Personalizing teaching material makes content meaningful and authentic to the student’s life; making the content identifiable. Perhaps one of the main reasons we talk about the importance of personalizing information is because it fosters more engagement in the classroom. If something is personal, it becomes interesting and relevant. It directly affects our lives in some way. Suddenly, this new content is meaningful and matters to the student.

The Online ESL Tutor: Developing Rapport

Both the offline and online tutor need to connect with their students by developing a good rapport. This rapport makes it possible to personalize instructional content. A teacher or tutor must create an atmosphere of trust as well as an overall positive classroom culture to build the relationships needed for customized learning. Developing rapport in an offline classroom takes time, and it can take even more time online. 

Self-Determination Theory and How Online Tutors Can Personalize Content

Richard Ryan and Edward L. Deci defined the Self-Determination Theory in 2000. They came up with three fundamental needs that they believe people must possess to be intrinsically motivated. A tutor can use this knowledge to personalize the content, thus increasing engagement:

  1. Autonomy: If a tutor loosens the reins on how a student will learn the material, this gives the student control over their learning. The tutor understands that students cannot choose what words to learn but can choose how they will learn them. For example, perhaps the students want to learn new vocabulary words by playing a game on the software in an online classroom. As a result, the students are motivated to learn, and it gives the tutor an opportunity to learn more about their students’ personalities and interests.
  2. Competence: A tutor should be cognizant of what they are asking the students to accomplish. The task at hand should not be beyond the abilities of the students, or they are being set up for failure. This can discourage any student and repress his desire to try. Concept-checking questions and watching student behavior when covering the variety of learning targets can help the tutor to identify each student’s level of understanding. The tutor should aim to quickly determine what each student can comprehend and produce in the target language.
  3. Psychological Relatedness: Developing a positive rapport with students is not always enough. We should encourage students to get to know each other as this plays an important role as well. When students connect with the teacher and each other, they often share personal information and inevitably the themes and topics of any given lesson are altered by the students (which is permitted, even encouraged by the tutor) to match their interests.

Personalizing Content: Two Distinctions

Two distinctions needed when talking about personalizing content:

The first is getting to know your students’ personalities and interests. Once the tutor has gotten to know the students, she can determine what topics to focus on while covering the content in the lesson. If the topics are already chosen for the class, the tutor still has the freedom to relate those topics to the students’ lives and interests.

As an online tutor, you can get to know your students’ personalities and interests by:

  • Taking time to talk to the students before class begins. Tell them about yourself. If they see you are open to sharing personal information, they may feel more comfortable to open up as well. Point out what your students have in common with each other.
  • Taking mental notes as to how they express themselves. Do they enjoy having the spotlight on them and being the life of the party? Do they prefer to observe and listen? Do they feel comfortable sharing anecdotes from their lives or do they prefer to comment on what others say?

You can use the information gathered above to personalize the content:

  • Get students to talk about themselves. Most lessons have a language objective. For example, the aim of the lesson could be to learn words and phrases that describe daily routines and the language objective could be to distinguish between present progressive and simple present tense. If you know your students go to school on Monday through Friday and that Brian has soccer practice on Mondays and Wednesdays, Allison has piano practice on Thursdays and Thomas doesn’t have activities planned but loves to draw, you can have them talk about their daily routines. If they are reluctant to speak, you can use what you already know about them to generate interest. Getting students to talk about themselves and explain what they do makes the lesson meaningful to them.
  • Use humor. Ask the students to pretend an alien from outer space lands on Earth, and it is up to the students to assimilate the alien to human life. Thomas could be the alien and describe his daily life on planet Zongbert by using wild descriptions: “I always brush my teeth every morning with bug snot. I wear five outfits a day because we have five seasons each day. I curl into a tight little ball and roll my way home since the sky on my planet is a no-fly zone.” Allison would have to explain how his daily routine would change on Earth: “You brush your teeth every morning with toothpaste. You only wear one outfit a day since there are only four seasons per year. You can walk or drive home. It is not necessary to roll home because you might hurt someone.” The tutor learns more and more about their students’ personalities, and it becomes easier to tap into the topics that truly motivate them.

The second is to alter or differentiate the content of the lesson to meet the students’ educational needs. Once the tutor has gotten to know the students’ learning styles, and the strengths and weaknesses in the four primary areas of communication (listening comprehension, speaking, reading and writing), he can focus on how to teach the content in the lesson.

  • Learn Your Students’ Individual Learning Styles: It is not only essential to know what drives your students and makes them tick, but it’s also important to know their dominant learning styles. According to Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences (2018), knowing a student’s dominant learning style enables you to differentiate instruction. Are they primarily visual, kinesthetic, musical-auditory, linguistic, interpersonal, intrapersonal or logical learners?
  • Differentiate the Content: You can alter or differentiate the content of the lesson to meet the students’ educational needs in the four primary areas of communication (listening comprehension, speaking, reading and writing). The best way to accomplish this is to do activities that incorporate different learning styles without deviating from the content of the lesson. This may take a bit of planning, but it is worth it if you want to get to know how your students learn. Take notes and you will see where their strengths are and where they need to improve.

Once you know their learning styles, you can personalize how the students learn the content. For example, annotating information on the screen, allowing students to write or draw, and using photographs are great ways to help visual learners. Students will also improve reading skills. Role-play activities and lively debates are great for auditory learners. This improves their listening comprehension and speaking skills.

Personalizing Content and the Usefulness of Bloom’s Taxonomy

The 2001 update of Benjamin Bloom’s Theory and Taxonomy paired with Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences allow you to both personalize your delivery of the learning materials to meet students’ interests and differentiate instruction based on their skills. The questions and verbs founded on Lorin Anderson and David Krathwohl’s 2001 update of Bloom’s Taxonomy are useful to develop higher-order, critical-thinking skills. You can find some of them here.

You can use a photograph to encourage visual learners and move up the pyramid by asking questions about the photograph that improve their skills so that they can remember and understand. You can use another picture with a similar topic to get students to apply what they have come to understand. Get students to analyze the images and language that they are mastering by comparing the two images to evaluate why they think as they do. Finally, have them create their drawing on a similar subject, sentence or story told aloud, movement (to reference three of Gardner’s styles) as a way of reaching the highest level of knowledge about the topic. Once a teacher understands each student’s competence (as defined by Self-Determination Theory) it is possible to personalize content by using the pyramid and taking student engagement as the guide.

The order of Bloom's Taxonomy.

Center for Teaching Vanderbilt University “Bloom’s Taxonomy” https://www.flickr.com/photos/vandycft/29428436431

Final Thoughts

So much of what we do in offline classrooms can be transferred to online classes. A patient tutor who follows the tips above will be able to personalize the content of any lesson successfully, so her students learn more effectively. Overall, customizing the content make the lesson more enjoyable for all.

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Laura Johnson
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Thank you, Susan! Interesting article!