How personalization leads to more effective learning

Personalization with Focus

Vaughan Jones has more than 30 years’ experience as an EFL Teacher, Trainer and Author. He’s lived and worked in France, Japan and Spain and has worked closely with his co-author Sue Kay to produce a number of coursebooks, including Focus, the best-selling English language learning series for upper secondary students – now with an updated second edition. 

In this article, Vaughan explores the power of the three Ms – Motivation, Memory and Meaning –  and the need to personalize English lessons in order to create the best environment for learning.

Focus on personalization

After thirty-five years’ classroom experience, I’m well aware that there is only a very loose correlation between what I teach and what my students actually learn. It’s a disappointing  realization most of us have very early on in our teaching careers. 

Now I see my role more as a ‘learning facilitator’ – doing my best to create the optimum conditions for learning to take place.  My priorities are to motivate my students, make language learning memorable and, above all, encourage meaningful exchanges. 

The three Ms – Motivation, Memory and Meaning – are my watchwords as a teacher, and as a material writer too.

Personalizing activities with the three Ms

Personalized activities harness the three Ms by tapping into the richest free resource in the classroom: our students’ own knowledge, experience and feelings. 

Here’s an example:

Compare and contrast these two simple gap-fill exercises that test the students’ knowledge of present simple and continuous forms. 

Which one is likely to be more motivating, more memorable and encourage more meaningful exchanges?

Gap fill personalization with Focus

Hopefully you chose B! 

Sadly, so many of the textbooks I’ve used in the classroom are filled with type A exercises: their sole purpose is to provide a form-driven ‘context’ for the target language. The student gets it right (or gets it wrong) and moves on. There’s very little engagement, very little to remember and very little learning.  

Look for meaning in language

In Teaching Language: From Grammar to Grammaring, Diane Larsen-Freeman asserts that “…students will best acquire the structures or patterns when they are put into situations that require them to use structures and patterns for some meaningful purpose other than decontextualized or mechanistic practice”. 

She further suggests that students need to “…come to know grammar as a resource for meaning-making”. 

I couldn’t agree more. Language exists to make meanings. By personalizing even the most basic grammar exercise the language suddenly becomes meaningful, not meaningless.  Students stop looking at the books and look at each other. They talk, they find out things, they communicate.

This belief that successful language learning should involve the ‘whole person’ is deep-rooted in the humanistic approach – an approach which has heavily influenced my own thinking. 

Way back in 1980, in Teaching Languages: A Way and Ways, Earl Stevick concluded that “…success depends less on materials, techniques and linguistic analyses and more on what goes on inside and between people in the classroom”. 

Even in the media-rich, resource-heavy, technologically-enhanced classrooms of today, I believe this conclusion still holds true. The real learning happens when students (and teachers) engage with each other and exchange meanings as human beings rather than as mere language learners.

Memorisation is connected to personalization

Let’s not forget the strong connection between personalization and memorisation. It’s called the ‘self-reference effect’. In a paper entitled Memory Enhancement in Language Pedagogy: Implications from Cognitive Research Farzad Sharifian refers to the research finding that “…free recall of linguistic items is superior when those items have been processed with reference to the self rather than others or other things”. 

He goes on to suggest that “…the self-reference effect can best be employed in developing materials and exercises for language learners.” 

That’s exactly what my writing partner and I try to do. Students are more likely to remember “I’m wearing my favourite T-shirt today” than “Maria is wearing cool silver earrings”.  Who is Maria? 

Of course, personalization is not without risks: We all need to be sensitive to how much our students are willing to divulge. It goes without saying that topics and activities which make students feel even slightly uncomfortable are ones to avoid. But this is simply common sense and teachers can adjust the ‘personalization dial’ to suit the students in their class.  

In my experience, personalization improves classroom dynamics, creates a positive atmosphere and leads to more effective language learning. It helps make my lessons more motivating, memorable and meaningful. What more could I want?

Introducing Focus Second Edition

Personalization with Focus 2nd Edition

Focus Second Edition is an even richer version of the best-selling English language learning series for upper secondary students. The new course retains the best of the first edition – a unique vocabulary building program and the 3Ms methodology. It enhances this with BBC video content and a more thorough Use of English preparation, to offer everything teachers and students need to achieve success. 

Download a sample now!


Larsen-Freeman, D (2003). Teaching Language: From Grammar to Grammaring. Thomson Heinle

Sharifian, F (2002). Memory Enhancement in Language Pedagogy: Implications from Cognitive Research. TESL-EJ Vol. 6 No. 2

Stevick, E.W (1980) Teaching Languages: A Way and Ways. Newbury House

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