May 15, 2020

Focus on the learner – How activities are built based on the needs of students of Modern Languages


When planning to teach a lesson to a group of learners, I always want to know the language level of my students and the learning needs they have, that is, in what contexts and for what purposes they will have to use the language after they finish the course. I would also like to know what kind of language courses they followed in the past and what pros and cons they could find in the methods used in the lessons.

Let us consider the case of a group of learners I taught at the early stages of my career, and what kind of activity I recommended for them, based on their most frequent errors

Group characteristics

The students are highly motivated, indeed they make an effort to participate in all activities without giving up. Almost everybody studied English at school. There is just one student who has never studied English before, but she is curiously one of the most fluent1 in the class, and she has good pronunciation too.

The overall level of the students is good, they are successful in performing the tasks suggested by the Pre-Intermediate coursebook2 we are using as a reference. Some of them are very keen to speak. Others are not accurate but try to speak as best as they can. Finally, some of them are very shy and seem afraid of making mistakes. However, they are much more relaxed during pair work and can actually speak very well. One of them seems to prefer traditional grammar, reading or fill-in-the-gaps exercises, and she is less engaged than the others in tasks involving productive skills3. These considerations are based on observing the rate of students’ interventions and their facial expressions during the different activity types.

Personal growth is one of the main reasons they highlighted when they were asked why they wanted to study English. They all maintained that English is essential today, and some of them added a few explanations. Their feedback4 on the lessons varies depending on how challenging the tasks are for them and how effectively the activities are tailored to their needs.

Recommendations for work inside and outside the class

Error chosen: confusion between personal pronouns and possessive pronouns.

Activity chosen: Unit 1, activity A4, page 15, from “English Result, Pre-intermediate Student’s Book”, by Mark Hancock & Annie MacDonald2.

Reason for choosing the activity: it is a simple exercise aimed at helping learners to compare possessive and personal pronouns in various sentences. New sentences are possible to give to the students for further practice.

Examples of new sentences:

6. I have a lot of friends. Some of my/mine friends are younger than me.

7. Julia is not just a friend of me/mine, she’s really my/me best friend.

The activity chosen is a multiple-choice grammar exercise. The students are asked to choose the correct pronoun to complete the given sentences. After choosing the correct form, students can move on to the next stage and formulate similar sentences, this time talking about themselves and personalizing the exercise.

Examples of sentence personalization:

  1. I’ve got a sister and a brother. Their names are Carol and Colin I’ve got a brother. His name is Bruno.
  2. My parents’ names are Pedro and Paula My parents’ names are Lilia and Luciano.

The personalization exercise will provide the means for controlled practice, since the students are going to produce new sentences based on the models they already have, consequently focusing on accuracy rather than on fluency. This means that the students will try to understand and practice given language structures, and in this case the system they have to practice is English pronouns. During the same lesson, a freer practice with a focus on fluency can follow this exercise, so that the structures can be consolidated and used more naturally.

Skill chosen: speaking.

Activity chosen: Unit 6D, activity “Put it all together” n° 16, 17 and 18, page 63, from “English Result, Pre-intermediate Student’s Book”, by Mark Hancock & Annie MacDonald2.

Reason for choosing the activity: students have to discuss what they consider to be the ten most interesting events in their lives. This activity gives enough scope for free practice of speaking skills, because students can choose the topic and the vocabulary to use depending on what they consider most interesting and important in their lives. This activity is clearly focused on fluency, which is something our students really need to improve, since most of them produce a great amount of non-fluent pauses when trying to express themselves, splitting up chunks of language that carry meaning. A free practice activity can give students the opportunity to think less about the systems for a few minutes and shift their attention to the communicative purpose. In the chosen exercise, the communicative purpose is quite clear, because each student will tell a story and the others will listen to it for the purpose of establishing which story is the most interesting. The free speaking practice will let the students be more confident and, if the teacher is able to monitor unobtrusively, it will also be the right occasion for them to dare to express complex thoughts in a foreign language.


  1. Chapter 7. Speaking. 4. Fluency, accuracy and communication. Learning Teaching. James Scrivener. Macmillian.
  2. English Result. Pre-intermediate Student’s Book. Mark Hancock & Annie MacDonald. Oxford University Press.
  3. Chapter 4. Who are the learners? 3. Learners and their needs. Learning Teaching. James Scrivener. Macmillian.
  4. Chapter 4. Who are the learners? 4. Getting feedback from learners. Learning Teaching. James Scrivener. Macmillian.