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Individual Differences | TESL Issues

Published on July 27th, 2017 | Last updated on November 26th, 2019 by | Category: TESOL / TESL Issues through CALL | No Comments on Individual Differences | TESL Issues | 95 Views | Reading Time: 7 minutes

Individual Differences

Individual Differences

Learners clearly differ enormously in their preferred approach to L2 learning, but it is impossible to say which learning style works best (Ellis, 2008). One of the major problems is that the concept of ‘learning style’ is ill-defined, apparently overlapping with other individual differences of both an affective and a cognitive nature (Ellis, 1994, p. 508).

  • Field Dependent / Field Independent: These are viewed as separate constructs, yielding from types of learners: (1) field independent and field sensitive learners who can learn from material in and out of context; (2) field independent and field insensitive who are comfortable without of context material; (3) field dependent and field sensitive who are comfortable with in-context materials; and (4) field dependent and field sensitive who have difficulties with both types of materials. The distinction between field dependence / independence is taken from the work of Witkin and associates. Witkin, Oltman, Raskin and Karp (1971) provide the following description: In a filed dependent mode of perceiving, perception is strongly dominated by the overall organization of the surrounding field, and parts of the field are experienced as ‘fused’. In a filed-indepentnt mode of perceiving, parts of the filed are experienced as discrete from organised ground ‘field dependent’ and ‘field independent’ like the designations ‘tall’ and ‘short’ are relative (1971, p. 4). Abraham (1985) found that FI learners did better with a deductive method of instruction, while FD learners benefited from being given examples. However, Carter (1988) found that FI learners did better than FD learners in both a formal and a functional language course. Skehan (1998) has also shifted his view somewhat seeing a similarity between the FI/FD distinction and his own distinction, based on measures of language aptitude, between analysis-oriented and memory-oriented learners.
Field Independent Field Dependent
Adolescent/adult Children
Males Females
Object-oriented jobs People-oriented jobs
Urban, technological societies Rural, agrarian societies
Free social structures Rigid social structures
Individualistic people Group-centered people

Variables associated with field independent/field dependent people

  • Random (nonlinear) / Sequential (linear): Random learners like to work out their own learning sequence and tolerate ambiguity well; sequential learners prefer to learn step-by-step, are systematic and good planners, but dislike open-ended activities.
  • Global / Particular: Global learners focus on the ‘big picture’ using top-down processing; particular learners focus on details using bottom-up processing.
  • Inductive / Deductive: Inductive learners prefer to take as their starting point language data and extract generalisations from it, deductive learners prefer to start with a rule and apply it to specific cases.
  • Synthetic / Analytic: Synthetic learners construct hypotheses intuitively and build wholes from parts; analytic learners break down wholes into parts and build up hypotheses consciously.
  • Analogue / Digital: Digital learners engage in logical, sequential processing and use an ‘on/off mechanism’; analogical learners engage in non-linear processing and use a ‘more or less mechanism’.
  • Concrete / Abstract: Concrete learners prefer concrete activities like role-plays and grammar drills; abstract learners show more interest in the system of language than in actually using it.
  • Leveling / Sharpening: This distinction relates to how learners perceive, store, and retrieve information. Levellers combine information from different sources (‘data clumping’); sharpeners perceive and retrieve fine distinctions.
  • Impulsive / Reflective: This distinction concerns the speed with which learners can respond to a stimulus. Impulsive learners respond rapidly but lack accuracy, reflective learners are slower and are more accurate (Ehrman & Leaver’s Questionnaire).

Reid’s Perceptual Learning Styles:

Reid (1987) distinguished four perceptual learning modalities:

  • Visual learning (for example, reading and studying charts)
  • Auditory learning (for example, listening to lectures or to audio tapes)
  • Kinaesthetic learning (involving physical responses)
  • Tactile learning (hands-on learning, as in building models)

In addition, Reid distinguished two social learning styles:

  • Group preference (learning with other learners)
  • Individual preference (learning by oneself).

To measure these styles, Reid developed the Perceptual Learning Styles Questionnaire, an instrument designed for use with language learners.

Willing’s two dimensional learning style:

Willing (1987) identified two major dimensions of learning style. One was cognitive and corresponded closely to that of field independence/dependence. The other was more affective in nature; it concerned how active learners were in the way they reported approaching L2 learning tasks. Skehan (1991) suggested that the second dimension reflects a personality as much as a learning style factor. Based on these two dimensions, Willing described four general learning styles as:

  • Concrete learning style: Direct means of processing information; people-oriented, spontaneous, imaginative, emotional, dislikes routinised learning, prefers Kinaesthetic modality.
  • Analytical learning style: Focuses on specific problems and proceeds by means of hypothetical-deductive reasoning, object-oriented, independent, dislikes failure, prefers logical, didactic presentation.
  • Communicative learning style: Fairly independent, highly adaptable and flexible, responsive to facts that do not fit, prefers social learning and a communicative approach, enjoys taking decisions.
  • Authority-oriented learning style: Reliant on other people, needs teacher’s directions and learning style explanations, likes a structured learning environment, intolerant of facts that do not fit, prefers a sequential progression, dislikes discovery learning.


Extroverts are sociable, like parties, have many friends and need excitement, they are sensation-seekers and risk-takers, like practical jokes and are lively and active. Conversely, introverts are quiet, prefer reading to meeting people, have few but close friends and usually avoid excitement (Eysenck & Chan, 1982, p. 154).

To extent to which individuals verge towards one of these types is usually measured by analysing responses to self-report questions such as those in the Eysenck Personality Questionnaire or the Myers Briggs Type Indicator.

Extroverted learners do better in acquiring basic interpersonal communication skills (BICS). The rationale for this hypothesis is that sociability (an essential feature of extroversion) will result in more opportunities to practice, more input, and more success in communicating in the L2. The second hypothesis is that introverted learners will do better at developing cognitive academic language ability (CALP). The rationale for this hypothesis comes from studies which show that introverted learners typically enjoy more academic success, perhaps because they spend more time reading and writing (Griffiths, 1991).

Dewaele and Furnham (1999) argue, “Extraverts were found to be generally more fluent than introverts in both the L1 and L2. They were not, however, necessarily more accurate in their L2, which reinforced the view that fluency and accuracy are separate dimensions in second language proficiency” (p. 32).

The Big Five:

The theory of personality currently dominant in psychology is the ‘big five’ model. This distinguishes five dimensions of personality:

  • Openness to experience
  • Conscientiousness
  • Extroversion-introversion
  • Agreeableness

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