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by Erica Fischer on Feb 10, 2012

Personalizing the World Language Classroom

We enjoyed a wonderful #langchat this past Thursday and discussed how the content of world language class can be personalized to motivate students and improve language acquisition. If you missed us, please be sure to check out the archive or catch the summary below.

Thanks to all of our participants for the night; we had a fantastic turnout and an incredibly fast-paced chat! Thanks especially to our moderators for the evening, Erica Fischer (@CalicoTeach) and Kristy Placido (@placido), but also to the rest of the #langchat team for showing up and participating: Sara-Elizabeth Cottrell (@SECottrell), Don Doehla (@dr_dmd) and Diego Ojeda (@DiegoOjeda66).

Before we get started, a fair warning: Thursday’s #langchat discussion was truly sensational, and much useful information was shared and offered. As a result, this summary is a bit long; we recommend you grab a coffee and settle in for a while as there are lots of interesting resources. If you’re looking for a particular resource from the night, try Ctrl+F to get started (or Command + F on a Mac).

If you have any thoughts on the evening’s discussion or the coverage below, please feel free to join us in the comments section. We’d love to hear from you!


What do we mean when we say “personalize the content”? In brief, @placido explains it as owning the content and relating it to our and the students’ lives. Students need to feel a connection to the material, and it’s our job as teachers to ensure this happens. When students feel connected to the material, they take ownership.

But it’s also important for us to have a connection. Not only does it improve our own motivation to have a stake in the content, but kids like to hear about their teachers’ lives.

A few quick examples, courtesy of @placido:

  • If reading a story in class, personalize the story by relating one of the characters to a student in the class and discussing their similarities.
  • When talking about startling situations (or any emotion!), ask students “What startles YOU? A spider? In the garden or in the bed?”

Personalization and differentiation

We’ve discussed differentiation on #langchat in the past, and the topic came up again on Thursday. Differentiation and personalization have a lot in common, although there are differences.

Differentiation involves adapting to students’ different learning styles (auditory, visual and kinesthetic) with different teaching methods. There is a bit of emphasis here on addressing the individual needs of the group.

Personalization involves engaging students with the content by bringing the content into their realms of interest. Whereas differentiation works in group settings, personalization involves individual students and appealing to those students’ interests.

A key difference is that the teacher differentiates (for students’ benefit), and students personalize their learning (@DiegoOjeda66).

Why Personalize Content

When students have a connection to the language, they take ownership of their learning (@dr_dmd). Taking ownership leads to students finding a reason to learn the new language (@DiegoOjeda66), and thus increases the numbers of students who go beyond “two years required.”

It’s our job as teachers to create a context in which students can come to the curriculum and internalize it, connect with it and use it (@dr_dmd).

Student participation and acquisition also increases with personalization (@sonrisadelcampo). The more students feel connected with the language, the more they are willing to share and use what they know.

How to Personalize Content

So you’re looking to increase personalization in your class? Great! Your #langchat colleagues had many wonderful suggestions on how to get started.

Get to know your students

First, get familiar. @NinaTanti1 says it helps to know personal things about students to use for question and answers, stories, etc. But it’s also important for students to know each other. @jklopp suggests that the more students know each other, the better personalization develops.

  • To do so, listen to your students and their stories. What subjects come up often? Making the effort to get to know them and care about them will increase their interest in you and your class (@TeriWiechart).
  • Try giving students a questionnaire at the beginning of the year to gauge their interests (@suarez712002). @DiegoOjeda66 gets students to share interests during the first week of class. @NinaTanti1 requires beginning-of-year introductions to include one bizarre fact about yourself — and of course she starts with herself!
  • @cadamsf1 uses morning visits with students and individual speaking assessments to get to know students.
  • @darcypippins has students make animotos with pictures of friends, family and pets to show to class and talk about as an introduction.
  • At the beginning of the year, @DiegoOjeda66 gives students an easy group assignment with the intention of eavesdropping on their conversations.
  • To increase students’ familiarity with each other, @placido frequently changes groups. @DiegoOjeda66 changes the seating chart every two weeks. The Fruit Machine from is useful here (@NinaTanti1).

Note: We discussed teacher-student boundaries on shared information, especially with younger teachers. Generally, the closer you are to the student’s age, the more things you might not want to share. Still, feel free to share the zanier elements of your life for students to get to know. The closer relationship goes a long way toward motivating your students.

Use your relationship

Once you’re familiar with students, bring them and their interests into the class. Incorporate students into stories, talk about topics that they care about and choose authentic content that appeals to them. Making the language and content relevant engages students and increases their acquisition. As they learn and feel comfortable, they’re more willing to interact and use the language in class.

  • For example, if you have athletes in class, bring up sports. Create a character in a story that closely resembles one of the student athletes. Introduce target-language coverage of the Super Bowl or another sporting event that students are interested in.
  • Some classes might be a bit shy to discuss themselves in the open at first. For these classes, have a class imaginary character to use to bring good conversation. As students get to know each other better, introduce the students into stories and activities (@jklopp).
  • To get started and put kids at ease, always bring up your own quirks and traits first. @NinaTanti1 talks about her own crazy family life so that kids feel more comfortable sharing their stories.
  • Use prompts and other content that appeals to your students. @placido obtained a life-sized cutout of Jacob from the Twilight series to enthrall her freshman girls.

Personalizing vocabulary can be challenging at first, but participants shared some great ideas to get you started.

  • One possible first step is to remove the vocabulary “requirement.” As @SECottrell mentions, language is a human tool — we find it when we need it. Requiring students to memorize certain words for an assessment could be considered unnatural. Of course, some words are necessary for all learners, so perhaps this approach is best for older or more advanced students. At the same time, ask a student what clothes he wears, and he will learn shirt and shoes.
  • Let students be responsible for their vocabulary. You can teach the basics and allow them to learn the extension words on their own (@jas347) or not require that students learn vocabulary that doesn’t appeal to them, such as boys learning “purse” (@muchachitaMJ). @SECottrell gives students vocabulary lists to help, but doesn’t require or assess any of it.
  • PQA (Personalized Questions and Answers) is a great tool for practicing personalized vocabulary. To do it, just ask personal questions using the vocabulary (@placido).
  • @gateaugirl brought up how to assess vocabulary if you’re not directly teaching it. One way around this is to not assess vocabulary at all; assess performance and communication. Students acquire vocabulary to perform tasks that they want to do, so try requiring those tasks as assessment (@SECottrell).
    • An example: You’re packing for a trip to visit a friend overseas. It’s winter here, summer there. What do you pack?

Introduce choice and creativity

Personalized education is a student-driven curriculum (@DiegoOjeda66); choice is thus an important element of personalization. When students choose their own content, they connect with and take ownership of it. Teach students to be aware of what works for their learning and then give them options (@mmebrady).

  • Real-life, authentic content provides lots of opportunities for personalized learning through choice and topics students care about (@msfrenchteach). @SECottrell asks, if students need to read a news article in the target language, why should the teacher choose which one?
  • For projects, allow delivery in different formats and let students choose — poster, glog, prezi, popplet or empressr? (@mmebrady).
  • To give every student a chance when choosing a topic for an activity or story, have students suggest topics, then draw from a hat (@SECottrell).
  • Allow students to choose content, but also how to show that they know it through choosing assessment or presentation methods (@MmeLayman).
  • @KellyJHoopes’ school has placed a lot of emphasis on choice this year. When giving assignments, teachers now like to give 2-3 options that students can choose from.
    • To do so, try a RAFT table of options; students choose from each row (@dr_dmd). To ensure students get adequate practice, put restrictions on activities such as one reading, one listening and one speaking exercise (@mmebrady). Also try adding a “free space” where students add their own assignment (@mmebrady).
    • Tic-tac-toe and choice boards with columns of different points are also great tools. Check out @placido’s choice board for the “Piratas” novel.

Also, give students plenty of opportunity to display their personalities, not just when choosing topics or assignments. Allow lots of creative assignments or student-created materials.

  • Edmodo and Schoology are fun Facebook-like systems that students can get interested in.
  • @dr_dmd uses wikis to display students’ work, including a portfolio and a history of instruction. The front page of each student’s wiki is a blank slate for their own creative display. Google sites are a great alternative to wikis (@cadamsf1).


As some examples to get you going, participants introduced lots of personalized activities that they have done in class. Read through this list and choose one to try next week, or bookmark and revisit the list regularly for new inspiration.

  • As mentioned before, when discussing a topic, always bring the students into it. If sports, what’s their favorite sport? If emotions, what causes them to feel this way? If money, what would they do with $100 today?
  • @SraSpanglish likes to do a family tree activity: students’ ideal family trees versus real family tress.
  • Ask kids to draw a picture of what they did last night, then share with the class (@darcypippins)
    • Non-threatening variant: ask students what they didn’t do last night and wait for creative answers (@sonrisadelcampo).
  • Ask kids who they would want to be stuck in an elevator with and why (@darcypippins).
  • Several teachers mentioned that blogging is a great personalization tool. Blog yourself and require students to follow, or ask students to blog (or guest blog on your own).
  • Look at how you can take legends and fairy tales and compare them to modern situations that impact students. @placido took a legend about jealousy and gossip and compared it to jealousy and gossip on Facebook — students were hooked!
  • Try starting class asking what’s new in the target language, you might be surprised what students are capable of saying when talking about themselves. @maestraVB’s class responded recently about the school dance this weekend, and the beginning of class was spontaneous target-language discussion about something the students are really interested in.
    • Also talk about future plans for vacation or the weekend — review future and personalize at the same time (@YasmineAllen).
  • Let students create vokis about a theme in class, then share with classmates over Edmodo or another site.
  • You can’t personalize all themes, but you can personalize the vocabulary and small concepts within the theme (@placido). For a clothing theme, try having students (courtesy of many participants!):
    • describe different “looks” (casual, professional, etc.) and what they prefer;
    • let students perform a fashion makeover of a brave student — or yourself! –;
    • ask students to do a fashion show (or record it for shy classes) — works with all ages and both genders when you let kids choose any clothing, including sports gear;
    • suggest that students describe the clothing of an actor or celebrity they really like.
  • Some themes are more difficult or too touchy to personalize, such as immigration. Still, there are some times when it might work. For example, @CalicoTeach suggests an immigration exercise of imagining students live under X conditions — would they go or stay?
  • For younger students, personalizing the content is more challenging because they lack many of the language skills advanced students might use to choose their own learning. Still, many opportunities exist. TPRS, for example, is a great choice for lower level students. When asking questions, start with yes/no and forced-choice questions, then move to open-ended (@placido).
    • Asking open-ended questions is also how you determine the words that lower-level students need (@SECottrell). At first, obviously beginning students can’t answer with the target language, but they’ll learn through your repetition.

Further Reading

As always, #langchat participants have more than just great discussion to offer every week. There are also loads of resources shared for you to go over when you have time. Below are some of your colleagues’ suggestions.

  • @mmebrady shared several pages worth of resources on personalization here and here.
  • @DiegoOjeda66 suggests Ben Slavic’s website for information on personalization. Dig around, and there should also be a sample questionnaire you can use for students to get to know them at the beginning of the year.
  • We discussed using wikis to provide choice and showcase students’ portfolios on Thursday. If you’re considering using a tool such as Wikispaces, check out this introduction video suggested by @rachelcinis. Another free place to get easy-to-use wikis is PBworks (@dr_dmd).

Thank You!

To summarize, personalizing your content involves getting to know your students and using that knowledge to make the language relevant to their lives. As @MmeLayman mentioned, the most important change she’s made in her years of teaching was to get to know her students and let them get to know her. The difference is incredible.

After getting comfortable, let kids own their learning by making choices and discussing topics they care about. Include students in stories and discussions to increase their involvement.

And…WOW! What a fantastic #langchat. Apologies for a long summary this week, but we had so much useful information that it was impossible to keep it any shorter!

Thank you to all the participants. Your contributions to the #langchat professional development each week means so much to your colleagues, and we want to thank you for your efforts and suggestions.

Please feel free to comment below if you have anything to add; your colleagues would love to hear from you! See you next week on #langchat at 8 p.m. EST.

#LangChat is an independent group of world-language education professionals who come together every week via Twitter to share ideas and discuss pressing issues in the world of education. Check out the #LangChat wiki for more information about our goals and the team behind it all here. These weekly discussion summaries are sponsored by Calico Spanish as a service to the world-language community.

Erica Fischer
Erica is the founder and CEO of Calico Spanish. Her passion for teaching her own children to speak Spanish led her to create Calico Spanish. Our mission is to give all children the opportunity to learn to speak real Spanish for life.

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