P is for Personalization

12 02 2012

Childhood tragedy?

In his novel, The Folding Star, Alan Hollinghurst (1994) recounts how the protagonist, a young Englishman recently arrived in a Belgian town, sets himself up as a private English tutor. One of his pupils suffers from asthma, and our hero idly asks him if he knows how he got it.

“I didn’t quite make the story out at first, I was chivvying him and making him repeat words without knowing I was taking him back, like some kinder and wiser analyst, to the scene of a childhood tragedy” (p. 20)

Inadvertently uncovering childhood tragedies is one of the risks of what has come to be known as personalization: “When you personalise language you use it to talk about your knowledge, experience and feelings” (An A-Z of ELT). Personalization has connotations of self-disclosure, even confession. But it hasn’t always been so.

Long ago...

When I first encountered personalization it was of the type: “Write 5 or more true sentences about yourself, friends or relations, using the word ago“.

This is taken verbatim from Kernel Lessons (O’Neill et al. 1971), one of the first coursebooks I taught from. The fact that the sentences had to be ‘true’ was regularly ignored or overlooked by both teacher and students. The point was not to be ‘truthful’ but creative. Creative and accurate.

This little personalization task invariably came at the tail end of a sequence of activities whose rationale was the learning and practice of a pre-selected item of grammar. The personalization was really just a pretext for a little bit of creative practice, as well as serving as a first, tentative step towards translating the language of the classroom into the language of ‘real life’. I don’t recall ever having used these carefully contrived sentences as a conversation starter, and certainly never uncovered any childhood tragedies (that I was aware of). In fact, in Kernel Lessons this ‘transfer exercise’ was relegated to the Homework section of the book, thereby obviating any potentially awkward moments in the classroom.

But very soon personalization was re-invented, not as a form of language practice, but as the context and stimulus for language learning.  Within the humanist paradigm, where the ultimate aim of education is self-actualization, teachers were urged to ground their lessons in the lives, experiences, and feelings of their learners:

In foreign language teaching, we customarily begin with the lives of others, with whom students may not easily identify, and then expect students to transfer the material to their own lives.  However, transfer to the textbook is easier when the content starts with the student himself and then leads into the materials to be learned… Let the students first discover what they can generate on the subject from their own personal thoughts and feelings.  By drawing on their own experiences and reactions, the transfer to the textbook will be more relevant and more apparent.

(Moscowitz, 1978, p. 197)

Personalization, as we have seen, is not without its risks, and it’s arguable whether assuming the role of analyst – wittingly or unwittingly –  isn’t exceeding one’s brief as language instructor.  Yet there is a general acceptance in the profession that these risks are worth taking, and even teachers who don’t susbcribe one hundred percent to a humanist philosophy tend to think that personalization is ‘a good thing’. And, of course, basing the content of the lesson on the experiences, interests, desires and even fears of the people in the room also happens to be a core principle of the Dogme approach.

But, irrespective of whether we think it’s good for them, do learners actually like it? Do they like being quizzed about what they or their relatives were doing 10 days/months/years ago? Do they expect it? Do they see the value of it?

...and far away.

All the more reason, therefore, to ask whether or not the theoretical underpinnings for personalization are well grounded. Hence, I’ve been looking outside the (arguably too narrowly focused) domain of humanistic pedagogy for other sources of validation. Recently, research into the way second language learners are ‘socialized’ into communities of practice has shed new light on the notion of personalization, even if it’s not named as such. Bonny Norton (2000, p. 142), for instance, concluded her study of immigrant women in Canada thus:

Whether or not the identities of the learner are recognised as part of the formal language curriculum, the pedagogy that the teacher adopts in the classroom will nevertheless engage the identities of learners in diverse and sometimes contradictory ways.  It is only by understanding the histories and lived experiences of language learners that the language teacher can create conditions that will facilitate social interaction both in the classroom and in the wider community, and help learners claim the right to speak.

From a related but more ecological perspective, Dwight Atkinson (2010) argues that language learning is a process of adapting to a social-cultural-linguistic environment, in which meaning is distributed throughout the system rather than being locked into individual minds, and that what learners pay attention to – what they notice – is that which is potentially important to their integration and survival:  “What really matters to a person – what is adaptive – is what gets attended” (p. 35). Arguably, by foregrounding ‘what really matters to a person’, personalization both motivates and scaffolds these adaptive processes.

So, how do we accommodate the need for personalization into our classes? And – more importantly – how do we deal with learner resistance to it?


Atkinson, D. (2010) Sociocognition: what it can mean for second language acquisition. In Batstone, R. (ed.) Sociocognitive Perspectives on Language Use and Language Learning. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Hollinghurst, A. (1994). The Folding Star. London: Chatto & Windus.

Moskowitz, G. (1978). Caring and Sharing in the Foreign Language Class. Rowley, MA: Newbury House.

Norton, B. (2000). Identity and Language Learning: gender, ethnicity and educational change.  London: Longman.

O’Neill, R., Kingsbury, R., & Yeadon, T. (1971). Kernel Lessons Intermediate. London: Longman.



47 responses

12 02 2012
Adam Simpson

Here’s a few ideas:

ء Regular informal and formal meetings for discussing options, making decisions, exploring learner perceptions, and mutually evaluating progress
ء A broad range of options from which the learner can make choices with regard to types of learning content, activities, and desired outcomes
ء A broad range of options from which the learner can make choices with regard to facilitation (support, guidance) of decision making and learning
ء Active decision making by the learner in making choices and in evaluating how well the chosen options match their current levels of motivation and proficiency
ء The establishing of program plans and mutual agreements about the ongoing relationships between the learner and the educator(s);
ء Regular reevaluations of decisions, reformulation of plans, and renegotiation of agreements based on mutual evaluations of progress, problems, and current learner perceptions of the situation

12 02 2012
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Adam: your take on personalization suggests (to me) a distinction between ‘deep’ and ‘shallow’ personalization – the former being at the level of curriculum design and methodology (i.e. the ideas you mention) while ‘shallow’ personalization is simply finding a space for the learners’ lives within an existing curriculum. Would that be correct?

13 02 2012
Adam Simpson

Summed up much better than I could have managed. Thanks for another very interesting and thought provoking post, Scott.

12 02 2012

I guess your question is really contextual and cultural, isn’t it?

I’ve taught in four different countries (Hong Kong, UK (from Muslim countries), Germany and Ecuador) but as yet, I haven’t ever had the experience of having students who resisted personalization, in fact the opposite.

So is this because these culturally diverse students liked talking about themselves, their lives, aspirations and sharing their histories and backgrounds with each other or because of the way I, as the teacher, introduced the activities – generally by first modelling based on my own sharing of my own personal experience?

In response, my students have told me the most intimate details of their lives, health, marriages, work concerns and even the death of a child. I’ve had others who tell the random dullness of daily existence (what time they brush their teeth)… Most recently, I had a 2hr conversation with 2 students who really just wanted to convince me to join their religion.

So, without wishing to drop a bomb onto the discussion to follow, I would have to ask in turn: does your question really not boil down to resistance on the part of some teachers, whose L1 culture happens to be one that resists “the personal” rather than this really being something that students resist?

12 02 2012
Luiz Otávio Barros

“I would have to ask in turn: does your question really not boil down to resistance on the part of some teachers, whose L1 culture happens to be one that resists “the personal” rather than this really being something that students resist?”

I think while some students do resist (regardless of T’s influence) speaking from a personal perspective, voicing their own opinions and opening up, most of them just can’t be bothered at times. This depends, I think, on whether the personalization is truly meaning-focused or form-focused / form de-focused.

It seems to me that when teachers and students are in language-practice mode (regardless of whether it’s more drill-like or role-play like), students somehow know that it’s accuracy (conformity?) that ultimately matters. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve asked students (both teens and adults) to “talk about their own lives” using a certain grammar point or lexical chunk, just to realize that none of the ensuing sentences were actually true, however trivial and mundane (=easy to come up with) they might have been.

So the impression I get is that students generally tend to keep “practicing language” and “speaking personally” in the two separate compartments, as it were – hence the constant cries for “more conversation in class” even if 80% of what goes on in class is personalized and done in pairs or small groups. But does this distinction matter in the end?

I don’t know. I’ve always intuitively believed that what gets practiced with an element of transfer tends to be more memorable in the long run, but I don’t have a scrap of evidence to back up my claim. What I have noticed, though, is that personalization works well for concept checking. Let me explain.

A number of recent coursebooks have adopted a non-production stance on the past P, as it were. Instead, students are simply asked to do a gap-fill, for example, check and, at the end, say whether the sentences are true for them / make them true. This last step usually makes students read the sentences again, silently, and REALLY try to understand exactly what was meant and ask for clarification, if necessary, before they commit to them personally. So, while, as I said, I don’t know if form-focused personalization can actually speed up proceduralizaiton, maybe – and say maybe – it does help students process the new input at a deeper level.

12 02 2012
Scott Thornbury

“Students generally tend to keep “practicing language” and “speaking personally” in the two separate compartments”. Yes, well put, Luiz. And that’s maybe because they’re gertting a message – wrongly or rightly – that the teacher values form over content.

As for the ‘deeper level of processing’ that personalization involves, even if only at the receptive level (i.e. is this sentence true for you?) I think you’re absolutely right, and this is something that would be really worth researching, e.g. do students remember language (word/phrases/structures) better when they’ve had to engage with it at a personal level? An affirmative answer to that question would vindicate a lot of humanistic practice, not to mention dogme!

12 02 2012

This is a very interesting topic. I’ve experienced complete openess from students about personal issues such as death and I’ve had numerous students usually teenagers being very cagey about what they did at the weekend. It’s a hard balancing act, being personal enough that your studnets think that you know them and care and being too personal where they feel uncomfortable.

I’ve just finished teaching a military English course and it’s the only course where students told anecdotes about their experiences in Afghanistan. I had previously avoided these conversations. Perhaps as one student had mentioned that he’d been in hospital as a result of a bomb. I skated over their mission experiences after this. Afraid of touching a raw nerve or bringing up something they’d rather forget.

This last class were happy to tell stories about things that had happened to them in Afghanistan towards the end of the course, and I was happy to hear their stories.

I suppose we have to give learners the opportunity to talk about themselves but not force this issue. Karenne has a point, maybe we as teachers have an issue with it. I know after my brother died, I didn’t quite know how to deal with questions about him from students. Recently in class a student asked why I don’t dive anymore and I told him that my brother died in a diving accident. Should I have told him the water is too cold and I have no time?

12 02 2012
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Leahn. Your experience raises the question as to how can teachers deal with highly-charged emotional issues that arise accidentally, or incidentally, especially in highly-charged contexts such as the military one that you describe. ‘Skating over’ the issue, as you put it, might be just as offensive – potentially – as deliberately delving into concerns that are none of our business.

23 06 2014

While I was undertaking a introductory TESOL course, I was warned to be aware of cultural difference when teaching. The example I was given was a teacher playing hangman with one of her classes and one of her students just broke down and cried. It turned out that the student had had family members executed by hanging and was really upset that this was used as a “game”.

Another example that I have heard is a trainee teacher took great offence at the topic he had to teach. The topic was about boyfriends and girlfriends in relationships. He took offense because that sort of behavior was not tolerated where he was from and proceeded to lecture the practice class he was teaching about how immoral it was.

In my own experiences at conversation schools in Japan, I have had numerous students tell me about how their father/mother had died a few days ago when they were asked “What’s new?” Or that their wife or siblings had died. Sometime this would be during GTKY activities. One student I assessed for an assignment during CELTA, wrote and talked a lot about her mother’s passing only a few months before.

I think that students will divulge quite a lot of truly personal information about themselves, even without a lot if prompting if they feel they want to talk about the topic. I also think that no matter whether you personalize something or not, we are dealing with people and each person can be upset by sometimes the most innocuous parts of our lessons.

I think the teacher has to judge whether to skate over the issue or not. I usually do, but depending on the class dynamics and if it is a private lesson, I will spend some time for that student to discuss it. Thanking them for sharing when they have finished.

I am not really a touchy-feely teacher in general, so I deal with it on a case by case basis.

12 02 2012

A couple of simple points:

1. As with any technique, personalisation is likely to become tedious for students if overused.

2. If a student happens to be sitting next to a student that they don’t trust, they will be extremely reluctant to reveal significant details about their lives….and who can blame them? In this sense, an instruction from the teacher to ‘get personal’ can feel like a very unwelcome imposition.

12 02 2012
David Avram

”Recently in class a student asked why I don’t dive anymore and I told him that my brother died in a diving accident. Should I have told him the water is too cold and I have no time?”

I think (cautious) honesty is generally the best policy.

Just think if someone outside the classroom – an acquaintance perhaps – had asked you about your brother. What would you have told them? Probably, the truth – but in a sensitive way, of course. If a students asks, do the same.

From a language learning point of view, I’m pretty sure that moments like that will be remembered more. Not that we should go overboard bringing up sensitive issues, but this kind of stuff does come up, even a passing comment might make the lesson more memorable.

I remember making a whole lesson out of informing the students I had just been involved (though not injured) in a car crash actually on my way to the lesson! It was along the lines of… ‘you’ll never guess what crazy thing happened to me today…’ which I turned into a number of activities. We had an interesting and productive lesson.

The very real risk of discovering perhaps one of those students had lost a loved-one in a traffic accident and that they might get upset in this lesson was a risk I was willing to take. I mean, when you think about it, almost any topic can be potentially risky for sad stories (not least, something as seemingly innocuous as talking about your family).

12 02 2012

I subscribe to everything that has been said – If I were to boil down my own philosophy, it would be
1.Options (as mentioned)
2.Keep it light
3.Don’t overthink your own disclosures – you’ll feel comfortable telling one person something which you won’t share with someone else. That’s normal.
4.Teach students to say ‘I’m not comfortable with that question’ and ‘are you aware of how inappropriate that is?’

Sample classroom activity? ‘2 truths and a lie’ It ticks all the boxes.

HOWEVER I would like to add that all of the pitfalls of personalisation as mentioned are in fact inherent to the language classroom. If you’ll bear with me I have an example.

Years ago I did some work for Berlitz, and the lady running the induction told us about something which had happened to her. As a rookie, she had a one-to-one class with a businessman. During a lesson on ‘by the time …’ she was telling a story and writing grammar elements on the board. The story was an imaginary bad start to the day, and as she proceeded her student became more and more distant. She responded by adding in more drama. By the time she got to the office she had lost & found her keys, run over the cat, hit a woman on a bike, performed first aid, been questioned by the police… At the break, her student left the building and did not return.

Six months later her boss took her on one side and told her that apparently her student had lost his wife the previous year in a car accident, and that what had happened WAS NOT HER FAULT. Yes, they had lost a student, but this had nothing to do with her personally. She told us that one of the risks of our job was stumbling on to sensitive ground even without talking about the student personally, and that if it happened to us she would be supportive.

I’ve been doing this for twenty years and I haven’t had such a disaster yet, but I’m no cleverer than anyone else. It might happen, with or without personalisation.

12 02 2012

No one has yet (explicitly) mentioned the connection between personalization and memorization. The connection between the two is strong and is known as the self-reference effect. For more information, look at Sharifian, F. 2002 ‘Memory Enhancement in Language Pedagogy: Implications from Cognitive Research’ TESL-EJ Vol. 6 No. 2 (September 2002) http://www.tesl-ej.org/wordpress/issues/volume6/ej22/ej22a2/

12 02 2012
cris asperti

Very interesting issue. I’ve had students who don’t like to talk about themselves because they feel this is not a real ‘classroom exercise’ and what they want is a traditional fill in on phrasal verbs or prepositions in order for them to attach more surrender value to the the class.
However, i’ve also had students who actually ‘blossomed’ when given more room to talk about something personal – difficult responsibilities and challenges in their professional lives, how astonished one was to observe a nephew becoming bilingual (comparing to his own difficulties), a very quiet student – a musician – talk about the horrible wedding /graduation parties where he was supposed to wear costumes and play all night long… Actually some of these students mentioned the best class they’d had were those when they had the chance to talk for a longer stretch of time on their experiences. Other students will never consider these classes as ‘real classes’ = ‘we just talked. Nothing happened.'(= no grammar or vocabulary exercises, no difficult listening or reading were given).
I believe the challenge is to provide personal moments as often as possible and at the same time manage to lift/uncover language that was used throughout so that towards the end of the class we can make it more ‘memorable’ through concept questions, lexical webs, noticing grammatical aspects,whatever…, and this way, cater to both types of learners.

12 02 2012

I just finished a lesson titled ‘My favorite quote’. Though this is just one case, personalizing content for my student seemed to be a positive experience. My student was contemplating whether to talk about her traumatic experience which was a story related to her favorite quote. She told me also mentioning she was a little hesitant to use the story. However, I just told her that it was her choice and it was also possible to make the story ambiguous if need be. In the cultural context I teach, it is rare to talk about personal events, especially traumatic ones. However, she used her story and in much detail. She was relieved when the class understood her with normal reactions. This gave her not only a feeling of relief, but also confidence in her English presentation skills as she mentioned to me after the class. Personalization in this case positively influenced learning motivation and made the classroom a safer environment for her.

12 02 2012
Scott Thornbury

This is a very uplifting story and I’m so glad that you shared it. The relationship between personalization and motivation is another line of research that is definitely worth pursuing. Does anyone know of anything that’s been done along these lines?

13 02 2012
Jessica Mackay

Regarding the relationship between personalization and motivation, what could be more personal than the students’ ability to visualize, articulate and elaborate their wishes, hopes, aspirations, sense of obligation and fears when learning a language?

This is the essence of the research being carried out in the UK, Spain and China into the development of an Ideal L2 Self as a motivational tool. The results are pretty promising.

I’m curious to see if it would be possible to produce a research design to test the effects of more general personalization on motivation. To do this there would need to be a control group where instruction was carried out without any personalization.
I can’t see how a teacher/researcher could eliminate personalization entirely from a real-life classroom, especially in contexts such as Spain, where the learners, as you have said yourself, have rather anarchic tendencies and may impose their own (personalised) agenda on the most watertight lesson plan. Such is the joy of classroom research.

14 02 2012
kevin stein

Hi S. Fukuda and Jessica and with Scott,

Great reading, the overall post and this thread of comments. In Japan, most of the students , especially adult students, are quite reticent to discuss personal issues. So I think that S. Fukuda must do a great job of setting up a classroom environment where personal issues can be expressed safely. As teachers, I think knowing how cultural issues play into levels of personal expression is very important. But cultural modes of communication and personal styles of communication are not the same. Recently I’ve been doing a lot of practice with students for a standardized interview test coming up at the end of the week. I’ve found that students who express more personal experiences and feelings during the practice test, usually score better. Maybe I should look into this through action research and see if helping students personalize their answers impacts the language they use?

14 02 2012
Scott Thornbury

“Maybe I should look into this through action research and see if helping students personalize their answers impacts the language they use?”

Nice idea, Kevin. It would be relatively easy to track personalization if you had transcripts of students’ spoken texts. Just counting the frequency of mentions of “I” and “me” would give a crude measure of the ‘P-factor’. (You first read it here!)

14 02 2012
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Jessica – you took the bait! See my comment to Kevin above about quantifying personalization. I guess you would also need to measure the P-factor in L2 with the amount the students personalize in their L1 as well – some people just don’t like talking about themselves, ‘punto’.

11 03 2012

Great ideas of research projects. It reminded me of a paper I read once on the effects on personalization on motivation, so I went digging into my old box of research papers (afterwards, I realized I could have just done a search on Google Scholar). But anyways, Cordova and Lepper (1996) did find that personalization (and contextualization and choice) did influence motivation, and learning outcomes as well in a study in children in mathematics instruction. Perhaps it is time to do one in ELT.

Cordova, D., & Lepper, M. R. (1996). Intrinsic motivation and the process of learning: Beneficial effects of contextualization, personalization, and choice. Journal of Educational Psychology, 88(4), 715-730.

12 02 2012
Jason Renshaw

I’ll never forget the day one of my teachers returned to the staffroom, almost in tears, completely stressed out about reducing a 9-year-old boy to a tearful mess in front of a whole group when she had misinterpreted his inability to say how old his mother was… His parents had divorced and he hadn’t seen her since he was a toddler. And she kept asking, didn’t she, thinking he just needed to hear the question repeated and slowed down and recast three different ways. Poor lady – and poor kid!

Not enough attention gets paid to this sort of thing and–as usual–I’m glad you’ve raised it here Scott.

The idea that the classroom becomes like a confessional ground is one that makes me wince, and I’ve never felt all that comfortable with the idea that language teachers need to wear some sort of pastoral care robe (as if by default).

As the years have gone by (and this continues with my current first language teaching role as well), I’ve come to see the classroom/group setting as a place where personalization works best and feels most appropriate when it focuses on:

– the here and now and the very recent past (especially news, and what happens/happened in the classroom itself)
– humour and positive experiences (even ‘happy clappy’ stuff)
– basic everyday opinions and preferences
– nothing too personal

I mean, don’t most natural group settings focus mostly on this sort of stuff, and when things get too deep and too personal, don’t at least half the group wish they weren’t there or find some pressing message on their smartphone to attend to?

The open classroom has to feel like positive and safe ground. Certain learners may like to go into confessional mode, but others should never feel forced to. By the same token, I know a lot of learners don’t like the ‘gusher’ that takes over the classroom space and uses up all its time…

Personally, I think if the group is progressing well, individuals will choose when, how and why to share more personal information with which classmates (if any), and classroom/activity management will allow for this to happen with the level of discretion each individual feels comfortable with. The teacher may be included in this circle of individual trust, but for language development purposes it’s great if he/she can be called in to help fill in the expressive gaps without necessarily seeing or being part of the bigger picture.

Sure, here and there something will be hit upon that gains currency across most or all of the group. It will emerge in the right classroom ecosystem, but if it is contrived, forced or dragged forth it’s almost impossible not to make a mess of it.

In essence, I like it when my learners have their secrets and like it even more when they form a group of two or more to share them with, with me simply being called on to help with parts of the language when appropriate.

Sometimes the language teacher’s job is simpler than we often imagine it to be…

12 02 2012
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Jason, and I share your reservations about pushing personalization too far. And yet… and yet… I also think that maybe there are students who actually use – and enjoy – the fact that they’re speaking another language to push the boundaries of what is possible. (I have an English-speaking friend who did therapy in Spanish, and claims it was easier to talk frankly in a language that wasn’t so implicated in her identity). But I totally agree about your point that ‘deep’ personalization should emerge out of the right classroom dynamic, and should not be dragged out, kicking and screaming, by the teacher!

12 02 2012

Scott, I have nothing to add to the fine comments here other than to emphasize how important it is for the teacher to deflate his/her ego and make it about the learner. I struggled with this early in my career more than I do now. During a one-to-one course with a businessman, I found myself asking too many questions about his mention of a sister who was not allowed to do this or that. Eventually, personally offended by the ultimate prospect of death for a woman who disobeyed her father’s wishes, I prodded too much, and the man politely asked for another teacher. Our DOS was kind in explaining the student’s decision to me, but I realized my mistake. To me, one-to-one sessions can be the trickiest to navigate in this regard.

The program I’m in now harmonizes the personal and the professional (over the course of a year, no less), so program coordinators consider it appropriate and helpful if I take a more holistic approach (Dogme). I still have to keep my ego in check – not to mention the others in the room – but this tack has made all the difference because personalization allows us all to trace the helix of language, culture, and self more closely than a more superficial path would allow.

Speaking of personalization, I would like to know who we see in those childhood photos, Scott. And thanks for another thoughtful post!


12 02 2012
David Avram

“Eventually, personally offended by the ultimate prospect of death for a woman who disobeyed her father’s wishes, I prodded too much, and the man politely asked for another teacher.”

Death? My goodness. I really hope that’s an exaggeration. I would be disgusted if a student said that to me. By rights, it would be me asking to end the classes, not them.

I have on occasion been in awkward situations with mildly homophobic, racist or sexist students.

I’ve never started an argument in the class, but on a few occasions I have really felt very close to it. Part of me thinks I should have been brutally honest with them – at least, in private – after the lesson, though somehow politeness has stopped me even doing that.

12 02 2012
Scott Thornbury

Thanks Rob. For every uplifting story (see S. Fukuda’s post above) there’s one downer. But that’s a very good point – about keeping your ego in check. When teachers exploit the power imbalance in the classroom to assume a therapist’s role they are seriously exceeding their brief.

And wow! “the helix of language, culture, and self” – you really do have a way with words, Rob!

(Oh, and all those photos are of me, of course. And my siblings. That’s the best way I could think of for illustrating personalization).

12 02 2012

Agreed. Teachers are not therapists. They are, however, people – and that is a role it is impossible to set aside in class.
Being a teacher doesn’t mean setting aside your own personal values, although sometimes it may mean agreeing to disagree and moving on. It may also mean on occasion agreeing that students should find a new teacher.

12 02 2012
youssef Tirizite


How do we accommodate the need for personalization into our classes?
The answer to this question is multi-dimensional. Teachers need to take account of a number of variables that can lead up to a safe implementation of personalized activities.

1. Teacher-student rapport.
2. Group cohesiveness.
3. Age and personalities of teacher and students.
4. Cultural constraints on public conduct.
5. The level of language proficiency of both teacher and learner.

I agree with Jason regarding the teacher’s role in personalized activities- that of an observer and language repairer.

Incidentally, I would like to thank you all on your excellent comments.

12 02 2012
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Youssef. That’s such a neat list (of variables that impact on the desirability/feasibiltiy of personalization). It would actually make the perfect schema for a talk on the subject. I suppose I might add at least one more point: the goals of the learners. I.e. if their learning goals are purely instrumental, e.g. to successfully promote their company’s product at an international trade fair, or to pursue a course of study at an English-speaking university, then perhaps the need for personalization is less pressing. I.e. maybe it is more associated with integrative goals? Just a thought.

12 02 2012

I agree with many of the comments above!

“So, how do we accommodate the need for personalization into our classes? And – more importantly – how do we deal with learner resistance to it?”

In Facilitating Group Learning: Strategies for Success with Diverse Adult Learners, George Lakey makes a distinction between discomfort and danger. He says,

“When leaving their comfort zone, many people check to make sure they’ll be safe: the bungee cord won’t break, the date will happen in a public place. People intuitively know that *safety is a different issue than discomfort*, but they might forget the difference when they’re uncomfortable in a course.” (Emphasis is his.)

Sharing personal information can be dangerous (identity theft, anyone?). But it’s hard to practice communication without sharing at least a little bit about oneself! And we know that learning happens outside the comfort zone. So, it’s up to me to help students find the boundary between comfort and discomfort and the boundary between discomfort and danger. And to give them what they need to stay between those two boundaries as much as they can.

People DO resist feeling uncomfortable. When I get new students, there is always some level of resistance at first. Lakey again:

“‘Who am I in this group?’ is the participant’s preoccupying question as any learning group convenes, and there’s limited capacity for anything else until this question is answered.”

Learners need information (what are we doing, why are we doing it this way and what will happen if someone does it “wrong”?), encouragement (notice and compliment risk-taking even if it’s not successful) and autonomy (they decide when to take risks and how far to go). Some learners, especially those who bring expectations from past teacher-centered experiences, may need some extra time for adjustment.

One last quote from Lakey (I recommend his book, can you tell? 😉 ):

“I believe that at some level, perhaps unconscious, most participants want to be safe so they can be themselves. Their own deeper learning goals can’t be reached from a place of pretense. They need a strong container to do their best work, to feel proud of themselves, and to experience their power.”

Thanks again for some good Sunday morning reading. I never even got to the newspaper … time to go pick it up now!


12 02 2012
Mike Harrison

Hi Scott and others,

Not much to add to your post and the fine comments above. I’m quite fortunate in some respects to work in a particular area of language teaching that almost has personalisation really deeply embedded into it. A lot of ESOL provision, and materials produced back at the start of the Skills for Life programme, really rooted it all in (theoretically) the language, functions and skills that the learners need in their daily lives. Because learners have come to settle in the country, situations presented and worked on in class have to reflect what the learners have to deal with. So while something like ‘going to the supermarket’ or ‘making an appointment to see the doctor’ might not be in other contexts, they are in effect quite personalised tasks in terms of the learners’ needs.

Like others, I think personalisation can lead to some potentially tricky moments. Others mentioned above about teachers not really being qualified to provide the kind of pastoral care needed when dealing with some of the more serious issues that could arise from anything that happens in class. However, I certainly wouldn’t say we are incapable of aiding learners to some extent. If we see and treat the people in our classes as just that, people, we should be in some position to help, whether that be offering advice or pointing learners in the direction they might find it. Interestingly, ESOL teachers at my college actually perform these dual roles of course/academic tutor, sorting out the programme for the year and the lesson content; and personal tutors, speaking to learners about their progress and finding out if there is anything that can be done to help everyone achieve their potential. I don’t feel fully qualified for a lot of the things I have heard from learners and other staff, as at times it almost borders on social work, but it does make working in ESOL a really interesting environment to be in.

12 02 2012
Mike Harrison

An addendum:

I don’t think that personalised lesson content has to be big heavy stuff, nor does it have to be a prompt to ‘get personal’ as Glennie commented above. It could just be ‘talk about what you had for breakfast’. I can’t claim that to be a pearl of my own, but was one thing that Luke Meddings suggested in a seminar at the British Council last year. You can watch the video here: http://www.teachingenglish.org.uk/seminars/20-steps-teaching-unplugged

12 02 2012
Jaume Prat

Hi Scott,
Whenever you learn a language, it is YOU who is doing so. Obvious, isn’t it? Thus your own feelings, ideas, personality, background and so on are inevitably present in the process, whether we’re conscious of it or not. Therefore it seems only logical to personalise the language we are exposed to. After all, we are the ones we know better, we know most of …and there’re also lots of people who love talking about themselves (the success of “facebook” and the like proves this point).
By personalising not only will learners process language at a deeper, more affective level but also the other learners in the class will be able to ask further questions and, therefore maximize the opportunities of both exposure and practice. After all, there’s no possible follow up when the sentence/utterance has been “invented”. By not personalizing we are simply forcing students to focus on form. In short, ff we do want learners to focus both on meaning and form we have to personalise the language.

In the event of a student’s reluctance to get too personal I always tell them that they can safely say “I’d rather not answer this question/not talk about it.”

It also seems to me that, as kalinagoenglish mentioned above, there is more the case of teachers being reluctant to get too personal (for whatever reason -although cultural reasons are of prime importance-) than students not feeling comfortable talking about themselves.

However, it is not always necessary for students “to go public” when personalising. On many ocassions I’ve tried the following within the context of pet hates, things you can’t stand. I ask learners to complete the next stems with personally relevant information:

“If there’s one thing I can’t stand about my ………….. is …………”
“What I really hate about my ………………. is ………………………”
“……………… is what I hate the most about my ……………………..”

Once they have written three or four sentences -it is up to them to ask me to have a look at the sentences- I ask them to tear the piece of paper into little pieces, stand up and throw them into the paper bin, piece by piece. Immediately afterwards I ask them how they feel about it. Their answer usually is: “much better”. I guess this goes very much in line with the Moskowitz quote Scott provided us with in his post.

13 02 2012
Luiz Otávio Barros

Hi, Jaume!

“By personalising not only will learners process language at a deeper, more affective level but also the other learners in the class will be able to ask further questions and, therefore maximize the opportunities of both exposure and practice.”

Assuming the other students are remotely interested, right? I have taught and observed quite a few lessons in recent years in which the students were not the slightest bit interested in their peers’ anecdotes / opinions, which sort of flies in the face of modern ELT and all its caring and sharing, doesn’t it.

“By not personalizing we are simply forcing students to focus on form. In short, ff we do want learners to focus both on meaning and form we have to personalise the language.”

Hmm… not sure. I can think of lessons I’ve observed that were entirely meaning-focused and which offered very very little chance for personalization. True, there may well have been some sort of “inner dialog” in which students connected the topics and texts at hand to their personal lives, but there were no OVERT attempts at personalization. I can also think of lessons I’ve observed / taught which were form-focused and yet highly personal (at least from the teacher’s perspective). So, really, it all depends, I think.

13 02 2012
Jaume Prat

Hi Luiz,

If you do ask students to work in pairs and try to remember as much personal information as possible from their peers because they will have to write/report it back afterwards either to you (the teacher) ot to another student, there’s no way that they are, as you put it, ” the slightest bit interested in their peers’ anecdotes / opinions” since they have to fulfill a task with a clearly identifiable outcome. Not wanting to do so equals not wanting to, say, do a listenting exercise!

Luiz, can you possibly provide us with examples of meaning-focused tasks which offer “very little chance for personalization” ’cause I can only think of those connected with imagination (role-plays, simulations, stories and so on), which are all deep-rooted in our inner selfs and thus highly personal.

And yes, there’re lots of form-focused activities (with highly formulaic language) which are absolutely meaningful/personal (the one I mentioned is a clear example). I think this simply reinforces what I said. Take another classical example from Scott’s factory:

“One person in our group + can/used to/ has/have/would”
“Two people in our group + “can/used to/ has/have/would”
“Three people inour group + “can/used to/ has/have/would”
“Everyone in the group + “can/used to/ has/have/would”.
“No one in the group + “can/used to/ has/have/would”.


13 02 2012
Luiz Otávio Barros

Hi (again) Jaume!

1. I think interest is essentially intrinsic, wouldn’t you agree? So you may have them talk, report back and do as they’re told, but that doesn’t mean they’ll be genuinely interested in all the “personal things” that might have been said. So in terms of personal / affective engagement, activities with a clear element of transfer + exchange of ideas might – to some students – be tantamount to those old-fashioned information gap tasks in which students compare railway timetables, for example. I’m talking, of course, about students who truly couldn’t care less about each other, however hard the teacher tries to foster any amount of caring and sharing in class. Thank God they’re the exception, not the rule, but trust me, they do exist – at least in my teaching / training context.

2. As to meaning-focused activities without any significant degree of overt personalization, here’s an example of a lesson I’ve just made up:
Step 1: Teacher projects an OHT with a mindmap containing lots of words and phrases that, together, tell the story of a woman who’s been trying to learn how to drive for 5 years. Students, in pairs, try to anticipate the story.
Step 2: Students listen to an interview and check their predictions.
Step 3: Students listen again and circle true or false.
Step 4: Teacher tells students that there’s some information missing from the listening and proposes a jigsaw reading task. St A and B tell each other what they’ve read.
Step 5: Students look at a set of pictures and, in pairs, try to reconstruct the story.

Any experienced teacher would probably start the lesson by talking about students’ attempts at learning a new skill, there’d be questions encouraging them to react to listening / reading, maybe a role play etc etc. In other words, a good teacher would feel the need to build a bridge between the text and the students’ lives. However, all the five steps, meaning-focused as they are (receptively and productively), in themselves do not seem to overtly foster any significant amount of personalization.

13 02 2012
Jaume Prat

Thanks, Luiz for your articulate answer, That’s the sort of lesson I was referring to (a story).
And true, there’re people like those in classrooms the world over. However, as in real life, you’re not always genuinely interested in all your acquaitances tell you, but for the sake of oiling social conventions you listen (or pretend to) and (politely) respond to what they say. Translated to an EFL class this means that students have at least practised some verbal exchanges in the L2, which in some quarters might be more than enough. Obviously, we’ll never be able to make every single student genuinely interested in what a peer (or a teacher) is saying!

16 02 2012

Hi Scott,

Still following your posts with avid interest and this one is particularly close to my pedagogical heart. Firstly, personalization then coursebook (if used) is, I think, a useful way round of doing things and I feel no personalization at all seems to create a gulf between classroom and ‘real’ life (although, I suppose, the classroom is real in its own way).

Secondly, if language is a form of expressing oneself and is transactional/dialogic – I’m thinking of Vygotsky’s social interaction and Freire’s co-operation ideas which I feel accurately describe when my own language learning has been most successsful and memorable – then personalization cannot and should not be omitted.

A few of your followers have highlighted the appropriacy of personalization, when and when not to personalize. This interested me a lot as when teacher training I’ve seen teacher suggestions such as ‘let’s talk about the last thing you regret’ or ‘let’s talk about the last time you were upset’ which, unless generated by the students, seem a little unfair. I wouldn’t want to talk about these things to a group of people I may hardly know and actually, I’d probably make my answers up to avoid just that! Anyway, I digress. What this idea of appropriate personalization really made me question was in fact, how much the teacher is personal and ‘authentic’ in the classroom, not so much the students.

I have a hypothetical situation to present to the A-Z posse for comment:

When students express their opinions on a matter with which you disagree with (thinking here of the humanistic take on things), is it better for you, as the teacher, to avoid diasgreement altogether so as not to possibly offend a sensitive student and offer an ‘oh, really, I see, that’s interesting’ response OR respond politely with ‘oh, I see, actually, I disagree’ and possibly enter into a discussion of the issue.

I think it is very difficult and it, of course, depends on many variables (the student, the linguistic level, the issue, the opinions) but in general I wonder whether avoiding the issue is denying the student an authentic interaction (in which they would be exposed to language of polite disagreement and debate) and denying yourself a human, ‘real life’ response to the situation. On the other hand, is it our ‘job’ to remain ‘professional’ and impartial (and maybe to the students, indifferent) to the situation, thus preventing any potential complaints? Why would we advocate personalization for the students when we, as teachers, are denying it for ourselves? Is this a bit one-sided?

The more I type and verbalise these thoughts, the more I think that in order to allow a valuable learning experience (language as well as cultural and other elements), I think I favour with the genuine response option. I will stop rambling on now and pass it over for discussion. What do you think folks?

16 02 2012
Scott Thornbury

Thanks for that thoughtful comment – and question – Emma. My first response (to the question) was to reach for a new book that just arrived this morning, Classroom Management Techniques (by Jim Scrivener, a new addition to the Cambridge Handbooks for Language Teachers series) to see what Jim has to say. Here’s an extract which I think is relevant:

Dörnyei and Murphey suggest two common doubts about being authentic in class:

(1) a worry about revealing our own limitations e.g. a non-native speaker’s concern about her own language knowledge, especially within a culture that does not easily accept teachers’ admissions of gaps in their knowledge
(2) questions as to whether we should be “completely sincere in situations when we are, for example, mad or very disappointed with certain students. Can we really show that we are tired or depressed or have a hangover?”

The authors suggest that although “these are all valid concerns” the fact that students will be able to see through any pretence means that, even though both issues are worrying, it seems likely that more tension and problems will be created by hiding the truth, potentially “undermining student trust”. On the second point, they also suggest that while self-control is important, “a teacher’s open expression of anger or disappointment with some piece of student behaviour may prove to be more effective in getting through to the student than applying some correct disciplinary procedure and thereby reverting to authoritarian distance.” (p. 38)

While this doesn’t exactly address the question of whether you should avoid threats to face, it does suggest the importance of ‘being authentic’ in all classroom interventions.

16 02 2012

Thanks Scott,

I agree that we should be authentic/genuine in all classroom interventions and when dealing with both situations (1) and (2) as they are both part of the human experience (depending on culture of course). However, I was thinking more of situations when a student may express an opinion on something, let’s take the controversial topic of capital punishment for example, and you disagree with them. Issues that are closely related to cultural and even religious practices can be potentially volatile so where would/should we draw the line between responding genuinely and ‘rocking the boat’?

I do feel we should be genuine and deal with the situation as we would with anyone of the same ‘social’ distance (i.e. I wouldn’t react as I would do to my partner but neither would I react completely formally as if it were my boss). I think the interaction should genuinely reflect the relationship you have with your students. I am generally, I think, pretty relaxed and open with my students so feel I would be being inauthentic by suddenly shifting the distance in a situation like this and they may be surprised that suddenly I am less ‘honest’ with them. It’s a tricky one and I shall continue to ponder and discuss this with colleagues…it will be interesting to see what folk here say! 🙂

Thanks again,


16 02 2012

I’ve puzzled over this question, too. If I decide that my participation may hamper communication (for example, if I think students may not feel comfortable fully expressing themselves because their opinion is different than mine), then I think I should hold off on joining that particular discussion. I think it’s authentic for me to acknowledge my role as teacher and say this up front. (“I think the discussion should be without teacher participation this time. Maybe I’ll join in next time.”) I don’t think it’s necessary to make a general rule of staying out of ALL controversial discussions (I’ve changed my opinion on that!) but I do think my responsibility as teacher includes evaluating current conditions and making that call when necessary.

Personally, I’m not comfortable with having controversial discussions at all until the group has established ground rules (either informally or formally), is on the same page with regard to respecting each other, and has some language to negotiate difficult spots (“I’d rather not talk about that.” “Let’s agree to disagree.”, etc.). We’re in the process of doing that now in one of my groups and they’re champing to get some meaty discussions going soon!

Great point, thanks for bringing it up!

17 02 2012

Thanks Kathy,

Yes, I think you’re right. As teachers we do sometimes need not to join in at all as we can end up chairing the discussion or the students feel they need to defer to you and it becomes very teacher-led/-centred.

Also, when I was teaching at uni in Japan even though their linguistic level was higher than most, students worried about having different opinions, particularly to the teacher so were very apprehensive about sharing their ideas.

On another note, interestingly, when I’ve been out to the pub with students here in the UK, because the perceived formality of the classroom is removed, students often open up and dive in and it becomes a really genuine, personalized discussion with me being ‘Emma’ and not ‘the teacher’. I think both myself and the students get a lot out of these discussions. I suppose it’s to do with the affective filter and the noticeable shift in that fluency seems to surpass the desire for accuracy. I strive to create these conditions with students in the classroom and I think the dogme approach really matches that objective, being yourself and keeping it authentic.

Can I ask what profile learners you teach at the moment, please Kathy?

17 02 2012
Scott Thornbury

“I strive to create these conditions with students in the classroom and I think the dogme approach really matches that objective, being yourself and keeping it authentic”.

I agree, Emma, although I’m becoming more and more of the opinion that classrooms are one of the least ideal places to learn languages in. .. see the post A is for Affordance.

17 02 2012

Just finished reading an article by Elaine Tarone (link below) reviewing research that supports the proposal “that social and linguistic context affect linguistic use, choice, and development, and that learners intentionally assert social identities through their L2 in communicating in social contexts”. I guess it backs up your observation, Emma, that students make a shift when they’re conversing in the pub? The group I described above is ideally situated for getting out of our meeting space … we’re right in the historic old part of Philadelphia — lots interesting places to go. This is more inspiration to do so (as was the post A for Affordance)! Thanks! Kathy



17 02 2012

The group that’s stretching to “discussion” from “conversation” right now was assessed at levels 5 and 6 (high B, low C with CASAS Reading). They’re adults living in the US. About 1/3 of the group comes from China, 1/3 from Latin American countries and 1/3 from other countries (Arabic and French languages). I began with this group a couple of months ago and decided to start right off the bat with an unplugged approach. Our 3 hour lessons really fly by!

17 02 2012
Josh Lange

What about ‘impersonalization’? For example the reduction of ‘I’ statements is usually what is taught for formal writing. Yet there is the ‘personal tutorial’ which is usually more about process than skill building. So where does ‘personalization’ fit into ‘impersonal’ academic language teaching?

One of the things many of my university students have enjoyed is taking a Multiple Intelligences test or a short-verson MBTI Personality Test, and discussing motivations and interests in relation to the results. That way there is some common content that isn’t too personal, and can be used by the teacher to create activities.

The e-zine ‘Humanising Language Teaching’ is a good place to get more ideas for general language teachers. See my recent article on Howard Gardner’s Entry/Exit Points Approach to Language Teaching here: http://www.hltmag.co.uk/feb12/index.htm

Josh Lange
University College London

5 10 2017
Jeff Buck

As an ELT, I’ve generally taken the position that teachers should refrain from expressing their opinions on controversial discussion topics in order to not intimidate students as they are the ones who need to freely express their ideas no matter how I feel about them. Of course, if my students really want to know my opinion and I feel it’s appropriate, I’ll tell them. Or if my students all have the same opinion about something and therefore aren’t discussing it, I might play the Devil’s Advocate in order to generate some discussion.
As a language learner, I have had the experience from time to time of a teacher dominating the discussion or atmosphere with their ideology or details of their lifestyle. With one teacher, it was so bad that I had to eventually request a new teacher.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: