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Revista signos

versión On-line ISSN 0718-0934

Rev. signos v.33 n.47 Valparaíso  2000 

Revista Signos 2000, 33(47), 87-99


The individual differences that distinguish high and low output students

Tammy Gregersen

Universidad de Atacama



In any language classroom, the quantity and quality of language production will vary from student to student. While some students are on the edge of their seats, eager for a chance to use the target language, others are more reticent, listening and waiting until the time is right. What is it that makes one student jump out of his seat in the anticipation of participating in the language while another reflects silently, absorbing the action going on in the classroom? Are there certain individual differences (including affective factors and learning styles) that each group shares? Are high producers more motivated? Do low producers have different learning styles that set them apart from their more participative counterparts?

Although no definitive answer has been given as to the extent to which oral production is necessary for learning a foreign language, it would be difficult to deny that participation in the language is fundamental for the development of communicative competence. That is why it is the aim of this investigation to study the factors, among which are anxiety, self-esteem, motivation, and learning styles, that could possibly influence the desire that students have to interact in the language classroom. Essentially, the problem to be resolved is: Do low output students share certain individual differences that their high producing counterparts do not?


Not all language experts agree on the importance of oral participation as a means of acquiring language. Krashen (1985) and Littlewood (1984), for example, are more concerned with the understanding of messages, and the receipt of comprehensible input that they believe will ultimately result in language acquisition. According to their perception, paying attention to the interaction and mentally processing the input will allow the learner to construct a system that will enable him to speak when he is ready. Other experts disagree, however, allowing that although input is required for constructing a language system, it is not enough for developing the ability to use the language in a communicative context (Lee and VanPatten, 1995). Swain (1985) believes that acquisition is enriched as learners structure their output during interaction with other interlocutors to test hypotheses, generate feedback, and develop fluency. Either way, whether one supports the ideas of the importance of input or the fundamental role of output, the fact still remains that within every classroom, students belonging to both camps will be present. The question now is whether high producing students and low producing students share similar affective states and learning styles.


In an environment where learners feel anxious or insecure, there are likely to be psychological barriers to communication. Horwitz et al. (1986:127) defined language classroom anxiety as, "a distinct complex of self-perception, feelings and behaviors related to classroom language learning arising from the uniqueness of the language learning process." If anxiety rises above a certain level, it is an obstacle in the learning process (Littlewood, 1984). Manageable amounts of anxiety is said to be facilitory, thus motivating the learner to attack the new learning task and gear him emotionally to confront it. When anxiety becomes unmanageable, it is said to be debilitating, motivating the learner to flee from the new learning task and adopt avoidance behavior (Scovel, 1978).


Brown (1981:114) defines self-esteem as "the worth persons place upon themselves." He believes that people develop it from the accumulation of experiences they have with themselves, others, and from the evalution of the external world around them. Defining self-esteem as, "a self-judgement of worth or value, based on feelings of eficacya sense of interacting effectively with one's own environment," Scarcella and Oxford (1992:57) add that feelings of self-esteem arise from self-perceptions of competence and a personal assessment of the importance of what is being assessed.

Research has demonstrated that the self-confident, secure person is a more successful language learner (Dulay et al., 1982). This is based upon the suggestion that self-confident people have the advantage of not fearing rejection and are therefore more likely to repeatedly put themselves in varied learning situations. High self-esteem learners are less likely to suffer personal turmoil over mistakes than their more self-conscious counterparts. Thus, learners who are eager to try new and unpredictable experiences, and who are willing to guess before knowing whether they are right, are likely to be less anxious in seeking out opportunities to interact that require real communication in the target language (Dulay et al. 1982).


In second language learning, motivation is the crucial force which determines whether a learner embarks on a task at all, how much energy he devotes to it, and how long he perseveres. It is a complex phenomenon and includes many components: the individual's drive, need for achievement and success, curiosity, and desire for stimulation and new experience. (Littlewood, 1984).

Defining motivation as "attitudes and affective states that influence the degree of effort that learners make to learn an L2," Ellis (1997) has identified four kinds of motivation: instrumental, integrative, resultative and intrinsic. First of all, instrumental motivation concerns efforts made on the part of the learner to learn an L2 for some functional reason, whether it is to pass an exam, get a better job, or to study in the university. Integrative motivation, on the other hand, involves the choice of learning an L2 because the learner is interested in the people and culture represented by the target language. As for what type of motivation, instrumental or integrative, results in better language acquisition, research results are inconclusive. An assumption of the research involving instrumental and integrative motivation is that motivation is the cause of L2 achievement. However, it could also be argued that motivation is the result of learning. In this case, learners who experience success in learning may become more motivated to learn. As for learners who are intrinsically motivated, the arousal and maintenance of curiosity depends on the learners particular interests and the extent to which they feel personally involved in the learning activities. Essentially, motivation is the reward for the learner's investment of time, energy, and effort. It is related to why the student is there in the first place and what keeps him or her working. There are a lot of factors that bring students to the language learning situation and keep them there (Ehrman, 1996).


Learning style refers to "an individual's natural, habitual, and preferred way(s) of absorbing, processing, and retaining new information and skills and persist regardless of teaching methods and content areas" (Reid, 1995:viii). Many of the multiple elements that comprise an individual learning style are bipolar, representing a continuum from one expreme to another. However, no value judgment is made about where a learner falls on the continuum. Since each style has similar intelligence ranges, a student cannot be stigmatized for having one set of learning strengths. The concept of learning styles thus offers a non-discriminatory approach for understanding individual differences among diverse students (Kinsella, 1995). The learning style dimensions that will be the focus of this research are: 1) visual/auditory/hands-on; 2) extroverted/introverted; 3) intuitive/concrete-sequential; 4) closure-oriented/open; and 5) global/analyitic.

A. Sensory Preferences

To answer the question, "How do I best use my physical senses to study?" one must reflect upon whether a student learns best through sight, hearing, or hands-on manipulation. Sensory preference refers to the physical, perceptual learning channels with which the student is the most comfortable. Visual students, for example, like things written down and are stimulated visually. For them, lectures, conversations, and oral directions without any visual backup can be very confusing. Auditory students, on the other hand, are comfortable without visual input and therefore enjoy lectures, conversations, and oral directions. They typically prefer classroom interactions in role plays and similar activities. They sometimes, however, have difficulty with written work. Hands-on students generally like lots of movement and enjoy working with tangible objects. Sitting at a desk for a long time bores them; they prefer to have frequent breaks and move around the room (Scarcella and Oxford, 1992).

B. Intuitive/Random and Sensory/Sequential

This learning style variable answers the question as to how the learner handles possibilities. Intuitive students are able to think in abstract, large-scaled, nonsequential (random) ways. Without being instructed to do so, such students are able to decipher the main principles of how the new language works and see the language as a system. Concrete, step-by-step learning bores them (Scarcella and Oxford, 1992).

The opposite of such learners are the sensory/sequential students. These students are concerned with concrete facts, which they prefer to be presented in a step-by-step, organized fashion. Abstract principles and underlying language systems are not very important to sensory/sequential learners who are frequently slow and steady, making progress at their own rate but achieving goals nevertheless. Randomness and inconsistency in lesson plans frustrate them (Scarcella and Oxford, 1992).

C. Orientation to Closure

This learning style variable considers how the student approaches tasks, or the degree to which the person needs to reach decisions or clarity. It is also somewhat associated with flexibility in learning stylesthe ability to shift styles when the task demands it.

Students oriented toward closure desire clarity in all aspects of langauge learning. They want explicit lesson directions and grammar rules. Less spontaneous, these students want rapid closure and are serious, hardworking learners who have developed useful metacognitive skills such as planning, organizing and self-evaluating. They like control in their lives and in their learning (Scarcella and Oxford, 1992).

Students who have less of an orientation toward closure are sometimes known as "open learners." They take language learning far less seriously, treating it like a game rather than a set of tasks to be completed and judged. Open learners generally do not worry about class deadlines. Because of their relaxed attitude, open learners sometimes do better in developing fluency than do more closure-oriented learners (Scarcella and Oxford, 1992).

D. Global/Analytical

This learning style variable reflects upon how a student deals with ideas. This element contrasts focusing on the details with focusing on the main idea or big picture. While analytic students tend to concentrate on grammatical details and often avoid unstructured communicative activities, the global students like socially interactive communication where they can emphasize the main idea.

Analytical students focus on contrastive analysis between languages, on rule-learning, and on dissecting words and sentences. Because of their concern for accurate details, analytic learners do not like to guess, use synonyms, or paraphrase when they do not know a particular word. They would rather look up information and have it exactly right than be content with the general communication of meaning. Global students, on the other hand, find it hard to cope with what seems to them to be unnecessary grammatical details, and they avoid analysis of words, sentences, and rules when possible. Such students are happy with compensation strategies like guessing the meaning of a word they hear or read, and using synonyms or paraphrases if they run into a communicative roadblock in speaking or writing (Scarcella and Oxford, 1992).

E. Introvert/Extrovert

Although some experts would consider this element as being a personality variable, it is often difficult to distinguish between cognitive processing styles and personality styles; thus,it is included under learning styles, understanding that this dimension reflects more in the way of feeling and personal relationships than actual cognitive processing.

There are two major contradictory hypotheses regarding the relationship between extroversion/introversion and L2 learning. The firstwhich has been the most widely researchedis that extroverted learners will do better in acquiring basic interpersonal communication skills. The rationale for this hypothesis is that sociability will result in more opportunities to practice, more input, and more success in communicating in the L2. The second hypothesis is that introverted learners will do better at developing cognitive academic language ability. The rationale for this hypothesis comes from studies which show that introverted learners typically enjoy more academic success, perhaps because they spend more time reading and writing (Ellis, 1994; Littlewood, 1984).

Regardless of whether it is more advantageous to language learning being extroverted or introverted, the fact remains that behavioral tendencies exist for both types of learners. Essentially this dimension is a continuum that reflects the degree to which a person is energized by other people or by the inner world of ideas (Oxford, 1990). Extroverts enjoy a wide range of social, interactive learning tasks, like games, conversations, discussions, debates, role-plays and simulations; while the introvert likes more independent work, like studying or reading. If they do work with another person, introverts usually prefer to work with one other person who they know well (Oxford, 1993).


Hypothesis 1:
High output foreign language students will demonstrate lower anxiety (a = .05, using the t Student test) when submitted to the Foreign Language Classroom Anxiety Scale (FLCAS) than their low output counterparts.

Hypothesis 2: High output foreign language students will demonstrate higher motivation (a = .05, using the t Student test) when submitted to a motivational questionnaire than their low output counterparts.

Hypothesis 3: High output foreign language students will demonstrate higher self-esteem (a = .05, using the t Student test) when submitted to Bell´s Self-Esteem Scale than their low output counterparts.

Hypothesis 4: High output foreign language students will manifest different learning styles, particularly in terms of the use of physical senses, introversion/extroversion, intuitive/sequencial-concrete, closure-oriented/open, and global/analytic tendencies (using frequency counts) when submitted to the Style Analyis Survey (SAS) than their low output counterparts.



The sample population of this study was taken from students in their first semester of their fourth year in the English Pedagogy and Licensure program at the University of Atacama in Copiapó, Chile. Forty-seven students participated in the initial process from which ten high output and ten low output students were chosen, making the sample population of this study a total of twenty students.

Two separate means of categorizing them into high and low output students were used to ensure that each student did indeed participate with higher or lower frequency as compared to the entire group. The first means was by surveying six teachers who had these students in their classes, and asking them to categorize them into high or low output students. By comparing the lists, ten students were selected for each group with the compatibility of the teacher´s responses exceeding 80%. Independent of this survey, classroom observation was also used to double check the teachers´ responses. Three researchers observed the classroom on three different occasions during Language IV class. Using an observation sheet, observers marked the number of times each student in the class participated. The observation sheet distinguished the total frequency of participation as well as whether the participation took the form of a single word, a phrase, or extended discourse. The classroom observation process was 86% compatible with the teacher´s responses.


Four different measuring instruments were used to create an affective profile for the high and low output foreign language students. These instruments separately measured anxiety, motivation, self-esteem and learning styles.

A. Measuring Anxiety

The Foreign Language Classroom Anxiety Scale (FLCAS) was used to measure the anxiety levels of the students involved in this study. This instrument is a validated measure of anxiety specific to language learning using the self-report technique. The FLCAS was developed by Horwitz et al. (1986) to provide investigators with a standard instrument for measuring anxiety. This 33 item anxiety measure is scored on a 5-point Likert Scale, ranging from "completely agree" to "completely disagree".

B. Measuring Motivation

To measure motivation, the 18 Motivation/Attitude Variables developed by Dornyei (1990) was administered to the sample population. This attitude survey is a likert-type test with 44 questions that fall within 18 different variable categories, including ideas such as "Interest in foreign languages," "Attitudes toward foreign languages," "English broadens one´s view," "Attitudes toward the Anglo-Saxon world," etc. For the purposes of this study nine questions were eliminated because of their irrelevance to studying English in Chile, leaving 35 questions in total. The subjects were asked to respond using a scale from 1 (completely agree) to 5 (completely disagree).

The intention of this survey is to measure the components of motivation in foreign language learning. The 18 Motivation/Attitude Variables contain items that define the relevance and characteristics of integrativeness and instrumentality in foreign language learning as well as other motivational components.

C. Measuring Self-Esteem

Bell´s Self-Esteem Scale (as cited in Bizama, 1995) was administered in order to discover the levels of self-esteem of the language students in the sample population. It contains 20 likert-type items using a scale from A (Agree) to N (I Don't Know) to D (Disagree). The questionnaire surveyed the respondent´s feelings about himself as well as his perception of how other people perceive him.

D. Defining Learning Styles

The SAS (Style Analysis Survey) was developed by Oxford (1993) and is designed to Two separate means of categorizing them into high and low output students were used to ensure that each student did indeed participate with higher or lower frequency as compared to the entire group. The first means was by surveying six teachers who had these students in their classes, and asking them to categorize them into high or low output students. By comparing the lists, ten students were selected for each group with the compatibility of the teacher´s responses exceeding 80%. Independent of this survey, classroom observation was also used to double check the teachers´ responses. Three researchers observed the classroom on three different occasions during Language IV class. Using an observation sheet, observers marked the number of times each student in the class participated. The observation sheet distinguished the total frequency of participation as well as whether the participation took the form of a single word, a phrase, or extended discourse. The classroom observation process was 86% compatible with the teacher´s responses.


During the first semester of 1999, twenty students were selected to participate in this study and were divided into two groups, high output and low output, using the procedures defined in the "Subjects of the Study" section. Over a four week period, researchers entered the Language IV class and administered the four tests, written in Spanish, to the whole class (regardless as to whether they were chosen for the sample population). The first week, the students were asked to respond to the anxiety measure; the second week, motivation; the third, self-esteem; and the fourth, learning styles. Each test took an average of about fifteen minutes.

Once the tests had been scored using the evaluation procedures individual to each measure, the scores were then grouped according to whether they corresponded to high or low output students. In the case of the anxiety, motivation, and self-esteem tests, the ten scores in both of the groups were averaged. The t-student statistic was then used to discover whether a significant difference existed between the group averages. For the learning styles survey, frequency counts were done on each of the five learning styles categories and the results of the two groups were compared.


1. Anxiety

The Foreign Language Class Anxiety Scale was used to measure the language anxiety levels of both high and low language producers. The researchers had hypothesized that the high language producers would experience significantly less language anxiety (a = .05) than low language producers. Following are the results:


x = p = 62.5
y = p = 48.6
s = 1692.5
s = 2148.4
a = .05
a = .05

2.128 1.734 : REJECTED

Considering that t = 2.128 is greater than the critical value 1.734, the null hypothesis was rejected with 95% statistical confidence, confirming the projection that high language producers tend to be less anxious than their low output counterparts.

This projection was based on previous research that demonstrated that students who are anxious tend to behave in ways that reduce their participation in the classroom. For example, Young (1991) maintained that behaviors such as not initiating conversation or less participation in them, as well as allowing longer silent periods and the tendency to speak for shorter periods in front of a group were part of the characteristics of language anxious students.

Horwitz et al. (1986) offer additional descriptions of anxiety-related behaviors particular to the foreign language classroom setting. They suggest that students are anxious when they avoid trying to convey difficult or personal messages in the foreign language, avoid activities in class, come unprepared, act indifferently, and avoid speaking.

2. Motivation

The 18 Motivation/Attitude Variables was given to the sample population to measure their levels of motivation for learning a foreign language. It had been hypothesized that students whose oral participation frequency was high would demonstrate stronger motivation than those whose oral output was low. Following are the results:


x = p = 54.8
x = p = 50.8
s = 1692.5
s = 2148.4
a = .05
a = .05

0.7359 £ 1.734 : ACCEPTED

As 0.7359 is less than the critical value 1.734, the null hypothesis cannot be rejected, demonstrating that there is no statistical significance (a = .05) between high and low language producers in their levels of motivation when confronting the challenge of learning a foreign language. That is to say, although the group averages confirmed that those students who maintained higher levels of output did indeed score higher on a motivation survey than those whose output levels were lower, this difference was not enough to be statistically significant. Just because a significant difference was not found does not necessarily mean that high language producers do not have higher levels of motivation, but rather, under the research conditions defined by this study, a significant difference was not found.

Thus, in interpretting these results, the question to be answered is why was motivation not a differenciating factor in the composition of a profile for high and low language producers under the experimental conditions of this study? The answer may be found in the measuring instrument used. Brown (1994:152) stated,

"Motivation is something that can, like self-esteem, be global, situational, or task- oriented. Learning a foreign language clearly requires some of all three levels of motivation. For example, a learner may possess high "global" motivation but low "task" motivation to perform well on, say, the written mode of the language."

The 18 Motivation/Attitude Variables created by Dornyei (1990) was a global measure for motivation which was based on a construct consisting of instrumental motivation, integrative motivation, the need for achievement and attributions about past failures; it was not specific to the TASK of oral performance or the motivation that a student may feel to participate in oral classroom activities. Thus, although global motivation can be ruled out as a differenciating variable in the construction of an affective profile for high and low language producers, task motivation has yet to be studied, specifically testing a language student's desire to orally participate. Our subjects tended to maintain similar levels of global motivation, but further research will be necessary to discover if task motivation results in significant differences between the two groups.

3. Self-Esteem

Bell's Self-Esteem Scale, was used to measure self-esteem in both the high and low language output groups. The researchers had hypothesized that high output students would demonstrate higher self-esteem than the students who participate with less frequency. Following are the results:



x = p = 51.8
x = p = 47.5
s = 171.6
s = 288.5
a = .05
a = .05

1.902 1.734 :REJECTED

Considering that 1.902 is greater than the critical value 1.734, the null hypothesis was rejected with 95% statistical confidence, demonstrating that students who orally participate in class with higher frequency tend to have higher self-esteem than those who orally participate less.

This confirms the previous research that self-confident people tend to not fear rejection as much as those who suffer from low self-esteem. This lack of fear stimulates the self-confident language learner to participate in varied classroom activities. Because the high self-esteem learners are less likely to exaggerate the importance of their mistakes, they also would tend to try new and unpredicatable experiences and use more guessing techniques than those students who tremble at the idea of looking foolish in front of their peers (Dulay et al., 1982). In essence, the self-confident person, who is less wrapped up in what others think, tends to participate with more frequency.

4. Learning Styles

To discover if a difference exists in the learning styles of high and low language producers, the Style Analysis Survey was administered to both groups. To aid in the interpretation of results, they will be broken down into the categories defined by the survey.


Hands - on
Visual / Auditory
Extrovert / Introvert
Concrete - Sequencial
Concrete - Seq. / Intuitive
Clousure - oriented
Clousure - oriented / Open
Global / Analytical

It had been hypothesized that high language producers and low language producers would have different learning styles when approaching the task of learning a foreign language. The above results represent the number of students who fall into each category.

The first section of Table 7 answers the question of how students use their physical senses to study or work. The table shows that the majority of high language producers tend to be hands-on (50%) and visual learners (30%) while the low language producers are overwhelmingly auditory learners (80%). The tendency for low language producers to be more oriented toward learning by listening is not surprising. As discussed earlier, some researchers are more concerned with comprehensible input, paying attention, and mentally processing information than with oral participation. Thus, low producers seem to prefer learning through listening while the high producers are more keen on actively participating with their hands and through visual means.

The second section of Table 7 answers the question as to how the subject deals with people. That low producers are more introverted (90%) seems obvious, but the surprise comes with the results of the high language producers who demonstrated a high percentage of introversion (60%) as opposed to extroversion (30%). One would expect that a person who orally participates with high frequency would tend to be more extroverted. These results could possibly be explained considering that the questions on the SILL were more focused on social behavior than on classroom behavior. It could be possible that while a student enjoys parties and going out with friends socially, he does not necessarily feel comfortable participating in the classroom setting.

The third section of Table 7 looks at how the respondents of the survey handle possibilities. Both high and low producers demonstrated an overwhelming tendency for intuitiveness: 100% for low producers and 70% for high producers. That is to say, the high majority of students surveyed are future-oriented, able to seek out the major principles of a topic, like to speculate about possibilities, enjoy abstract thinking, and avoid step-by-step instruction. In essence, no considerable difference exists in terms of how high and low language producers confront possibilities.

The fourth section of Table 7 focuses on how tasks are approached. While high language producers tended to be evenly divided between orientation toward closure (40%) and orientation toward openness (40%), with 20% of the respondents switching modes easily, the low language producers were overwhelmingly oriented toward openness (80%). Essentially, the low language producers prefer picking up information in unstructured ways and tend toward relaxing and enjoying learning rather than being concerned with deadlines and rules. Meanwhile, their high producing counterparts were evenly divided between the this same orientation and the tendency to focus carefully on all learning tasks, meet deadlines, plan ahead, and want specific instructions.

Finally, how ideas are dealt with are the focus of the last section of Table 7. The majority of the respondents (80% of the high producers and 60% of the low producers) tended toward being analytical. Only 10% of each group was oriented toward globality. That is to say, rather than looking for the main idea, guessing meanings, and communicating without being sure of all the words and concepts, the students surveyed prefer focusing on details, logical analysis and contrasts.


Twenty students in the first semester of their fourth year in the English Education program at the University of Atacama were divided into two groups: those that participated with high frequency and those who participated less. The purpose of this study was to create an affective profile (considering the variables of anxiety, motivation, self-esteem, and learning styles), that could possibly distinguish one groups from the other. After administering surveys that measured the affective variables in question, it was discovered that while no significant difference existed in the students' levels of global motivation and the learning styles that deal with possibilities and ideas, significant differences were found in the students levels of anxiety, self-esteem, and the learning styles focusing on the physical senses, introversion/extroversion, and tasks.

The creation of this affective profile is a starting point for teachers who want to increase the participatory level of individual students within the language classroom. As affective factors could define a student's success or failure in learning a foreign language, particularly if they are impediments to participation, it behooves the consciencious educator to understand them more and take measures to ensure students' success. It may be as simple as giving a word of praise to the anxious, correcting errors with more sensitivity or the students suffering from low self-esteem, or presenting varied methodologies in the classroom for those students whose learning styles diverge from others. With this understanding, students may increase their output and become more proficient language learners.


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