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An understanding of individual differences" is very important to successful instruction in a second or foreign language' (Oxford, 1999). Discuss.

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An understanding of individual differences" is very important to successful instruction in a second or foreign language' (Oxford, 1999). Discuss.



            Different research studies in the past have been able to consistently show the primary cause and concern as to why many of the second language learners do not succeed – while some learners do well without exerting too much effort, is because of the different attributes of the learner including the personal traits, motivation or language aptitude – or called as the individual differences. With this, individual differences are considered as the “correlational challenge” in second language learning because it generated the most constant predictors of success in second language learning (Doughty & Long 2003). Therefore, understanding of the individual differences is vital to successful instruction in a second of foreign language.

            This first part of the paper will discuss individual differences in a way that it will be easily understood. The author shows the different theories and studies that are connected with individual differences and L2 learning and acquisition. The second part focuses on the different factors that are connected with understanding the way or manner in which the learners differ from one another and how important it is to those that are involved in second-language learning and acquisition, as a teacher and researcher. It will mainly focus on factors that are connected with learning styles, learning strategies, affective variables, other variables such as motivation, aptitude and the types of instruction being used and implemented in L2 learning en including anxiety, age of acquisition, aptitude and gender (Skehan 1991). Finally, it suggests whether or not it is important or practical to understand the individual differences to successful instruct or teach second language.  

Understanding “Individual Differences”

                Individual differences (IDs) pertain on the characteristics or traits of the individual that are different from one another. Thus, it is considered as anything which marks a person as an exceptional and distinct human being (Dörnyei 2005). With this, learners vary in how they get used to and profit from learning instruction. Therefore, describing and explaining the pattern of ID-intervention interactions is considered as vitally and essentially significant to the theories of instructed second language acquisition (SLA) as well as for the effective pedagody. As a result, researches about IDs and its impact on learning, essentially towards second language is considered as a big field of study, with different academic journal focusing on reporting findings regarding every variables of ID (Robinson 2002). In connection, IDs in resource availability, together with the patterns of cognitive abilities that they contribute to are vital to: (1) elucidating differences between learners in the efficiency of second language (L2) instructional treatments; (2) illustrating differences in understood, supplementary and unambiguous L2 learning processes; and (3) giving details about child-adult differences in the process of acquisition, and consequently to any general theory of second language acquisition (SLA) (Robinson 2001).

                It is important to consider that a language teacher focuses on passing on what called language skills or language ability. In connection, acquiring this kind of skill is something that have already experienced and encountered by pupil once or even twice. Undoubtedly, the pupil has been very successful during the first or even the second. However, it is important to consider that acquiring primary language ability is different from that of the acquiring second language. This is because of the fact that the situations and conditions in acquiring the first language are very favorable on the side of the learners, primarily because learning the mother tongue is considered as one of the aspects for survival. In any language, L1 and L2, the knowledge of the language of an individual will be selective, however, while the selection of suitable areas of language is automatic with L1, because it is ordered by the environment and the language of the environment, L2 selection commonly has to be a premeditated and designed plan. Because of these reasons, it is important to focus on the ‘what’ and ‘how’ to teach L2 – these two factors must be defined based on the individual needs of student (Wallwork, 1971). Different people have different ways of learning – which is being influenced by different factors around him or her; this is the same way as different teachers have different ways of teaching. Based on this, understanding individual differences will help teachers of L2 to design and implement an instruction that will ensure successful learning and acquisition of L2.

                Individual differences of learners include factors that are classified under the three areas: learning styles; learning strategies; and affective variables (Ehram, Leaver & Oxford, 2003).

Learning Styles

                Learning is considered as an interactive process between the activities of student and teacher in the given learning environment. These activities are the main factors of the learning process which present broad differences in pattern, style as well as quality (Keefe, 1987). It is important to consider that dilemmas in learning are commonly not connected to the complicatedness of the subject matter but to the type and level of the cognitive process that are necessary in order to learn the material (Keefe 1988). Therefore, if teachers are to effectively focus on the needs of each and every individual, they will be able to recognize and comprehend what individual means, thus, they must relay teaching style to learning style (Gregorc & Ward 1977).

                Students learn in different manner (Price, 1977). According to Caplan (1981), the brain structure can influence the acquisition of language structure. In connection, Schwartz, Davidson and Maer (1975), supported that different hemisphere of the brand have different perception avenues. In connection, the study of Stronck (1980) showed that some types of cells found in some brains cannot be found in others; therefore, differences occur in the entire structure of the brain. With this, “learning style is considered as the biologically and developmentally imposed set of characteristics that make the same teaching method wonderful for some and terrible for others“(Dunn & Griggs 1988). Furthermore, learning style is considered as the core learner variable which influences second language acquisition process and it’s intensely related to the reaction of the learners towards authentic texts and task (Mishan, 2004). According to Kinsella (1995), the concept of learning styles provides a non-discriminatory approach that will help to understand individual differences among various students (Kinsella, 1995).

                According to Willing (1988) and Oxford (Style Analysis Survey (SAS), 1993), there are 5 classification of learning styles including: the use of physical senses (sensory preferences); dealing with other people (introvert/extrovert); handling possibilities (intuitive/random and sensory/sequential); approach to tasks (closure oriented/open learners); and dealing with ideas (global/analytical) (Mishan, 2004; Gregersen, 2000).

A. Sensory Preferences: The Use of Physical Senses

                Sensory preferences pertain on the physical perceptual learning channels that the student is most at ease with (Gregersen, 2000). This is very important in L2 teaching and learning, because it is considered as the primary aspect which affect learning process. In this dimension, there are three types of learner: visual, auditory and kinesthetic or hands-on – with different demand for way of learning. For instance, the visual students can learn comfortably by writing down things and they are stimulated by visual presentation including films, pictures etc. For them, lectures, conversation and other oral directions without visual aid will be very confusing. This is the exact opposite of the auditory learners where in they are comfortable without any visual input, which enables them to enjoy oral directions and lectures. Thus, they favor hearing the language through audio-tapes, speaking, role-plays and discussion. Due to this, there are times, that they have difficulties with written work. Conversely, the last type of learner under this dimension is the hands-on or kinesthetic who prefers lots of movements and activities and working with different tangible objects which made them comfortable with active games and projects. Due to this, for them, sitting at a desk for a long period of time tires them (Mishan, 2004; Gregersen, 2000).

                Sensory preferences alone show a huge difference between individuals in terms of how they will learn. It shows that the presentation of the subject alone affect how an individual might perceive or accept it. Therefore, it is vital to know individual differences in order to plan and design instructions that will motivate L2 learners.

B. Dealing with People

                Sociability is considered as one of the important factors which affect the L2 learning and acquisition. The degree of sociability of an individual depends on a continuum from extroversion to introversion (Mishan, 2004). The extroversion/introversion distinction pertains to one of the many dimensions or traits which together represent the personality of an individual (Ellis, 1995). Extroversion is consists of two important components – sociability or the willingness to partake in different social activities, role plays, etc; and impulsivity – the willingness to take risks, e.g. to take part of the social situations which offer the opportunity for learning secondary language. Introversion pertains on the introverted-type learners that have an autonomous and more methodical approach to learning, desiring to work in autonomous manner or with a partner that they are familiar with (Mishan, 2004).

                There are two major hypotheses about the connection between extroversion/introversion and L2 learning. First, the most widely researched: extroverted learners will do better in acquiring basic interpersonal communication skills (BICS) – this is because of the fact that sociability will help to have more opportunities to practice, to have more input and more success in communicating using L2. Second: the introverted learners will do better at developing their cognitive academic language ability (CALP) because they commonly enjoy academic success because they spend more time reading and writing (Ellis, 1995. 520).

                By knowing these differences, L2 teachers will be able to focus on planning instructions that will be comfortable for the learners.

C. Handling Possibilities

                Intuitive/random and sensory/sequential belong to the style variable which answers the question on how the learner will handle possibilities. Intuitive learners are oriented towards the future; therefore they are able to think in abstract, large-scaled and random manner. This type of learner can decode the main principles regarding how a new language works and see language as a system. Therefore, step-by-step learning is not applicable (Scarcella & Oxford, 1992).

                On the other hand, sensory/sequential learners are the opposite of the first type of learner. These learners’ focuses on the concrete facts, therefore, they favor learning being presented in a step-by-step and organized manner (Scarcella & Oxford, 1992). They need clarity of direction (Mishan, 2004) because they are commonly slow and steady which makes progress at their own pace, however, achieving goals. With this, random and inconsistent lesson plans will affect their learning process (Scarcella & Oxford, 1992).

                Focusing on these two types of learners can help teachers to focus on planning and implementing instructions that will be clear and interesting for the learners.

D. Approach to Tasks

                This variable pertains on the degree to which the learner needs to reach decisions or clarity (Mishan, 2004). Those closure oriented are considered as learners who are leaning towards the closure desire clarity in all the parts of learning the language. Due to this, they focus on explicit lesson directions and grammar rules. Furthermore, they are less spontaneous, desire fast closure and are serious. Because of these, they are considered as hardworking learners who have been able to acquire their own applicable metacognitive skills including planning, organizing as well as self-evaluating. They usually in control of their own learning (Scarcella & Oxford, 1992).

                On the other hand, the opposite of closure oriented learners are open learners. They commonly consider language learning far less seriously, thus, considering it like a game than a set of tasks that must be completed and judged. Generally, they do not worry regarding the class deadlines. Because they are more relaxed than the first type of learner, they commonly do better in the fluency than the closure-oriented learners (Scarcella & Oxford, 1992).

E. Dealing with the Ideas

                This variable focuses on the main idea or the big picture (Gregersen, 2000). There are two types of learners under this variable. Global learners are considered as holistic learners who are always ready to guess meanings, envisage outcomes and to converse even if there’s inappropriate vocabulary or concepts such as paraphrasing and gesturing, which made them spontaneous learners. Above all, global learners possess the ‘risk-taking trait’ of the extrovert learners (Mishan, 2004). Global learners like socially interactive communication where they can highlight their main idea (Gregersen, 2000).

                On the other hand, analytical learners focus on the contrastive analysis between the languages the rule of learning and on the dissecting words and sentences. Because of this, they tend not to guess, use synonyms or even paraphrase when they have no knowledge about a given word. Instead, they would look up information and have it accurately than be content with the general communication of meaning (Scarcella & Oxford, 1992).

                These 5 variables of learning styles are only overview of the entire styles being studied. These serve as a guide for the teachers in order to have background information regarding what to use and apply in a classroom with different types of learners. However, it is important to take note that not all of these are applicable in the real world.

                Based on the explanations made regarding the different learning styles, it can be said that the influence of personality variables in learning styles had increased. As a result, researchers and practitioners use different learning style research with personality and cognitive styles in order to settle on ability, envisage performance and develop classroom teaching learning. In recent years, the language-teaching profession has also acquired its interpretation of the learning styles for the development of curriculum and instructions (Ehram, Leaver, & Oxford, 2003).

Learning Strategies

                Learning styles and learning strategies are considered as interrelated. It is because styles are made manifest by learning strategies. With this, strategy cannot be considered as good or bad until it is considered in context. A strategy is useful under different conditions: (a) the strategy relates well to the L2 task at hand, (b) the strategy fits the particular learning style preference of the student to one degree to another, and (c) the student employs the strategy effectively and connects it with other important strategies. According to Oxford (1990, p. 8) strategies that fulfill this conditions helps to make learning easier, faster, more enjoyable, more self-directed, more effective and more transferable to new situations (cited in Ehram, Leaver, & Oxford, 2003). 

                Oxford (1990) developed the Strategy Inventory for Language Learning (SILL) which identifies six major groups of L2 learning strategies which are shown in table 1.

Table  SEQ Table \* ARABIC 1Six Groups of L2 Learning Strategies



1. Cognitive Strategies

Enable the learner to control and influence the language material in direct manners (via reasoning, analysis, note-taking and synthesis)

2. Metacognitive Strategies

Used in order to manage the learning process in general (via recognizing own preferences and needs of an individual, planning, monitoring mistakes and evaluating result )

3. Memory-related Strategies

Enables the learners to connect one L2 item or aspect with another but do not entail deep understanding

4. Affective Strategies

Enables the leaner to manage and control the level of their motivations and emotions.

5. Social Strategies

Helps the leaner to learn through interaction and connection with others, at the same time understand the target culture (via asking questions and clarification, exploring, talking with native speaking partner and focusing on social and cultural norms)

Source: (Ehram, Leaver, & Oxford, 2003)

            Because learning strategies are connected with the success of learning process, there are many who design and implemented strategies in training programs for the inexperienced learners (Ehram, Leaver, & Oxford, 2003). The main role of learning strategies in the cognitive learning process is to make explicit what otherwise may occur without the awareness of the learners in inefficient manner, which will result to incomplete storage of information in the long-term memory. With the learning strategies, learners will be able to select, acquire, organize and even integrate the new knowledge (Weinstein & Mayer, 1986 cited in Takač, 2008 30). However, it is important to consider that cognitive theory of learning is receiving criticism because of being one-sided, for instance taking for granted the impact of linguistic factors in L2 acquisition. But still, in support with Ellis (2000), two explications will be acceptable: one is an account of how the learners gain control over L2 knowledge; the other is an account of how the learners restructure their L2 knowledge to make it available for use. Therefore, it shows that different learning strategies can help in order to establish different acquisition patterns in individuals who are acquiring the same L2 (McLaughlin 1987 cited in Takač, 2008, 30).

Affective Variables

A. Gender                                                                                                                 

                There are different studies which showed that men and women shows different behavior in terms of communication, particularly towards learning L2. The study of Shehadeh (1999) showed good evidence from cross-gender conversation between different possible combination of native speakers (NS) and non-native speakers (NNS). The result showed that men and women are likely to use conversation for different purposes. Men take advantage of the conversation which enables them to encourage their performance and production ability, while women make use of the conversation in order to encourage their comprehension ability.

            There are also studies which showed that gender is connected with motivation. The study of Netten et al. (1999) raised concern about male involvement and achievement in French program (cited in). It is supported by the study of Csizér and Dörnyei (2005) of more than 8000 13 and 14 year old Hungarian student, which showed that male students are less motivated L2 learners (Kissau n.d.).

B. Motivation       

                Motivation is considered as a of attitudes, affective variables and beliefs toward the target cultural group and learning the target language that constantly envisage differences in achievement across different studies of L2 learners (Holf & Shatz 2009). In L2 learning and acquisition, motivation is critical factors which establishes if a learner gets on a task at all, how much energy he or she dedicates to it and how he or she will preserve it. Therefore, it is a complex phenomenon which includes different components, including drive of the individual, need for achievement and success, curiosity and the desire for the stimulation and new experience (Gregersen 2000). Ellis (1997) identified 4 types of motivation – instrumental, integrative, resultative and intrinsic. According to the study, motivation is the cause of L2 achievement, but it also argued that motivation is the result of learning. Thus, learners who have experienced success in learning may become more motivated to learn. Motivation is considered as the reward for the investment of the learners of their time, energy and effort (Gregersen 2000).

C. Aptitude

                Language aptitude consists of different analytic and working memory abilities that are pertinent in obtaining language structures and individual words, as calculated by tests like the Modern Languages Aptitude Test and is connected to, but not the same as, verbal and non-verbal intelligence. With this, language aptitude is considered as comparatively constant and intrinsic characteristics, projecting of both L1 and L2 development. Language aptitude is one of the most dependable and consistent factors which elucidate individual differences in L2 success among adolescent and adult learners, along with motivation. The study of Harley & Hart (1997) focusing on the language aptitude and L2 proficiency in two groups of adolescent English L1 French immersion students in Canada – those who start learning the L2 in seventh grade (late immersion) and those who start learning the L2 in the first grade (early immersion), showed that memory-based aptitude skills better predicted L2 proficiency in the early-immersion group, while language analytic aptitude skills better envisages L2 proficiency in the late immersion group. With this, the study showed that the memory factor of language aptitude is more connected to L2 acquisition in young children. However, this was opposed by Genesee & Hamayan (1980) found that a general analytical skill, non-verbal reasoning forecasted success in verbal academic skills, vocabulary and listening understanding in French by English L1 children in the first grade immersion (Hoff & Shatz, 2007).

D. Age of Acquisition

                The issue about the impact of age in L2 acquisition is not that controversial. It is excellent for late onset L2 learner to appear identical from native speakers even in informal conversation, away in a more responsive experimental context. However, the question or issue being debate in this feature is the source of these impacts, particularly, if it is considered as a biological decisive period which ends around puberty. Age of acquisition may not seem to be that significant in the circumstance of child L2 acquisition, but different researches show that in oppose to the assumption of a critical period of puberty, individual differences in ultimate attainment emerge depending on what age in the pre-puberty years L2 learning begins (Hoff & Shatz, 2007).

                However, age is also connected with other individual difference variables. It has been showed in different studies that the age of individual affect his or her interests and behaviors towards learning L2. The study of Chamber (2000) where British students learning German were evaluated with German students learning English showed that while at the age of 13, 77.3% said that they would not be bothered learning German if it was not taught at school, the proportion was much lower 33.3% in the last group, when asked the same question with reference to English. In addition, attitudes towards learning and acquisition of second language are also affected by age of the learners. Burstall (1975) reported that positive attitudes to French as a school are likely to decrease after the age of 10/11. This is supported by the study of Nikolov (1999) in Hungary, where in students shows reduce in enthusiasm towards the foreign language at age of 11 who had started learning English at the age of 6 (Muñoz , 2006, 238).

E. Anxiety

                It is important to consider that the condition of the learning environment affects the learning process of students. In an environment where in the learners feel anxious or insecure; there are probably psychological obstacles and barriers to communication. According to Horwitz Horwitz & Cope (1986) language classroom anxiety is considered as a distinct complex of self-perception, feelings as well as behaviors that are connected to classroom language learning which is considered as the result of the uniqueness of the learning process of the language. When the anxiety rises above from the appropriate level, it will be an obstacle in the learning process. With this, manageable level of anxiety is considered as facilitory, therefore, it helps to motivate the learner to focus on the new learning tasks and enables him or her to be emotionally strong and face it.  However, when anxiety exceeds the level of manageability, it will be debilitating which will push the learner to flee from the new learning task and take on avoidance behavior (Scovel 1978).


                L2 learners different in how successfully they adapt to, and profit from, instruction. L2 learning is considered as the result of the connection and relationship between the characteristics of the leaner and the entire learning contexts. Therefore, describing and explaining these interactions are vital to the different theories of instructed SLA (Robinson, 2002).

            As have mentioned in the first part of the paper, individual differences enables theorists and practitioners to focus on the different factors that must be considered in designing, planning and implementing teaching instruction. This is to help them to implement a teaching instruction that will help to bring out the best out of the learner. Based on this, it is important to consider the fact that the principle of one-size fits all is no longer applicable in the L2 learning and acquisition process. It is vital for the L2 teachers to focus on the different instructions that will help the L2 students to be more comfortable with the learning process. All of these individual differences affect how students learn, how the teacher teaches and how they interact with each other. Therefore, it is important to focus on implementing effective instruction that will reach all learners of different types and kinds. This will start by proper profiling of the students. However, it is also important to consider that it is difficult to implement such instruction that will cater to all of the individual difference variables. First, it will impractical for the teachers to cater all the differences of each and every individual inside the class. Aside from that, not all of the theories regarding individual differences will be applicable to everyone. Therefore, it will be a hard job for the teachers to focus on the individual differences of each and every student. Above all, it is also important to focus on the learning and development of the student or learner, if the teacher will just focus on considering the personal or individual learning needs of a particular learner, he or she will not be able to focus on motivating or pushing him- or herself to adapt to a new style or way of teaching and learning.


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