Individual learner differences: the importance of age, learner aptitude and different learning styles in SLA

Different views on the importance of age in SLA

    There are many different views among language researchers on the importance of age in SLA. Some believe that age has no influence on SLA and that the environment in which learning takes place is the key factor. Others believe that there is a critical age after which SLA becomes very difficult and the environment is largely irrelevant (Critical Period Hypothesis). Most researchers seem to conclude, though, that there is a combination of social and psychological factors which affects language learning as we get older. Adults, adolescents and children may learn/acquire second languages in different ways because their brains and their environments different. It is largely believed that maturational constraints control the age at which it is easiest to learn a language.

    But are adults or children better at learning languages? What are the implications for the classroom? Below is a list of areas to consider when focusing on the differences between children and adult language learners.

    When teaching different age groups it is important to have all these factors in mind and how these can affect the relationship between teacher and learners, the organization of the learners in the class, the activities as well as the syllabus and its contents and structure.

Learning Aptitude

 Some people are better at learning (second) languages than others and there have been several attempts to find instruments to measure these differences. One version sees language aptitude as consisting of four abilities

Skehan (1998) suggests that these aspects of ability are related to auditory, linguistic and memory or in cognitive terms input, processing and storage/output.

Learning Styles

    When examining our teaching strategies for a specific language classroom it is important to keep in mind the various learning styles we can encounter in a language classroom: visual types, auditory learners, kinesthetic ones, learners who prefer to be given the rules that underlie a language structure, students who prefer communicative tasks and learning through interaction, extrovert/introvert students, synoptic/holistic ones, etc.

    Having these learner differences in mind, it is important to remember that participation during the lesson is beneficial as long as it is not stressful. Some students may not be willing to interact with others. We must therefore carefully examine our students’ different learning styles and focus on what our learners could benefit from. We need to be able to direct our teaching towards our learners’ strengths and offer personal focus and guidance to our students. We must carefully examine and monitor our learners and adjust our teaching in order to satisfy their learning styles and needs.

So how can we adapt our teaching based on these learner differences in order to successfully promote language learning?

Making conscious decisions about the lesson

    Active involvement is key to a successful learning environment. By letting our students have their say and choose the topics they want to focus on, we instantly give them a more active role, we make them co-designers of the lesson. Learning is then more meaningful to them as it is connected to their everyday lives, their preferences and interests. Through this inclusiveness our learners feel they are in control of the lesson flow and become more engaged in the language tasks.

    Reflecting on the lesson is also beneficial. We must show to them that their opinion matters by giving them the opportunity to comment on what they liked from the lesson, what troubles them or any changes they would make.

    In order to grasp our learners’ attention and increase their willingness to participate in the lesson we need to focus on their different learning styles, on their personalities, their feelings, their likes and dislikes. A whole class discussion or students filling out questionnaires on what they like and what they don’t in terms of topics and task types could enlighten us on the activities we can select for our specific language classrooms. We need to focus on topics our students will feel eager to write/talk about. This way we will be satisfying our learners’ different learning styles and we will be more successfully directing our teaching towards their needs.

Using a wide variety of materials/activities/media

    Variety kills boredom. Different types of tasks, hands-on activities, group work and games can easily grab our students’ attention and keep them focused. While I do believe that a certain predicted lesson structure could be very beneficial to the learners, ‘expecting the unexpected’, i.e. knowing that the teacher will always bring in something new and exciting to the lesson automatically increases curiosity and thus the students’ ‘motivation levels’.

As Nuttall (1996:179) points out, when selecting authentic materials for our EFL classroom we should mainly focus on whether or not they support our “overall teaching purpose and learning objectives”. We should be able not only to achieve our lesson’s goals but also to transfer knowledge to our students, to introduce them to new ideas, to widen their knowledge of the target culture and at the same time foster critical thinking.

     Our main aim should not be for our students to merely notice new lexis or grammar through the linguistic input of the authentic materials. The key is to turn this noticing into active knowledge. To foster this language awareness, we need to provide them with authentic tasks and opportunities to use and produce the TL patterns both in writing and in speaking. The tasks that we will decide to accompany the materials need to be carefully selected in order to satisfy our learners’ needs and different learning styles. It is also important to always remember the effectiveness of accompanying real life TL materials with authentic, communicative tasks that promote learner involvement and boost their creativity. The more opportunities our learners have for language production, the more they will begin to notice and try to produce certain structures in order to negotiate meaning in the TL. Students become more conscious with regard to particular language features and this promotes language awareness and acquisition.

The importance of positive feedback

    Despite the different types of learners we may have in our language classroom, different levels of motivation mean different performance levels. Our students have to be intrinsically motivated in order to be willing to participate more actively during the lesson. Teachers must be an influential raw model to their learners and to try and instill to them the passion in learning a foreign language. We have to prove to them that English is useful, easy and fun. By rewarding their efforts and praising them, we automatically give a confidence boost to our learners. This feeling of achievement brings a deep sense of pleasure to the ss and fuels the learning process. Their intrinsic motivation will be increased and they will be more willing to participate in the lesson, not because they have to but because they want to.

    Creating a pleasant and relaxed atmosphere in the classroom is certainly going to add up to learner motivation. Discipline issues can of course arise in all language classrooms. But if teachers manage to find the right balance, then I believe that a friendly, positive attitude through the use of humour and positive appraisal can be extremely beneficial to the learning process.


Harmer, J. (2001). The practice of English language teaching. Harlow: Pearson Education. Chapter 22.

Jensen, L. (2001). Planning Lessons. In Celce-Murcia (Ed.). Teaching English as a Second or Foreign Language (3rd Edition). Boston: Heinle & Heinle.

Nuttall, C. (1996) Teaching Reading Skills in a foreign language Heinemann

Richards, C.J. & Schmidt, R. (2002). “Dictionary of language teaching and applied linguistics: New York: Pearson Education”.

Scrivener, J. (1994). Learning Teaching. Oxford: Heinemann

Woodward, T. (2001). Planning Lessons and Courses. Designing sequences of work for the language classroom. Cambridge University Press. Chapter 7.

Published by Joanna Nifli

ELT teacher and freelance translator with work experience at the United Nations and the European Parliament. Holder of an MA in Teaching English as a Foreign Language (MA TEFL), the Cambridge CELTA and an MA in Applied Translation Studies from the University of Leeds. Interested in innovative pedagogies in language education, TESOL, teacher training, applied linguistics and related topics

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