Professional Development

Betsy Parrish: Placing learners at the centre of teaching

Betsy Parrish

Betsy Parrish is a professor in ESL/EFL teacher education at Hamline University in St. Paul, Minneapolis. She has worked as an ESL/EFL teacher, teacher educator, writer and consultant for over thirty years, with experience in numerous countries. She is the author of Teaching Adult English Language Learners, A Practical Introduction, recently published by Cambridge University Press. In this blog, Betsy discusses the principles of learner-centred teaching.

Learner-centred teaching entails considerable teacher planning and direction

Ask English language teachers just about anywhere whether their classroom is learner-centred and they will most likely reply, “yes.” After all, isn’t that what we all strive for? What does “learner-centred” mean?  Does it mean that teachers let go of control?

First of all, learner-centred teaching does not mean leaving learners to their own devices; it actually entails considerable planning and direction. Also, a learner-centred view of teaching recognises that all learners come to class with rich knowledge and experiences; it acknowledges that each learner brings different language and learning abilities. So, a truly learner-centred approach provides a learning environment that is more likely to address the diverse needs of learners.

Learner-centred instruction means allowing for variation in how a particular curriculum is implemented based on the group of learners in front of us. Also, it means promoting skills and strategies for learner autonomy inside and outside of the classroom. However, this may sound challenging for busy teachers, but if we keep the principles in Figure 1 in mind as we plan for instruction, we can assure that our practices will likely appeal to a wider range of learner needs and abilities.

Figure 1 Principles of learner-centred instruction (Parrish, 2019)

The principles and examples in practice

There are many ways to address these learner-centred principles in the classroom. I’m sharing some very practical ways that I have found particularly productive in a variety of settings (primary, secondary, adult and higher-ed). Think about how these principles and practices could apply in your setting.

Learners’ knowledge and experiences are validated

  • Always start a lesson by activating learners’ prior knowledge on the topic(s) for the day.
  • Use tools such as K-W-L: What do you know? What do you want to learn? What did you learn? Conduct a short Kahoot quiz of learners’ prior knowledge on a topic.


Content of instruction is relevant to the learners’ needs and interests

  • Conduct regular needs assessments, not just at the onset of a course.
  • Share learning outcomes for a unit and invite learners to prioritize those based on their needs (I can do that; I need more work on that).
  • Use four corners for group goal setting. Post signs that represent learning content, outcomes, or even processes for learning in the four corners of the room. Learners move to the corner of the room that represents their greatest need or interest and share why.


Learners make choices about content and classroom activities

  • Differentiate tasks and provide options for final learning products, e.g. write a report, or create a poster, PowerPoint, podcast, or short video.
  • Use the Question Formulation Technique (Santana and Rothstein, 2011) as learners work with a reading, explore a new topic, or prepare for a project. Learners generate questions and categorize them into closed- and open-ended: What are the pros and cons of each?  What happens if we turn closed questions into open-ended questions? Then they prioritize and use these questions during a lesson or unit.


Classroom interactions and tasks represent how language is used in the real world

  • Consider the means by which we communicate to complete a task- digitally, face-to-face, in writing- and create tasks accordingly, e.g. create Google forms that mirror tasks learners need to complete online such as requesting an appointment or making a complaint to a landlord.
  • Consider what is truly “authentic” use of language for a particular group of learners.


Learners’ first languages and cultures are viewed as a resource for learning

  • Encourage translanguaging, using the L1 as a resource, when exploring sources, in discussions or for note-taking.
  • Compare languages to develop metalinguistic awareness (How are linguistic features similar or different?)


Classroom tasks challenge learners and promote higher-order thinking skills

  • Develop tasks where learners create new ideas.
  • Recognise that learners may have prior formal school experiences that focused on regurgitation of facts and discouraged attempts to challenge assumptions (Parrish, 2015). Help learners develop language needed to express critical thinking, for example, English phrases used to support ideas (An example of this is…; In the text it said that…), or challenge others’ opinions (Another way to look at this could be…).


Learners acquire strategies for learning inside and outside of the classroom

  • Name strategies that are practiced during lessons, e.g. making predictions about a text based on images, titles or headers; categorising new vocabulary into logical groups; using graphic organisers as a note-taking tool.
  • Ask learners to keep a learning log: How did I use English outside of class? How did I manage the situations in English? What did I do when I couldn’t understand?
  • Model and promote “think-alouds” of how to find answers in a reading or listening passage.


Consider using this list of principles with colleagues to generate your own inventory of learner-centred practices and strive to make your classes as learner centered as possible!



Parrish, B. (2019) Teaching adult English Language learners: A practical introduction. Cambridge UK: Cambridge Univeristy Press.

Parrish, B. (2015). Meeting the language needs of today’s adult English language learner: Issue brief.

LINCS ESL Pro Project. Washington DC: US Department of Education, Office of Career, Technical and Adult Education.

Rothstein, D., & Santana, L. (2011). Teaching students to ask their own questions. Harvard Education Letter, 27(5), 1-2.


Read Betsy’s recent blog posts: 

Start the year out right with a professional development plan!

The changing focus of adult ESL

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