Personalisation activities are activities which focus on the learners themselves, their own experiences and opinions rather than topics in the abstract. They became popular, and started to be built into Communicative Language Teaching, with the rise of the Humanistic Approach, which emphasised the role of positive affect on learning.
What are their uses and advantages?
General advantages include :
1) People often like talking about themselves. Learners are therefore likely to be more engaged by personalisation activities. This increased engagement will mean they enjoy the lessons more leading to greater motivation to participate, and therefore to increased learning.
2) This engagement will also mean that what they are talking to has more emotional significance for them. This will lead to what they are saying being more memorable, - the language they are formulating will be processed at greater cognitive depth and will thus be more likely to be retained.
3) They mean that learners find out more about each other as people and this can improve group rapport. For example, I once had a class of learners composed mainly of rich, bouncy Persian learners (this was before the fall of the Shah) in their late teens and twenties, plus one elderly Japanese who the others virtually ignored and clearly didn't want to work with – until in a Find someone who activity focusing on the present perfect he was asked Have you ever climbed a mountain? and he replied Yes. When pressed for details, he shyly admitted, Everest. He was bombarded with questions and from then became a highly respected member of the group, who the others were more than willing to include.
4) It can also allow them to find out more about the teacher as a person, and thus help develop teacher/learner rapport. I'd argue strongly that if the teacher expects learners to revel information about themselves, then s/he should be willing to do the same. Teacher talk listening activities, where the teacher talks about eg something s/he did at the weekend, something that happened to them as a child, or whatever, are in my experience far more motivating for the learners than the usual coursebook recordings
In addition, personalisation activities have a wide range of specific uses:
1) Grammar practice – eg activities like Find someone who can be used to practice most structures. Click on the link for examples.
2) Fluency development – eg anecdote telling: learners recount a true story about themselves. Again, follow the link for a more detailed explanation.
3) Engagement before listening/reading activities - allowing learners to discuss their own experiences of or opinions on a topic before listening to or reading about it, and then asking them to listen/read to identify whether what was said was similar or different (and how) a) provides an automatic gist reading/listening task, and b) motivates them towards concentrating on the text
4) This sort of activity also activates schemata before the learners meet the text, and brings any topic related language to the forefront of their minds, thus facilitating comprehension
5) Listening practice - see the link above for the usefulness of personalised teacher talk listenings.
6) Encouragement of the use of English outside class using social media - for example, a Facebook page (with restricted membership) can be opened for the class - or if it is a small class, possibly a group of classes at the same level. Learners can be encouraged to post there at least twice a week and to reply to at least two other posts each week. What they post about is entirely up to them. You can look at typical facebook posts to analyse the language and content included and gear the post content to their level. If for instance they are studying the past simple, they can post about something they did the day before, whereas in higher level classes they might be encouraged to look at the English medium press and to link to and comment on articles they have read. Alternatively (and probably preferably) they can just be left to post about anything they want to.
There are, however, disadvantages to the activities which need to be considered before using them:
1) Even if the teacher avoids obviously controversial topics, it’s possible that by chance s/he chooses an apparently innocuous topic that has negative associations for a specific learner. The negative affect produced (the topic may have associations that make the learner feel upset, embarrassed, angry etc) will mean that they do not want to participate and the result will be exactly the opposite of advantage 1 above. This may be particularly important in classes containing eg refugee learners who have escaped horrific backgrounds where they may have been imprisoned, tortured, or lost their homes, friends and family members.
2) Even if no traumatic experiences are involved, some learners may simply not want to reveal personal information to the class. Cultural differences are involved here : for example, in Chinese culture modesty is expected when revealing information about one's own achievements, and discussing them too fully would be seen as boasting. There is also less discussion of daily problems and experiences. Activities which focused on these might therefore be embarassing for a Chinese learner
3) In classes where the learners already know each other well - eg teens in a state school class who see each other all day every day and probably socialise together too - they may already know so much about each other that the interest value of personalised activities is much lower than in eg a private language school where the learners all come from different backgrounds and meet only during lesson time.