ELA: Personalization

9.1 The Importance of Personalization in an ELA classroom

When we personalize our classes, we give our students some control over their learning. 

As mentioned in the data practices chapter, ELA students vary widely in their abilities to think critically, employ evidence, write in standard English, use other types of media, organize information, and read critically and analytically. Students are on different reading levels, or English may not be their native language. Some have strong skills in writing; others do not. Some know how to lead a group but not how to participate in one. Others might have strong analytical skills  but not know how to communicate their ideas in either writing or speaking. Some might need to develop collaborative skills or editing or rewriting skills. 

Because students vary in essential English language arts skills, personalization becomes a way to help students develop their strengths and overcome their weaknesses. It allows students to focus their attention on areas where they can really grow and not spend time doing exercises in areas they have already mastered. It allows students to use their time efficiently for their own growth. It can also help students gain confidence in their ability to communicate in a variety of different media and in their ability to have something to contribute.

One of the advantages of an ELA curriculum is that students can be involved in the same or similar activity but be working on different areas of growth. For example, in a unit on To Kill a Mockingbird, you may ask all students to write an essay on setting or to create a narrative of an event in their lives much the way Scout does. However, in each of these writing activities, different students could be focusing on different ways to improve their writing. Some might work on transitions; others, on effective introductions. Some students could focus on finding and organizing support for their analyses, while others could focus on using the same tense throughout. Still others could be honing skills on a multimedia presentation on some aspect of the book or practice their editing skills. Personalization looks a little different for each student. The teacher below shares some of his experiences with personalization and its effects.

Teachers Talk: Increased Engagement

Junior High Language Arts Teacher in Nevada

Giving students choice has definitely impacted my students. One of the things we talked about in my education program was how important student choice, student led activities, and student led discussion are. When students have a say in their education, they engage in it more and remember it longer. For example, in our narrative writing unit, I limited the students to 3–5 pages for their stories. They all complained about how much it was. But because these were their own stories and their own thoughts, they’d come up to me: "Can I have more pages? I’m running out and I have this much more left to say." I gave them the extra pages, and those stories were so much better because of it.

Definitions: Differentiation vs Personalization

Differentiation and personalization are similar but not the same. As you think about the activities and ideas in this chapter, decide if the activity is differentiated or personalized. Both have an important place in classrooms, but personalization with its extra emphasis on student (not teacher) choice tends to foster greater growth in areas such as student ownership and self-regulation.

Differentiation: The teacher tailors instructional materials, pacing, and path to address student needs. She makes significant decisions for and about the student.

Personalization: Students make their own decisions about their goals, time, place, pace, and path, giving them increased ownership over their learning.

It is helpful to approach personalization and the idea of student control in two different ways: through allowing students to personalize along the  dimensions of personalization and through allowing students to personalize the learning objectives, assessments, and activities we use in our teaching.  

9.2 Personalization Dimensions in an ELA classroom

One way to think about personalization is to examine the ways students can personalize. The five dimensions of personalized learning are guidelines for ways or methods we can apply to allow our students to personalize their learning. These dimensions are goals, time, place, pace, and/or path. 

Figure 1

Five Dimensions of Personalized Learning

Dimensions of Personalization

In the sections below we will explore each of these dimensions.

9.2.1 Personalizing Goals

This teacher, Brandi Quintero, talks of the power setting goals had for one of her students. How did this teacher guide her student?

Teachers Talk: Setting Goals (9th Grade) (1:56)

Watch on YouTube

Reflection Questions: What goals can you set for yourself as a teacher? How can you help your students set goals?

Goals are a means of making choices specific and purposeful. Facilitating goal setting increases student ownership of their learning, encourages lifelong learning skills and attitudes, and increases motivation and self-regulation abilities. 

In order for students to personalize their goals, you and they need to understand something of their needs and proficiencies as ELA learners. This is where you can use the data you have gathered from the activities mentioned in the Data Practices chapter. 

Information from such sources helps you understand where students are in their ELA abilities, skills, and aptitudes. Learning outcomes and standards give focus for where students are expected to be. The difference between where students are and the course outcomes is the place for growth—and goals. 

Teachers Talk: Three-part Conferences (4:47)

Watch on YouTube

Reflection Questions: What part of this video stood out to you? How can you incorporate that idea into your classroom?

As Todd Jepperson showed, goals are not goals if they are just aspirations. Writing goals down and tracking them are important processes for achieving them. Here are a few ideas about goal setting conferences such as Mr. Jepperson's and how they might be used in an English language arts classroom.

In Class

Conferencing (regular goal setting meetings)

Monitoring (tracking progress between conferences)

9.2.2 Personalizing Path

When you allow students to personalize their learning path in your classroom, your students are not all doing the same assessments and activities. You may find that you have become a curator of resources and activities that will best help your students. These resources/activities can be compiled in playlists or choiceboards, which give the students choice about the order in which they complete the activities or about which activities they choose to do. You can also allow students to come up with their own activity. Todd and Brianne discuss these options and how they work in their classrooms.

Teachers Talk: Choice Boards

Todd Jepperson

Todd Jepperson

One of my coworkers and I often create lists of objectives/tasks for our students to complete. They like boxes by each item so they can check them off. But we wanted them to be able to choose activities they felt would help them learn the objective best. So, for each objective, we created a number of activities: links to internet pages or activities; zoom videos with instruction; some kind of online student-to-student interaction; writing, reflection, collaboration in the online space, or online exercises and quizzes that give immediate feedback. The students choose from the list the activities they feel will help them prepare for an assessment on that objective. In addition to choosing the path, they can also vary their pace. If they don’t complete something in class, they can finish it at home because everything is online.

When they feel they understand the objective well enough to pass it off, they meet with me, and I do an informal assessment. If I also feel they are ready, we decide together on an assessment, and they complete it. Sometimes the assessments are the same for all the class; sometimes the students have more choice in what they do to show mastery.

Teachers Talk: Differentiated Path

Brianne Anderson

Brianne Anderson

At the end of a unit on The Great Gatsby we wrote an argumentative essay about who was the most to blame for Gatsby’s death. The students had to assign percentages and things like that to who was the most to blame based on their actions. Did the person who pulled the trigger have the most to blame, or did the other events leading up to it have anything to do with it?

For the students who struggled with writing, I gave them different assignments in Canvas than I did the ones who were more proficient. I could assign each student different assignments that would start where they were and help them grow. For some students I provided sentence stems or base structures for the paragraphs. For other students I asked them to do some crime research and look into some court cases and do some enrichment there. So, in the end, they may each have written the same number of paragraphs—I’m assessing the same standard for all of them—but they each have a differentiated path to get there.

9.2.3 Personalizing Pace

Personalizing pace means allowing students to take more or less time based on their own ways and pace of learning as well as their personal and family life circumstances. It often includes giving students a window of time on due dates for completing activities, assignments, and assessments. Personalizing pace encourages students to manage their time. They know what they need to do and when it needs to be completed, but they also know the other demands on their time (sports, music, school, play, family and work obligations) and learn to plan for these situations. 

These teachers share how they personalize pace in their classrooms. 

Teachers Talk: Personalizing Pace (3:21)

Watch on YouTube

Reflection Question: What activities can you create to give students control over their pace in completing an activity?

Teachers Talk: Differentiated Pace and Path

Junior High Language Arts Teacher in Nevada

For grammar I differentiate instruction using a program called Quill. It includes diagnostic tests, so as a teacher, you have the data you need to know where to have them begin and what elements to focus on. It also requires students to actually write sentences, not just fill in blanks or add punctuation marks. It can assign different activities ranging from prepositions to transitional phrases and the kids have to actually type out their answers. What I love the most about it is that it is cumulative. They have to remember what they have already learned and apply it to the new things they are learning.If they make a mistake, it's marked wrong. Sometimes they get a little frustrated when they forget something they’ve already learned. But Quill can give lots of lots of practice with immediate feedback.

Teachers Talk: Pacing

Trent Mikesell

Trent Mikesell

When we write a paper, the students write it at their own pace. I give them some soft due dates. Of course, I don’t want them to stay up all night the night before it is finally due, but if that’s their method, I let them do it. I’ve found that everyone works at a different pace, and these kids have all kinds of things going on in their lives. I try to be sympathetic to that. To me, pace largely has to do with giving students some empathy and room for growth.

9.2.4 Personalizing Time

In a traditional classroom, students may have a class period to finish an assignment. In a blended classroom this time can be expanded to include time outside the class. Because activities can be accessible outside of the classroom, students can choose times that work well for them. For example, a student may have a difficult time learning in the morning, when he has class. But because he can access his assignment later in the day, he is able to complete it and do a good job. Time is closely related to pace. Because students are not bound to a specific time or to a specific amount of time to do an assignment, they can increase or decrease their pace and time according to their own preferences, needs, and abilities. Todd Jepperson explains how being flexible in the amount of time students spent on an assignment allowed each student to spend as much or as little time as their interest dictated.

Teachers Talk: Virtual Tour of Anne Frank's House

Todd Jepperson

Todd Jepperson

When we were studying The Diary of Anne Frank, I assigned the class to visit the virtual tour of Anne Frank’s house online. One of the boys in the class was fascinated by her home. He spent over four hours investigating it. Some people in the course spent 40 minutes. The average was 1½ hours. If I had visited the online site during class, all the students would have had the same amount of time and would have visited only what I wanted to show them. Allowing them to complete the assignment online at home allowed the students to choose how much time they would give to the assignment.

Anne Frank Journal Entry
Image Credit

9.2.5 Personalizing Place

Personalizing place revisits traditional practices about place. Because blended courses often include online instruction, students can choose to do activities at home or at school. In addition, they can access instruction when they have to miss activities because of illness, travel, or extra-curricular activities.

However, another aspect of place is the configuration of the classroom. Classrooms are often viewed as rows of desks or sometimes desks grouped into tables. But classrooms don’t have to look this way. They can be made more comfortable, inviting, and conducive to the kinds of activities that take place in a blended classroom. As you read and listen to our teachers share some of their experiences with creating places to learn both in and out of  their classrooms, think of changes you can make in your own classroom.

Teacher Talk: "I Do It Better with My Thumbs"

Todd Jepperson

Todd Jepperson

In our class we have Chromebooks that students can use to compose their writings. In addition, almost all the students have a phone. The room is set up so some can be writing while others are reading or doing items from the mastery playlist. One day a student approached me. She said, "You know, I'm not very good on a computer keyboard, but I'm really good at typing with my thumbs on my phone.” So, we arranged for her to have Google Docs on her phone, and she used it to write essays. One day my principal came to observe the class and saw this student. She was sitting tipped back in a chair with her feet on the table and was pounding away on her phone with her thumbs. The principal asked her what she was doing. She said, "I'm writing my essay.'"And she was.

This same girl told me that sometimes she would not work on her assignments in class. Instead she helped a friend who sat next to her and who struggled with the work. She said, "I just help her throughout the whole class, and then when my mom picks me up from school, I take out my phone and start writing my essay." Time and place are completely flexible. Students have access to their work wherever and whenever they want. Text to speech has been invaluable for some of my students who come from poorer homes, who don’t have computers and whose parents are not able to help them. 

Teachers Talk: Classroom Setting

Jenifer Pickens

Jenifer Pickens

When you come into our classroom, it looks more like a coffee shop than a classroom. I let my students eat and drink, which I never did before. I have two great big tables that are like conference tables in the middle of the room. Around the outside are different couches. When the kids come in, they choose whatever makes them comfortable. I have blankets and even stuffed animals. And yes, I know they’re eighth graders, but they hug those animals like you can't imagine. The kids embraced it, but at first it was a little difficult for me. I'm very type A, and I like things clean. But as the atmosphere changed, I realized that I could trust the kids. They respected the things that I was doing for them. They’ll say things like, 'This is the only time in the day where I feel like I can be free. I feel like I can just breathe. I don’t feel nearly so anxious." 

Teachers Talk: Flexible Place (5:18)

Watch on YouTube

Reflection Questions: What advantages did these students receive from learning in a flexible classroom? What is a first step you could take to make your classroom more flexible?

9.3 Personalizing Activities and Assessments

Approaching personalization through the five dimensions is one way of planning to personalize. Another way is to look directly at what you do in your classroom. Typically teachers plan assessments and activities around learning objectives to make sure they cover the material they are mandated to cover. Finding ways for students to exercise choice in some or all aspects of these activities and assessments is another way to foster personalization in your classroom. Brianne uses interactions with her students and their ideas to allow students to modify or choose their own assessments.

Teachers Talk: Personalizing Assessments Using Student Suggestions

Brianne Anderson

Brianne Anderson

I can have one on one conversations and conferences with students through technology. We can talk through video conferences or even just the chat feature in Zoom or the messaging that we have in Canvas. Kids will approach me for help and for clarification. Sometimes, they will write me and say, "Hey, I know the assignment didn't ask me to do this, but I had this really cool idea and I was wondering if I could do it instead." I saw a little creativity bloom in there, especially from students that wouldn't otherwise have approached or bothered.

9.3.1 Personalized Assessments

What do assessments look like in your classroom: an essay exam? A final  paper? Short answer questions about a text? A presentation? Do all your students do the same thing? 

Personalizing assessments means giving students choices in the ways they demonstrate mastery of a learning outcome. Often this means creating a list of ideas that students can choose from, while also allowing them to suggest their own ideas.  

Student Experience: Personalized Assessment and Engagement

Karen Arnesen

When I was in ninth grade, we read Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. Our final assessment was a project. We were given a list of ideas to choose from. My best friend chose to make a model of the Globe Theater. She loved stuff like that, and her model was exquisite. I chose to write an Elizabethan newspaper. I had my parents get me an end roll of newsprint from a newspaper company. (They still had print newspapers in those days.) I made a full-size, 10-page newspaper complete with columns. I included ads, want ads, a fashion section, an editorial section, an entertainment section, an international and national news section, front page news, and a sports section. I gave it a name and a banner, and I wrote and drew the whole thing in small letters by hand in black pen. (Okay, it was a while ago, before computers, and I was an overachiever.) I had such fun and learned a ton—so much research. I was completely absorbed. My teacher asked if she could keep my newspaper. I let her, but I’d give a lot to still have it today. It was one of the highlights of my whole K-12 career.

Here are some ideas from your teachers about personalizing assessments. 

Teachers Talk: Personalized Projects (2:35)

Watch on YouTube

Reflection Question: Think of an activity you do in your classroom. What could you do to make it more personalized?

Teachers Talk: Choosing Assessment Type

Jenifer Pickens

Jenifer Pickens

Sometimes when we complete a unit, I ask the students to choose a project they want to do in order to show mastery. I meet with each student to approve the project. We usually have some very interesting projects. We had a girl who liked to sing. She made up a song and recorded herself singing it. She still showed mastery, but she was doing what she wanted to do. One guy who wants to be a cartoonist, submitted a comic strip with frames that looked like manga. It was phenomenal. This boy doesn’t usually shine in class, but he put lots of time and energy into this project because he was interested in it.

Teachers Talk: Assessment Topic

Dave Lee

Dave Lee, Ph.D.

For the assessment for our persuasive writing unit, I asked the students to each choose an issue or problem in the school that personally affected them or that they cared about. Some chose a topic in the broader community. (I didn’t ask them to write about school uniforms, starting school at a later time, or some other typical topic.) They had to research and present evidence of the problem and evidence of the efficacy of the solution they proposed. Once they had written the paper to their satisfaction, they had to present it to a person in authority, who could be instrumental in effecting the change they proposed. I saw much higher engagement and effort when they cared so much about what they were writing.

Table 1 shows some of the ways you can personalzize assessments in an ELA classroom.

Table 1


Personalized Assessments
Students choose the media they use for the assessment: powerpoint, google docs, video, etc. 
Students choose the form of the assessment: mindmap, essay, documentary, brochure, story, art, performance, exam, etc. 
Students choose the topic of a piece of writing or other form of assessment.
Students choose to do the assessment in groups or on their own.

In your Blended Teaching Workbook, create a few ideas of personalized assessments that students can choose from in order to show mastery of the content area you choose earlier.

If you haven't already opened and saved your workbook, you can access it here.

9.3.2 Personalized Activities

Personalizing learning activities gives students choice in how they approach what they need to learn. According to Mr. Jepperson, allowing students to choose activities that reflect what they need to learn makes their learning both more productive and more meaningful. 

Teachers Talk: Personalized Activities

Todd Jepperson

Todd Jepperson

I think that students’ being able to personalize their own learning is a great benefit to them. It magnifies the impact of their learning. As a student, I can say, "I don’t really understand that idea or concept, but I see three links for that idea in the lesson. I can click the link and learn more." Or maybe, a student who already understands the concept will say,  "I get this already. I’m going to skim and scroll until I reach something I don’t know much about. Then I’ll focus there."

Teachers Talk: A Quick Review

Todd Jepperson

Todd Jepperson

I love how easily I can provide links to help students review something we have already learned but some of the students have forgotten. For example, this week we talked about comparative adjectives in my 7th grade English class. We haven’t talked about them for a while. So, as part of my instruction, I found a link to yourdictionary.com, then I told the kids, ‘I’m talking about comparatives and superlatives today. If you don’t remember a lot about those, here’s the link. You can go and refresh your memory.’ Then I moved on. I didn’t have to stop and teach those things again, but the students who needed a quick refresh, had a way to review.

Personalized activities are based on data and goals. Students can choose activities that help them accomplish their goals from playlists and/or choice boards that give them choice in path, pace, time, and place. They may include online interaction as well as online integration of activities that are personalized or differentiated for individual students. Table 2 gives some ideas for personalizing activities.

Table 2

Personalized Activities

Personalized Activities
Create a choice board of activities for giving background or exploring theme in a text.
Introduce comparing and contrasting activities by providing links to several different artistic renderings of a text in different forms: film, poetry, art, music, graphic novel, etc. Students choose two and fill out a compare/contrast chart.
Have students choose a character from a book the class is reading, put the character in a scene outside the book, and write about what the character would do in that situation. Share the writings in a discussion board and have the other students guess who the character is and give evidence for why they think it is the character they chose. 
Students write a different ending to a book, paying attention to the theme and characterization of the new ending. 
Students choose another setting for a book they are reading and try to persuade a group of students why that setting would be appropriate for the novel.

In your Blended Teaching Workbook create a few ideas of personalized activities that students can choose from in order to show mastery of the content area you chose earlier. 

If you haven't already opened and saved your workbook, you can access it here.

Personalization is a powerful pedagogical tool. It allows students to grow where they need to grow and in a way that is meaningful to them. It combines all the other competencies of blended learning: online integration, online interaction, and data practices to create a unique learning experience for each student. Throughout these chapters you have learned how to use these competencies in a language arts context. Now it is up to you! You are ready for that first small step!

Previous Citation(s)
(in progress). ELA: Personalization. In , , , , & (Eds.), K-12 Blended Teaching (Vol 2): A Guide to Practice Within the Disciplines , 2. EdTech Books. https://edtechbooks.org/-Fzcd

This content is provided to you freely by EdTech Books.

Access it online or download it at https://edtechbooks.org/k12blended_ela/ela_pers.