Volume VI - 2001

Choice + Interest = Enthusiasm for the Target Language
by Greg Briscoe

Greg Briscoe is an Assistant Professor of Spanish in the Department of Modern Languages and Intercultural Studies at Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green, KY. He has a Teaching Certificate in TESOL, does interpretation and translation, and is active in the Hispanic community in Bowling Green.


      This article deals with increasing individual expression as a means of motivation in language learning. The main point behind this approach is that expanding the opportunity for students to express personal interests and experience makes the target language more meaningful, and improves their affective reaction to it. This in turn results in increased confidence and lower anxiety. Through discussion and several examples, I will show how giving students greater freedom of choice in a variety of contexts makes them more involved, and gives them a sense of validation, increasing their interest.

The Importance of Choice

      It is very important that we give students the freedom to choose what they want to talk about whenever possible. An activity that involves choice is one I call "Lost Luggage." It deals with clothing and related vocabulary, and consists of a role-play situation with a problem to solve. The activity begins by asking students to pretend that while traveling to a Spanish-speaking country, all their luggage and clothing are lost by the airline. It could be several days or even weeks until they receive their belongings. Therefore, they must buy a completely new wardrobe. The class is asked to pretend that the classroom is a market, or shopping district in their country of destination. Volunteers are sought to be vendors for individual categories of clothing, and the remaining students must "shop" to assemble their wardrobes. When they are finished, each student is asked to hand in a completed list of what s/he has purchased. In order to be sure that the task includes a wide range of vocabulary, students are instructed that their wardrobe must include at least one item from each of several categories: footwear, pants for men and women, (and/or women's skirts and dresses), shirts, or shirts and blouses, outerwear, underwear, and accessories if desired.

Choice + Interests = Enthusiasm

      Each time I have done this, it goes over very well, and I believe there are two main reasons. First, the activity requires students to use their imagination. This allows their minds to step outside of the formal classroom environment and overcome inhibitions about speaking the target language. Second, is the importance of individual choice, which opens the door for expressing individual interests. The responses that students have given me confirm the positive correlation between individual choice, the expression of personal interests (e.g. in selecting their own wardrobes), and enthusiasm for the target language. As I have moved around the class observing and chatting with students, their enjoyment in being able to express their own interests has been evident as several have "shown off" their lists. They take a distinct pleasure in the opportunity to let their personalities shine through showing their taste in clothes. I have also noticed that students seem more relaxed about using Spanish, and I have even been surprised and pleased by their eagerness to speak it! There is a distinct impression that the way they show off their choices and their enthusiasm for the language relate directly to the personal affirmation that comes from placing the expression of their interests and personalities center stage. I also emphasize choice for the students who serve as "vendors"by having them choose their own product lines, set their own prices, etc. The enthusiasm of these vendors easily matches that of the "shoppers." This has led to some earnest street-corner hawking (most notably one student crowing "¡ZA-PA-TOS!" ["Shoes for sale!"]), not to mention special offers, and complaints from student "shoppers" about "vendors" who drive too hard a bargain. All of this lends a refreshing dose of reality to the experience.

Contributing to Content

      In a case such as the "Lost Luggage" activity, the choices are based on a specific, or restricted subject matter, i.e. clothing-related vocabulary. Individual choice can also be an effective motivator by giving students the opportunity to make significant contributions to content. I make a consistent effort to allow students to contribute generously to class content. I will cite two examples. The first comes from a lesson on using nouns and definite articles for making general statements in Spanish. To make a general statement about the nature of a particular noun, or state an opinion about it, a definite article must be used with the noun in Spanish. In English one says "Chocolate is good" (no article), however in Spanish, a definite article must be used with the noun: "El chocolate es bueno". While working with an advanced group of students on this concept, I wanted to make the rule more meaningful by having them see immediate relevance. I decided to ask each student to write down the three most important issues to them in their current semester and write their name on their paper. Each issue was to be expressed by a definite article and noun following the pattern in Spanish, and used in a sentence. I then collected the papers to play a game I have used several times. In the game, I select a paper and read one of the three items, without telling the class to whom the paper belongs. Next, three students are called in front of the class, including the student whose response was read, and the rest of the class is told that the item read out loud was written by one of these students. The remainder of the class then needs to figure out who actually made the statement by questioning all three of the students. Each of the students called out from the class is instructed to answer the questions in a convincing way in order to persuade their peers that s/he is the person who made the statement in question. When the class as a whole feels they have asked enough questions to know which student is telling the truth, each one votes for the student they find most convincing. After voting, the student who actually wrote the item in question is identified. These steps can be repeated as many times as desired.

The Death of My Favorite Shoes

      The interest level was noticeably high. The focus on issues important to each individual student combined with the general interest on the topic to make the class session and concept relevant, in addition to creating a great deal of intrigue. By their facial expressions and emotions, it was easy to see that they were curious to know what really mattered to one another about their experiences, in addition to finding out more about each others' personalities. Such a focus on individuality bears fruits in making students feel more comfortable in expressing their personalities as several examples show: (Original student wording is used in Spanish examples, except where errors would change the intended meaning.): "La clase de francés Es un circo." (French class is a circus), "El muerto de mis zapatos favoritos Es mi tristeza." (The death of my favorite shoes is my despair), "Las viajes cuando ve[o] MI novio son la motivación [del semestre]." (Trips to see my boyfriend are the motivation [behind the semester]). This is even evident in a personal twist given to answers that could be considered "predictable": "La tarea Es continua." (Homework is unending), "No conozco al [el] sueño éste semestre." (Sleep is unknown to me this semester). I use this game with other topics from time to time, but have never seen a class perk up quite like this one: the student-produced content really made a difference. Each time a new set of students was called in front of the class, they were genuinely in suspense to know who was telling the truth. The content also made a difference with this particular class in their eagerness to use Spanish. I should add that some of the students' responses (including a few of these examples) were a little off the mark with respect to the use of nouns and articles in Spanish to make general statements. This is understandable given the foreignness of this rule compared to English and these students' lack of exposure to it. However, with some minor modification, I was able to adapt several answers to fit the lesson topic, and in other instances, I used the variations as reinforcing teaching opportunities.

'Aprieto' Means 'Tight Spot'

      The second example is from an activity built around teaching how to say what someone would do in certain circumstances. In Spanish, this is expressed by the conditional verb tense. I was working with an intermediate class in this instance, and I again looked for a way to relate the concept to students in a way that they could create the content based on their experience and interests. I introduced a new word "aprieto", which means a "tight spot" in English, i.e. a tricky, or difficult situation to get out of. I asked each student to think of several "aprietos" and write them down. Then, they were organized in small groups, and one at a time, each student was asked to explain what s/he would do if they found themselves having to deal with one of the aprietos. For each aprieto a student responded to, another student in the group was instructed to ask the first student two follow-up questions based on the original answer.

      As in the previous example, the focus on personal content was successful in generating interest and enthusiasm in the use of Spanish. This seemed most obvious from the genuineness and sense of humor in the exchanges. One student, when asked what she would do if her roommate didn't do her share in cleaning house, said she would tell her to do it, would tell her more forcefully a second time if needed, and would even throw out her clothes if they remained on the floor. There was an indignance in her voice expressed by an increased seriousness in tone with each level of additional action she said she would take. Judging by her emotional reaction, this aprieto stirred real convictions in her, something that couldn't happen if the topic didn't really matter to her. The sense of humor expressed by many students in this activity shows that they are comfortable with a prominent role for individuality in contributing to language learning. This follows from the logic that individuality stimulates not only interest, but gives a sense of validation to students, which corresponds to more confidence, comfort and lowered inhibitions. There are examples of this humor in many aprietos: "Tu mejor amigo roba el banco" (Your best friend robs a bank), "Tu estás en El cuadro [un cuarto] con UN mil arañas" (You're in a room with 1,000 spiders), "Tu madre es en carcel" (Your mother is in jail), and "Tienes UN novio que no te quieres [Tienes UN novio que no quieres]" (You have a boyfriend you're not in love with), "Recibes UN corte de pelo que Es muy corto" (You get a haircut that is too short), "Tu novio/novia te compra una camisa que detestas" (Your boyfriend or girlfriend buys you a shirt you can't stand). There was also an anecdotal exchange between a couple of students worth mentioning because it shows the degree of personal expression possible with an emphasis on individual contribution. While one of the two students was looking up how to say "to cry" in her dictionary so she could say what she would do if her boyfriend broke up with her, she came across a postcard of Leonardo DiCaprio and said "La pictura de mi novio" (A picture of my boyfriend). I found it interesting that she would feel comfortable bringing up a relatively personal topic, however serious or not her interest in Leonardo DiCaprio might be.

Outcomes and Ownership

      There are also benefits to encouraging individual expression in giving students freedom to determine the outcomes of communicative tasks. Involving students in contributing to outcomes has a positive affect on raising interest similar to contributing to content. However, I believe it is more important that when students have the opportunity and responsibility to give closure to their communicative efforts, they acquire a sense of ownership of, and identity with the target language. Succeeding in going "full circle" lets them experience the potential the language has for self-expression. Determining the outcome is what is at the heart of the "Lost Luggage" activity (i.e. choosing your own wardrobe). Combined with the chance to create the content through their choices, this accounts for a lot of the enthusiasm the students showed. An activity I have used in an upper-division class puts students center stage as far as determining outcomes. In this activity groups of four or five students are asked to collaborate on and report the solution to a dilemma presented to them. On one occasion, a group's situation was to decide whether to take a high-paying job in an attractive environment (California), or a lower paying, but more interesting job closer to home (Kentucky). These choices, and the focus on student involvement in the outcome called upon the group to really examine their values. The students' response was thoughtful and well-reasoned, indicating that their experience was meaningful.

      An important technical aspect of adopting an individualized approach is choosing subject matter that can be adapted to specific language features, that stimulates general interest, and yet inspires individuality. A useful question for identifying such topics is, "What experiences are integral or central to students' lives?", or "What matters to students?" The things that matter to them are the things that occupy their thoughts, desires, time, and energy. A short list might include: daily routine, common experiences (celebrations, social life, traditions/holidays, vacations), preferences (opinions, likes, dislikes), relationships (friends, family or acquaintances), new experiences and change, the future, the past, work, and diversions. These general sample topics appeal to diverse groups without sacrificing the potential for individual expression. At the same time, it is easy to see that they are applicable to a wide range of communicative needs and grammatical skills.

      The enthusiasm and interest in these three in-class activities-"Lost Luggage", the game of matching students with their personal statements vis-a-vis the semester, and interviews with classmates about aprietos-shows a correlation between encouraging individualization and a positive perception of the target language. Placing students' interests and experiences in a central role lets the target language become a means of self-expression, making it and the classroom more interesting because what they are all about is the students' lives. The responses of several of my students confirm this. Their comments include "I think it's better that a student gets to choose what to talk about. It's stimulating", "(It) makes class more interesting...because you're able to project your own interests or abilities into class...and kind of make it your own, in terms of getting out of it what you want". In addition to making class more interesting, one student commented that it helped her develop more advanced skills. She said: "You have to think of things on your own that you wouldn't otherwise and it gets you past the basics".

Research on Individualization

      Researchers and writers in foreign language education and other fields agree on the effectiveness of increasing student contribution to input. In analyzing innate human interests and needs in Teaching Languages: A Way and Ways (1980), Stevick says that a language course that relates to personal goals and what is personally meaningful will be more effective. He gives an example of a language teacher who came to understand this by reflecting on her career. Looking back, she found that when she was untrained and encouraged students to express their feelings, they achieved greater language production than later on when she was motivated by a "textbook dominant" attitude, and focused on error correction as a means of speeding progress (5). Stewart (1989) summarizes the important relationship between individualization, interest, motivation, and the desire to succeed by saying: "individualization of instruction...makes it possible to meet the total spectrum of student abilities, interests, and needs...[and] thus success is within the reach of every student" (25, 26). Models in several disciplines promote the effectiveness of individualization in motivating students, for example, art (Isgro 1993), computers (Strot 1998), and science (Druger 1998).

      Research also points out the soundness of an individualized approach with respect to the fundamentals of learning. This can be linked to the central role of background knowledge in an individualized classroom, and the importance of reaching out to learners with different learning styles. Concerning background knowledge, Burns and Klingstedt (1988) state that "The more the learner applies what is learned in daily living, the more likely the information or skill will become permanently learned" (418). This is confirmed by Ausubel (1968, 1978) and Omaggio (1986), among others. Johnson (1982) found a positive correlation between the presence of background knowledge and the rate of learning. I believe that the high content of daily living in the above- mentioned activities has a great deal to do with their popularity, by making class content both more familiar and interesting. Stewart's comment in the preceding paragraph that individualization "makes it possible to meet the total spectrum of student abilities, interests, and needs." suggests that individualization is also effective in activating different learning styles (25) (my italics) .

Learner Confidence

      The effect of individualization on learner confidence, mentioned at the outset of the article should not be overlooked. Giving a central role to individualization sends a message to students that their ideas are important in learning the target language. This can't help but strengthen their confidence in these ideas. The fact that the teacher trusts the students with a greater role will add to their confidence in a personal sense as well. One of the best examples of this that I have seen was in a first semester German class I observed taught by a colleague. She encouraged and expected student involvement in all aspects of the class, from their personal input to curriculum, to asking students for original explanations of unique meanings and grammatical concepts in German, to explanations of rules, and answering each others' questions. Her students were involved in ways I had never thought of. I don't recall ever being in a class where students were as interested in the activities, in speaking the language, and were so comfortable and eager to participate. Personal confidence and confidence in individual abilities also helps students to become more independent learners. A student commented to me that she liked contributing her own ideas because, in her own words, "It makes you think...(and it) makes you think of more words...(and) how to say things on your own".


      As the example activities and student comments show, personal involvement is an effective motivator to interest in learning a foreign language. Putting students' ideas and experiences center stage makes the target language come alive. It increases the comfort level in the classroom which lessens the "performance anxiety" often associated with using the foreign language. The confidence of students will grow from the increased opportunity to contribute, and they will gain valuable experience in developing creativity and becoming independent learners. Research links individualization with background knowledge and different learning styles, and has demonstrated the success of applying individualization in several different fields. Adapting subject matter to course curricula should take into account choosing topics that really matter to students, yet also stimulate general interest.


Ausubel, David, Joseph D. Novak, and Helen Hanesian. 1968. Educational Psychology: A Cognitive View. New York: Holt, Reinhart and Wiknston.

-----. 1978. Educational Psychology: A Cognitive View. New York: Holt, Reinhart and Winston.

Burns, Richard W and Joe Lars Klingstedt. 1988 "Excellence through High-Quality Individualization." The Clearing House, 61, 417-418.

Coleman, Mary Ruth. 1996 "How to Reward Achievement: Creating Individualized Learning Experiences." Gifted Child Today Magazine, 19, 48-49.

Druger, Marvin. 1998 "Creating a Motivational Learning Environment in Large Introductory Science Courses." Journal of Natural Resources and Life Sciences Education, 27, 80-82.

Isgro, Carol. 1993 "Creative Individuality." School Library Media Activities Monthly, 9, 18-20.

Johnson, Patricia. 1982 "Effects of Reading Comprehension on Building Background Knowledge." TESOL Quarterly 16, 512.

Omaggio, Alice C. 1986. Teaching Language in Context: Proficiency-Oriented Instruction. Boston: Heinle & Heinle.

Stevick, Earl W. 1980 Teaching Languages: A Way and Ways. Rowley, MA. Newbury House Publishers.

Stewart, William J. 1989 "Helping Students Through Rediscovering Individualization of Instruction." American Secondary Education, 18, 25-28.

Strot, Melody. 1998 "Individualizing Instruction with Computer Applications." Gifted Child Today Magazine, 21, 40-42.

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