This article looks at personalization of speaking activities and how, by getting students to personalize things, it helps them learn more effectively.
When students speak they need a reason to do so. Simply saying that this is a speaking activity is not enough. One of the things we must think about is why we speak in ‘real life’, i.e. outside the classroom. There are usually two reasons: either we need to find out something (we need some information) or we are giving information.
When we use a coursebook in the classroom the questions are often about the characters in the book. The information students need to exchange is invented or students take on a role. Although this type of activity has value, students will often learn more if the activities are personalized – talking about their own lives, opinions and feelings.
What do we mean by 'personalization'?
By 'personalization' we don’t simply mean talking about what students like or want to talk about, although that is certainly one form of personalization. What we mean by personalization is taking any topic that you might have as the theme of your class or find in the coursebook you are using, and getting students to look at it from a personal viewpoint. This can take a number of different forms – from making statements true for you or discussing questions with ‘you’ as the subject, to telling a personal story or anecdote connected to the topic. At the end of this article you can find a few examples.
Why should we personalize activities?
There are a number of key reasons for personalizing activities. Firstly, they become more relevant and meaningful to students as they can see exactly how they relate to them. This is particularly true for grammar, speaking, writing and vocabulary activities. Students actually talk about things that matter to them and are not simply playing roles or exchanging invented information. Secondly, because they are more relevant they become more memorable as well.
Can we personalize all activities?
No, but in many cases we can. Look at any activity in a coursebook and ask yourself if your students have experienced something connected to the topic. For example, if students are asked to write a letter complaining about something that they bought and was faulty, why do they need to use completely fictitious information? It is quite likely that at sometime in their life they have bought something that they wanted to complain about later. Therefore, a series of questions that help collect all the information that is required to write the letter, plus a model letter, will be more beneficial. (What did you buy? When? Where from? What was wrong with it? etc).
Or maybe students have to listen to someone talking about their dream job. After the listening, focus on the things the person talked about i.e. what the job is, what skills it requires, what it involves, how much people are usually paid for doing it, why they think it’s a dream job, etc. Then turn these into questions i.e. What’s your dream job? What skills do you need to do it? What do you actually have to do? etc. and get students to answer the questions for themselves.
Are there any disadvantages to personalization?
Yes, sometimes. Some topics are better avoided either completely or dealt with in a very abstract way. For example, where you know that a particular topic might cause arguments or upset someone. Generally the topics in a coursebook are fairly safe for personalization, but it is certainly worth thinking about the students in your group and if you know something might be upsetting, then don’t personalize it. An example might be the topic of family where you know that a student in your class has recently had a problem in their family, i.e. a death, a divorce, an accident, etc. It’s also important to remember that some students like the anonymity of taking on roles of other people, which is one reason role plays often work so well.
How can I set up a personalization activity?
It’s important that you give students time to prepare for personalization speaking tasks. If you allow students sufficient time to prepare, then not only is the activity more likely to be successful, but students are also more likely to try to use language they have recently been taught as well as hesitate less and make fewer mistakes. Just think how difficult it is to be asked to speak about something in your own language without being given any warning. The easiest way to prepare students is to give them some time on their own to make notes and collect their thoughts and then put them in pairs, or small groups, and get them to talk to each other. Finally, if you want students to talk to everyone in the class they might be ready after completing the previous stages. It is also useful to provide a model. This can either be a recording or you, the teacher. In fact, it can be highly motivating and create a great class dynamic if you are willing to share information about yourself in this way with the students.
What should I do afterwards?
It’s important to respond to students when they are doing a personalization activity. Often, they are investing a lot of themselves in such an activity and they deserve this to be acknowledged. When students are working in pairs or small groups, encourage the other students to pay attention (although, in my experience, they are more likely to do this when they the information is real and personal and not made-up). If you can get students to report back to the rest of the class on what was discussed, this is also a good way of sharing information and getting feedback. The most important thing is that any feedback or comments you give are constructive.
Some practical ideas
Personalization activities can be very simple and can be used for fairly low-level students, not just intermediate and above. Here is an example using adverbs of frequency at elementary level:
Listen to Sally talking about her typical week. Are these sentences true or false?
1. She eats in a restaurant every week.
2. She never walks to school.
3. She always does her homework.
4. She goes swimming every Friday.
Complete these sentences so they are true for you
1. I eat in a restaurant ______________
2. I _______ walk to school
3. I _______ do my homework
4. I go _________ every ________
Talk to you partner. Find out what their sentences are.
It’s often fun and easy to personalize a particular grammar point and thus make it far more memorable. Here’s an example for used to:
- In the first lesson bring in a few old photos of yourself. If you can find ones which clearly show you looking differently, or doing things i.e. playing the piano, swimming etc. then this helps.
- Show the students the photos, but don’t tell them they are of you. Ask them to say what they can see (describe the photos). Then, ask them who they think the person is in the photo – they should be able to guess it’s you simply because you’ve asked the question – if not, tell them.
- Now ask them to tell you the differences they can see between you and the photos, i.e. You had long hair. You wore short trousers. You played on the beach.
- Introduce the idea of used to i.e. Now you have short hair, but you used to have long hair. Now you wear make-up, but you didn’t use to. etc.
- Ask students to bring in photos of themselves for the next lesson. Collect them in at the start, mix them up and display them round the wall.
- Get students to walk around and look at the photos and think of one or two questions that will help them find out / guess who is in each picture i.e. Did you use to wear glasses? Did you use to play with dolls? Did you use to ride a bike?
- Students can then take turns asking other students questions to try and find out who is in each picture. Note: in large classes, do the activity in groups of about eight.
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Speaking matters: Personalization