Monthly Archives: April 2012

A Matter of Confidence: Personalising


Personalising. I’m avoiding the word ‘personalisation’ as, for me at least, it has connotations of activities of the “Now tell your partner about your last holiday / Describe your house / Write five sentences about your brother‘ type and that is not what I think personalising language input for learning means – at least not for teens. Let me explain (sudden memory of Basil Fawlty sticking his finger in Manuel’s eye…).

Describe your house....... Image by Sandy Millin at eltpics

In the intro post above (or rather ‘below’, this being a blog), I gave the example of the ‘Ay se eu te pego’ (or earworms in general) effect and how many non-Portuguese speaking people have picked up this dotty ditty. Part of the reason, and initially the most obvious one, is that it’s everywhere, it’s part of life in early 2012. You hear it in the supermarket, on TV, on the car radio, people spontaneously start singing it (in my role as basketball mom, I was hugely relieved to be supporting a team whose mothers were not joyfully shrieking it at their sporting offspring last weekend..). Because it’s unavoidable, it has relevance in your (one’s) life. Later on down the line, many of us will be able to recall the year in which it came out, as it will have coincided with some event or stage in our life, it will become embedded in our mental soundtrack and serve as a labeller. I heard the song ‘I promised myself’ (Nick Kamen) on the radio this morning. I was instantly transported back to a particular place and time, so, without Googling it, I’d say 1990 or 1991. I’m fairly sure I know most of the words too, but have never attempted to learn them and would rather not express an opinion on that particular number. We memorise things simply by ‘attaching’ them to our life. This can happen accidentally, as with these songs, but it can also be ‘helped’. Of course, if information or language has a direct use or relevance in our life (eg Spanish basketball terminology in mine), we also learn it. And to me, this is the meaning of ‘personalising’: finding a place, a relevance, a context in our lives for language; a place, relevance or context that we have chosen. We form our associations following the twists and turns of our life-route – Michel Telo at a basketball match in Plasencia, Nick Kamen with a group of friends in a bar in Granada – voluntarily and personally. We also decide what’s relevant, what we need in order to express our lives (flowering plants, car parts, first aid techniques…), and what isn’t. In an ESL context, this aspect is marginally easier, but most teenage English language learners in the world are in an EFL classroom, where relevance is in shorter supply.

Never to burst. Image by Sandy Millin at eltpics

In the teen classroom, this type of personalising is wildly different from what passes for ‘personalisation‘. “What do teens talk about? They talk about themselves” has long been the justification for a lot of what goes on in the EFL classroom, but to what extent is it true? Listen to teenagers talking to each other. Or slip back in time in your own recalled life to when you were 13, 14, 15. On the whole, teens talk about what they want (‘need’), what they’re going to do, school, sports, what they feel confident about or proud of. They function as a tribe (apart from a few exceptions, obviously), they’re competitive in terrain where they feel they can compete and they talk about each other. Want. Like. Need. Going to. Last weekend. He was pathetic. It was awesome. You nerd! She’s a … Hopes, dreams, whims, aims, feelings for each other, rivalries. The world as one big oyster, an ironclad bubble that will never be burst. But what they are willing to talk about is only the flip side of what they are not willing to talk about, a smoke screen for the poppable part of that bubble. When would a teenager describe his/her house to friends? They may describe a new house – if it’s ‘amazing’, to the whole tribe; if it’s a dive compared to the previous one, to parents (criticism) or intimate friends (confidential complaint) – but do they ever sit around, describing where they’ve always lived? Do they even think about it? Is it even a place they want to think about? Is home-life all sweetness and light when you’re 14? And what about ‘Tell your partner about your brother/sister’? “I hate him; he steals my socks, reads my text messages and leaves old food in our room.” Then there’s Complete the sentence so it’s true for you: At the moment, my father is…. missing / in prison / with his other family‘. My own sons hate talking about aunts, uncles, grandparents, cousins…. as they’re all so far away and most of them have never visited, don’t even send a birthday card, making my kids ‘really different from the tribe’.

This whole area is the area I call The Twilight Zone. Activities that require students to think about what they have – ‘Compare your mobile phone with a partner’, ‘Find out how much pocket money your partner gets and what he/she spends it on‘ are ‘personalisation’ exercises I’ve seen in coursebooks. Are these examples of personalising or are they invitations to consider how others may be better (or worse) off? Do they rub salt into carefully concealed wounds? Then there’s the Describe your last holiday / birthday party / weekend sort. Some of my students go on holiday with their parents to New York, Disneyland… they spend a month in Dublin learning English; others go to their grandmother’s house maybe 15km down the road. Rather than helping learning or boosting confidence which, in turn, then helps learning, these activities can crush self-esteem, cause stigmata to seep, start resentment brewing, breed envy, cause divide rather than create community. Students may close down rather than open up. So. Beware the Twilight Zone.

Confidence leads to learning, learning comes from experimenting with language, using it, observing reactions to using it, using it again, feeling it, attaching it to your own life, like a sticky, silky earworm. Confidence comes from doing all that effectively, but also from being in an environment which is personally unthreatening and is supportive. So students should be allowed to make their own connections between their life and new language. Confidence and experimenting intertwined.

Behold the Twilight Zone.... Image by Chiew Pang for eltpics

In a dogme lesson, this happens naturally, as the content leads to the language, but most classrooms are more traditional and work the other way round. The language drives the syllabus and is decided before the lesson let alone before the content. In this context, allowing students to be creative rather than making them feel they have to be honest and therefore vulnerable is important. Allow them to use language to tell or weave stories, to talk about dreams and about what they’re going to do/have etc. Rather than Describe your house, try What house are you going to have when you’re older? or Describe your dream house (in my experience going to for boys, dream house for girls, though not always). Instead of describing a sibling that bugs the heck out of them, ask them to choose a famous person they’d like to have as a sibling and then describe that person and explain why they’ve chosen them. Or get them to describe their own qualities as a good sibling and a less good sibling (whether they have brothers and sisters or not). They do like thinking about themselves, and focusing on ‘good and less good’, rather than ‘bad’, is an exercise in self-esteem support/generation. And besides, they are very much the centre of their own universe and, in their eyes, let’s face it, of their siblings’ universe too.

The guided visualisation activity in Place of Greater Safety (see link above) is ‘safe’ personalising – you are creating students’ own images to describe, feeding in the vocabulary they need for those images, and building the activity stage by stage. It doesn’t ask students to describe an experience they haven’t had or didn’t enjoy, or a place they haven’t visited or don’t like.

You can also personalise the language from, say, a story or other reading text before reading the story (text), as the typical Do you know what these words mean? (vocab box) Now find them in the story and check your answers thing doesn’t attach that language to anything relevant to the student, the student never connects with it, so unless the story is amazing, disgusting etc (‘Emotional Response’ is still to come… soon), those words will then quietly lose themselves, possibly forever. The story may be remembered, but the language…. unlikely. If, of course, that language then reappears in a test, as it may, wham-o, confidence will be thoroughly bashed as the teacher growls to him/herself ‘but we did this...’. Did you indeed? But to do is not to learn. It is our job to not only provide language input but to motivate and to build confidence and learning – so why do so few teachers do it? You can encourage language associations, personalising, cause language to engrave a pathway in memories in various ways. Here’s one, but there will be more in the final Question of Confidence post. If all goes well.

Make a word cloud using your story or text.

What's the story....?

As a class, invite students to guess what the story is about, and to suggest some ideas using the words from the cloud. They’ll inevitably ask you the meaning of unfamiliar words, so you’ll start building their comprehension and reduce puzzlement later on. You can then put them in smaller groups to come up with more ideas – then share them as a class. Write some of the ideas on the board, if you wish, then ask students to work individually to write down what THEY think happens in the story – they can confer with a partner. This way you are supporting their language practice, helping them attach their own contexts or meanings to the language, the activity is dynamic and productive, prior to a more passive, internal reading session, they work as a class, group, pair and individually, and when they come to actually reading the story, they’ll have fewer fuzzy areas, zero puzzlement is more achievable and they have more motivation to read than that offered by a selection of comprehension questions afterwards. It takes more time, obviously, but one reading well-done beats scratching the surface of three texts.

If you’d like to read the story that goes with the wordcloud above, click here. (And thanks to Alan Tait and others for making this activity a fun experience in Bilbao).

2 Emotional Response or ‘Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens’ (coming soon…)


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