Psychological Perspectives on Individualizing


Foreign Language Instruction


Leon A. James


University of Hawaii


            I would like to begin by referring to Fig. 1 which presents in either twoų or three-dimensional form eight basic teaching approaches (the EBTA cube). I would like to examine the characteristics of the three binary distinctions suggested there.


            First, the nonųprogrammed versus programmed instruction: to me, the most salient differentiating feature between programmed and non–programmed instruction is the extent to which the content of a „lessonš is broken up into small unitary „stepsš each to be acquired separately and sequentially. Programmed instruction often has associated with it special „hardwareš paraphernalia (e.g., „teaching machinesš), but I consider these coincidental (not, however, unimportant or irrelevant) and there exist programmed courses, which use textbook-type materials for the presentation of the program. „Selfųpacingš is often a built in feature of programmed courses, but in most cases individual differ–ences in rate of learning are not directly taken into account by the internal structure of the program, and translate instead, into how long it takes an individual to complete a „lessonš and consequently, the overall course. Individual differences in learning style are usually not taken into account. Some programs, for instance, will provide shortųcuts for the fast learner and elaborations of some steps for the slow learner, while using the same principle of presentation in both instances. Programmed instruction insures acquisition by the very act of completion of the program by the student, and special achievement and performance tests for the course are thus not required. Every student who completes his programmed course or „moduleš is automatically considered to have been „successfulš. Finally, although programmed instruction constitutes „individualš instruction par excellence, in the sense that the student is alone with his mechanical or textual „teacherš, it does not necessarily represent „individualizedš instruction as characterized below.


            Second, let me discuss the distinction involved in the contrast between mass and individualized instruction. The fact of mass education, its existence and presence in our, and other technological societies, is not a result of merely the emergent need of educating large numbers people. In its present form, it is no less a result of certain specific assumptions about the learning process and the intended educational objectives. I think this observation is notable because too often educator attempt to rationalize many recognized shortcomings of the educational system by saying that they are the result of an overflow of student popu–lation in our schools (or, alternately, an underflow of „qualifiedš teacher.) Certainly it is understandable that overflows and underflows reduce the efficiency of a system. But an increasing number of people have come to believe that some of these shortcomings are to be attributed to the assumptions and principles of the learningųteaching process, and have advocated different, often contradictory assumptions end principles. I would like to refer to this difference by the mass versus individualized contrast.


            Mass instruction assumes that effective teaching is possible when a group of individuals are brought together in a classroom or laboratory and treated as multiple copies of one ("averageš) individual („lockstepš). A relatively pure instance of this approach is basic army training; a contaminated instance is the typical large American graduate school - and there are shades in-between. This basic assumption has several corollaries, the most important ones being the following: graduates of the training program have similar minimal competencies and they can be made to learn in similar sequential and cumulative steps.


            The major assumption of mass instruction is contradicted by the individualized approach, which treats each individual as a different species of learner. This difference is analogous to the contrast between mass produced and custom built automobiles. Note that the principles and opportunities of mass production constitute a technological and economic reality, which is what makes it possible to have custom, built automobiles. Similarly, the reality of a public educational system, with its software of teaching materials and curricula, and its hardware of classrooms and laboratories, makes it possible to have individualized instruction (which should not be confused with oneųto one teaching).


            As with orders for custom built cars, each individual learner is considered a unique and separate problem: graduates of training program do not have similar minimal competencies and they can not ha made to learn in similar sequential and cumulative steps. These beliefs lead to very different decisions about curricular Content and development and to very different expectations about achievement, performance, and competence. Here, the notion of selfųpacing assumes less trivial, mare critical importance than in many current programmed instruction courses. Here, examinations and tests are not geared to the school year and „grade levelš is not synonymous with age. The conception of „teacherš, „classroomš, and „homeworkš become less neat and well defined; instead we may speak of „tutorš or „facilitatorš end mare simply "workš rather than „class or homeworkš.


We come now to the third distinction I wish to make, traditional versus compensatory instruction, and this is likely to create more difficulties than the other two, partly because the word „traditionalš ordinarily includes such a broad range of things, and partly because I have previously used the phrase „compensatory instructionš (James, 1970, Chapter 3), where, according to the more refined terminology pre–sented in this paper, I would use „Compensatory - individualized instructionš. I believe that the additional differentiation is useful and worth the effort. 


Traditional instruction makes the following traditional assump–tions: that formal education prepares the individual for the „real lifeš problems outside school; that courses and curricula provide specialized knowledge and skills which, in their aggregate, constitute professional or work setting competence; that the discrete skills and knowledge which makes up the content of courses and textbooks are to be selected on the basis of some sort of sampling distribution (in terms of their "importance", „frequencyš, "usefulness", "prerequisiteness" etc.), since they are too numerous to be taught in their entirety; that acquisition of a minimum specified number of such facts and skills constitutes ipso facto evidence of the acquisition of the specialized competence; that the specialized competence which is the purposted goal of the instruction/(process can be adequately defined in terms of these discrete skills, which is to say, independently of the performer and the context of his performance.

Compensatory instruction specifically denies the validity of these assumptions of discreteness, of sampling, of sequential accumu–lation, of the quid pro quo of formal instruction and competence. The school is not considered as either a substitute or a preparation ground for society, "like there,š but is taken for its face value as a place in society, like the home, or the work setting, which individuals of a certain age are forced to attend, in which they must work and cope to survive as a part of their social and human condition. The school is thus a training and preparation ground only in the trivial sense that the home, the church, the neighborhood, the Boys Scouts, or whatever are training grounds. This is a trivial sense since every decade of an individual‚s life can be looked upon as preparation for the decades that come afterward.


If you look upon the school in this latter way, then the courses and curricula you encounter there would no doubt still provide specialized knowledge and skills but whether, in their aggregate they constitute professional or civic competence is an open question to be carefully assessed rather than granted by definition. Similarly, it becomes a problem for demonstration whether professional or civic competence can develop in any other way but by doing and living professionally and civic. Furthermore, since our specific understanding of real life situations has always been immeasurably less than our understanding of abstract, theoretic, and artificial systems it remains to be shown that an effective formal instruction process, which requires specificity of knowledge, is at all possible under such conditions. Thus, that people can learn, is an undeniable fact of life; that people can teach, is an interesting hypothesis, but an uncertain one.


I have now completed my elaboration of the three binary distinctions of basic approaches to teaching. Since each dimension has been independ–ently defined, we have a possible total of eight basic approaches to teaching. These can be arranged in a three-dimensional cubic figure, as in Fig. 1a, or a two-dimensional figure, as in Fig. 1b.  I would now like to discuss the characteristics of a FL curriculum within such a model.


FL Instruction within the EBTA Cube


In this second half of my paper I am going to adopt a more argumentative style because I believe that fundamental changes are needed in the approaches to FL teaching which characterize many FL curricula in our public educational system at all three levels. Programmed instruction is not yet widespread in education, generally, and in FL instruction, it is used very infrequently, as far as I am aware. Individualized instruction in FL teaching is even more recent a development, although there are signs that an increasing number of individual teachers have taken upon themselves the task of implementing some of its principles in their classrooms (see Altman, 1971, Rogers, 1969). Compensatory instruction is not yet a reality anywhere in the public educational system, but I shall try to argue that we have the know how to start implementing many of its principles. That leaves the non-programmed mass-traditional approach (type 4 in Fig. 1) as the standard prototype practically everywhere. This approach, as defined in the first half of this paper, makes the following assumptions (in this, I am going to restrict my Locus to the learning and teaching of a second language);


1.   The teaching objectives of the language course are stated in very general terms such as „a speaking knowledgeš or „a knowledge of őthe four‚ basic skillsš, rather than in specific terms as defined by a learning program. Furthermore, there is no need to break up the knowledge that is to be acquired into the strictly unitary steps of a programmed sequence


2.    With some exceptions (such as remedial classes), learners are treated alike in the overall instructional process


3. Graduates of a FL course or program have similar minimal competence in the second language as attested by the obtention of at least a passing grade.


4.    Individuals can learn a second language by going through similar sequential and cumulative steps as defined by the content of a set of lessons variously organized depending on the particular text or method being used.


5.    The FL course prepares the individual for the use of the target language outside the classroom or laboratory.


6.    Communicative competence can be broken up into discrete skills and „piecesš of knowledge for more efficient learning, and these discrete elements constitute the content of lessons, laboratory exercises, and homework.


7.    The degree of communicative competence acquired is directly related to and assessed by the quality of performance on achievement tests (standardized or examination type) which sample-attained knowledge of discrete elements presented in the lessons.


8.    Communicative competence or knowledge of the language is defined in abstract, generalized, context-free terms.


On the basis of my evaluation of the language learning process or the development of communicative competence, I have come to believe that with the possible exception of the first, the assumptions associated with the mass traditional approach are unsound. And I‚d like to offer some arguments substantiating my impression. These, at the same time, can be looked upon as a characterization of the individualized compensatory approach to language teaching, either programmed or non-programmed.


I start with the general premise, often stated by Carroll (e.g.; 1965, p. 22) that students in a FL class learn, if anything precisely what they are taught. This assertion can be interpreted at two different levels, both of which I believe to be valid. At one level, an audio-lingual course that emphasizes „oral skillsš will show higher achievement scores on tests of listening and speaking performance than a „traditionalš course that emphasizes reading and writing, and at the same time, it will show lower scores on tests of reading and writing as compared to the „traditionalš course. At another level, one that is not discussed to the same extent in the FL teaching literature, the language skills acquired in the classroom or laboratory will be different from the language skills needed for communicative compe–tence outside the school. That these represent different skills is attested by the common observation that the relationship between success on language achievement tests or course grades and the success in communicating in the target language in real life situations is weak. This weak relationship also holds in the reverse situation where individuals who have learned a second language „in the streetsš and have success in communicating in it, do not necessarily obtain high scores on standardized achievement tests.


A corollary to this basic assumption is that the development of communicative competence occurs only in learning situations where there is a real communicative need, and in response to it. The classroom and the laboratory in the context of formal education constitute a social setting where the communicative needs are different from those in non-school settings. This means that the school achiever will develop a pattern of communicative competence that is different from and not suitable for meeting the communicative needs outside the school. I am not arguing here that the school context is irrelevant; only that it is irrelevant to a significant number of nonųschool contexts. For instance a formal course in History may be relevant to contributing to our understanding of the historical process as viewed within an academic frame of reference, but its relevance to under–standing that daily events reported on tie front page of a newspaper, is unconvincing. The study of Latin may be relevant to an understanding of Latin and Ancient Roman civilization, but its relevance to anything else is a point. Similarly, the study of a FL in the classroom may develop certain worthwhile knowledge, but its relevance to the use of that language for communicative purposes outside the school appears to be small (e.g., sea Carrol, 1968).


Let me summarize my argument thus far. The classroom represents a nonųordinary, specialized communicative setting, with its own complex rules of conversational interaction and specialized functions for language use (e.g., instruction and problem solving). Ordinary common–place conversational interaction has its own and a different complex sot of rules, and it cannot be replicated or simulated in the classroom. The communicative competence that underlies it can only be developed in real life situations.


The FL educators and teachers who become convinced of the validity of this argument will be faced with the necessity of making certain diffi–cult, exploratory, but I think exciting, decisions that will radically change the contemporary spectrum of the FL curriculum. It will be a change away from the mass-traditional approach to the compensatory-individualized approach. The extent of displacement they may achieve as a result of these new policy decisions will no doubt vary with the existing social, political, and administrative conditions of each school community. This is as it is ų but the crucially important point is that each decision that is made, no matter how small in consequences, be of such character as to move the spectrum of FL instruction away from type 4 in the EBTA cube (mass-traditional) to types 1 and 5 (compensatory-individualized).


Educational Slogans and the Sequential Hypothesis


            The field of educations ordinarily operates within and by means of educational slogans (see Gordon, 1971). These slogans are repre–sented by folkųtheoretical explanations given by teachers and other educators for existing practices and diagnostic activities. Here are some example: „Students are not working up to their abilitiesš; „FL instruction is designed to teach the students to communicate in a second languageš; „The problem is how to motivate the studentsš; „I use method x to teachš; „Basic patterns and vocabulary must precede free expressionš and so on. The justification of educational slogans (their rationality versus their superstitious application) is a topic not unlike that of the emperor‚s clothes in the children‚s story:  there is a silent conspiracy (negative contract) not to mention it. I am particularly interested here in the sequential hypothesis. This hypothesis has become so ingrained in the very conception of language teaching that it is seldom remembered that this is a hypothesis rather than a self-evident truth, so much so that questioning its implications strikes many teachers as odd. But consider.


A child learning a first language is ordinarily exposed to the full range of syntactic patterns of the language of adults and although there is such a thing as „baby talkš that some adults use in interacting with young infants, there is no evidence that this adjustment pattern or anything else that anxious middle-class parents do to „speed upš language development has any significant effect on the child (see Smith and Miller, 1966; Lenneberg, 1967). This experience shows that language can be learned contrary to the sequence hypothesized in the basic patterns and vocabulary hypothesis. If you think that secondų language learning is different from first-language acquisition in this respect, then think of the common fact that many individuals who are immersed in a culture (e.g., immigrants) come to develop communicative competence in the second language in the absence of a formal instruction procedure that is guided by the sequential hypothesis.


In the light of these two common observations, you might wish to change the sequential hypothesis such that it is a hypothesis about the most effective procedure of learning a second language in school. But what evidence do you have that this is indeed so? What is an alternative hypothesis? You might say, for instance, that students will learn, if anything, precisely what they are being taught. If they are taught basic patterns and vocabulary in artificially structured verbal interactions, they will be able to perform under those conditions, but they will not be able to interact in ordinary communicative inter–actions. The expectation of transfer from the first to second communicative setting has too often remained unfulfilled to deserve continued faith. Why not begin the teaching of a language at the second level, in those cases where communicative competence in free conversational interaction is the goal, rather than hope it will materialize by itself in later stages or reserve the practice of it for „more advancedš language learning stages?


Note that the very notion of „basicš patterns and vocabulary is a weakly defined one. Anyone who has transcribed tape recorded versions of free speech must be convinced that we do not ordinarily speak in alternating „sentencesš of the type one practices in classroom exercises and simulated dialogues. It is possible, of course, to write an elementary text in such a way that it contains x number of patterns and y number of words and to practice artificial dialogues containing no more than the particular patterns arid words in the „basicš text Rut this is possible only because what is being said and how it is said is artificially restricted in advance. Even the simplest of free communicative interchanges, however, do not subscribe to this artificial restriction, and it is not a source of much satisfaction to realize that say, 80% of what is ordinarily done in free speech will be subsumed under the „basicš patterns and vocabulary since it takes the other 20% to successfully transact any conversation.


Rejection of the sequential hypothesis does not necessarily imply the absence of any structure in teaching, even though it is true that, at the moment, we do not know precisely how to systematize the instruction of free conversational competence. This is not because the latter type of structured instruction is inherently more complex and difficult to achieve, but because we have not focused in our past research and teaching on the systematic organized nature of ordinary conversations, and until we do so we shall remain hesitant and ineffective in our teaching of it (for a start in this, see Sacks, 1971, and the discussion in James, 1971).


Anyone who cares to think about it would realize that language is used for many different purposes and in many varieties and registers. These different functions and varieties have different, partially independent, underlying skills and competencies and it is naive to think that the same basic hypothesis about teaching procedures can effectively meet the various learning needs in their development. The traditional classification of the „four basic skillsš into listening, speaking, reading, and writing categories seems totally inadequate in the light of recent discoveries in sociolinguistics and ethno methodology (Ervin-Tripp, 1967; Garfinkel, 1968; Sacks, 1971; Searle, 1969). A more realistic approach would take into account the functions and varieties of language as defined by the context in which the language is to be used: ordinary conversational interaction, using language for instructional purposes, reading for pleasure, writing business correspondence, and so on. A realistic goal for our current educational objectives in FL instruction would be for the curriculum to establish three separate and independent „tracksš: one track for ordinary conversational interaction, another for reading, and a third for instructional use. Each track would be made up of a flexible package of miniųcourses or modules, each worth a certain amount of credit points upon completion. Students should be counseled which track to take on the basis of diagnostically evaluated assessment procedures including aptitude, time and opportunity available for study, interest, learning style and perceived goals (see my discussion in James, 1970, Chapter 3). The procedures and materials to be used with each track ought to be developed by the FL teacher in accordance with a specification of the skills to be acquired. It is important to choose fairly specific terminal behaviors, defined by communicative context and setting, and begin training under those conditions at the outset rather than under some allegedly prior or basic but artificial conditions.


            The FL teacher is the person who must implement these changes. The prevailing hesitancy of the FL teacher in implementing changes and his dependence on methods and commercially available courses must be actively discouraged by FL administrators and supervisors. For over twenty years now, the FL profession has encouraged this kind of dependence and if it had been effective it should have been more successful than it has in fact been (see Carroll, 1968). It‚s time for a wing of the pendulum in a totally different direction, in the assertion of the teacher‚s role as the one who makes the instructional decisions. Nothing short of this is compatible with the professional responsibility and personal integrity of the teacher.


Initiating change: The Ebtamobile Trip


          In this final section I would like to make more specific suggestions as to the kind of changes in FL instruction that I think are desirable. The EBTA cube represents a way of talking about the philosophy of teaching that is basic and general. How does movement take place within the EBTA cube, say if we wish to move from the top right hand corner (type 4) to the bottom left hand corner? A method of translocomotion occurs to me which I shell briefly describe, but given its presently unrefined character, I hope it will be taken not as a method to be applied, but rather a method to be discussed. I shall call this proposed solution to the problem of initiating change in basic approaches to teaching as the Triadic Method of Least Resistance and the ensuing profile of the instructional changes as the Ebtamobile Path.


Step 1.  List the instructional areas in which you believe you have some degree of control. I would like to suggest the following seven general headlines.


A.   The shape of the overall curriculum

B.   Course content and materials

C.   Classroom activities and assignments

D.   Type of tests and their timing

E.   Nature of grading system

F.   Distribution of time end work modules

O.  Opportunity for diagnostic and remedial activities


Step 2. Get together with administrators and supervisors and discuss all alternatives that occur to you in these instructional areas in connection with the following four directions of change:


1.   Ratio of student/nonųstudent initiated acts

2.   Specificity of student contract

3.    Degree of selfųpacing

4.   Nature of student/teacher interaction


Theoretically, you have a 7 x 4 matrix of 28 boxes each of which are independent of one another (see Table 1). For instance, for area A (The shape of the overall curriculum), the ratio of student-initiated acts may be quite low, whereas it may be quite high in areas D or F. The degree of self-pacing may be substantial in area F and insignificant in area D. A specific contract maybe between the student and the teacher in area D but imposed by the teacher in area

B.  By „nature of student/teacher interactionš I have in mind particularly two scales: (i) teacher as authority figure vs. teacher as tutor or facilitator and, (ii) high vs. low empathic understanding between student and teacher (see Barrett-Lennard, 1962).


Step 3. Get together with the students and discuss these alternatives with them, noting whatever additional suggestions they may have.


Step 4. Make a list of possible changes within each of the 28 boxes and arrange then in a rank order of extent of departure from current practices such that the change in rank position 1 would be minimal end that in position 10 (way) would be fundamental, with 5 being „somewhat rocking the boat but not pulling down the roof over your head.š You end up with a matrix list of 230 changes (10 changes within each of the 28 boxes). This grid of 280 changes items constitutes the possible theoretical path of the ebtamobile. To determine the actual path that is possible for you, with your particular students and in your particular school at any particular time, figure out the path of least resistance as follows.



Step 5.       Draw a line above the first change item in each of the 28 boxes which represents for you the point of psychological stress that is a change that you cannot live with comfortably if you were to function under those conditions. In some boxes your stress point may be at rank 2, in others you may be courageous enough to go down to rank 6 or 7. You end up with 28 scores for yourself varying between 1 and 10 (if you used a tenųpoint scale). This is your psychological change profile. Now determine in a similar way the psychological change profile for your supervisor, and also for each of your students if you are committed to an advanced individualized instruction program, or, if you are working in a mass oriented environment, use the average student psychological change profile for the class. Determine the path of least resistance by computing a geometric average for the three psychological change profiles. This will give you the context specific instructional profile that is possible in your school at this time.


Step 6.    Implement immediately all the change items in each of the 28 boxes that fall above the line of the path of least resistance. 

               And Presto! ų you are well on your way towards an individualized program. A cautionary note: it should be good practice to recompute the path of least resistance at the beginning of each semester.






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Barrett-Lennard, G.T. Dimensions of therapist response as causal factors in therapeutic change. Psychological Monographs, 1962, 76. (Whole Issue No. 562).

Carroll, J.B. The prediction of success in intensive foreign language training. In Robert Glazer (ad.) Training Research and Eden. New York: Wiley, 1965.

Carroll, J.B. Foreign language proficiency levels attained by language majors near graduation from college. Foreign Language Annals, 1968, 1, 318.353.

Ervin-Tripp, Susan. Sociolinguistics. Working paper no. 3, Language Behavior Research Laboratory, University of California, Berkeley, 1967.

Garfinkel, Harold. Studies in Ethnomethodology. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.:  PrenticeųHall, 1968.

Gordon, B.  Individualized instruction and subųculture differences. Paper presented at the Kentucky Foreign Language Conference, Lexington, Ky., April 1971.

James, L.A. Foreign Language Learning:  A Psycholinguistic Analysis of the Issues. Rowley, Mass.: Newbury House Publishers, 1870.

James, L.A. Towards a psychology ordinary language.  Paper pre–sented at the Central Pennsylvania Psychology Lecture Series, April 1971.    

Lenneberg, E.H.  Biological Foundations of Language. Nay York:  Wiley, 1967.

Rogers, C.R. Freedom to Learn. Columbus, Ohio: Charles E. , 1969.

Sacks, H.  Aspects of the Sequential Organization of Conversation.  Forthcoming, Prentice-Hall publications, 1971).

Searle, J.R. Speech Acts. Cambridge, England:  Cambridge University Press, 1969.

Smith, F. and Miller, G.A. (Eds.). The genesis of Language. Cambridge:  M.I.T.      Press, 1966.




This presentation is based on a paper entitled „A typology of FL education with particular emphasis on compensatory and individualized instructionš which was prepared for delivery at the Kentucky Foreign Language Conference, Lexington, Ky., April 1971. Based on Chapter 7 of Leon A. James, The New Psycholinguistics and Foreign Language Teaching Collected Essays. Rowley, Mass.: Newbury House Publishers, 1971 (forthcoming). Reprinted by permission of the publisher and author.  At the time this was written, the author was a Visiting Fellow at

McGill University, Montreal, Canada while on sabbatical leave of absence from the University of Illinois, Urbana.