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I’m writing this blog post as preparation for a talk/workshop that I’m going to give at the Language Show next month. As such, this is a kind of sounding board of me throwing some ideas out there to crystallise what I think so I can best convey it all in my talk. If you have any further ideas, suggestions, adaptations, I’d be more than happy to hear from you.

The central topic is the concept of personalisation in language teaching. In essence, this is using the students’ own experiences to make the language relevant. In doing this, the idea is that they will be more likely to remember whatever is being taught (e.g. the present perfect to talk about past achievements), and it will seem to them more useful.

My issue isn’t with this at all, but more with how it’s almost crowbarred in to language teaching, especially in published materials. I just think that attempting to make the language more personal by asking students to talk about what is in their bedrooms before you teach ‘there is/there are’, to give an example, is just a bit dull.

Can’t we dig a bit deeper than this? I think there’s one resource that can easily get underused in the language classroom as teachers and students work through books, prepare for exams, or even just get stuck in a routine. And that resource is imagination.

Couldn’t we leave a lot more space free for students to imagine things? Couldn’t they imagine they’re dream bedrooms? Couldn’t they imagine their past achievements as a different (famous/infamous??) person? I’m sure these alternatives exploiting students’ imagination do occur in a lot of classrooms around the world, but I think we could allow more space for imagination in our lessons. Here’s how…

  1. use visual (and possibly non-verbal) resources (e.g. images and drawings) : Using visual means of communication accesses a different part of the brain than text, so already this is stretching the students in a different way than if they were given a word prompt. Using images is a way to access concepts in your brain without language getting in the way. This can be done both receptively – by asking students to look at something and see what they think of it – or productively – by asking them to put something (e.g. an idea, word or sentence) into a drawing.
  2. use non-visual resources (sound effects) : If using visuals is a good way to access a different part of the brain, then using sound effects is even better. The absence of visuals means that students will be working their imaginations even more. This also allows for different interpretations of whatever you are listening to. For example, one person may hear rustling paper and think of an office, while another hears a crackling fire. Sound effects can be used to create atmosphere and mood, for example by using upbeat music to get people ready for action or a spooky sound effect to create tension.
  3. exploit the voice as a resource (yours and your students’) : I’m certainly a fan of live-listening over playing audio recordings over and over and over, but judicious use of the voice can get a student’s imagination really going. Setting up a guided visualisation activity (see a forthcoming post here soon!) is relatively simple, and can stretch the imagination by asking students to follow your instructions to change something or go on a virtual journey (no computers needed).

So, 1. 2. 3. really. And here are three ideas to take away and have a go with:

  1. Give half your students a simple sentence, e.g. A boy kicked a ball at a window, and ask them to draw a picture to illustrate it.Ask them to keep the sentence secret, and then show a classmate who doesn’t have the sentence. Then ask this student to try and guess the original sentence.
  2. Play this sound effect. Ask students to write down whatever they think of (there are no incorrect answers). Students then compare these and see if they agree. Establish a common setting (in this case, it’s a grocery store, but students may think otherwise!). Then ask students to listen again and fulfil a task: write a description of someone in this setting; imagine they are in this setting and write down what they are thinking; imagine 2 or more people having a conversation in this setting and write it down, etc. These could all be done by students individually, in pairs or in small groups.
  3. Ask the students to imagine they are looking at a photo of a place they know well. (If it helps, they can close their eyes). If their photo is in black and white, ask them to change it to colour. Ask them to make the image in the photo bigger. Ask them to imagine they are in the photo. Ask them to put a friend in the photo. Ask them to turn the photo upside down. Give students some time to imagine the changes as you tell them the instructions. After you have gone through them all, ask the students to open their eyes and then share their experience in pairs. You could give them some guiding questions: What place did you imagine? Was it easy to imagine this place? Was it easy to change the details? How did you feel when the image got bigger? How did you feel when you put yourself/your friend in the photo? (Note – this is adapted from Unlocking self-expression through NLP by Baker and Rinvolucri)

So, are you ready to include some imagining in your teaching and your students’ learning? In the end, not much is more personal than your imagination.