Individual Differences Count (by Mike Harrison)

“Feelings of worth can flourish only in an atmosphere where individual differences are appreciated, mistakes are tolerated, communication is open, and rules are flexible – the kind of atmosphere that is found in a nurturing family”

Virginia Satir, author and psychotherapist (1916-1988)

My experience as a teacher of English is not vast – I am currently in my third year as a full-time teacher and have taught in Spain and the UK – but seeing my learners as individuals is something I have always tried to do. I actually had to trawl the net for the above quote, but I think it was worth it. It encapsulates for me what a good learning environment, with teachers and learners included, should be.

Individual differences first came to my attention during my initial teacher training, as it was something we trainees had to investigate. I’m hoping to share with you what I think are 3 main differences to be aware of when teaching English as a foreign language, as well as any practical tips for how to think about them in relation to teaching. They might not all apply to every teaching situation, but I hope you get something out of them.

First of all I’m going to introduce J and Z, who are going to help me illustrate some individual differences.

J is 26 years old and from Germany. He’s currently taking a year out from his university course to study English in the UK. He’s also working as a language assistant at a local secondary school. In Germany his studies include English and Physical Education, and he plans to become a teacher after completing his undergraduate degree. In the UK he’s preparing to take ESOL Level 2 exams (roughly equivalent to the Common European Framework level C1/C2). He’s been going out with his girlfriend for 2 years and in Germany has moved out of his parents’ house.

Z is 20 years old and comes from Iraq. She has been living in the UK for about 3 years and studying English for coming up to 2 years. She started at Elementary level and is currently in an Intermediate class preparing to take her ESOL Level 1 exams (similar to CEF level B1/B2). She wants to go on to study medicine and become a doctor. At home she lives with her family, who have also recently moved from Iraq to the UK. She has to take her younger brother to school and so is sometimes a little late for college.

  • Background

J and Z come from places that differ in so many ways. On the one hand, the economic powerhouse of Germany situated in Western Europe. On the other, Z from Middle-eastern Iraq. I’m sure I don’t need to outline how different these places are in terms of geography, culture and tradition. Tip: never take for granted where your learners come from. Even if you teach a monolingual group from the same country (either in that particular country or elsewhere) the learners may be from very different places. Get to know your learners and where they come from.

  • Education

J is nearing the end of his formal education, and on completing university is likely to find a teaching job in his country. He has probably been learning English for nearly 15 years, perhaps more if he started at primary school. Z’s education was disrupted when she and her family left Iraq. Consequently, her English lessons are her only current formal education, and she has only just come back to education after a gap of a couple of years. What does this mean? Well, perhaps J has better study skills since he is using them and has been using them more recently? However, maybe Z’s motivation to succeed is higher? Tip: remember that your students experiences of education can differ, even if they are at the same school and in the same year in the same city. Additionally, don’t disregard any country’s education in relation to that of another – there are highly educated people the world over 🙂

  • Responsibilities

J and Z have different responsibilities. J is working as a language assistant. This means he is probably putting in about 20 to 30 hours contact time at the school where he is working. His classes at college are in the evening, so naturally he’s a little tired in the lessons. As mentioned above, Z has to take her brother to school which affects how much time she is actually at college and studying. Tip: remember that your learners are humans! They probably have responsibilities and interests outside the classroom, whether looking after family members or going to an after-school football club. Get to know what your students do outside the classroom and if necessary make arrangements for dealing with or incorporating these into your planning.

That’s just three, I’m sure you could write a whole chapter for a book, if not a book itself, on individual differences. I’ll sign off by explaining the title ‘Individual Differences Count’. I believe not only that these differences are what make teaching so interesting, but also that no one difference is more important or less worth our time than another.

Note: This article by Mike Harrison originally appeared as a guest post on Teaching Village, and is licensed under a Creative Commons, Attribution-Non Commercial, No Derivatives 3.0 License. If you wish to share it you must re-publish it “as is”, and retain any credits, acknowledgements, and hyperlinks within it.

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13 Responses

  1. Barbara says:

    This is so important–thank you for giving such clear examples. It’s a useful reminder for those of us teaching monolingual classes that a common language doesn’t mean a common background.

    I find it also useful to remind myself that I have no idea what has happened in our students’ lives prior to class. Kids are sometimes bullied at school, or have problems with other subjects (the ones that count on tests, not English), or feel stressed about upcoming exams, or find out they’re going to move, or …. whatever. The point is that sometimes we forget that English class is part of a bigger picture for our students (as it is for us) and that we shouldn’t make assumptions about their behavior in class without knowing what’s happening outside of class.

    Thanks for an important reminder!

    • Hi Barbara,

      Thanks again for letting me write something for your site – it allowed me to revisit the task I had done while training, which was interesting to think back on.

      I’m glad you mentioned about not knowing what happens in our students’ lives outside the classroom. I was running out of space for the post! I’d also add that how a student performs/copes in a language class isn’t necessarily indicative of their ability or intelligence. People are also different in different spaces.

      All the best


  2. That’s a nice read Mike 🙂

    Thanks for sharing!

  3. Amanda Wilson says:

    Great read Mike! It’s an excellent post!

    I know it sounds completely obvious but I try to learn my students’ names straight away and use them as much as possible as it seems a first step towards embracing individuality in the classroom. I feel absolutely dreadful, cold and emotionally-detached when I can’t remember someone’s name; I can remember some really easily but have to make a massive mental effort to remember others. If I’ve got a Christian and a Cristophe together in one class, I’m doomed and have to make up all sorts of funny stories to help me remember who is who.

    I say all this because I am aware of a teacher who does not know some of her students’ names or nationalities and …. I really cannot believe this ….. they do not know hers. Shocking! It seems that her students are a mass and not worth the effort of getting to know very well. Not much room for being an individual or having individual needs in that classroom.

    Once upon a time though, I did have a class of 80 who sat in different places every week – not much chance of being able to embrace individual differences then but I did give it a go and learned about 10 names ;-(

    • Hi Amanda!

      Thanks very much for your comment.

      Like you, I try and learn the names of my students ASAP. My biggest worry is whether I’m saying their names correctly – I always say in the first weeks (sometimes up to the first month!) ‘If I say your name incorrectly, please tell me!!’

      I find that really strange about the teacher you mention not knowing her students’ names and they not knowing hers – how odd! I can appreciate having students you might not want to get to know too well, though.

      Gosh! I can’t even imagine teaching 80 students!! For me, 20 is a big number, though I am aware that such big classes do exist. That’s the thing about individual differences – in some contexts it’s so difficult to get a handle on who the students are, and of course it brings into play the whole issue of differentiation (but that’s a post for another time!!)

      All the best


  4. Sputnik says:

    Excellent points, as ever, Mike. I always think it’s vital for the success of a class that students know you care about them individually and that the bigger the class the more important that is. Besides everything else, it’s just plain more enjoyable when you know and value the differences between your students. Teaching a mass doesn’t sound particularly interesting or inspiring. Having said that, I’ve never taught 80 students at once other than in lectures – the mingling activities must have been enormous fun!

    • I can only wonder at teaching 80 bodies – the mind boggles – but this is the norm in some places.

      I certainly agree with your point that teaching a class will go more successfully if you show you care about the students. I’ve always had the best times teaching (especially teens) if I’ve done that as much as I can.

      Thanks for the comment, Sputnik.

  5. maina joseph says:

    habari mike?,(how are you mike?) thats swahili greetings,i hop i have taken care of individual difference by translating my greetings to you,am realy geatful for your post because it has taught me how important it is to note and appreciate our learners’ diverse individual differences for effective teaching and learning.Once again bravo brother.

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