Student-Centered Activities

by Katie on December 31, 2007

by Katie | December 31st, 2007  

Brigh-eyed and bushy-tailed … or something like that … in the early stages of my TEFL course I came across a bunch of new concepts. It occurs to me now that when people ask “what is a CELTA (or other certificate course) like?”, explaining some of these – and how we would “practice” them in the course might be a better answer than listing activities.

So what does “student-centered” mean?
Imagine the task is for half the students to pretend they are elderly former celebrities, and the other half to pose as journalists interviewing them. Maybe you’ve just dealt with present perfect and one of the aims is to give students a chance to use that tense in their speech.

One approach might be:
The teacher comes up with questions herself and writes them on the whiteboard, the students do the activity, and then one by one she asks students what their answers were or what their partner said. She then asks some follow-up questions about the content of the answers. If students make mistakes, she gives them the correct answer and they repeat it after her.
(Kind of a caricature, of course, for the sake of the example)

Another approach:
The teacher comes up with a few questions herself as examples, and then ask students in pairs to come up with a few more each; while they are working she writes hers on the board, and then students come to the board to write up theirs.

Students do the activity, then the teacher selects a pair to sit at the front and tell the class one interesting answer that their partner gave. She asks if the class has any questions for the pair, and then asks that pair to select the next pair to speak. There are many ways to do correction- one might be to have developed some hand signs to indicate there is a mistake and ask the student himself to correct it, or ask other students to do so. Another might be to put some “disguised” sentences up on the board (so it’s not obvious that this mistake was John’s, etc.) and students in pairs try to correct them.

This second approach, of course, is more student-centered. It’s my understanding that “level of student-centered-ness” is more like a continuum rather than a yes-it’s-student-centered or no-it’s-not type of thing. I also don’t think the goal of dealing with that concept in the course is to say that one approach is always better than another. Still, there positive things that can come out of taking a more student-centered approach – such as students feeling and being more personally engaged and at least a bit more likely to take responsibility for their learning. I’d also hazard the guess that most native speaker teachers have not grown up with a student-centered approach either, and so that is one reason for practicing it.

My course was five years ago and as I wasn’t blogging then, I don’t have any record of how my trainers introduced the concept. I imagine we made some comparison between two approaches, and then had an opportunity to adapt activities to make them more student-centered. I know during the feedback session, people would comment on this: “It was a good thing that you got the students to write their answers on the board” or “How could that have been more student-centered”?

I’d like to take this opportunity to be a little more reader-centered, so please leave your own comments here, or come up to the post and write them yourself!


Mark Bain January 1, 2008 at 7:53 am


A succinct and informative summary, which I’ll pass on to my trainees as further reading. Initial training courses tend to be intensive, and don’t allow much time for debate – they tend to present the current ‘conventional wisdom’ without much analysis. As a result, trainees often pick up surface features without grasping the underlying concept. For example, I have found that many trainee teachers get students to write on the board, thinking they are making their lesson ‘student centered’. In and of itself, having the students carry out tasks traditionally performed by the teacher isn’t necessarily student-centred in any meaningful sense, especially when they told exactly what to do by the teacher!
Keep up the good work.

Katie January 2, 2008 at 11:20 pm

Thanks, Mark, I’m glad you thought it was useful.

That’s an interesting point that it’s not just getting the students to do what the teacher usually does – could a general (incomplete) explanation involve something like “organizing class in a way that students own ideas set the tone”?

Let me know when your blog is up and running!

DK May 4, 2009 at 12:25 pm

As an experienced ESL teacher teaching abroad I can attest to the dramatic affects that a student-centered paradigm has on class moral, inducing greater self-interest in the class, participation, retention (both from a business perspective, i.e. keeping your students, and from a learning perspective), understanding and student-teacher interaction. It also has side benefits of allowing shier students to work within a smaller attention zone and build their confidence while giving outgoing students a chance to show-off constructively.

I highly recommend it.


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