In a previous blogpost, I spoke about the importance of finding out why our students are in class, and getting to know what they need from us.
Many Business English and ESP courses conduct a needs analysis in order to be able to tailor the content of the courses to suit their students’ needs. While this might not be as commonplace on General English courses, it would be wrong to assume that all General English students have the same needs and interests and would be happy with the random topics and functional language selected by a coursebook, which was in turn chosen by their English school or organisation.
With some experience, we know that one-size-fits-all lessons and materials are not always the best for our students and we try to tailor our courses to suit them. We attempt to localise our lessons and adapt our teaching to the local communities.
So we adapt our course materials, create our own supplementary materials, and make use of current authentic material. We do this because we know that a number of the coursebooks residing on our shelves are written for a global audience and may not be always suitable for our classes: the topics are not always of interest to our students, and the language and communication skills that are dealt with do not always match our students’ needs.
Some of us have folders full of ready-to-go supplementary material that we’ve created in the past ten years – materials perhaps that we have been reusing every single class we’ve taught since – making them not too different from the one-size-fits-all coursebook materials that we criticise.
So what are some simple things we can do when tailoring our course to our students? Apart from including content that deals with their language needs, how can we show them that they are not just a wall of faces to which we deliver the same old ‘boil-in-the-bag’ lessons?
1. Use your students’ names and the interesting (but not overly private) things you know about them in your supplementary exercises.
If you have a grammar exercise about the second conditional, avoid random characters and random scenarios e.g. ‘If James won a million pounds, he would spend it on a new car.’ Instead, Martyna and her classmates would be more motivated by an example they can actually relate to, e.g. ‘If Martyna won a million pounds, she would go to Ibiza for a holiday with her boyfriend.’ (because she told you and the class yesterday about how much she wants to take her boyfriend to Ibiza).
2. Use your knowledge of their lives and their interests to guide and feed into the topics that you bring into class.
A discussion about extreme sports is probably going to fall flat on its face if we try and force it upon a group of students who have no interest in such sports. A task about travelling and sightseeing might hit a wrong nerve with students who are not fortunate enough to be able to afford such luxuries. A range of vocabulary about clubbing might go down like a lead balloon in a class of students from a culture that doesn’t approve of clubbing.
3. Be sensitive to how students want to use the materials and go with the flow.
Lesson plans might be a good way of envisaging how the materials you have could be used, but we must remember that they are but a guide and do not need to be adhered to religiously. Experienced teachers know that the same materials could be used with two different classes with completely different results.
Different students engage with different materials in different ways so be prepared to
- extend certain parts of a task on the spot if it looks like it’s creating lots of discussion;
- find ways to involve the quieter students in tasks by perhaps prompting them with the knowledge you have about their background/interests or pairing them up with encouraging students whom they are known to work well with;
- be ready to ‘kill a task’ with an alternative if the material you’d originally planned to use doesn’t seem to be working.
The key here is not to force students to work with the material in the way you’d planned but to be tuned in to how they prefer to work and to go with the flow.
4. Be transparent about how you’re tailoring the course to their needs
So your students have told you about the problems they are having with understanding the English news, or the confidence issues they face with socialising in English. You might not be able to plan a lesson to help them with it the very next day, but when you do bring in the lesson that meets their needs and lacks, remember to talk about it openly, e.g. ‘You mentioned that you wanted to understand the English news better and I think listening to the English news is a great way of practising our listening skills. So today, we’re going to focus on some news headlines on BBC World News.’
Students need to know that they are the reason why we are in class, and that they are being listened to and that their needs take priority in a lesson. And the best way to do this is to communicate this directly to them.
5. Review what you’ve done and get feedback
Reviews are a great way of recycling the language that has been covered. But they also serve to remind our students of what they needed at the beginning of a course/term, and to give them the opportunity to reflect on what they couldn’t do back then that they are able to do now.
In business, corporations talk about the need to see a Return on Investment (ROI) to feel assured that they are spending their time and money wisely. In the same way, our students could also benefit from a clear view of how far they have come on the course, and to see that their needs are being met.
When we talk about tailoring a course to suit our students, we often think about the content of the course and not necessarily about our students’ perceptions of how the course has gone about meeting their needs. Yet, their perceptions can be valuable information for us to consider and can give us an inkling as to how well the course is working for them and how we can better tailor the course to suit them.
As such, avoid saving reviews and feedback for the end of the course but instead conduct them regularly. After all, our students’ needs and wants can change over the period of the course. What they had thought they needed or wanted at the beginning of the course might be quite different from what their real needs might be. Use their feedback to ‘feed forward’ into how you might tailor the rest of the course to suit them.
Every class is different: the dynamics of the class can change depending on how the different personalities interact with each other; the students come with different needs and different interests, and respond differently to different materials. Let’s not pretend that we can do the same lesson about the present perfect continuous and achieve the same results with every group we teach.
Instead, let’s take pride in the fact that we work our students into our lessons, and that we are never bored of the ever-changing materials we use!
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