Review of Individual Learner Differences in SLA
|EDITORS: Arabski, Januszl, Wojtaszek, Adam
TITLE: Individual Learner Differences in SLA
SERIES TITLE: Second Language Acquisition
PUBLISHER: Multilingual Matters
Tim S. O. Lee, Department of English, The Chinese University of Hong Kong, Hong
Publications in the area of individual differences in second language acquisition
have expanded substantially in the last decade, and the issues that frequently
reappear have been framed and discussed by, for instance, Dörnyei (2005) and
Robinson (2002). The present volume, “Individual Learner Differences in SLA” edited
by Janusz Arabski and Adam Wojtaszek, offers 20 chapters to present the latest
theoretical and empirical input under the broad umbrella of individual differences.
The first part of the book provides the theoretical groundings necessary for
understanding research into individual differences. The second part is concerned
with teachers’ involvement in fostering learner autonomy. The third part shifts the
focus to how learners apply strategies successfully in institutionalized settings.
After that, the fourth part goes on with the theme of strategy application, but in
situations where learners have to put their knowledge into practice. The fifth part
looks into individual variation in phonological attainment in production. The final part,
which is the longest, encompasses three chapters related to reading skills and three
focusing on writing abilities.
Chapter 1, “Individual Learner Differences and Instructed Language Learning: An
Insoluble Conflict?” by Dieter Wolff is an attempt to deal with foreign language
teachers’ reluctance to consider individual differences. It first describes the current
taxonomies used to account for individual differences. Next, it looks into individual
differences with respect to cognitive and learning psychology, which covers key
issues such as nature versus nurture, and how certain features are more open to
change. The third part illustrates how the six parameters (learning contents, learning
aims, the learning environment, social forms of learning, learning strategies, and the
evaluation of the learning results) can be used to contrast between traditional
learning and approaches that take individual differences into consideration. The final
section, with reference to four of the parameters, explains how content and
language-integrated learning can be adapted to realize learner autonomy.
In Chapter 2, “Research into Language Learning Strategies: Taking Stock and
Looking Ahead,” Mirosław Pawlak addresses the complexities involved in language
learning strategies research from different angles. The definition and interpretation of
the notion 'strategy' have changed over years, but more precision is called for as
there are still problems and criticisms. Another major concern covered is the
individual (such as age and motivation) and contextual variation (such as culture,
the language being learnt, and the learning task), which is the basis for uncovering
the relationship between strategy use and target language attainment. Strategy
training has also drawn controversies, as it has been advocated by specialists
irrespective of conflicting and inconclusive research findings. As for research
methodology, the over-reliance on the Strategy Inventory for Language Learning as a
data collection instrument has been found problematic, so there is a need to refine
existing tools and search for other ways of assessing strategy use.
As the first chapter on supporting learner autonomy, Chapter 3, “Teachers’
Perceptions of Individual Differences in Turkish Primary School EFL Classes” by
Hasan Bedir, reports on how 123 primary school teachers perceived individual
differences and modified their teaching accordingly. Motivation, learning styles, and
aptitude were the most frequently perceived individual differences, which were
affected by the education system, materials, the teaching and learning environment,
and the crowded classrooms. As regards modification, audio-visual materials and
various teaching techniques were the preferred means to cater for individual
differences, although issues such as crowded classrooms and examination based
education prevented some participants from differentiating their teaching. Such
findings highlight a conflict between theory and practice in language classrooms.
Chapter 4, “Learning Autonomy Support by Foreign Language Teachers” by Maria
Stec and Anna Studenska is an investigation into 215 teachers’ level of learning
autonomy support. Such support was gauged using the Learning Autonomy Support
by Teachers Inventory, and the data collected from foreign language teachers were
compared with those from teachers of other subjects. The results revealed that
foreign language teachers were less ready to teach how to learn, allow for students’
feedback, and let students make decisions concerning formal lessons. In response
to this, the authors conclude that foreign language teachers need more training in
shifting responsibility to students, particularly for choosing tasks.
Chapter 5, “Personality and Parenting Styles as Predictors of Self-Regulation in
Foreign Language Learning” by Anna Studenska presents a study investigating the
level of foreign language self-regulation difficulty of 160 pedagogy and art students,
together with which personality traits and parenting styles were its best predictors.
Controlling emotions and maintaining learning motivation proved to be difficult, while
the least difficult elements were identifying strong and weak points and choosing the
way and place of learning. Personality traits, but not parenting styles, were found to
be significant in predicting difficulty in self-regulating foreign language learning.
Among the numerous personality traits, consciousness and openness were the most
beneficial, whereas neuroticism hindered self-regulation.
Moving on to Part 3 of the book, Chapter 6, “The Development of Implicit Knowledge
through Structured Input Activities: The Importance of Individual Perceptions
Concerning Grammar Instruction” by Anna Mystkowska-Wiertelak, summarizes the
dichotomy between explicit and implicit knowledge and the criteria that characterize
them. It then reports on the effectiveness of reception-based and production-based
grammar teaching on 57 students’ explicit and implicit knowledge. Four tests were
used to measure the participants’ knowledge of the meaning and use of causative
'have,' and an interview was conducted to ascertain the participants’ view on the
treatment, the target structure, and the testing procedure. The analysis showed that
the cognitions and perceptions held by the participants were of great significance,
and success was attributed to positive learning characteristics rather than the
Chapter 7, “Awareness of Cognate Vocabulary and Vocabulary Learning Strategies
of Polish Multilingual and Bilingual Advanced Learners of English” by Agnieszka
Otwinowska-Kasztelanic, focuses on the use of cognates, which does not always
lead to enhanced vocabulary mastery of the target language. This chapter first
surveys how advanced bilingual and multilingual learners of English perceived
language distance between cognates, and then looks at the difference in vocabulary
learning strategies between the two groups. The multilingual participants showed
better awareness of cognates, and appropriate training could change the attitudes
and vocabulary-learning strategies of the bilingual participants. This study sheds
light on how to make use of cognates and facilitate positive transfer.
The fourth part of the book is concerned with experienced learners, and it begins
with Chapter 8, “A Study of Gender-Related Levels of Processing Anxieties over
Three Years of Secondary Grammar School Instruction” by Ewa Piechurska-Kuciel.
It first offers an introduction to the effects of anxiety and gender on SLA and how
the two factors interact. Next, it presents a longitudinal questionnaire study with the
aim of comparing the two genders’ levels of processing anxieties. The data collected
from 393 students showed that females generally declared higher levels of
processing anxieties than males, but the two genders displayed different trends in
the three types of anxiety (input, processing, and output) over time.
In Chapter 9, “Challenge or Threat? A Study of Perceived Self-Efficacy of Polish
EFL Teachers,” Joanna Bielska examines if more years of teaching experience
resulted in higher levels of teacher self-efficacy and satisfaction. Data were
collected from 232 participants with limited teaching experience using the Teachers’
Sense of Efficacy Scale. The average levels of teachers’ sense of efficacy were
found not very high, and the participants with least experience reported the lowest
confidence, especially in maintaining classroom discipline. Unsurprisingly, the
teachers with higher levels of self-efficacy were more satisfied with the teaching
profession and also more certain of their career choice.
Chapter 10, “Managing Criticism and Praise by Trainee Interpreters: Looking for
Gender Differences” by Andrzej Łyda, Krystyna Warchał, and Alina Jackiewicz
focuses specifically on trainee interpreters. It aims to see how male and female
consecutive interpreters used deictic shifts differently to deal with open criticism and
direct praise in monologic, formal addresses. In general, deictic manipulation was
found more frequent among the female participants. The male participants shifted
deictic centre more often in laudatory contexts whilst the female counterparts used a
higher number of shifts for negative judgement. When identification with the
receivers was assumed, both genders changed deictic perspective more frequently,
particularly by using YOU to THEY shifts.
Chapter 11, “Student Needs Assessment in Teaching English at the Tertiary Level:
An Individual Learner Differences Perspective” by Zbigniew P. Możejko, begins by
defining learner needs, connecting learner needs to motivation, and overviewing the
practice of needs analysis. The second half is a report of part of a large project
looking into learner needs and satisfaction, language proficiency, and quality of
English instruction. In sum, the participants had well-formed and stable expectations
for instruction, but there were also contradictory postulates which merit further
studies, such as the participants’ demand for more translation training but less
The first chapter in the book that confronts the topic of individual variation in second
language (L2) phonological attainment is Chapter 12, “Regularity and Individual
Variation in Native English and Polish Learners’ Wh-Question Suprasegmentals” by
Andrzej Porzuczek. It describes a study in which 13 participants read aloud the
same passage before and after their first academic year, and the utterance in focus
-- ‘Why are you crying, my dear?’ -- was analyzed. Some hypothesized problems
among Polish learners were confirmed. For instance, the participants’ performance
was slower than that of native speakers, redundant glottal stops and velar plosives
were inserted, and the auxiliary verb ‘are’ was often not reduced.
Chapter 13, “Time-Limited Verbal Fluency Task with Polish-English Unbalanced
Bilinguals” by Arkadiusz Rojczyk, gives an overview of how unbalanced bilinguals
use an integrated lexicon and switch between languages by means of inhibition.
After that, it details a time-limited verbal fluency experiment, in which 25 participants
were required to generate words in both their first language (L1) and L2 that begin
with a given sound. The comparison of the number of words generated revealed a
significant advantage of L1 performance over L2. Moreover, individual difference
was proved crucial as the participants who performed well in L1 were often equally
good in L2.
In Chapter 14, “The Acquisition of English Vowel Length Differences before Word-
Final Stops by Greek Learners of English” by Eleni Tsiartsioni, the research
question is whether extrinsic vowel length can be effectively taught to learners at
different ages. A group of 36 participants received instruction in vowel length,
whereas the other group of 36 participants took the regular English classes. The
data confirmed the hypothesis that there was little difference in vowel length before
voiced and voiceless stops prior to the teaching intervention. After the treatment,
only the experimental group showed improvement, yet there was inadequate
evidence showing that any age group improved more than the others.
Chapter 15, “Individual Differences in Foreign Language Reading Comprehension:
Gender and Topic Interest” by Sıla Ay and Özgür Şen Bartan, marks the beginning
of the final part of the book, which is on reading and writing. The objective of this
chapter is to examine the relationship between readers’ gender, topic interest, and
foreign language reading comprehension. An interest scale was administered to find
out the gender-oriented topic interests, and then 159 participants read the
corresponding reading texts and completed the comprehension assessment tasks.
While both genders got the highest marks from their most interested topic texts,
they also performed better in the least interested topic texts than in the neutral topic
text. Such findings are contradictory to the results of some previous studies, so
there might be a need for both positive and negative emotions for better reading
Chapter 16, “Individual Differences in L2 Readers’ Strategic Behaviour while
Performing Reading to Learn Tasks: A Case Study” by Halina Chodkiewicz, takes a
closer look at the key issues of reading comprehension. The first half discusses the
purposes and processes of reading, instruments for measuring awareness and
perceived use of strategies, and different aspects of highlighting, note-taking, and
summarizing. The second half is a presentation of a case study in which four
advanced learners were guided to perform a sequence of reading tasks using
highlighting, note-taking, and summarizing strategies. All the strategies proved
useful to the participants, but editing a summary was particularly difficult to them.
The findings of this study imply that even advanced learners require adequate
strategy training to handle productive content-oriented reading tasks well.
As motivation has always been one of the major concerns in individual differences,
Chapter 17, “Current Views on Foreign Language Reading Motivation” by Liliana
Piasecka summarizes the most influential motivational theories in the area of SLA.
It also argues that reading motivation comprises unique components that are yet to
be identified. In view of the scarcity of reading motivation research, the author
conducted a questionnaire study to examine the reading motivation of 64 university
students with reference to academic texts. Extrinsic motives were found to
dominate, and the participants appeared to keep their reading motivations for L1 and
L2 separately. This chapter concludes with suggestions for strengthening learners’
self-concept as academic readers.
Chapter 18, “From Oral Input to Written Output: On Individual Differences in External
Storing of Information” by Danuta Gabryś-Barker, sets out with the assumption that
note-taking is a developmental skill, and appropriate training can turn learners into
more competent note-takers. The purpose of the study described was to investigate
the content and form of 27 advanced learners’ notes, as well as the role of
instructional training. The notes taken by the control group were neither adequate for
practical use nor as evidence of how langauge had been processed from aural input
to written output. In comparison, the treatment group showed evidence of attentional
processing and exhibited clearly visible idiosyncratic styles. The findings lead to the
recommendations for more facilitative awareness raising instruction and listening
Unlike many other chapters, which involve large numbers of participants, Chapter
19, “Accounting for One Student’s Failure and Another’s Success on a Written
Academic Assignment” by Jan Zalewski analyzes carefully two final take-home
exam papers, one by a low achiever and one by a high achiever. A key requirement
of the exam was to use only the course textbook, so the same pool of examples
would make the comparison between the participants’ ability of argument
construction more reliable. The more successful student not only presented
knowledge but also demonstrated metacognitive control of the conceptual content,
and such control is pivotal in turning writing experience into learning experience. The
author believes that the essay-type take-home exam can prompt learners to develop
metacognitive writing skills in a stress-free environment.
Chapter 20, “Online Revisions in FL Writing: General Rules and Individual
Differences” by Iwona Kowal, wraps up the book by reviewing the taxonomies,
analyzing tools, and current research on writing revision. It then examines the
revisions made by seven beginner L3-learners and associates them with individual
differences and language skills. As expected, the participants made online revisions
frequently, spelling corrections were the most common, and less skilled learners
revised more at the normative level (spelling, grammar, and vocabulary). However,
the author suggests further longitudinal studies because the relationship between
writing competence development, formal revisions, and conceptual revisions
The first thing that stands out in the book is the large number of recent contributions
included. This is inevitable because new branches and frameworks continue to
emerge, and this volume does a good job in balancing the variety and homogeneity
of its content. Both teachers’ and learners’ role have been investigated, and three
broad language skills have been covered. What’s more, most selected contributions
begin a concise but substantial review, followed by clearly stated research
questions, detailed research procedures, and findings presented with appropriate
graphs. The homogeneity in format enhances greatly the readability of this book.
Another salient feature of this volume is its emphasis on studies examining the role
of individual differences in specific language skills, in contrast with books using
theories and learner characteristics (intelligence, aptitude, personality and so on) as
the foundations. The chapters on pronunciation, reading, and writing are of high
practical value to in-service teachers who have been facing ongoing problems in
handling these skills.
One thing that struck me is the highly similar background of the authors and
participants -- the majority of them are from various Polish universities. While some
might worry that this would limit the usefulness and generalizability of the book, this
problem is mitigated by, again, the rich variability of content and methods
introduced. For example, the book discusses individual differences both inside and
outside classrooms; participants of diverse proficiency levels were recruited; and
intensive studies with few participants were reported alongside with large-scale
research. This ensures that most potential readers, regardless of their purposes,
would get something they need in the end.
As there is a need to free up more space for the 18 empirical studies, the first part
of the volume, which informs readers of common learning strategies and the
incessant tension between theory and practice, receives a mere 38 pages. While it
serves as a nice introduction for seasoned researchers, novices who are less
familiar with language development models, learning styles, and theoretical
approaches to explaining SLA would have difficulty in understanding some chapters
that follow. These readers might consider consulting Lightbown and Spada (2006)
and Shore (1995), among other references that appear in Part 1 of the book. Another
downside of packing so many chapters into one book is that it finishes abruptly
without a conclusion section. Those who are looking for directions for future
research might need to read several times before they could see any general trends
or research gaps.
Overall, this volume makes an up-to-date contribution to the study of individual
learner differences in SLA, as well as the development of more individualized
language teaching. In particular, experienced researchers and teachers would benefit
from its wide array of content. Beginner teachers and linguistics students, on the
other hand, might need considerable guidance in order to make good use of it.
Dörnyei, Z. (2005). The psychology of the language learner: Individual differences in
second language acquisition. Mahwah: NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
Lightbown, P. M., & Spada, N. (2006). How languages are learned (3rd ed.). Oxford;
New York: Oxford University Press.
Robinson, P. (Ed.). (2002). Individual differences and instructed language learning.
Amsterdam: John Benjamins.
Shore, C. M. (1995). Individual differences in language development. Thousand
Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.
| ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
Tim S. O. Lee is currently undertaking a PhD in Applied English
Linguistics at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. He is also a visiting
lecturer at the Hong Kong Community College, Hong Kong Polytechnic
University, and he has been teaching adults and sub-degree students
since 2006. His previous research has focused on the use of
communicative tasks and written exercises in vocabulary teaching and
learning in tertiary institutes.