Personalisation—is it the same with teenagers as with adults?

I was trying to catch up a little on my professional reading while travelling to and from events in Budapest and Strasbourg recently, and on the French TGV train I came across an article on ‘Personalisation’ by Rose Senior, which made me stop and think. The article was in July issue (yes, I am somewhat behind…) of the English Teaching Professional

Gary at teacher training session in Hungary

 Now, I always read the articles by ‘Dr. Rose’ (as she signs her regular column) and I usually agree with her. But this time something she wrote had me shaking my head in a slight disagreement: ‘A powerful technique for encouraging interaction is that of personalisation: giving students the opportunity to share with others aspects of themselves as people—their likes and dislikes, feelings, personal experiences, knowledge, opinions and so on.’

 Yes, of course…but, well, maybe not always. Seems to me it’s different when teaching teenagers than when teaching adults. In fact, that difference is exactly something I mentioned in my separate talks in Budapest and Strasbourg: on teaching adults with English Unlimited and on teaching teenagers with English in Mind. Let me explain and see if you agree—with me.

 In my experience, adults usually like talking about themselves and sharing their experiences. Ask an adult ‘What did you do last weekend?’ (although you might want to phrase your question as a ‘two-step question’ since data from the Cambridge English Corpus of spoken English shows that is how native speakers often ask typical questions, e.g. ‘What did you do last weekend? I mean, did you go out or stay at home or what?’) and he/she is usually ready to tell you—and the rest of the class. And, yes indeed, adults are usually ready and willing to express their opinions and share their knowledge on most matters. (Of course you must be careful bringing up topics concerning politics, religion or sexual matters…)

 But it’s a whole different ballgame with teenagers! Ask a teenager in front of the class on Monday ‘What did you do last weekend?’ or on Friday ‘What are you doing this weekend?’ and the teenager is probably first of all thinking,’ Hey teacher, it’s none of your business!’ And also ‘I don’t want him to know because he didn’t invite me to the party’ or ‘I don’t want her to know because she’s on the volleyball team and I didn’t make the cut.’ Also, some teenagers may not have informed opinions, knowledge or experience on a lot of topics. So, no need to potentially put them on the spot and in the difficult position of trying to formulate a personal response—and in a foreign language!—while they are also perhaps thinking inside ‘I don’t want everyone to look at me and see my spots (Br)/pimples (US)—or messy hair.’ Adults joke about having a ‘bad hair day’; that’s not necessarily a laughing matter with teenagers. No, there’s a lot going on in a typical teenager’s mind-set.

 Anyway, that’s my personal opinion and experience. What do you think? Can you ‘personalise’ as easily and in the same way when teaching teenagers as when teaching adults? I’d love to hear your comments.

 Gary Anderson, Cambridge ELT International Teacher Trainer

 P.S. Rose Senior has a good book on The Experience of Language Teaching in the Cambridge Language Teaching Library. And you can read her regular column in the English Teaching Professional or online at


4 Responses to Personalisation—is it the same with teenagers as with adults?

  1. I would just like to say that I really enjoyed the talk you gave on CLIL in Budapest. And after your session was over, I kept humming Sam Coke’s ‘Wonderful World’ for quite a while.

  2. Dear Gary,
    I have to agree with your perspective on the teenagers. Working with teens on a regular basis, I have learned over time how NOT to put anyone on the spot if not necessary. Better to let them pair up or group up to discuss if indeed necessary. Teens are so vulnerable to peer pressure and are so easily embarassed. Why risk them dreading English because the teacher has the “annoying” habit of “picking” on them?
    Sincerely, Torrie Gruber

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