Personalization: Tiny steps at the shallow end or diving in at the deep end

The previous post in this series looked at how personalization in the classroom helps to build rapport, add authenticity and make classroom activities more motivating. It’s an aspect of teaching that is normally seen as beneficial and desirable. However, integrating personalization into your teaching is not without ‘risk’, according to Scott Thornbury. He says that when we ask individual students to talk about their own ‘knowledge, experience and feelings…teachers need to be sensitive to learner resistance.’ (1)

In order to understand where such resistance might come from and how to handle it sensitively, it’s useful to begin by contrasting two sides of personalization: what we could call ‘shallow personalization’ and ‘deeper personalization’. (2)

Shallow personalization

Classroom activities which could be categorized as ‘shallow personalization’ are those where the primary aim is to practise the target language that has been taught. Perhaps one of the most obvious examples of a language structure which lends itself to this treatment is when we introduce the phrase, ‘Have you ever…’ with its use of the present perfect + ever for describing past experiences. Once the teacher has presented the structure, it makes sense to ask students questions such as ‘Have you ever been to Paris?’ or have students ask each other the question inserting the names of different cities. After all, the responding student can answer with an honest and personal ‘Yes, I have.’ or ‘No, I haven’t.’

The problem is what we do once the student has answered the question. In an article by David Dodgson (3), he questions the value of the ‘Have you ever…’ type task if we never go deeper. In other words, if the teacher’s primary interest is whether a student has learnt to say the target structure correctly, then whether the student has truthfully ever been to Paris or not is largely irrelevant. Going deeper would mean not only checking and praising correct use of the target language but also responding to what the student actually says; for example, perhaps a more personalized teacher-student interaction might develop along the lines of this:

Teacher: Have you ever been to Paris?

Student: Yes, I have.

Teacher: Oh really? When did you go?

Student: It was last year…

Deeper personalization

So ‘deeper personalization’ in the classroom takes us further into the lives of our students and English is used more authentically. However, there is also an inherent danger in making your lessons too personal. For example, if we continued the above conversation about Paris it might become too intrusive:

Teacher: Have you ever been to Paris?

Student: Yes, I have.

Teacher: Oh really? When did you go?

Student: It was last year.

Teacher: Who did you go with?

Student: A friend.

Teacher: What did you do?

Student: Err…

This (fictional) example resembles an interrogation rather than a personal chat about holidays. It has the potential to make a student feel uncomfortable and even lose face in front of the whole class. So how do we strike the right balance between personalization that is both aiding language learning and also encouraging genuine responses? Here are a few suggestions:

Start slowly

Keep personalization ‘shallow’ early on in the course. Use it practise new language and ask the obvious questions like, ‘How are you? How was you weekend?’ but don’t pry too far.  After a few weeks, you’ll start to get to know the class as a group of individuals and develop a sense of what they are willing to talk more deeply about.

Respond genuinely

When a student shares a real piece of information about their lives, respond in an equally genuine way; show interest in the response itself, not just in the correctness of the language used.

Talk about yourself

It’s only fair that you talk about something personal first (e.g. something that happened to you at the weekend) before you expect students to; besides, this provides students with a model and the confidence to share experiences.

Thinking time

Personalization works well when you add ‘thinking time’. To show what I mean, here’s a personalization activity (4) in which students have already learned the vocabulary to describe different stages in life:

Work in pairs. Look at the five phrases and answer questions 1-5.

– Buy your own clothes   – Learn to drive   – Get your first job – Start a family   – Go to school

1 What order do these things normally happen in life?

2 Which things have you done?

3 What age were you when you did them?

4 How did you feel at the time?

5 When do you plan to do the other ones?

Although the exercise asks students to work in pairs, I might ask students to work alone on and think about their answers first. Partly so they have time to consider the language, but also because the task asks them to draw on their own knowledge and experience. In fact, if I didn’t think students would want to share their answers with others, then the exercise is still valid if the student works alone.

Use the course book as a springboard into personalization

Finally, if you are using a course book like National Geographic Learning’s Life, which includes content-rich information about real people, you can turn this into an opportunity for personalization. Students can learn about the personal lives of others through readings, listenings and video before relating the topic to their own lives.


(1) Thornbury, S. (2017) The New A-Z of ELT Macmillan

(2) I’ve adapted the terms shallow and deep to refer to personalization from comments in response to the article at


(4) Hughes, Dummett & Stephenson (2018) Life Pre-Intermediate Second Edition National Geographic Learning

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.

If you enjoyed this content, be sure to tune in for John Hughes’ November 21st webinar on Personalization in an Impersonal World. Subscribe to NGL webinars for notification details NGL.Cengage/webinars.

Author: John Hughes

John Hughes is a teacher, teacher trainer and course book author. He currently combines a variety of 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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