In this post-method era, when so many approaches and methods to language teaching have come and gone, where reflective teachers are no longer thinking in terms of which ‘label’ to follow or which apostle to bow to, it has become more and more evident that TEFL needs to stop contemplating its own navel and turn to general education theories and principles of learning, to reflect on thinking skills, cognitive abilities and the learners’ emotional make up, to embrace technology as a tool and not as the panacea for all ills.
In this context, good learner studies conducted in the late 70’s and 80’s have become much more relevant and worth revisiting.
Many of the studies were conducted in Canada, with notable names and studies listed below in a sample bibliography.
A summary of the various findings of these studies follows below, a compilation of results found in various studies of good language learners who were found to possess an identifiable set of traits and ways of dealing with their language studies, their language use and certain similar attitudes towards language learning and the target language community.
Good Language Learner Characteristics
Good Language Learners …
- Can work well with others in the class/group/team
- Will not feel pressure or anxious about learning a foreign language
- Never feel shy or inhibited about using L2
- Look for every available opportunity to use the target language in and out of class
- Make a point of listening to, understanding and responding to spoken
English without worrying too much about grammar or unknown vocabulary
- Are keen on using study techniques such as word trees/networks, mind maps, etc which are likely to involve attention to form
- Will usually be adolescents or adults rather than a children
- Are analytical enough to notice, categorise and store features of language and its regularities
- Are usually aware of their own and others’ mistakes
- Are motivated towards foreign language learning
- Are motivated through tasks which are involving and challenging
- Are prepared to experiment by taking risks
- Are not afraid of appearing foolish
- Have a high degree of tolerance for ambiguity, unknown words, etc
- Can easily adapt to new/different learning conditions and environments
- Are usually very good listeners and can acquire through listening
- Are also (usually) high achievers in other fields of education
[ A Summary of typical features from a variety of sources/studies; mentioned in H.D.Stern, 1983]
The following questionnaire is one that I created on the basis of of the results of a number of good learner studies. It can be used to raise learner awareness as to what learning habits and strategies they are currently using and point the way to those they need to develop.
Based on the combined findings of a number of Good Learner Studies, this Questionnaire aims to raise metacognitive awareness in learners studying a foreign language and be used as a basis for a lesson or lessons aiming to help students improve their learning strategies fro FL acquisition
You might like to try it out with your learners or on yourself as a learner of any foreign language, including English, if you are a non-native speaking English language teacher.
Are you a Good Language Learner?
1. Do you like working
a. with other learners in pairs or groups?
b. on your own/alone?
2. During the lesson, are you usually
a. relaxed and comfortable?
b. anxious and uncomfortable?
3. While speaking English, are you
a. confident and relaxed?
b. inhibited & shy?
a. look for opportunities to use English in and out of class? or
b. forget all about English when you leave school?
5. Do you
a. prefer not to worry about grammar rules? or
b. worry about grammar so much that you cannot speak?
6. Do you
a. Keep a well-organised notebook from which you can revise easily? or
b. often have to ask your friends for their notes?
7. Are you
a. Aware of your own mistakes? or
b. Unaware of your mistakes ?
8. Are you
a. Able to notice others’ mistakes? or
b. unable to spot them?
9. Do you feel
a. relaxed about making mistakes? or
b. worried about making mistakes?
10. Do you
a. recognise similarities and differences in language or
b. is this difficult for you?
11. Do you learn better
a. by seeing words and pictures or
b. by listening to the language or is this a mystery to you
12. How do you feel about learning English?
a. You enjoy it
b. You hate it
13. Do you
a. enjoy participating in classroom activities or
b. do you prefer to just watch and listen?
14. Do you prefer
a. challenging activities or
b. easier activities?
15. Do you prefer to
a. experiment with language or
b. repeat only sentences you were taught?
16. Are you
a. prepared to take risks or
b. do you avoid risks and prefer to be safe?
17. Are you
a. prepared to be playful and not serious or
b. are you afraid of appearing foolish?
18. To understand a message do you feel
a. Comfortable if you don’t know all the words or
b. Uncomfortable unless you know all the words
19. Do you attempt to communicate orally
a. even if you don’t know every single word, or
b. only when know all the words
20. Do you
a. feel comfortable in your new class or
b. miss your previous teacher and fellow students?
21.Are your feeling towards native English speakers
22. Are you
a. an adolescent/adult or
b. a younger or very young learner?
23. Do you know if you are
a. an analytical learner or
b. not sure of what type of learner you are?
24. Are you better at
a. listening or
Quite obviously, the more a answers you have managed to collect, the closer you tend to be to the ideal profile of the Good Language Learner. Most Good Language Learners average a score of about 70%. If you have scored more than 90%, well then, you are a rare creature indeed!
If you did not score high
If your score is less than the Good Learner average, identify the areas of difficulty and plan a course of action for yourself.
For instance, if you answered B for Question 23, make it a point of training yourself to be a better listener by listening to more tapes, switching regularly to watching English speaking TV channels, You Tube videos and films, listening to TED talks on topics of interest.
How you can help your learners
… Familiarise your learners with these good learner traits
… Remind them of /revise these characteristics actively and often
… Involve your students in deciding on the best ways of acquiring these characteristics
… Show interest in your learners’ progress
… Encourage them to be openly reflective and critical about how they are measuring up
Suggested Classroom activities
- A mini-lecture by the teacher, director of studies or an ‘expert’ – the characteristics mentioned to the learners may be reduced or given fully according to level and age group
- Frequent questions after an activity has been completed
- A class discussion in groups during which the learners work out some ways of helping themselves and each other to develop these good qualities
- Frequent questions to groups and individuals about how they are progressing with regard to any of the dimensions mentioned in the list
- A discussion during the feedback to an activity during which learners discuss how they approached the task, how they feel they did and what course of action they must follow in order to improve
Griffiths, C. , Ed, (2008), Lessons from Good Language Learners, Cambridge University Press
Rubin, J. (1975) What the “good language learner” can teach us? TESOL Quarterly, 9(1), 41–51.
Naiman, N., Fröhlich, M., Stern, H.H. and Todesco, A. (1978) The Good Language Learner Research in Education Series No. 7. Toronto: Ontario Institute for Studies in Education.
Stern, H.H. (1975) What can we learn from the good language learner? The Canadian Modern Language Review, 31, 304–318.
Stern, H.H. (1983) Fundamental Concepts of Language Teaching, Oxford University Press.
Wenden, A.L. (1987) How to be a successful second language learner: insights and prescriptions from L2 learners. In A.L. Wenden and J. Rubin (eds.), Learner Strategies in Language Learning. London: Prentice Hall, 103–117.
About the Author
A teacher, teacher educator and materials writer, Marisa Constantinides is the head of CELT Athens, a teacher education centre established in 1993, She is responsible for the design and training on all courses including Cambridge CELTA and DELTA, face-2-face and online. Marisa has a strong presence in Social Networks, moderates #ELTchat, a weekly discussion on Twitter (recently nominated for an ELTons award in Innovation in Teaching Resources) and maintains a number of blogs (TEFL Matters, #ELTchat, Teaching & Learning Languages, the DELTA course blog, the CELTA course blog). She has published materials for young learners as well as for B2 and C2 level classes.
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