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The Concourse

TKT Module 1: Background to language learning
Learner characteristics


Everyone is different from everyone else so we must be careful not to stereotype or classify people too easily.
It is very attractive to be able to put our learners in neat little boxes but it just isn't possible and it is almost never very helpful.


Key concepts in this guide

By the end of this guide, you should be able to understand and use these key concepts:

  • learner strategies: where they come from and what good learners do
  • learning styles theories: multiple intelligence, VARK, Honey-Mumford
  • ages
  • cultural influences: Power distance, Uncertainty avoidance, Collectivism and Individualism

Look out for these words like this in the text.
There will be tests at the end of the guide for you to check that you understand the ideas.


Learner strategies

Learning a language, like playing a good game of chess, is not easy and we all have different ideas about how to do it.
The strategies we use in our learning come from three sources:

  1. Our personality
    For example, some people are comfortable talking to strangers, asking questions and making mistakes in a language; some are not.  Some people have good memories for words and like to solve problems; some don't.  This is nothing to do with learning styles – it's just how people are.
  2. Our previous learning experiences
    Adults in particular will often feel uncomfortable if they are asked to try learning in a way that is very different from what they did at school.  For example, if the teacher doesn't lead the class all the time and correct all their mistakes, some learners may feel that they aren't learning.
  3. Our culture
    In some cultures, people take more risks than they do in others.  In some cultures, making a mistake in public is something to avoid and in others, it doesn't matter too much.  In some cultures, talking a lot (and loudly) is OK, in others it is a sign of being immature and silly.  In some cultures, teachers are very authoritative and in others the relationships are more equal.
thinkwrite Task 1: What effect do you think these three areas (personality, experience and culture) will have in the classroom?
Click here when you have thought of and written something.


What strategies do good language learners use?

There has been quite a lot of research in this area but the results are not very conclusive.  Here are nine strategies which some people think that good language learners use.  Do you agree?


Learning styles

This site does not have very much sympathy with learning style theories but the TKT syllabus contains reference to them so you should have some understanding of three of the main ideas.  For more, see the guide to learning styles on this site.
There are well over 70 different theories and most of them (perhaps all of them) are probably wrong.

Theory  Types of learning style  Implications in the classroom
Multiple-intelligence theory
mi theory
7 types of intelligence:
Linguistic intelligence: words and language
Logical-Mathematical intelligence: logic and numbers
Musical intelligence: music, sound, rhythm
Bodily-Kinaesthetic intelligence: body movement control
Spatial-Visual intelligence: images and space
Interpersonal intelligence: other people's feelings
Intrapersonal intelligence: self-awareness
People with high linguistic intelligence make better language learners and teachers.
People with high logical-mathematical intelligence deal more easily with deductive modes of learning.
People with high musical intelligence have better pronunciation
People with good interpersonal intelligence like group work.
Visual learners
learn best by seeing things.  They take in visual information more effectively than other forms of information so they respond well to visual aids, charts, diagrams and so on.
Auditory learners
take in information through their ears and respond well to lectures, discussion, recorded material and so on.
Reading-writing learners
will respond well to written exercises and presentations and to procedures which reinforce the language through getting them to write.
Kinaesthetic learners
will respond well to activities and procedures which allow them to manipulate objects (such as Cuisenaire rods and cut-ups of texts or physical-object matching exercises such as matching a word to a visual image printed on cards).
We should cater for all four learning styles in our planning of teaching.  This means making sure we have a range of activity types to suit all the styles so that all our learners get the kind of input to which they best respond.
Another consideration is to make sure that we don't believe that something that is easy for us with our particular learning-style mix will be easy for everyone.
People with different mixes will not always agree or respond well.
Honey-Mumford (based on Kolb)
honey-mumford doughnut
are flexible and willing to try new ideas and challenges
are very involved and concerned with the present and will try anything once
They are willing to take risks with language
are down-to-earth problem solvers
want to try things out to see if they work in practice and are open to applying language learnt immediately in the real world
like to stand back to think about things
like to consider their options, gather data and look at things from different angles before acting
try to integrate what they see into theories
are open to inductive learning approaches which require them to draw inferences from examples of the language
We should cater for all four types of learners in our planning.  This means making sure we have a range of activity types to suit all the styles so that all our learners get the kind of input and activity to which they best respond.
We should make sure that we don't fall into the trap of thinking that something which is an attractive procedure and task type for us will also appeal to all our students.  Language teachers tend to be activists and pragmatists but our learners do not always follow that pattern.
We should constitute groups for tasks to have a mix for some tasks but not for others because their approaches will be very different.
There is an article on this site which is severely critical of all learning theories.  It concludes that they are wrong, misleading and dangerous.

old and young

Age differences

Again, we must be careful not to characterise people too much but there are some obvious differences between the behaviours of children and adults that affect what we do in the classroom.  Here are some ideas.


The implications are fairly obvious, aren't they?

keep calm

Cultural influences

We must be careful to avoid crude cultural stereotyping along the lines of "All English people are reserved and cold-blooded", of course, but some approaches to learning and studying are obviously culturally produced.
A major body of work in this area has been done by Geert and Gert Jan Hofstede and a good deal of information is available on their website at www.geerthofstede.nl.
There are four ideas which are most useful for us:

Power distance
refers to the amount of authority some people in society have
Uncertainty avoidance
refers to people's willingness to take risks and tolerate uncertainty
Collectivism and Individualism
concern how much people are prepared (or not) to put the needs and good of society before the individual

Here's a table of the relationship between Uncertainty Avoidance and Power distance for some major cultures rather freely adapted from the Hofstede site.

power distance and uncertainty avoidance
For example, Britain, Denmark, Sweden and Ireland have small power distances and weak uncertainty avoidance.  Learners from these cultures will expect a large measure of equality between students and teachers and are willing to take risks.
Students from cultures such as Japan, Portugal and Greece, which have large power distances and low tolerance of uncertainty, may be unwilling to take risks in the classroom and expect the teacher to be in charge.  They may even become anxious if they find that they are expected to experiment with language and work in pairs or groups without the supervision of the teacher.

Here's another considering the second pair of characteristics.

collectivism vs. individualism

Note, for example, that individualistic societies often exhibit small power distances and that collectivist societies usually show large power distances.
This may well affect many facets of classroom dynamics, the way tasks are approached and much else, potentially.  There are two articles on this site which will tell you more.

self test

Self-test questions

Before you go on, make sure you can answer these questions.  If you can't, go back to the sections which give you trouble.

If you are happy with your progress, go on.


Tests and practice for TKT

Test 1 A short quiz
Test 2 A gap-fill test

Return to the Module 1 index: back
or go on to the next guide which is to learner needs.