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Lessons from Good Language Learners

Editor: Carol Griffiths Publisher: Cambridge University Press This book was written to commemorate the 30th anniversary of Joan Rubin’s article “What the ‘good language learner’ can teach us” about how we can analyse what makes some people more successful at learning languages and how this should change what we do in the classroom. I think […]
Reviewed for Teflnet by Alex Case

Editor: Carol Griffiths
Publisher: Cambridge University Press

This book was written to commemorate the 30th anniversary of Joan Rubin’s article “What the ‘good language learner’ can teach us” about how we can analyse what makes some people more successful at learning languages and how this should change what we do in the classroom. I think I came across this article in my reading for my DELTA, but it obviously didn’t make a huge impact on me and I had no idea that it was considered seminal nor that earlier it was controversial and had had such a rocky ride, taking four years to get published before finally appearing in the TESOL Quarterly in 1975. Having read about it, extracts from it and other things from Jean Rubin in this book, it seems to have been a statement of simple good sense written in plain language- which could possibly explain why my initial reaction was thinking “Oh yes, that’s right” and forgetting about it, and why the academic establishment put up such initial resistance to it. Now the academic community has moved from rejecting it to setting up several whole specialities based on examining its common sense suggestions, with their own feuds and ideas they strongly reject. Whether this is a good or bad thing is one of the questions I had at the back of my mind as I read it.

The book consists of 23 chapters in two parts. Part One examines Learner Variables in 11 chapters on “Motivation and good language learners”, “Age and good language learners”, “Learning styles and good language learners” etc. Part Two looks at Learning Variables starting with a chapter on “Vocabulary and good language learners” and finishing with “Tasks and good language learners”. The book starts with an explanation of the inspiration behind the book, an overview of the book and the field, some touching stories about Joan Rubin, and some “Reflections” by Ms Rubin herself on how the field has progressed in the past 30 years. It ends with a summary of the whole book in “The learner’s landscape and journey”.

Each chapter of the book is quite short at about 10 to 15 pages and follows a fixed format. Each one starts with a (less than one page) survey of research and agreements and disagreements on the definitions and conclusions on the field they are examining, including references from areas outside EFL such as psychology and educational theory. The chapters then go on to give more details on one or more pieces of recent research, sometimes by the authors and sometimes by others. Each chapter then finishes with Implications for the Teaching Learning Situation (based on the research presented, the general conclusions in the field and the writer’s own opinions), Questions for Ongoing Research, Conclusion and one to three pages of References.

The advantages of this repeated and abbreviated format is that you can get an overview of one entire factor in defining a good language learner and learning from them in about 15 minutes of reading, and that both researchers and teachers should have information within that they will find interesting and relevant. The repeated format makes understanding and fast reading even easy, as does the fact that many of the factors overlap and so the chapters link in ways that might not be obvious from the titles. The individual authors have also done a good job in adapting that seemingly restrictive format to their purposes and making it more stimulating and readable- for example adding their own opinions and language learning and teaching experiences, individual case studies, and interesting quotes. Unfortunately, this can often mean that the writers seem to be jumping from data to conclusions for classroom teachers without showing the connection or their logic. For example, in several cases the authors say that the data and its meanings are not clear and then go on to give teaching advice based on common sense and their own experience, ignoring the first part of what they have written. While this does show a grounding in reality that is admirable and maybe reflects the good influence of Joan Rubin herself, this disconnect can make the premise and format of the book seem a bit unnecessary.

I found the beginning of the book stimulating and easy to read. It not only made me look at my classes in a new way (although without any obvious change to what I was actually doing), but also prompted me to write a few articles on my own opinions on what makes a good language learner and if and how we can make that relevant to the students who are not. As I read on, though, three questions came to mind. One was whether the individual chapters actually added up to anything and therefore whether there was much reason for most people to read the whole book cover to cover. The second question was whether keeping to the same length and format for each chapter did add anything to the reading experience or whether the writers might have been able to express themselves better with a bit more freedom in a format more like Challenge and Change in Language Teaching. The third question was whether the research from this area of applied linguistics has added much to our common sense understanding of the fact that there are people who are better at learning languages, that we can analyse what makes them better, but that make generalisations about those things and passing them on to the rest of us is difficult or impossible. Whilst neither the writers nor the researchers can be blamed for the fact that no earth shattering and counter intuitive conclusions have come out of 30 years of research, and at least they haven’t made any dogmatic rules for us to follow up, if there had been a message of radical change in the language teaching classroom it might have been a bit more satisfying and exciting.

I am glad I read this book. I’m sure I would have read it with pleasure and found it stimulating even if I had not been reviewing it (although I probably would not have read all the way through). It has made me much more interested in this area and I will be looking out for other articles and books on the topic (and other things by some of the authors who are featured here, writers and researchers who seem like names to look out for in the future). It has also made me think more deeply about how I can combine what I already knew and what I have learnt from this book about what makes good language learners and use it in my own language studies and in my classes. I would recommend at least dipping into the book for anyone who hasn’t read about the topic before, for people who would like to see some research to confirm or deny their own ideas on the topic, for people taking a Diploma or MA, for people who are writing about another language teaching topic but want a quick quote or reference on this topic to put in it, or for people who like to stay up to date with teaching theory but find the randomness of topics in a magazine makes all the articles less memorable.

Reviewed by Alex Case for TEFL.NET June 2008
Alex Case is the author of TEFLtastic and the Teaching...: Interactive Classroom Activities series of business and exam skills e-books for teachers

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