You decide: letting students choose

By Hall Houston

In many classrooms, everything is up to the teacher. Teachers create lesson plans, list activities, give instructions, and even decide seating arrangements. As a result, students feel like they have a very passive role in the learning process. Why not mix things up a little by giving students some options?

As the years have passed, I’ve grown to respect and honor that students arrive with their own preferences and expectations. In every class, each student has different ideas of what should go on in a lesson. Some might want to concentrate on developing their listening skills, while others opt to focus on grammar, and some might just be there to play games and have fun. While learners may not vocalize their predilections, student preferences often play a part in the success (or lack of success) of any given lesson.

From time to time, I try to give students an opportunity to have a say in what goes on during the class. In this brief article, I will describe a few simple ways to give students a choice. This has several benefits for everyone. First of all, students feel like the class is more democratic, and they have a voice in what goes on. Second, it allows students to become more active in how they spend time in class. Finally, it can give you a clearer idea of what they prefer to do in class, which can make lesson planning easier in future lessons.

Scrivener (2012) is strongly in favor of giving students more options, as means to boosting learner-centeredness. He suggests starting off with small steps, such as providing binary choices and gradually presenting them with more choices, and even big decisions. This approach sounds wise, particularly in a context where students are not used to making choices about their learning.

Teaching materials often contain a few instructions and long lists of questions or exercises. As an alternative, Ur (2016) recommends providing options. For example, students can pick a specified number of questions, or respond to only the questions that they like. She also suggests using “work cards”, small slips of paper each featuring a brief task that is based on the coursebook or teaching material. Teachers can keep a stack of work cards on their desks. Students can go to the teacher’s desk, take a card that appeals to them, and then go back to their own desks to work on it. Once they finish a task, they can choose another work card.

Options can often ameliorate the difficulties of a mixed-ability class. Prodromou and Clandfield (2007) point out that providing two versions of a task, one less challenging and one more challenging, can help solve the difficulties faced when teaching a mixed-level class. This can be done by tweaking the tasks that accompany a text, such as providing more gaps in a gap-fill exercise or including more distractors in a multiple choice question, to increase the challenge. Students can then choose the task that is most suitable for their level.

A bold approach is to request that students choose materials for the class. Stepanek (2015) suggests that learners can supply the teacher with texts they enjoy and want to learn with. As Stepanek puts it, “we can use strategies of the negotiated syllabus method and ask them to find useful materials and decide which activities they would like to try on their own. This activity can improve students’ autonomy and cater for individual learning styles.”

The following are a few recipes for introducing options into your classroom.

Choose what to write (and to whom)

At the beginning of the activity, write all the students names on the board (perhaps not necessary if everyone knows each other’s names). Write in the middle of the board “You can write…”. Then in small circles surrounding “You can write…” write these phrases

  • a complaint
  • a question
  • a compliment
  • an invitation
  • a request for advice
  • a quote
  • a tip or life hack

Draw a line from the words to the center to each circle (mind map style).

Tell the class that they are all going to pass messages to another student. Tell them that if they receive a message, they can write a response and return it to the original author. Next, give each student four slips of paper (I usually use blank business cards). Instruct each student to write a different classmate’s name at the top of each card. After that, tell students to write one of the types of message on the board to each classmate. (You might want to give them an example of each one.) When they are finished writing, tell them to sit quietly until everyone is finished. Once everyone has written all four slips, ask them to circulate and pass the messages.

Choose a topic for discussion

Write four or five blanks at the top of the board. Invite students to think of topics they would like to chat about. Wait for students to come up and write their topics. As a student writes a topic, tell the student to write their name next to it. When the topics are on the board, ask the rest of the class to write their names under one topic. Next, ask students to meet in different areas of the class, according to the topic they chose. Tell them you want to give them ten minutes to discuss their topic. The student who wrote the topic can act as a group leader, and encourage lots of interaction by asking questions. When ten minutes are up, you can call on each group leader to tell you a couple of things that people in the group said. (This is roughly based on the open space technology technique for running meetings.)

Choose an activity

Write a short list on the board, containing three or four activities that you have planned to use in class, and that might appeal to your students (a song, a competitive game, a role play, etc.) Ask the students to think for a minute or two. Next, call on students to vote for each activity, by raising their hands. If two activities get an equal number of votes, then you can either do both activities, or plan to use one activity in the next lesson. Alternatively, you can give them a list of options for the next class. (Option — you can also leave a few blanks on the board and let students write their own ideas.)

Choose texts or other materials

Instead of using a text (or song or video) that is included in your coursebook, invite your students to bring you some texts (songs, videos) that could be used to replace them. Students could also send them to you by e-mail or on a learning platform used by your class. In your spare time, you can look them over and decide which might be perfect for your class. Alternatively, you can let the class vote on the most interesting one.

However, be prepared for unexpected outcomes. In some cases, students might not be open to making decisions, and want the teacher to decide. In other cases, students might strongly disagree on which option is the best. Despite the problems that might occur, I encourage teachers to explore giving options (big or small) in your upcoming lessons.


Prodromou, L. and Clandfield, L. (2007). Dealing with Difficulties. Surrey: Delta Publishing.

Scrivener, J. (2012). Classroom Management Techniques. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Stepanek, L. (2015). A creative approach to language teaching. In: Maley, A. and Peachey, N. eds. Creativity in the English language classroom, pp. 98-103.

Ur, P. (2016). Penny Ur’s 100 Teaching Tips. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Author's bio: Hall Houston currently teaches at National Taipei University of Nursing and Health Sciences in Taiwan. He has a Master’s degree in Foreign Language Education from The University of Texas at Austin. He has done presentations and workshops for Cambridge Assessment and British Council. He is the author of numerous articles and books about ELT including Provoking Thought and Creative Output.