YLT iatefl

Choice in the Secondary ELT Classroom – Reflections & Suggestions


Katherine Bilsborough

I started thinking about Choice in explicit terms a couple of years ago. Whenever I’m researching aspects of learning or teaching – for a writing project,  a teacher training event, or a blog post, I pause to reflect on what I’m reading,  thinking about how it relates to classroom practice. I started noticing that whichever theory I happened to be reading about, when I transferred it into practice, the best practice always involved offering a choice of some kind to the learners. Things like critical thinking, problem-solving and collaboration almost always involve some element of decision-making or Choice.

Why is it important to offer teenagers Choice?

Despite the fact that educationalists such as Piaget or Montessori have been extolling the benefits of a democratic classroom for centuries, teachers still tend to take an authoritarian approach inside the classroom. This is especially true when it comes to teenagers. In the real world teenagers are constantly making choices: what to wear, which music to listen to, where to hang out at the weekend, which football team to support, when – or whether – to do their homework. When they come to class they suddenly find their freedom to choose has disappeared. All of a sudden they are being told what to do, how to do it and when to get it done by. Many teachers are reluctant to let their students take part in a more democratic learning process.

Pandora’s box

Despite not having conducted any formal research, over the years I’ve trained hundreds of secondary school teachers, taught and observed classes of teenagers and experienced secondary education when my own children were at school. Although most teachers acknowledge the arguments for a more democratic learning environment, many are often nervous about what they see as relinquishing control, of opening the lid of a Pandora’s box of potential chaos and mayhem. Why invite disaster in, when it’s easier to just lay down the rules?

Including more Choice doesn’t need to be painful

Teachers need to see the benefits of offering choice and to understand how important it is to equip their learners with the skills they need to make responsible choices. Decision-making is a 21st Century Skill. Our lives are filled with problems to be solved: at home, at school, in the workplace and in the world at large.

Here are a few simple ways of adding opportunities for choice to your secondary classroom:

1. Odd or even?

Let your students decide whether they want to answer the odd or even questions in a language exercise. Most exercises become increasingly more complex as they progress from number 1 to number 10 (for example) so you needn’t worry about students not practising more complex language.

2. Alternative personas

Let your students choose, if they wish, an alternative persona when they do a speaking or writing activity. This is especially good for personalised activities which might not always be appropriate. By giving a student permission to be someone else, you avoid potential embarrassment. A seemingly harmless writing assignment such as ‘How I spent my summer holidays’ is divisive when some students went on safari while others stayed at home because holidays are unaffordable. Alternative personas are a great way of fostering empathy, respect and understanding too, especially if a student becomes a person with a different gender, ethnicity or age, for example.

Choice

3. The order of events

Give your students a class vote to decide the order in which a number of classroom activities are done. Obviously this will only work when one activity doesn’t need to follow or precede another.

4. DEAR time

Encourage students to read by setting up a DEAR time routine (Drop Everything and Read). This can be done in a number of ways but the most important thing is that students choose how and what to read: fiction, non-fiction, a magazine article, a blog post, a film review – anything – as long as it’s in English and is age-appropriate and inoffensive. At a specific point during a lesson, announce DEAR time and set an example by picking up something to read yourself.

5. Choosing homework

Let your students decide what their homework should be and how long they should have to do it. This is best done by having a discussion about the purpose of homework and how homework can and should help the learner become better at – in this case – English. I’m convinced that when students are given a choice over their homework task, more homework gets done.

6. Presenting homework

Let students choose how to present their homework. They might also enjoy taking part in a brainstorming activity to think of possible alternatives. For example, some more traditional writing tasks could be done on paper or online, as an audio or a video, as a poster presentation or a slide show.

I’ve suggested the ideas above with the teacher in mind. Giving students choice doesn’t have to mean more work for the teacher. I’m also convinced that there is a direct correlation between students who are able to participate in their own learning process and increased motivation … but that’s a blog post for another day!


Katherine is one of 30 YL ELT professionals taking part in YLT SIG’s web conference ’30 Pearls of YLT Wisdom’. This free public-access event takes place  24 – 26 February 2017 and you can join from the following link: http://iatefl.adobeconnect.com/yltsigwebinars

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Blogger's Bio

Katherine - Katherine Bilsborough is a freelance ELT author, content developer and teacher trainer. She has written course books for many of top ELT publishers as well as online courses and mobile learning materials for the BBC and the British Council. She writes monthly lesson plans for www.teachingenglish.org.uk and is the author of ‘How to write primary materials’, published by ELT Teacher 2 Writer. Katherine curates the Free and Fair ELT Facebook page and regularly gives face-to-face and online teacher training workshops. One of her interests is the link between a democratic classroom and motivated learners.



  1. Totally agree with everything here… I am trying a new way of assessing my teens this year. 10% of their mark has been “made available” for students to get however they choose. Throughout the term, I offer various activities and it’s up to the students to decide if they do them or not (depending on interests, skills… some love our wiki and others not so much, so they choose other things to do…) Our learning environment has become so much more positive since my students have been given choices… If all goes well I would like to see that 10% become more…

    1. Great to hear from you Lisa. I love the idea of making 10% of the assessment a matter of choice. I haven’t heard of that before. I’d love to hear more about how it all goes. I’m convinced that more choice = more motivation and engagement. Good luck! Your students are lucky to have a teacher like you.

    1. Thanks Amy! It’s always nice to read positive feedback. I appreciate the time you’ve spent posting a comment.
      Katherine

    1. Ha! Free time. That’s the difficult bit, isn’t it? We really should make ‘me time’ though, whether it’s for reading, partying or flopping on the sofa with Netflix. Kath

  2. Bye the way Rachael (just realised it’s the same Rachael) I LOVED your session yesterday in the ’30 Pearls of YLT Wisdom’ webinar. Thank you!

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