How to make your student a good language-learner

06.10.2021

I’ve heard a lot about a rare breed of good language-learner who are always active, attentive, and engaged. It’s time to debunk this disturbing myth of picture-perfect students: everyone deserves to be called good. It’s just that this good differs.

Focus on the good habits

The first thing to know: the concept of a good language learner isn’t the brainchild of some grumpy teachers who were eager to label promising learners and “language losers”. It’s a whole area of academic studies that have existed since the 1970s.

Researchers aimed to design a checklist of efficient language-learning habits to support students who are less skilled in language acquisition.  

According to the first collaborative checklist the researches made, good students:

  1. can determine their learning style;
  2. can immerse themselves in the learning process;
  3. learn that every language isn’t just a strict system, but also a way of communication;
  4. whenever possible, plan on deepening their knowledge;
  5. prepared to cope with the difficulties and demands of learning a second language.

After that, the process of expanding the list has started. It has been added that children would be willing to make mistakes, have above-average IQ, be confident, and learn from helpful patterns of their native language.

Now take a moment to think about all the learners you’ve had throughout your teaching career: how many students fit this description?

Teach and “rewire”

When I start working with new students, I experience the need “to rewire” them quite often. Then, after a few hours of classroom observation, I’m able to connect the dots and define what “good learner” skills the students have. It’s great if they have all, but usually, some or most are lacking.

The teacher’s mission is to decide if those missing elements of “a good language learner” can be enhanced during the learning/teaching process.

That’s exactly what I mean by “rewiring”. Teachers need to determine whether «bricks» such as no self-confidence and other impeding psychological features occur only in the classroom or outside of it as well. If something lies beyond your competence, don’t hesitate to discuss it with your student or their parents. You should assist your student to acquire language skills in the best possible way, but timely observation of what is in and out of your “teaching zone” is a must.

What could be enhanced?

Currently, there is a great deal of confusion on how to improve language learning habits and help our students become better language learners. Teaching as a profession now often includes coaching and psychological support. It is important to employ our critical thinking skills here to ensure we are not taking unnecessary risks on a professional or personal level. Here are some of the most important things that relate to language teaching. Let’s call it “the zone of our professional competence”.

Motivation

It can be internal, external, and integral. The possible challenge you may face is how to transform initially external motivation to internal, the one that proves to be a guarantee of speedy progress. Yet, students who start attending classes being extrinsically motivated are still the biggest group, especially among kids and teens. Their parents want them to have a good command of the language and, as a result, more career and life prospects. Some of them usually get used to the style of teaching that can hardly be called learner-friendly/centred.

You may transform the type of initial motivation through giving personalised praise and feedback. Paying attention to every little success of your students works miracles. According to one of my students, the attitude of her ups and downs in learning English motivated her to learn more and communicate in class using L2 only, not to say about broadening language goals far beyond exam preparation.

Articles about motivation:

Motivational strategies in the language classroom by Zoltan Dornyei

How to make your teens do things? Intrinsic and extrinsic motivation

Self-confidence and willingness to take risks

Learning a language implies taking risks: once learners are in the real world, there will be a need to communicate. Some will be ready, but some will not. Students who are risk-takers are willing to collaborate with teachers and co-learners, eager to receive feedback, and feel ok while making errors. It’s not a surprise that their attitude paves the way to success.

How to “rewire” those who think they’ll never achieve goals?

Here traditional pep talks need to have a supplement. Why? Without a good, rock-solid reason, students of this type have trouble believing in themselves. In terms of language learning, this reason lies in pinpointing the real success students have gained. When I was working with groups, I had a similar scenario where the self-confidence booster for my student was to help others pronounce words correctly and, when possible, assist them. Plus, she was a perfectionist, and this success meant a lot to her.

Good to know: language learners’ confidence may be enhanced, but some things are strictly cultural or need psychological guidance beyond teaching.

For example, when a highly conscious attitude prevents learners from making even a minor mistake. They are aware that taking risks is important but opt for intentional slow progress and are not ready to sacrifice the correctness itself.

Useful article How to get out of the comfort zone?

Learning styles’ awareness

Test new students before starting to teach: typically, students may articulate what task formats are the hardest, hard but possible, and easy to deal with. It will, of course, provide you with an idea of what kind of learner they are, but students themselves might be still unaware of their learning style.

Test in English, with visuals to make the test easier for non-natives.

Test in Russian for beginners.

Video on determining your learning style  

When knowing what suits them better, students will use good learning strategies based on their preferences in comprehension.

Learning styles are actually tightly intertwined with learning strategies.

For example, some meta-cognitive strategies correlate with kinesthetic perception. They include considering physical surroundings while learning: with no distractors, calm and comfortable atmosphere. Everything matters: from the chair they sit on to the way the pens are organised on the table. 

Cognitive strategies correlate with a wider range of styles. Auditory learners and visuals, when dealing with vocabulary, will use different approaches. In my current teaching practice, I have a student who is virtually perfect at recognising information while listening. Knowing that, he, his mum, and me are always seeking ways to alter class and homework in a way that ensures auditory perception. 

Now, let’s summarise everything into a brief checklist.

To promote students to become good language learners, we should:

  1. Help them discover their learning style and let them count on it while learning various language items.
  2. Discover a painless way of giving feedback to make errors work for students.
  3. Turn them into being self-motivated by praising and engaging them in topics and exercises of interest. 

I hope that all the above-mentioned will help us all to remember that a good language learner isn’t a mythical creature. When assisted to transform their motivation, taught that taking communicative risks is fine, and knowing their learning styles, each will have a surefire chance to become not just a good, but an excellent language learner!

More information on the topic

Tips How to Stop Translating and Start Thinking in English

Habit to Learn Mob 

A video on the topic:

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