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…)


Filed under Uncategorized

29 responses to “A Matter of Confidence: Personalising

  1. Pingback: A Matter of Confidence: Personalising | Tech happens! | Scoop.it

  2. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this and your previous post – didn’t you promise that the subsequent posts would be shorter? 🙂 joking!

    If we go along with your analogy between language learning and earworms I think we subconsciously sing along to these in the shower or while washing-up not through personal attachment to them but rather due to hearing so many times. I think we don’t even have to like these songs from the outset but they sort of grow on us when we hear them playing on the radio or in supermarkets. Their tunes stick with us and become hard to shake off because they have been “drilled” into our heads. Then there is clearly a case for drilling in class.

    Now certainly there are songs which we associate with a certain period in our lives and hearing which conjures up memories of a particular event (by the way love those radio shows where they ask you to guess the year). But not every song that has been “drilled” will necessarily become personal(ised). So aren’t these two different things?

    P.S. And yes Nick Kamen’s “I promised myself” is from 1990 🙂

    • I agree that repetition is important, which is why I added it to the two factors mentioned in the original BBC article and why two posts from now there’ll be one on exactly that, but there is more to it than just repetition. There are many many songs that we hear over and over but that don’t become earworms, just as there are lexical chunks that students come across again and again but don’t necessarily pick up (consider, for example, the verb ‘match’ in coursebooks…. it’s recognised, but doesn’t usually make the jump into active language knowledge). What I’m saying is that learning something is the result of a combination of these factors (plus a focus on meaning), and that in order for learning to take place, students need to feel confident about their learning, so they need to feel they ARE learning – and for that to happen, for the language to become memorable not just fluff in the wind – we would do well to take these factors (personalising, emotional response, repetition and ‘complete learning’ or ‘whole learning’) into account when thinking about our classroom practices.
      More posts coming soon…….. 😉 and thanks for the comment.

  3. Oh, as a teacher of special-ed teens I so agree! I often use describing/answering/ relating to a dream job, home, fictious volunteer work, holiday, problem you overcome (that appears when studying the Lit program). It makes these students who so often have serious self image issues feel much better. Sometimes they DO relate to their real issue but there was no pressure to do so. They feel relieved by the fantasy option and my goal is the language in any case so why tread on their sore spots? And sore spots are SO sore at this age!
    Thank you for another great post!

    • Hi Naomi.
      You’ve hit the nail on the head by mentioning options and choice. You can’t ask people to talk about things they don’t want to just because some nameless ‘expert’ says ‘they want to talk about themselves, believe me, I know better than them’. We teachers should be responsible for the language they use, in terms of access to input, and the quality of language they use, in terms of supporting and encouraging accuracy, as well as for providing the opportunities for self-expression, fluency – but what they want to use all that for should be up to them. I also think so many teens believe that they have no imagination that helping them see that they do, and that they can be creative is no bad thing. It boosts their… confidence 🙂
      Thanks for another great comment,

  4. Hi Fiona – .Your post reminds of a lesson I once heard a teacher talk about at a conference. Basically the talk was about making literature relevant to the lives of teenagers. This lesson was in a high school context with ESL learners in the USA. Many of the learners had come from difficult backgrounds,perhaps having just migrated to the States and then the whole thing of learning English, making friends, finding your future and so on. Anyway to cut a long story short the teacher did something wonderful. On the syllabus was Homer’s Odyssey, an epic tale of adventure and overcoming difficulty. So what she did was to get the students to relate their own lives to the story and consider the difficulties they had overcome in their lives and the challenges they faced coming to and living in the USA, and moreover their dreams for the future. The beauty in this lesson was in the practice – the students created their own photo-essays (using personal pictures, pics off google). They used Microsoft photostory to put it all together and then voiced over the narratives. Like you the teacher let her learners be creative.

    Thanks for the inspiration
    Best wishes

    • Dear Richard,
      I love that idea! I wonder if there’s a graded reader version of the Odyssey… or any great ‘road’ story. Might be worth drawing up a list of stories that might work in a similar way…. food for thought.
      Hats off to that teacher, meantime. And thank you for telling me about her idea.


  5. yes there are some on amazon, like your idea of a list of ‘road stories’ – will set about that one and write a post in the near future.

  6. Tee hee, happy memories, great prezo.

    Great post, too. Will be re-reading this a lot, I think.

    • Hi Alan,
      Thanks for that – hopefully I’ll get time to write the next three bits, so you don’t have to read the same thing again and again 😉
      It was fun to meet you in Bilbao – glad you enjoyed the presentation; I certainly enjoyed your contributions to it!


  7. Pingback: How has blogging changed your life? « ELTbites

  8. Pingback: How has blogging changed your life? | Babble

  9. Great post Fiona!
    I’ve often experienced “awkward moments” when trying to personalise and I do think we seriously need to observe teens and see what they talk about before making assumptions about what might interest them. Loved the ideas you shared!

    • I understand that personalization may be about things Ss may have never experienced in their lifetime. However, personalising has to do with more genuine experiences.

      • Hi Dina, hello Shahram,

        Yes, personalisation is the part of the coursebook lesson or class plan that asks students to use the language they’re working with to talk about some aspect of their personal life. The problem being that coursebooks and teachers frequently assume that all students have, and are happy to talk about, two parents, siblings, a favourite teacher, a house, a bedroom, a last holiday etc etc and that they want to share. The thing with teens is that they often don’t have all those things, or don’t want to talk about them for fear of ‘exposing’ themselves. They can have issues regarding any one of those aspects, and not want to even think about it, let alone share. I don’t think this ‘personalisation’ is as effective (or affective) as personalising, which I use to mean ‘forming our own personal associations with the language, using it to talk about the part of our personal world that we do want to share’, which is often dreams, fantasies, hopes for the future etc. So personalising is letting the students choose what they share, which makes it even more personal and learner-centred, rather than this more invasive ‘personalisation’.
        I think I’ll add a ‘postscript’ post above… an example has just crossed my mind. Thanks for that!

  10. Pingback: A Matter of Confidence: a brief example of ‘personalising’. | macappella

  11. Thanks for you good comments, Fiona.
    All the best,

  12. Wanisa Ali

    It is very useful to be read.

  13. Pingback: The 31st ESL Blog Carnival | One Year

  14. Thanks for triggering a fantastic discussion! We as Ts always think about making things personal and relevant to ss, but it’s important as you say to think about whether or not it’d be wise to bring up so many private details in class. This distinction you have made between personalisation and personalising is intriguing, and I wholeheartedly agree. As long as the ss are making a connection somehow with the language or topic explored, then they will feel confident to express their ideas and not be made to feel like they have to meet up to standards or be subjected to comparisons with their peers.

    Look forward to more posts in the series! Thanks again for bringing this up!

  15. Pingback: A Matter of Confidence: The quest continues… | macappella

  16. Pingback: The 31st ESL Blog Carnival | Teach them English

  17. Pingback: A bouquet of favourite blog posts | elt-resourceful

  18. Pingback: A Matter of Confidence: The quest continues… by Fiona Mauchline « Tesol Greece Blog

  19. Pingback: A Matter of Confidence: Personalising by Fiona Mauchline « Tesol Greece Blog

  20. Pingback: A Matter of Confidence: Repetition | macappella

  21. Pingback: Motivating teens: as easy as finding a snowflake that won’t melt. | macappella

  22. Pingback: April 3-2-1

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s