The Internet TESL Journal

Personalizing Language Learning in Large Classes

Chao-ching Lin
cxl11 [at]

As an EFL college teacher in Taiwan, my objective was not only to teach from the textbooks but also to go beyond the textbooks and make learning related to the student's life. It is very possible to create a personalized language learning environment in a big college classroom with 50 students or more. The critical element is to encourage students to find what their interests are. If they are interested in sports, they are encouraged to read and talk in English about anything to do with sports. If they are interested in arts, let them explore this topic in English.

Build on What Students Already Know

In my freshmen English class, most students' previous learning experience was all about teacher-centered instruction that focused on grammar and rote memorization. English as a mandatory subject has been taught in junior and senior high schools and colleges in Taiwan for decades. A typical college freshman will have learned English at least six years. Due to competitive college entrance exams, high school students usually have memorized a great deal of English vocabulary words and acquired a certain reading level. Unfortunately, when they go on to college, the teaching methodology remains the same as what they were taught in high schools, such as teacher directed curriculum, passive role of students, basal textbooks and so forth. Most college students still think English learning is all about memorizing vocabulary words and reading for academic purposes. As a college EFL teacher, I wanted to take advantage of students' vocabulary and reading capabilities and help them to explore the English world by using what they already know.

Convince Students that Learning Should Be Meaningful

At the beginning of the semester, they had a hard time to understand what I meant by "discovering your own interests" and start the learning from there. I spent a lot of time trying to convince students that "learning can and should be meaningful". I encouraged the students to find out what they were interested in and read about the topics in English. At the same time, they were learning English and getting information about what they enjoyed. If they continuously read about one topic, they would be more familiar with the vocabulary words commonly used to discuss that topic. It was a new concept for most students and I knew I would have to guide them carefully in the class so they could understand the "meaningful and personalized learning" I was trying to help them to obtain.

An Example of How I Created Personalized Learning

Here is an example of how I created personalized learning in my college freshman class of 55 students. I designed several class periods based on environmental issues. I told them why I chose the topic. I really care about the environment and am very interested in knowing what's going on about the issues. I chose an article from the textbook about car recycling. Before the reading, we discussed different issues about recycling locally, nationally and globally. During the reading, I explicitly showed them how I read an article and what I would do if I did not understand the vocabulary words. I looked at the pictures and scanned through the subtitles. Did I check in the dictionary immediately or not and why not? I told students to keep in mind that we were learning information as well as English at the same time. We did not have to know every single word in order to get new information from our reading. If the same vocabulary words appeared more than three times, it must be an important word. I would circle the words and check with the dictionary either during or after reading. At the beginning, it is important to limit the topic yet still give students freedom to choose the articles they prefer. I assigned them to find an article from They can do the assignment individually or in a group of no more than three. There were a wide variety of environmental issues they could choose to read about. I also told them the reasons for this post-reading assignment from the Internet. In the computer lab, I have noticed most of the students only browsed web sites in Chinese. I wanted them to explore the enormous information available in English. They needed to print out the article, read, and share the information with the class. I asked them why they chose their article to read, how they read it, and what they did when they encountered unknown vocabulary words. I told them if they were interested in environmental topics, they should continue to read more and find out more. If they were not interested in the topic, they should find other topics.

In order for students to share with others, I used two class periods, two hours each and first asked if anyone would like to go in front of the classroom to share with their learning process. If there were no volunteers, I would randomly select students to share with their assignments. This was a good way to indirectly get students to do their homework. They knew they had to be prepared.

There were five questions asked about how they did their assignments.

Note that the sequence of the five questions asked is important. This helped students to know that their choice of topic and information learned are more important in their process of learning.

One student's research was about how a frog's skin colors are connected with the environment. She said "I chose the article because frogs are more real to me than a grizzly bear. I can see frogs everywhere, but I did not know how they are related to us environmentally. Now that I know I have a different feeling about human, the animal and the environment."

At the beginning of the semester, the syllabus was designed mostly using myself as an example of how I learned new information and English in the topic I like. In order to guide students through a new way of learning English, at first, I had the control of the topic yet students still had choices within the topic. At the end of the semester, when students felt more comfortable about a different way of learning English, they can choose whatever topics they are interested in. In the classroom of 55 students, we had the same guidelines to follow yet everyone was studying a topic of their choice.

Some students complained about the assignments for the class. They were only used to reading in the English basal textbooks. I told them "What you read in your research is the real English in the real world. You just need to get used to it by reading more. The textbook is not real because it is purposely written for levels. I hope you go beyond the level. Challenge yourself by reading real English. Discover your own interests and research them." Some students had a hard time adjusting to my teaching style. There were times when students were frustrated with the assignments. They didn't know how to discover the topics they were interested in. They just cared about getting grades from the class. They didn't care about critical thinking or global issues. They just didn't understand what these issues had to do with learning English. But I was very determined to implement my philosophy that successful language learners are researchers and lifelong learners. I encouraged them to continue reading in English about their topics of interest even while they are not in school. When they find the joy of reading and learn from the reading, learning will never be a task.

The Internet TESL Journal, Vol. VIII, No. 5, May 2002