In almost every unit of almost every ESL textbook, there is a part where students use the grammar or vocabulary to describe themselves or their experiences. Even without a textbook, teachers quite properly, try to elicit personal statements from their students. Usually, this is a good idea.
On his blog, “An A-Z of ELT, Thornbury discusses where these discussions could take you:
In his novel, The Folding Star, Alan Hollinghurst (1994) recounts how the protagonist, a young Englishman recently arrived in a Belgian town, sets himself up as a private English tutor. One of his pupils suffers from asthma, and our hero idly asks him if he knows how he got it.
“I didn’t quite make the story out at first, I was chivvying him and making him repeat words without knowing I was taking him back, like some kinder and wiser analyst, to the scene of a childhood tragedy” (p. 20)
Most of the most personal things I have learned from my students have come from Exam questions and particularly from speaking exams. At least this is more private for the student.
However it works out, it is often information I don’t really want to know.
“Surprises [no, my students don't really call me that], my girlfriend and I learned everything about each other’s body that it is possible to know.”
“My boyfriend and I have an intimate relationship.”
“I play Maple Story after school.”
“One goal is to make fantastic love.”
“I like Super Junior.”
Granted, some of these points are not as titillating as others, but none of them do I want to know – and some I disapprove of – fandom of Super Junior, especially!
Back to Thornbury:
When I first encountered personalization it was of the type: “Write 5 or more true sentences about yourself, friends or relations, using the word ago“.
This is taken verbatim from Kernel Lessons (O’Neill et al. 1971), one of the first coursebooks I taught from. The fact that the sentences had to be ‘true’ was regularly ignored or overlooked by both teacher and students. The point was not to be ‘truthful’ but creative. Creative and accurate.
This little personalization task invariably came at the tail end of a sequence of activities whose rationale was the learning and practice of a pre-selected item of grammar. The personalization was really just a pretext for a little bit of creative practice, as well as serving as a first, tentative step towards translating the language of the classroom into the language of ‘real life’.
It’s hard to explain to a student that the truth is not required, only that English production is. And even when that may be understood, sometimes the english is a little off, so you need to ask questions to clear up the meaning of words and phrases. Now, I am requiring the student to continue and complicate their possibly made up story. Is this english or interrogation class?
Thornbury makes only a limited conclusion and finishes with a question:
…Arguably, by foregrounding ‘what really matters to a person’, personalization both motivates and scaffolds these adaptive processes.
So, how do we accommodate the need for personalization into our classes? And – more importantly – how do we deal with learner resistance to it?
Perhaps we need to encourage and explain the option of creating a story. Instead of, “What does your home look like?”, we should ask the student to “Describe a home that you would like to live in.” or ask students in the dorms -which we already have some knowledge of – to describe them.