Adapting lessons to learners’ profile

Last month we looked at getting to know who your students are and the main purpose of having information about them is to focus on their needs when planning lessons, to adjust their expectations to the course goals.

If you work in schools or language institutes, courses you teach usually have a core syllabus that all teachers must respect to guarantee overall course outcomes and institutional quality and standards. That does not necessarily mean all lessons will be the same and all teachers will do exactly the same in the classroom. If that is your situation, this post is aimed at giving general ideas on how to use information about your learners to make lessons more meaningful to your groups.

  1. When your linguistic focus is grammar or vocabulary: depending on your group and the information you have collected about them, the source text you use or sample sentences for them to notice the use of the language may be specifically about your learners (e.g. Maria went to New York last December.). This may help learners relate to the lesson and language item more closely, not to mention your students will feel you have been listening to them. Because they have probably paid attention to what their peers have been saying, the context and meaning of the language may be clearer to learners than random sentences about people they don’t know. In this case you would be using information you learned about students to facilitate language learning.
  2. When you feel learners will not be interested in the topic of the lesson you are planning: the easiest way out would be to find a topic of their interest that will help you cover linguistic aims. However, this would also mean you would be preventing your learners from expanding their own horizons and range of contexts in which they may communicate and stretch their comfort zone. In this case, instead of finding different texts, other sources, consider how you will approach the materials and topics given in order to generate interest. Find information about your learners that connects to the lesson (e.g. films or series they enjoy that might tackle the same topic), start the lesson showing enthusiasm for the topic, text or activities (the teachers’ attitude has very heavy influence on learners’ reactions to texts) and accept that no text, context, topic or task will interest 100% of your learners. Variety is the key.
  3. When you feel the reading/ listening passage will be too challenging to your learners: consider what exactly will be hard for students. If it is too long and they are used to shorter texts (e.g. intermediate levels), you may want to start from their comfort zone and break the text down into shorter coherent passages (e.g. setting up a jigsaw reading/ listening activity). If the language is beyond their level, choose tasks they can cope with and take advantage of exposing them to longer and more complex texts. The same idea applies to listening passages where accents seem hard to understand. If the topic is known and interesting to your learners, brainstorm ideas about that to help them anticipate language and content and better prepare for the text.
  4. When you want to vary patterns of interaction and grouping, but your students prefer to talk to the same person all the time or dislike moving around: remember that you sometimes teach more than the language and one of your goals as a teacher is to prepare learners for the real world. With your instructions add an advantage of performing the task they way you are proposing (e.g. ‘by talking to three different people in this activity you will be adding three different ideas to your initial list’). Also, you may want to start the lesson by stating not only the linguistic outcomes proposed, but one of the learning outcomes you based your choices of approaches to tasks on (e.g. helping them socialise, expose learners to multiple accents).
  5. When you know learners enjoy using their phones: embrace this habit and make it part of the lesson routine. You may choose to encourage the use of mobile phones for research in class, for learners to send messages to each other in a writing lesson, for learners to collaborate when writing a text (e.g. with Google docs), for sharing and discussing photographs (e.g. guessing where they were taken, describing trips), for recording audio and video individually or as a group, for sharing favourite songs…

In all the scenarios above, it is important to remember that you are in control. You will be using information about learners to ease their way into the lesson, to make lessons more relevant and to clarify language. But you will also use it to stretch their own knowledge and enhance their skills towards achieving  broader goals and encouraging learners to reach higher. As a teacher, your focus is not on pleasing learners for the sake of making them enjoy lessons, but on making the lessons interesting and engaging to provoke and inspire them to go beyond their comfort zones and experiment, stretch and learn. And at the same time, all the work behind planning the lessons, questioning your own ideas and justifying choices may trigger your own development as a teacher and help you build teaching repertoire.

What other situations have you faced with your groups?

See you next month!




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Marcela Cintra

Marcela Cintra is the Head of Products in the Academic Department at Cultura Inglesa São Paulo. She has been working with English language teaching for over 20 years, been involved in teacher training and development programmes and presented in ABCI, LABCI, BRAZ-TESOL, TESOL and IATEFL conferences. A CELTA, ICELT and Delta tutor, she has an MA in TESOL. She is the current first-vice president for BRAZ-TESOL.

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