You are currently viewing 8th Commandment –  Personalize the Learning Process

8th Commandment –  Personalize the Learning Process

Hey ALTTO Community! How’s that humidity treating ya?! The first term of the school year may be ending soon, but that doesn’t mean we can’t take some time to reflect and plan ahead for how we will do things after the summer.

This next Commandment is brought to us by Elizabeth Scally, who started as an English language instructor for immigrants and visiting students in full-time ESL schools in Canada. She’s been teaching in Japan’s public and private junior and senior high schools since 2003.


Teachers the world over lead by example. You want your learners to express themselves authentically, personally, so model what you want to see. Use content that you’re genuinely interested in and knowledgeable about to encourage learners to do the same.

Teachers are Learners, Too

My colleagues and I built a geography unit for our junior high students that they really get into. We start by honestly telling them that we teachers chose random countries that we haven’t been to (yet). Our challenge is to research the country and choose historical and cultural facts that we find interesting and think appeal to the learners, too.

In the unit, we ask our students to hit certain notes – vocabulary for large numbers, geographical features, and expressions to talk about places. But the students get the last word. We invite them to identify two sights and then a cultural topic of their choice – a sport, festival, or cultural aspect that they found intriguing and want to share with teachers and classmates.

The idea is to create tasks that encourage learner agency, the chance to explore content and language that’s relevant to their goals and satisfy their desire for personal expression. The result is that our students produce detailed texts that they’re proud of and willing to share with others.

An interesting festival in a country the teacher researched

From Chaos…

When it comes to developing minds, especially teenage ones, I always come back to chaos theory as applied in education which posits that learning occurs in nonlinear and complex ways, with jumping-off points that are impossible to predict. There’s a whole body of research out there called complexity theory in second language acquisition. 

Sure, the order of Stephen Krashen’s acquisition theory still holds, but along the way, kids encounter stimuli that can affect their learning, especially language learning. Puberty is a big one, along with personality, personal motivation, anxiety, parental pressure, and peer pressure. Our learners are kids with growing bodies and minds that have variance in timelines and outcomes.

…to Order Through Individual Instruction

The fallout is that you have to go easy on your kids and tailor your students’ learning. Two cases in point are my lovely junior high students who I’ll call Gonzo and Janice (yes, of the Muppets). Gonzo never responded or spoke out in class in his first year of junior high. He never put mechanical pencil to paper. Gonzo was an enigma – never disruptive, always attentive, yet no apparent output. Then suddenly, two years later in his third year, every utterance and written text he produces is nearly flawless and he aces his tests. 

Janice, on the other hand, was vocal – “I don’t get it!” – fretted over every little thing, and looked lost in lessons. Neither Gonzo nor Janice responded to in-class instruction, so my colleagues and I pulled them into the teacher’s room for direct instruction. Just five minutes once a week was enough for them to feel heard and seen, and for us to confirm what they were “getting” and what they weren’t to help them on their ways.

Fast Finishers and Slow Learners

You may also have students that are motivated and eager to exceed expectations or students who have hurdles in their way that impair their learning.

For the fast finishers, get more tasks ready pronto. One of my students, Scooter, is so excited about English language learning that he zips through every task I set, and he isn’t just motoring through to get a task done. His work is well above that of his peers with elaborated texts and he approaches me in English every lesson to ask what more he can do.

My response is to give him more challenging tasks. We take advantage of online resources. With Scooter and a few of his peers who are also excelling at English, we share TED Talks on topics that are related to our core course work, give them research and writing tasks that require a higher word count and a greater demand of elaborated reasons in writing.

And then there’s Fozzie. He’s been identified by his parents and a psychologist as having ADHD. Now, I don’t know about you, but when I read the symptoms, I feel like that’s me at his age. Impulsive, distracted, disruptive to the flow of conversation. However, it becomes an impairment when it damages interpersonal relationships and learning. 

My colleagues and I seat Fozzie at the front of the class so that we can give him attention as needed, redirect him if necessary, and make sure he keeps up with the flow of lessons. Fozzie is a trooper and determined to stick with us.

The Left-handed Tribe

About 10% of the worldwide population is left-handed, me included. In Japan’s schools, students are taught a prescribed way of writing letters, but it’s a bit weird for us lefties. For example, when I write and X, I make the first stroke from the top right to the bottom left, and finish with the second stroke from the top left to the bottom right. To put your lefties at ease, show them videos of left-handed writers. There’s a plethora of them on YouTube. The Handedness Research Institute has tips for teaching lefties beautiful writing

Thanks, Elizabeth, for sharing the ways you and your co-workers personalize learning for your students! How do you personalize the learning process for your students? We would love to know!