Making lessons personal

Over the years of working with a variety of learners in different settings (in-company, tertiary, private tutoring, teacher training) the aspect I feel appeals to all of them is making lessons personal. I realize that this cannot be done in every case, especially when we follow a course book with defined tasks or need to prepare students for exams in which they are judged on how well they understand reading, listening and writing tasks. But when we have the choice to add in a task or activity which allows them to tap into their inner feelings, opinions, and thoughts, this can be beneficial to both the engagement of the learner as well as helping their recall of the language at a later time.

In my lessons at the university I have created a number of activities in order to personalize the lessons. We are required to give homework and I use it to help learners practice the grammar points we cover in the course. But the input I give is general enough so that the output can be determined by the learner. In practicing the future I asked them to write out what they know is going to take place as well as what they think will happen in their own countries in the next 30 – 50 years and the texts I received (in a B1 multi-national course) were astounding. My students come mostly from central and southern Europe and their thought-provoking essays were not only fascinating to read but clearly provided them with practice of the target language. The next written task involved them writing about an important first event in their own lives. I got stories about learning to ride a bicycle and the trust they needed to have in the person who taught them, the first time they took a trip by themselves and that feeling of independence, the first time they cooked a meal and how it turned out, etc.

Main building of the University of Graz

Main building of the University of Graz

In class, we also do a number of activities which involve a great deal of student input. Even a simple ‘find someone who…’ activity requires them to talk to each other and get information from others in the class. In a worksheet I created called ‘All about me’ All About Me 1 they had to compare notes with another learner about things in the past such as their favourite colours, food or types of clothing, what they wanted to be when they grew up, what they were good or bad at doing, etc. This pair work got them chatting and exchanging information. They were not only interested in what the other person had to say, but also finding commonalities with others in the class which can help to build a positive atmosphere and make them more comfortable within a learning community.

Students finding someone who …

Other possibilities to make lessons personal can make use of music or art as the impetus. You can give learners a replication of a painting and asking them to describe their feelings when they look at it or a photograph and ask them to imagine they are in the picture and have to describe what they see. A piece of music can be played and learners then asked to choose adjectives to talk about it. In these cases, they may have very different impressions leading to discussions in which they can explain why they feel the way they do, again lending a personal touch to the activity.

Uni students what are you going to do with that

Uni students what are you going to do with that 2 Students finding their own answers to a board game

Of course we cannot only do activities such as these as we often have to follow a syllabus, prepare learners for assessment, train them to write for academic journals, present at conferences or run meetings. But adding such activities to a lesson can be motivating, fun and give them the opportunity to experiment with the language in a meaningful way.

And as a final thought: ‘Is there anything more personal than learning a new language to express yourself in?’