David Dodgson: Defining personalisation

Many teachers will say personalisation is important, but what do we mean by a 'personalised lesson' or 'personalising the learning process?' As ever, it is vital to explore and define this idea before we attach any importance to it.

'Have you ever been to Moscow?'

Look! ‘Have you… Have you…’

And there’s more! ‘Have you ever been to Istanbul?’ Yes, Istanbul! Can’t get much more personalised than that!

A few years ago I attended a conference in and a coursebook author was on stage showing us an activity he had written while trying to make a very tenuous connection to the overall conference theme of personalising the language learning process.

Of course, we can get much more personalised than that. Simply asking a question with you in it is nowhere near enough. Sadly, as silly as it sounds, for many learners that is as personalised as it gets. As teachers focus on ‘covering the ground’ ahead of the next test, language points are taught as they appear in the syllabus and beyond a little personal information from ‘get to know you’ activities, not much of the learner or the teacher is apparent in the lessons.

Let’s begin by considering direct personal questions – What’s your name? Where are you from? What do you like doing at the weekends? Have you ever been to Istanbul? Can we really say these help ‘personalise’ a lesson? Maybe, if our aim is to find out key information about our students and adapt our lessons accordingly. However, often these are just display questions. We ask. They answer. Students ask and answer in pairs. Activity done, language practiced, content covered.

Then, there is the idea of ‘personalising’ output. At the end of a unit when it’s time for a productive task, written or spoken, students often have the ‘option’ of including details about their own lives. But yet again, this is often shallow and restricted by a proposed model or example that they are expected to map their responses onto. Take for example, a writing task that came up on a coursebook page in one of my classes recently – describe a person from your family. Sounds like a great opportunity for personalisation but instead, there was then an example and a framework imposing four short paragraphs of ‘general information,’ ‘personality,’ and ‘interests.’ Taken as given, that would lead to some quite generic texts.

So we need to go deeper. We need to think about really getting to know our students. And I don’t simply mean getting to know some basic personal information about them or other people in their lives. I mean we really need to know what their interests are, what their personal views are, and what makes them tick. More importantly, we need to listen to what they say, react to it, and respond to it.

So, if a student tells me they are into a particular sport, I ask them about it. And not just when and where they do it but also how the sport is played and why they enjoy it so much. I would then find out about other activities the rest of the class are interested in. We would then look at who is into sport and who is not and discuss why some people devote a lot of time to it and why others don’t. This kind of discussion means we get into something much more personal than expressing a preference – we get into attitudes and the reasoning and/or thinking behind them. For other topics, I value finding out about the opinions and ideas of the class. This knowledge gives me much more justification and scope for ‘personalising’ topics and tasks than finding out whether or not someone has been to Moscow.

But, all of that still gives the impression of ‘personalisation’ meaning content. Again, I say we need to go deeper, or at least look from a different angle. What about ‘personalised’ learning? Everyone learns differently and responds to classroom input differently and that is something we need to recognise if we are to truly ‘personalise’ the language learning experience. As I learn about my students’ preferences, attitudes, and opinions, I get a sense of who they are as a learner and I can adapt my lessons accordingly.

When I think about my different classes, I know which ones will react well to role-play activities and which ones will prefer discussions. I know which ones enjoy listening stories and which ones prefer to tell their own. I know which classes like to go over grammar in detail and which ones prefer to address it only as and when issues come up.

Knowing and responding to these factors helps personalise lessons a great deal more than merely learning a few facts about each student.

And then there is the element of choice, which is perhaps the main gateway to personalised learning. I always avoid restricting my students to one task or one way of doing a task. I always try to find ways to offer them choices – choices of task, choices of how to do a task, choices of how to present a task, choices of content, input, and style.

Take the writing task I mentioned a few paragraphs earlier. When I did this in class, I made a few changes to create some choices. First of all, I dropped the family member requirement and made it a more open ‘someone important to you’ – that, of course, could be a friend, relative, colleague, or an admired public figure. I suggested focusing more on the personality side and gave the option of including a few negative characteristics (if applicable!) I gave more flexibility in the content suggesting they could mention what role this person has in their life and what makes them important. I also offered the choice of presentation – no need to insist on a hand-written text. Why not offer the chance to write it up on a computer a send it for checking by email? Or why not write it using a note-taking app on your phone or tablet? Or make an oral presentation, record an audio clip, add some images, or present the person in any other way you can think of?

When these kinds of choices are offered, learners can really feel that the task and therefore the learning process has been personalised. It opens up the opportunity for them to say what they want to say and how they want to say it. With an accepting classroom atmosphere where opinions are sought and listened to, we can encourage our learners to go further and do more with the language they are learning.

Dave Dodgson is a teacher, language programme coordinator, and freelance teacher trainer currently based in Gabon. He has also worked extensively in Turkey and has experience of working with children, teens, and adults both in general English, ESP and EAP. He believes personalising the learning process is the key to success in the language classroom and has a strong interest in using and adapting authentic input for learners of all levels. He blogs at davedodgson.com and also runs eltsandbox.weebly.com, a site dedicated to game-based learning.

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