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Customizing Learning without Building Custom Content

assessment authentic materials homework vocabulary Feb 20, 2023

Adult learners often have very specific ideas about how they’ll use English as their foreign language and why they need it. That, in turn, leads to sometimes specific requests. Sometimes they’re REALLY specific– intellectual property legal terms? Salmon farming vocabulary? Digital marketing terminology?

Other times, they might have less of a specific topic they want to focus on and more of a specific skill they’d like to improve. Perhaps your learner wants to focus a heavy percentage of their study time on listening or writing, for example. Maybe they want to practice listening comprehension to English spoken with a Japanese accent. Perhaps they’re looking to learn how to argue better in meetings.

If you’ve already sorted out what materials you’re teaching with, these requests for customization can send a shiver down your spine! The questions start popping up in your mind– where am I going to find materials for that? How can I realistically meet that need? How much time am I going to have to spend planning these lessons?

But we’re here to say that you CAN offer customization without having to build brand new, never-useful-again lessons from scratch from week to week. Check out these tips below to save your sanity (and free time) while also meeting the needs of your learners:

Use authentic materials.

One of the great things about extremely specific lesson requests is that they almost certainly relate to some type of media that’s out there in English. As far as WHERE to source these materials that relate to your learner’s highly-specific request, consider looking for articles, case studies, social media accounts, LinkedIn influencers, job posts, videos, podcast episodes, and white papers. You might not know how to find the top salmon farming influencer on Instagram, but you can probably find an industry case study from a company or industry organization/lobby group. Think about what types of training, teaching, or marketing materials would be created for English speakers in that industry and search for them. When you find them, you’ve got a great resource for specific vocabulary and text or audio that is related to the interests of your learner. Unfamiliar with how to incorporate authentic materials in class? We’ve got you covered! Check out our blog posts about using authentic materials in class.

Put the onus on the learner to find and ask about industry-specific terminology.

Encourage your learner to search for industry-specific terminology and find out how to say them in English. You can go about this by challenging them to come to class with 3-5 industry terms each class that they need to teach to you! Sometimes what learners really need is someone that holds them accountable to a challenge. Most of them understand that they’re working with you as an educator, not as an air traffic control expert, so what they really want is a sounding board that they can check themselves with. It might be useful to help your learner identify an English resource– a glossary, blog, or podcast, for example, that they can check out in their spare time each week to source this information. They may also run into this terminology at work, in reports or training materials that they have to use– you might be shocked to know that, despite not speaking English fluently, many employees at multinationals around the world are passed English materials and expected to, one way or another, process them and act on that information, no translation provided. While that is not very inclusive, it DOES mean that your learner might already have some interesting material to work through, present to you, ask you questions about, etc.

Limit customized content creation to 1-2 slides per lesson.

Don’t feel that you need to re-tool your entire lesson library because a learner needs English to become a sales manager. Of course, that learner will want to strengthen their English in the sales context, but that’s just one facet of the professional English the learner needs to learn. That said, if you DO find yourself interested in creating some customized content for your learner, try to limit this customization to 1-2 slides per lesson. Why? Because teaching online requires a new aspect to lesson planning that face-to-face classes didn’t always require of teachers: Content Design and Creation. That becomes quite time-consuming if you think about creating customized lessons for each learner with a request like this, and the reality is that creating lesson content for online learners is a different skill set that teachers aren’t usually compensated for. Also, take into account that you might never be able to use those lessons with another learner in the future and suddenly the picture becomes pretty clear: Unless you are charging for the time it takes to create that content as well, it’s not a very fair deal for you. Instead, avoid creating custom content frequently and when you do it, limit the customization to 1-2 instructional slides so you can focus more on some of the other strategies on this list, prepare for your other classes, and still have some free time.

Assign homework.

Make it clear to the learner that learning English for specific purposes means doing quite a bit of study outside of class, and you’re going to identify tasks or assignments that will be useful to them. In class, focus a portion of your time on the specific language your learner needs, and spend the rest of your time working on professional English overall. Then, for homework, revisit those terms from your learner’s own studies or that you’ve identified from authentic materials and incorporate them into a sentence writing task, an email roleplay, or other homework tasks you might assign. By moving some of the responsibility back to the learner, you’re strengthening their own ability to seek out resources, but with your guidance as they check in with you and receive feedback. It’s important to remember that your learners are already knowledgeable professionals about their topic of interest. What they need is to be able to communicate about it in English! That means that class time with you is going to involve lots of linguistic work, while their independent study should focus on using that linguistic work to apply to their own areas of interest. Get buy-in from your learner early on to make this approach successful.

Use social media.

If you’re looking to get a little industry-specific language under your belt, use social media to your advantage! Whether on TikTok, Instagram, or Facebook, you’re likely to find someone that’s talking about this industry. Check LinkedIn for thought leaders in that area, and check Reddit for specific subreddits or posts about the topic in question. Just like these resources could work well for you to gather vocabulary for lists, stay up-to-date on challenges or goings-on in different industries, etc., you can also use your search findings as authentic materials or homework assignments/resources for your learner!

Keep a running language log.

You can make this as simple or as fancy as you’d like, though we’d recommend a simple spreadsheet– especially if you can share it in the cloud to update together (think Google Sheets). This makes for a great study tool for your learner and a great place to gather vocabulary for review activities, writing or speaking tasks/prompts, etc. All you’ve got to do is make sure both of you are logging new terminology that you find and use together in class and on homework assignments.

Check in frequently.

Make sure you’re checking in regularly with your learner to see how they feel about their progress. Use The TEFL Lab’s course checkpoint tool to check in with your learner about how they feel about different aspects of the course and if there’s anything they’d like to change, repeat, or stop doing. These check-ins help you stay on the same page with your learner regarding what they want to learn and how they’d like to go about it. The information you get from this process will help you tweak your lessons and homework assignments to better meet the learner’s needs.

And that’s that! While you might still find yourself making customized lessons from time to time, you can largely work around extremely niche content creation that might never be used again by following the steps outlined above.