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Profile of a language learner
by Scott Shelton

- 1


Learner identification

This information about Beatriz is taken from an informal interview between her and I as well as from a learner profile sheet that she completed herself. (Appendix A)

General background

Beatriz is an eighteen-year-old first year university student from Madrid, Spain. Her major course of study is computer engineering. According to Beatriz, English is not only important for her because of the reading involved in her current studies, but also for future job prospects as well. She is an attentive and sociable student but because of her demanding university studies, and being her first year as well, she often comes to class tired and mentions lack of sleep as the reason. She is the youngest of two daughters and her sister also studies English.

Language learning background

Beatriz began learning English at the age of three while attending a bilingual Spanish-English school for young learners. She attended the bilingual school until the age of twelve at which point she began attending regular Spanish state schools. She has been a student at International House, Madrid for three years and passed the Cambridge First Certificate exam two years ago. During her high school years, she spent three months in Canada as an exchange student and last year went back to study English for the summer. She is currently attending class to prepare for the Cambridge Certificate in Advanced English and she has approximately ninety-percent attendance.

Learning style

Nunan (2000:168) describes 'learning style' as:

Any individual's preferred ways of going about learning. It is generally considered that one's learning style will result from personality, including psychological and cognitive make-up, socio-cultural background, and educational experience.

Observing Beatriz over the past seven months, she appears to be quite self-contained and although she works well in pairs and groups, she is just as happy to listen to the teacher, and take notes. In order to better determine her learning style I asked her to complete both a learner profile and needs analysis (Appendix A & B), and two additional questionnaires (Appendix C & D), which were designed to determine favored learning styles.

From the sources mentioned above, Beatriz stated that she preferred working in pairs to other options, learned better by 'being in physical contact with things', liked learning through problem solving, listening, reading, and taking notes. She prefers to be corrected 'later, in private' to 'immediately, in front of everyone', and feels somewhat uncomfortable having others see and be asked to comment on or correct her written work.

She was shown to be well balanced in the primary senses; Visual, Auditory or Kinesthetic which people use principally in learning.

Beatriz was also shown to be a 'concrete' learner by scoring highest for this type at 76% in a questionnaire based on learner types taken from findings reported by Willing (1988) found in Nunan (2000:170). She scored similarly in the 'authority oriented' type at 73%. This was followed by 66% in the communicative learner type. Her lowest scoring was in the 'analytical' learner type, scoring 56%.

This information is in line with my observations of Beatriz in class and I believe is also somewhat representative of her age. Being a teenager, she has still to fully develop her preferred learning styles and learners of this age group often feel self-conscious about being 'criticized' or corrected in front of others. Having said that, I find Beatriz to be an attentive, well-balanced learner.

Motivation

Williams (1999) cites the work of Gardner (1985) and defines motivation as consisting of effort, plus desire to achieve the goal of learning, plus favorable attitudes towards learning the language.

A distinction is made between integrative (or intrinsic) orientation, which occurs when the learner wishes to identify with the culture of the target language, and instrumental (extrinsic) orientation, which occurs when motivation arises from external goals, such as passing exams, financial rewards, or furthering a career. LittleJohn (2001) adds a third category: success in the task, which is a combination of satisfaction and reward.

Beatriz is motivated to a large extent by the exam at the end of June as well as continuous encouragement from her father. This points principally to instrumental or extrinsic motivation. However, Beatriz also cites being able to communicate in English as a source of accomplishment and hopes to travel again to Canada or to the U.S. and work for a year when she finishes her university studies. This suggests integrative or intrinsic motivational factors as well. In class she is visibly motivated when she does well on a particular exercise and vice-versa.

Principles of assessment

Diagnostic test-validity and reliability

A diagnostic test is defined by Huges, (1990:13) as a test used to identify students' strengths and weaknesses and is intended primarily to ascertain what further teaching is necessary.

In Language Test Construction and Evaluation (1995:171) the authors divide validity into two areas, internal and external. Internal validity relates to studies of the perceived content of the test and its perceived effect while external validity relates to studies comparing students' scores, which measures their ability gleaned from outside the test.

Internal validity is broken down into:

- Face validity: the test's surface credibility or public acceptability.
- Content validity: the representativeness or sampling adequacy of the content.
- Response validity: how individuals respond to test items.

External validity is explained through the terms:

- Concurrent validity: the comparison of the test scores with some other measure taken at roughly the same time as the test such as candidates self-assessment, or teacher or other specialist assessment.

- Predictive Validity: a concept of validity meant to predict how well someone will perform in the future, beyond the test, and which is common with many proficiency tests.

The CAE demonstrates both face and content validity. It is recognized by the majority of British Universities for English language entrance requirements. Pre-testing plays a central role in the making of the test, as it helps to ensure all versions conform to the test requirements in terms of content and level of difficulty. The CAE falls within Level four of the ALTE framework, being proof of the necessary language level needed to work at a managerial or professional level or study at university level, an example of its concurrent and predictive validity. (CAE handbook: 4-6)

'Backwash'
Prodromou (1995) refers to the 'backwash effect' as the direct or indirect effect of examinations on teaching methods. Positive backwash may occur when classroom activities clearly relate to the test and the student. Negative backwash can occur if reference to the test is abused and there is an over reliance on its extrinsically motivational effect at the expense of sound classroom procedures (which are intrinsically motivating to the student).

Reliability of a test is a test of its consistency. The circumstances in which the test is taken, the way is which it is marked and the uniformity of the assessment it makes are important elements in judging test reliability. In Communicative language teaching, Weir (1990:32) warns that:

Validation might prove to be a sterile endeavour unless care has also been taken over test reliability.

According to the CAE handbook (2000:4-8), the exam is constructed, administered and marked in such a way to ensure uniformity and reliability.

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