Learning Styles, from “good learner” to “effective learner”

In 1975, Joan Rubin proposed a profile of the good language learner, with the following characteristics (as adapted by Naiman et al, 1996, p. 228):

  1. The good language learner is a willing and accurate guesser.
  2. The good language learner has a strong drive to communicate, or to learn from communication. He is willing to do many things to get his message across.
  3. The good language learner is often not inhibited. He is willing to appear foolish if reasonable communication results. He is willing to make mistakes in order to learn and to communicate. He is willing to live with a certain amount of vagueness.
  4. In addition to focussing on communication, the good language learner is prepared to attend to form. The good language learner is constantly looking for patterns in the language.
  5. The good language learner practises.
  6. The good language learner monitors his own and the speech of others. That is, he is constantly attending to how well his speech is being received and whether his performance meets the standards he has learned.
  7. The good language learner attends to meaning. He knows that in order to understand the message, it is not sufficient to pay attention to the grammar of the language or to the surface form of speech.

We’ll very likely recognise some or perhaps all of these items from our own experience as trainers. But most probably not all these features will apply to all “good” language learners. Indeed, the optimistic idea underlying Rubin’s effort (and others) was that if you could identify the elements that result in the learners’ fast progress with a foreign language, then other learners could be helped to attain the same level of mastery. Since the 1970s, however, it has dawned on researchers that the task is much more complex than this (Lightbown and Spada, 2001), not only because learners are essentially different, but also because the number of language learners has grown exponentially in this globalized world, with a consequent increase in the number and quality of factors affecting language learning.

Moreover, lately researchers have shied away from speaking about “good language learners”, preferring to use the phrase “successful learners” instead. Still, the attempts to pinpoint what exactly leads to success in language learning have not abated, and the identification of learning styles falls in this field of inquiry.

Learning styles are the general approaches— for example, global or analytic, auditory or visual— that students use when acquiring a new language or when learning any other subject (Oxford, 2003). Research has shown that learning styles correlate to personality traits, cognitive styles, age and socio-cultural background, but it has been difficult to identify predicters of success – in other words, those specific characteristics that will prove more effective in language learning. One thing that research has shown, however, is that learners who are able to reflect on their learning processes and use a greater diversity of approaches tend to be more effective (Oxford, 2003 GALA); hence, the emphasis on “learning to learn” and on reflection as essential parts of success in language learning. For this reason, it is important to consider what kinds of learning styles researchers propose.

One of these, Rebecca Oxford (1993) identifies five learning styles contrasts:

  • Visual vs auditory (how learners use the physical senses for learning and work)
  • Extroversion vs introversion (how learners deal with others)
  • Intuitive-random vs concrete-sequential (how learners handle possibilities)
  • Closure-oriented vs open (how learners approach tasks)
  • Global vs analytic (how learners deal with ideas)

In the next unit (“Honey and Mumford”) we will consider other approaches to learning styles in more detail, namely the model we used in IC- English. Although they are often indicated as contrasts, learning styles should not be considered as mutually exclusive or incompatible, but rather as a continuum. In themselves, then, learning styles are neither good nor bad, they are merely approaches taken to achieve learning goals. Trainers should work with a variety of activities and tasks that address different learning styles, so that learners may engage with them. Then, it is up to trainers and learners, working in cooperation, to use them to their advantage to promote more effective learning. Knowing about and identifying learning styles enables learners to recognize their strengths and weaknesses in given situations and make better use of them (or find strategies to compensate for the limitations), while at the same time giving them greater autonomy, control and motivation.


Lightbown, P. M., and Spada, N. (2001). Factors Affecting Second Language Learning. In C. N. Candlin & N. Mercer (eds.), English Language Teaching In Its Social Context: a reader (pp. 28-43). London: Routledge.

Naiman, N., Fröhlich, M., Stern, H.H. & Todesco, A. (1996). The Good Language Learner. Ontario: The Ontario Institute for Studies in Education.

Oxford, R. (1993). Style Analysis Survey (SAS). Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama.

Rubin, J. (1975). What the “Good Language Learner” can teach us. TESOL Quarterly, 9(1), pp. 41-51.


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