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.