Applying personalized learning: Every learner is unique!!!

Applying personalized learning: Every learner is unique!!!

Some practical activities towards personalizing learning

Learning is a complex process that we have been trying to unravel for at least 4.000 years.
There are a lot of uncertainties and many scientific discoveries every now and then  overturn long established beliefs. One of the few certainties though, is that we learn in many different ways and no student is identical. Luckily,  for the school I work at,  Doukas, every student is regarded as a unique personality and technology is used to accommodate personalized learning to the learner's benefit.

Contrary to the  sought after uniformity in my school years , as a teacher I gradually discovered that every student is a different personality with different strengths, weaknesses and interests. I have always believed  that personalized learning is placing  the learner at the very  center of the learning process and catering for their needs is the top priority.  Let me clarify that I am not talking about pampering but about empowering learners.

Motivation makes the world go round!
Very often students see no relation between what they are taught with their daily life and interests. Boring meaningless drills and gap fill exercises that are obsessed with accuracy usually cram the syllabus. It is no wonder that learners  often display lack of motivation.

Taking into consideration their schematic knowledge (knowledge of the world), their interests and their daily life when designing the syllabus and adapting activities and projects can make a huge difference in your teaching. Communication in order to convey a message about your daily life and interests or express your opinion on a topic that concerns you is meaningful. It  is highly likely to activate the learner's  communication strategies and stimulate motivation for further study to accomplish the task. All ice breaking activities I know of and oral examinations at all levels urge candidates to talk about topics related to their experiences. It is definitely easier to start talking about something relevant to you rather than start talking about the effects of globalization the minute you meet someone. On that note,  you can find below some practical activities:

1. Create your own  scrapbook
With very young learners, resort to the standard " learning technology". Ask them to create their own scrapbook where they can write about themselves and their friends. Below you can find a sample written by my students last year (3rd graders)

Alexandra is my best friend. She and I went to the park today.

2. My story (any level from A1-C2)
Ask students to narrate a story to the class. Before narrating the story, they have to write on a piece of paper if their story is true or fake. Their audience will have to guess if their story is true or not.

Technology at the students' service
Blogs, web 2.0 tools, educational software and Learning Management Systems (LMS)  provide opportunities to learners to express their views, create their own projects expressed
From the blog created by 6th graders.
Special thanks to their teacher, Nancy Tassiopoulou.
or supplemented  with drawings or cartoons and learner made videos with strong visual and audio elements. All these are done in a safe environment that gives the learners the opportunity to develop 21st  skills such as communication combined with academic skills in a context that is learner  friendly and is part of their every day life.

My budgie, Mitsos is very sociable! :)
3.  My ... (A1-C2 CEFR levels)

Ask learners to take photos of people, pets , places and objects that have a special meaning to them and ask them to share with the person sitting next to them or their group why this is important. Learners are far more likely to learn and use adjectives describing physical appearance, personality and properties for a familiar figure rather than care for a photo of a celebrity.

4. "What if....?" (A2-C2 CEFR levels)
What if you became a prime minister for a week? What if you became the school principal ? What would you do?
Environmental, educational and social issues are not obscure or left to the "professional saviours" when you challenge your students to express their stance and the course of action they would take to deal with any of the every day issues they experience one way or another.

Building confidence
Inviting learners to present their favourite areas like computer games/technology or pets and allowing them to be at the "helm" of the class while sharing their knowledge can boost their confidence and inspire them to see English as a medium of communication rather than a chore that has to be done in order to please "mom and dad"!
A few last thoughts
This is only one aspect of personalization in education. Flipped classroom, Learning Management Systems and learner autonomy can boost learning to the maximum by allowing the learner to gain thorough knowledge in areas they are interested in. But it would not be fair to devote only a few lines to such an interesting approach so I promise to write soon a post on personalized learning and its potential.

Dimitris Primalis



Exams: What can go wrong during a writing skills exam?

Exams:  What can go wrong during a writing skills exam?

Special thanks to Eva Cota for her feedback on my workshop

The door has closed and your candidates are in the examination room, about to take the writing part of the exam. What can possibly go wrong there and how can you prevent it?

Based on a workshop I gave abroad last week, this post highlights some common mishaps and suggests some "proactive" remedies.

Even though statistics may vary from country to country, most teachers complain about their students low performance when it comes to producing written language i.e. essays, mails, reviews, narrative etc.

Sometimes candidates have worked very hard and some have even memorized (sic) chunks of language or even whole essays. Yet, they often fail to perform up to standard. Here are some reasons why:

The "we have done it in class" syndrome
 Students often read the first lines of the task and recognize a topic. However, every topic, for example the environment, usually has many aspects. The task can be

about recycling while your students may have written in your class about pollution. It may be partially relevant or sometimes completely irrelevant. Usually the chances of writing exactly the same task you had assigned them for homework are extremely slim! Unfortunately, some of the candidates will be tempted to 'copy-paste' the writing they did in class thinking that they have worked on  exactly the same task and they will get a high mark. Asking your students to underline the key words in the task usually helps them focus. Also raising awareness in class about the various aspects of most topics usually helps the learners analyze the task.

"Nowadays young people don't write. I remember when I was..."
We tend to think that young people, especially teenagers do not write as much as younger generations and they have no clue about writing whatsoever...
Yet, judging by my students, they spend most of their day texting on their mobile or in front of a computer monitor chatting -in writing- with their friends who often happen to live abroad. Therefore, when we go into the classroom to "teach" them how to write, they often resent the idea and simply switch off.  Could your average student write the mail below? Does it convey successfully a message to the intended reader?

The answer is that it does convey a message. The right question though is "who is going to read it?"  If the task your student has, is to send an email to a friend coming from abroad, obviously it is successful. If the task though is the following, how successful will your candidate be at the exams?

"You work for a multinational company. Mr Jack Brown, the regional manager based in London, is visiting your country for the first time. Write an email to let him know that you are meeting him at the airport"

The key is to raise students' awareness and help them select the appropriate register for the task. Asking the students the  following three questions before beginning to write, usually helps them have a clear idea of the "role" they have been assigned in the task and who their target reader is.

Below there are the problems mentioned earlier and a few more. Before elaborating on them,  here is a matching task for you with problems and remedies. Some remedies maybe helpful with more than one problems.

The inspiration muse
Undoubtedly, some gifted writers can produce masterpieces writing locked in their bedroom when inspiration "visits" them. But when it comes to exams and the pressure students feel, it is not wise to bet only on inspiration. On the day of the exam - and even before that- many students can not sequence their thought which often leads to completely disorganized pieces of writing that often do not make sense. Asking students to produce a rough outline with the main facts or their arguments helps them put their thoughts in order and convey their message clearly. I often ask them to draw a "bubble" for each paragraph and jot a few key words. It is not as time consuming as we tend to think and on the exam day, they can follow the process mentally before beginning to write.

Another technique I have found useful and good fun is to print a paragraph or an essay, then cut it into pieces (sentences or paragraphs depending on my aim). Then, I ask students to put the jumbled sentences or paragraphs in the right order.

"My essay has no mistakes, sir!!! Why won't it get a pass at the exams?"
It takes several years of training and experience for teachers to distinguish the different levels and grade our students fairly. It is unfair to expect our students know what criteria they have to meet.  Apart from/ Instead of (depending on your personal policy) giving your students a grade, give them a list with simplified criteria based on the assessment criteria of the examination. For example:

  • Clear message
  • The reader's reaction (right register)
  • Clear paragraphs
  • Linking words
  • Vocabulary
  • Grammar

Most publishers provide models in the teacher's book. Swap roles with the students and ask them to assess them - as if they were teachers -based on the criteria you have given them. In this way, they will perceive what the examiners will assess them on and what the desirable level is.

" I need to take the exam.... yesterday! Of course, I am ready"
Writing takes time and practice. If I was asked to write an essay in Greek - my mother tongue - in 30 mins, I have serious doubts whether I would succeed. Not because my level of Greek is not good but because I have not written an essay in Greek for more than 20 years and it would certainly take me more than half an hour to write it. A placement test or a mock exam at the beginning of the course usually makes learners realize they need to work consistently to achieve their aim.

Building a culture of writing from day 1 of the course, will definitely help your candidates succeed when the "big day" comes.
Good luck to your candidates!!! 
Dimitris Primalis