How to Manage Individual Differences in the Language Classroom

Teaching a foreign language implies a complex approach of strategies, methods and skills that will help to achieve the desired results. However, in most cases, classroom activities are designed with a generalized approach to all the learners leaving aside the individual differences among students.

 In this article, we will discuss the most important factors that need to be taken into account while considering individual differences of ESL learners. 

Age 

The issue of age in language learning has long been dominated by the Critical Period Hypothesis, according to which learning a foreign language becomes difficult after a certain age period (puberty period). However, it is quite possible to learn a foreign language in adulthood given sufficient motivation and exposure. In some cases, elder learners may be underprivileged in the ESL classroom due to their age difference from other learners. Teachers may think that they are slow learners and can’t show as good results as others. However, older learners should not be discouraged, since evidence suggests that they can learn language given the right conditions. You can read more on teaching elders by following this link. 

Personality

Personality has been defined as a relatively stable characteristic which accounts for behaviour and cognitive abilities which are distinctive of particular individuals. From my experience, I can state that introverts are more inclined to individual work, “less noisy” activities. On the other hand, extroverts are more likely to be involved in active ESL activities such as group works, presentations, speaking activities, etc. These differences should be considered while designing classroom activities. In some cases, teachers can give more quiet tasks to introverts and active ones to extroverts. However, quiet and noisy activities can be mixed to involve both introverts and extroverts. 

Style

Learning style is defined as the individual’s preferred way of learning. There has been ample research in the investigation of learning styles that work the best for students and all of them show that there is no one style which is defined as more successful than others. However, learning styles should be taken into account while teaching a foreign language. In this article, you can read about learning styles in more detail. According to my observations, classroom activities should be varied enough to focus on as many different styles as possible since learners study the best using the style that works for them.

Learning Strategies

Learning strategies refer to actions taken by the learners for the purpose of learning a language. The principal aim of any learning strategy is to affect how the learner makes choices, acquires, organizes or integrates new knowledge. Strategies can be cognitive (direct interaction with the material to be learnt using various memory strategies to retain the information) and metacognitive (to reflect on and identify their abilities and approaches to learning). Follow the link to get more information on metacognitive strategies. 

Here you can read more on cognitive learning strategies.

Autonomy

Autonomy is defined as the way learners manage their own learning. Contemporary teaching methods focus on providing the learners with the desired amount of autonomy. As a teacher, you can expose your students to a wide range of after-class activities (watching movies, listening to songs/podcasts, keeping diaries, interacting with natives, reading books etc) which promote autonomy. In this way, more autonomous learners will be more satisfied and accomplished. As teachers, it is important to design activities which give room for student involvement, creativity and initiative rather than take control of and responsibility for all their students’ learning process.

Emotional State and Motivation

Emotions and feelings play a crucial role in the learning process. More emotional learners may show lower grades when having feelings of anxiety or sadness. Therefore, it is of great importance to establish and maintain a positive affective atmosphere in order to promote effective learning. Apart from a healthy emotional state, motivation is commonly believed to be the most important factor for success in language learning. Motivation can be extrinsic (when the learners are willing to learn a language because they want to pass an exam, or get a better job) or intrinsic (wanting to learn a language for its own sake following the inner desire to learn a language). Students who are motivated intrinsically show more success in the learning process. The teacher’s role is to do everything possible to keep the motivation high. 

Teachers must carry out extra work to provide students with different goals with a range of individualized activities which best fit their aims and help them progress in their language learning. For example, if the learner is taking a Business English course and needs a lot of practice on report writing alongside the main course, the teacher can provide these learners with a range of tasks on report writing.

Consistent work on the mentioned factors will provide the ESL learners with the feeling of safety, care and individual approach from the teacher thus leading to a more healthy and fruitful classroom atmosphere. 

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