adult programs at Quincy Asian Resources, a member of the community advisory council at First Literacy, and a curriculum consultant at Boston Global Institute. He has a master’s degree in TESOL from The New School, and his areas of interest include adult ed, pronunciation and grammar instruction, curriculum development, and assessment.
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One Response to Orientation in Adult Ed

  1. Jose Torres says:

    I agree orientation is a tricky business, but very important. Even though much of what is said often goes unregistered by students because they understand so little (speaking of newcomers, of course), I tend to use many depictions on the fontboard, big colorful pictures, body language, facial expressions, and good ol’ fashioned listen and repeat drills. It has been my experience that the mortar of explanation is practice using as many human sensories as possible. Great blog! ~Jose

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