Personalization in the ELT Classroom

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Why do we assume personalization is good for language learning?

The idea of ‘personalizing’ language learning naturally has positive connotations; after all, an ‘impersonal classroom’ doesn’t sound like a very pleasant place to be! But in what ways does personalization actually enhance learning? Primarily, personalization in the classroom can lead to:

  • Greater rapport between teacher and student and between the students by sharing information about themselves with each other
  • More authentic use of new language and greater emotional effort in learning which aids memorization
  • Classroom activities which are more motivational because of their personal relevance to the students.

This post is the first in a series in which I’ll be exploring personalization in more depth and looking at practical ways to achieve the benefits listed above. So, let’s start by considering how personalization can have an impact on the classroom from day one of a course.


From the very first moment a teacher meets the students, he or she needs to build rapport with the them and make sure the students have a positive rapport with each other. This assumption is based on the idea that a friendly classroom with a positive atmosphere is going to be beneficial to learning. Teachers build rapport in different ways; smiling, being enthusiastic and greeting students is a useful start. But more than anything, a teacher needs to use personalization to build rapport. Get to know your students at a personal level by asking them about their weekend or finding out about their free time. Try to incorporate some of their personal interests into your choice of topics for the course.

Starting your lesson

When starting a lesson, it’s usual to have a lead-in activity which helps students to think about the topic of the lesson. One way is to lead into the lesson with questions that relate to the students on a personal level. For example, imagine the topic of the lesson is on ‘Language’ and you are considering which of these six questions to ask students to discuss at the beginning. Which three questions out of these six do you think would be most appropriate?

1 “How many languages do you speak?”

2 “Why are some language spoken more than others?”

3 “Which languages are spoken in your country?”

4 “Why are some language disappearing? How can languages be saved?”

5 “Which is your favourite word in English? Why”

6 “Is it a good thing to have a one global language.”

I suspect you probably chose questions 1, 3 and 5 to ask at the beginning of the lesson because they are the personal question which students can answer about themselves without needing any outside world knowledge. Questions 2, 4 and 6 on the other hand are the types of questions which require some external knowledge or information you might find in a reading or listening text. So, as a general rule, a lead-in works more effectively when it draws on the student’s own personal knowledge or experience.

Personalizing the language practice

Another stage in many lessons is to present a new language point and then ask students to practise it – perhaps with a gapfill exercise. Controlled practice exercises like these are useful and necessary to check student’s understanding of the new language but they can often seem unrelated to the students’ own life. If possible, try to use an exercise which involves the student at a personal level. In this extract from the new Life Elementary Second Edition, exercise 1 introduces food vocabulary. Then, exercise 2, instead of asking students to use the words in an impersonal content, asks the students to respond personally to the new vocabulary by stating their preferences and tastes.


Even if the exercise in your course book uses ‘impersonal’ controlled practice, it’s easy enough to add in your own personalization of the new language. For example, if I had just introduced a lexical set to describe different film genre (e.g. horror, romantic comedy, sci-fi etc) it makes sense for students to say what their favourite type of film is and why. And if I teach them adjectives to describe films (e.g. funny, sad, scary etc) I could ask students to write five sentences about different films they have seen recently, using the new vocabulary.

In this first blog post, I’ve tried to show how personalization can create a positive learning environment for the learners and teacher. Secondly, we’ve seen that starting a class at a personal level is also a useful way into any topic and makes it feel accessible. Thirdly, I think we should always try to personalize any new language to make it relevant to the learner. In my next blog post I’ll go into more detail and contrast how we strike the right balance between ‘shallow’ personalization and ‘deep’ personalization.

John Hughes is one of the authors of the course series Life and he has also written other titles for National Geographic Learning including Success with BEC Vantage, Practical Grammar and Spotlight on First.

Author: John Hughes

John Hughes is a teacher, teacher trainer and course book author. He currently combines a variety roles including part-time teaching, running online training courses, and lecturing on ELT methodology at Oxford University. He is an author of many National Geographic Learning titles including Life, a six-level general English course, Spotlight on First, Practical Grammar, Total Business, Success with BEC Vantage, and Aspire. He lives near Oxford, United Kingdom.


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