Module 1| Background to Language Learning| Learner Needs


Types of Learner Needs

Learners have different types of needs that affect their learning when learning a foreign language. These needs are personal, learning and future professional needs. In order to be a good teacher, one must be able to meet the learner’s needs.

Think about your students. Do they have any learner needs? Let’s list down some of them.

Shown in the table below are dissimilar types of learner needs.


Kind of needs

Where the needs come from

Personal needs



Cultural background


Educational background


Learning needs

Learning styles

Past language learning experience

Learning gap (i.e. gap between the present level and the target level of language proficiency and knowledge of the target culture)

Learning goals and expectations for the course

Learner autonomy

Availability of time

(future) professional needs

Language requirements for employment, training or education

(Based on ‘what do teachers really want from coursebooks?’ by Hitomi Masuhara in Materials Development in Language Teaching, ed. Brian Tomlinson, Cambridge University Press 1998)

As is obvious from the information given in the table, different students have different learner needs. Therefore, they must be taught in diverse ways and they need to learn all kinds of different things in the classroom when studying English.

The nerd baby says ...

Older students such as teenagers or adults who have particular professional, academic or general goals for learning English must follow courses that would meet all their needs. Given here is a list of different types of professional, general and academic English courses. Take note of the dissimilarities between these courses.

  1. An intensive course of which the duration is four weeks. The course is on exam strategies for sitting an exam for university entrance.
  2. A serires of one-to-one lesson over a period of 10 weeks. The course is on skills needed for business presentation.
  3. A course of six month duration for future tourists. This course concentrates on speaking and listening necessary for English used in society or for daily survival.
  4. A course which is a year long and is on writing academic essays and reading academic books and articles.
  5. A short course in the summer for teenagers in the UK. This course includes a great deal of sports, chatting with English teenagers and trips to tourist locations.
  6. A course held once a week for a small crowd of accountants in the student’s company which is a huge accountancy firm. This course focuses on English for accountants.
  7. A course on writing business letters in English of which the duration is four weeks.

Apparently, in order to meet the future needs of students, the courses change in length, frequency, size of the class, the language skill that is focused on, type of English, teaching styles and activities. Students who are still at primary or secondary school probably will not yet have professional or academic needs. However, they have personal and learning needs in English. In meeting these needs, the teacher has various option for the classroom which are given in the table below.


Learner needs

How the teacher can meet learner needs

Personal needs

Choosing suitable:

·         Materials

·         Topics

·         Pace (speed) of lessons

·         Activities

·         Approach to teaching (e.g. activity-based, topic-based

·         Treatment of individual learners

·         Skills

·         Interaction patterns (e.g. group, pair or individual work)

·         Types of feedback (comments on learning)

Learning needs

Choosing suitable:

·         Materials and topics

·         Activities

·         Interaction patterns

·         Approach to teaching

·         Language and skills

·         Level of language and skills

·         Learning strategies

·         workload


Test your knowledge

Here are descriptions of two students. Read them and make notes on what you think are the most possible learning needs of theirs in an English classroom.


  • Age 9, female
  • Russian father, Japanese mother, lives in Paris
  • Loves sports and making new friends
  • Started learning English one month ago
  • Learns English happily because she is interested in the language, loves her teachers and has a good time in class


  • Age 32, male
  • Indian, lives in India – does not usually meet people from other countries
  • Needs to improve his English because he is trying to apply for a job as a hotel manager
  • Interested in IT
  • Started learning English when he was 12. His grammar is excellent. His speaking and writing skills are weak and he does not have much knowledge of hotel English
  • Has the determination to learn quickly and well and to a high level
  • Does not have time for lessons because he is very busy

Here is a list of teacher choices. Go through the list and try to figure out which of the learner needs they aim to meet. Some may aim at multiple needs.

  1. Choosing to read the students a fairytale
  2. Concentrating on particular problems in pronunciation that the students have in class
  3. Determining that a few students should work alone while the rest of them do group work
  4. Focussing on the language of oral presentations with a class of professional people who are adults
  5. Concentrating on developing students’ ability to read for detail when preparing for an examination
  6. Making the decision to put the students in groups for the entire term and only do group work
  7. Instructing the students on how to use a dictionary proper and the spell checker on the computer
  8. Making the decision to ask the learners the reason why they are learning English and what they hope to accomplish in the future by learning it
  9. Making the decision to only praise a specific student and never criticise him/her
  10. Choosing to take all the students in the class to the computer lab instead of the classroom to write a composition

Given below are some comments from teachers. Have a look at them and think about them carefully. Which comments would you agree with and why?

  1. When I have 40 students in a class to teach, I can’t think about their needs. The only thing I can do is teach what is in my coursebook.
  2. The students really seem to enjoy my lessons and be alert in the class when I find a topic and do activities that catch their interest.
  3. When my students’ needs are satisfied, it makes me satisfied as a teacher.

Questions 1-7 are descriptions of learners and listed A-H are the causes of their needs. Match them together. There is an extra option which does not need to be used.

Causes of needs

A.     Lack of motivation

B.     Learner autonomy

C.     Past learning experience

D.     Learning style

E.      Learning gap

F.      Learning goals

G.     Availability of time

H.     Professional

Learners Descriptions

  1. The student really must learn English very well to be successful in her job.
  2. The student learns best when he/she works alone.
  3. The student has a very busy job and only has time to learn English in the evenings.
  4. The student has very bad pronunciation problems which can stop him from passing an oral exam.
  5. The student is used to learning a great deal of grammar.
  6. To the student, the English classes are boring.
  7. The student needs to learn how to learn English on her own because she cannot afford classes