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?’

14 thoughts on “Making lessons personal

  1. Hey Marjorie!

    It seems to me we have similar beliefs! I also teach a variety of age groups and at school I work I have to follow a book syllabus. As for my private students it’s much easy to personalise activities based on their wants and need. As I believe in learning styles , I do my best to personalise activities trying to reach my students’ learning styles as much as possible Using music, art , games, and any other tool that generates speaking and prepare them for exams, writing journals or do presentations, is and will always be of great help to give our students a real sense of achievement. Great post!

    • Thanks Roseli,
      I agree that we seem to have very similar teaching styles. And finding ways to help students based on their wants and needs is so rewarding for them as well as for us. I always strive to give my students a sense of achievement as well.

      • Different educational backgrounds make our lessons personal, as well as different ability groups. Why reinvent the wheel? Numerous courebooks give you ideas, all the rest is your creativity. Just refine, recycle and enjoy, it’s your personal now. Thank you Marjorie for your stories. I love them.

      • So glad you enjoy the stories. Teaching has always been a personal activity for me and the reason I still enjoy it after doing it for more than thirty years. What I still find fascinating is discovering how others think – each of my learners contributes something different to the mix and that is what keeps lessons alive and intriguing for me and my students.

      • Absolutely, I have also written a slew of coursebooks for the Austrian market and we always built in that aspect. This post was just to point out ideas to help students feel a personal connection to English and name some possibilities for open-ended output.

  2. Hello Marjorie,
    Yes, yes, and one more yes! I guess I have not one single lesson where students aren’t invited to build a bridge between lesson content and their own lives, thoughts, fears even. I am a firm believer in making learning emotional, because it’s the emotion that helps to retain new material in the memory. And not just the technical, memorizing aspect that’s important. I wish my students felt the NEED to learn because there are things they absolutely want to share with the others, so the way forward is to find the tools, aka language 🙂

    Have a brilliant weekend!

  3. I agree with you Marjorie and always try to make my lessons as personal as possible. The majority of my lessons are one to one; therefore it’s relatively easy to adapt each lesson for each individual student. I’m a true believer in the fact that when students are working on a topic that they are interested in or it’s useful for them personally, they learn 100% faster. Their focus is on the topic not the language, they become less inhibited, relax and the language just flows.

    • Emma, glad you liked this. And I totally agree that people learn faster and are more motivated when the topic means something to them. It is interesting to hear what other teachers say about this but it is something I now always take into account when I plan lessons, also for large groups.

  4. Hi, Marjorie.

    I absolutely agree with what you say but I believe that personalization can reach much further than talking about your wishes, dreams, ambitions, favourite things, etc. I believe that even if you read an unexciting article about, say, space exploration, you automatically build a bridge between what the author wrote and your own perception of it. In fact, you can and you actually do personalize any text or piece of information, no matter how boring it seems at first sight. It’s just a question of details – as teachers we just need to find the overlap between what we want our students to focus on and what they like.

    Personally, I don’t mind using course books because I think almost everything can be personalized, even a seemingly boring grammar gap fill. As I see it, it’s the matter of the teacher’s experience and creativity. In my experience, the best lessons are the ones whose content is prepared in advance but personalized on the spot. It’s in the classroom where you can best decide what to add and what to avoid, depending on the actual mood and atmosphere.

    Thanks for sharing this. It gave me some food for thought.

    • Hana, thanks for sharing your ideas as well. This post was just the start for me to start articulating what many of us have been doing for so long. Each reply that comes in adds and supplements the post which I am personally delighted about. And even more important for me is that I learn new ideas and gain insights with each of the comments that are made. Thanks.

  5. Hi Marjorie, thanks for sharing your thoughts about personalization. I do believe it is extremely important in the classroom.
    I teach Business English, so I find it difficult to personalize context, especially felling myself too far from my students’ work and specialization. In this case I usually create worksheets myself and try to contribute to our working community.
    Thanks again!
    Your blog is wonderful!

    • Anna, I also teach a fair amount of Business English and we often relate the material to what the students do in their jobs which is also a type of personalisation. Very glad you enjoy the blog.
      Best wishes,

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