Language through the mind's eye

Why is it that outcomes in second-language instruction vary so greatly within a classroom? With a similar exposure to the target language, some students achieve a good accent while others still mispronounce words after years of practice. The Assessment Research Unit at Birmingham University is seeking to solve such mysteries.

Modern language teachers are often confounded by the widely varying outcomes of their teaching despite careful preparation and differentiation. Caring parents are equally surprised at how different siblings can appear even though they have grown up in the same family.

If individual differences are such that each individual is unique and learns in an entirely different way, the task of describing such variation in order to control the learning process would clearly be fruitless. But if individual variation can be explained in terms of a relatively small number of dimensions, then the task of predicting behaviour is possible and potentially useful.

This "intermediate" state is being investigated at Birmingham University. Researchers are exploring the fundamental characteristics of cognitive (or learning) style - an individual's preferred and habitual approach to organising and representing information when trying to learn.

Two fundamental dimensions of an individual's learning style can already be assessed using the Cognitive Style Analysis (CSA), a 10-minute computerised test developed by Dr Richard Riding. Teachers can make subjective assessments of learning style but there is no substitute for standard assessment. We therefore aim for a straightforward, manageable model for practitioners.

Second-language learning can benefit from such down-to-earth research, as a recent experiment involving 420 12-year-old pupils at two high schools clearly demonstrated. It showed that "visual learners" experience considerable difficulty with foreign languages.

They represent new learning as a series of mental pictures and consequently seem to bypass the sound and spelling of words. These individuals never seem to obtain a really good pronunciation. However, once visual learners have been identified, teachers can channel their teaching towards their strengths.

Visual symbols can put across a grammatical structure more effectively than written explanations in textbooks. For example, if one is seeking to teach verb tenses in the singular and plural it is often better to begin by sorting out the differences between nouns and verbs in a very basic pictorial form.

Grouping students with the same - or complementary - learning styles can also help. But this is not the same as grouping by ability. One type of learner is no more intelligent than another.

Dr Gloria Banner is a modern language teacher at Chase Terrace High School, Walsall, Staffordshire, and an honorary research fellow at Birmingham University's School of Education. Further information about the research on learning style is available from the Assessment Research Unit, School of Education, University of Birmingham, Edgbaston, Birmingham B15 2TT.

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