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Student learning styles

by Francis O'Brien

Much has been written about student learning styles, how people prefer to learn a foreign language and go about doing so. Below are some of the learner types that may not have turned up in the numerous tomes on the subject.


These students’ comfort zone lies in dramatic, late entrances to class. After at least ten minutes, the door clangs open and they dash in with some gusto. They then proceed to their seat, tripping over other people’s feet, stopping for the odd chat, and finally throw themselves into their chair, heaving a bag with essential telephone, make-up and perhaps even a textbook to their lap. Much muttering with their neighbour goes on, which after 5 minutes ends with the student finding their place in the book.


Communicative language teaching is a boon for these students. Unfortunately their conversations tend to take place in their first language. Still, it’s a start. These students spend most of the lesson chattering to others in Chinese, Thai, Mongolian—anything, in fact, but English. Upon being shouted at by the teacher to say something in English, they mutter “I not well today” and are silent for 30 seconds before starting off again.


These students acquire English by frowning and grimacing. They tend to lounge about in class, preferably taking up two seats, and stick their legs in front of them and cross their arms while staring straight ahead, or preparing to sleep. Vocabulary and other language points are absorbed through the frown lines and wrinkles by some sort of osmosis.


This student has no interest in learning English, but has enrolled for classes in the hope of getting his leg over. Almost all flirters are men, with little hair left and a huge gut dangling over their trousers. Knowing that most of their fellow students are teenagers, they rush to register, and spend most of the lesson sitting at the side of the room, trying to stare down the shirts/blouses of others.


Earnest types have a great deal of energy and are always first to arrive and last to leave, trailing along behind the teacher as s/he staggers back to the staffroom desperate for a cigarette or a leak. Earnest students collect questions about language in small notebooks or palmtops and bring these to class, where a great deal of lesson time is taken up asking for the meaning of obscure words picked up while the student was reading a dictionary the night before.

These learners are perhaps the most problematic for the English teacher. On the one hand, their questions take up a great deal of time and allow the teacher to pontificate. On the other hand, their questions are often so obscure that you have no idea how to answer. Occasionally the earnest student enters cyberspace and plagues the teacher with emails asking for explanations of grammar.


This extremely rare student is in the first painful steps of adolescence and for some inexplicable reason has developed a crush on the teacher. Language is apparently learned by sitting staring at the teacher, or blushing furiously behind the textbook whenever the teacher speaks to them. Some form of hormone therapy may be necessary.


Phoner students need the security of the mobile phone. At least once during the lesson their phone will ring (in the worst cases with rings based on Japanese cartoon programmes) and the student will answer and chatter away in their first language, annoying all people around them, who aren’t as much worried about not learning English as desperate to know what the gossip is about.


These students merrily go through all the exercises in the book, pore over explanations at the back and take part in various classroom activities. Lo, the new language drips off them like the proverbial feathered back, and they leave the lesson (which has attempted to hammer in how to use the future, for example) saying “Bye-bye. I am see you next week”.


Researchers in learner styles recommend accommodating all styles by providing variety of input and activity. It goes without saying that the ideal lesson starts late and has lots of “speaking” activities which are so loud that the teacher has no idea what’s going on, followed by feedback in which the teacher can speak to the one earnest student in the room, while everyone else gets on with gossiping, flirting, blushing or sleeping. As nearly all students have ducksbacker characteristics, it hardly matters what happens, though.