We know from copious amounts of research that instruction works best when it is personal. People learn anything better when they are getting help that’s specific to their own needs, and people learn languages better when they can practice reading and listening with content that is interesting to them.
It is easy to think about how that works in practice if you think about, for example, an office offering language training to adults, each of whom has his or her own English tutor. But what about a whole class of students learning together? What are language teachers supposed to do if the students are all on their own reading and listening to twenty different articles or podcasts or short stories? How is the teacher supposed to test a class if everyone is doing different homework? Daunted at the prospect of sorting this out, many language programs revert to the outdated approach of just assigning everyone the same thing. However, maybe incorporating individualized instruction into a group curriculum isn’t as hard as it might seem.
First of all, personalized, out-of-class assignments happen all the time in other subject areas. Students write reports on different books, they research different empirical questions, and they put together different graphic design portfolios, just to give a few examples. Why should language learning be any different?
Further, if teachers are concerned that students won’t be practicing with the same materials outside of class, they can use class time to make sure that learners are all on the same page. Students can work in small groups to talk about the articles they’ve read, the grammar structures they’ve noticed, or tricky vocabulary words they’ve discovered. This type of peer review and collaboration is common in classes where learners are working on their own projects, and there is no reason why it can’t be used in the language classroom as well. In fact, tying the work students do out of class to the assignments that they complete in class is a surefire way to make sure that students are as engaged as possible.
But what about assessment? How do we test what students have learned if they are all doing different things? The thing is, they might be reading different articles, but they aren’t actually doing different things. They are all reading. They are all listening. And writing and talking and thinking, and we can design tests that let learners demonstrate that they’ve improved those skills, regardless of the content they’ve used to improve them.
Now, I am not arguing that we should do away with curricula or that we don’t need to make sure learners can meet learning objectives. But what I am saying is that by just shifting how we think about in-class and out-of-class work a little bit, it’s easy to see how students working independently on their own assignments out of class could actually be a benefit to the language learning process rather than a problem to solve.
Katharine Nielson, Ph.D. leads a team of curriculum specialists, data analysts, and research associates to develop test items, curate language learning content, develop curricula, and run empirical studies. She’s spent twenty years teaching languages, researching how to teach languages, and teaching people how to teach languages in various settings around the world.