Sometimes I think the Professional Development (PD) Day means, for me as a teacher, a day to relax and text a bit, while people talk incessantly about the latest teaching fads, or what the government is currently doing, or which way the pendulum is swinging in our field.  But I was recently rebuked for my disinterest in professional development when I discovered a treasure trove of free scholarly articles by the late Earl Stevick (links provided below).  Reading some of them has shown me what I am missing, and has excited my teaching.

I had the opportunity to meet Earl Stevick (1923-2013) when he was visiting Trinity Western University a few years before his death.  His name is often mentioned because he was an important early thinker in the field of TESOL.  He is also important because he grappled with how his faith intersected with his teaching and expressed that, later in life, to the ESL profession.  While I wish there was time for careful treatment of some of his core ideas, instead I would like to tell you about an article he wrote on 7 language learners and how they were successful.  Here is how the story goes: Stevick was told by a colleague about a particular successful language learner. After meeting this student, Stevick has a brainwave to interview successful language learners and see what was common to all of them. As it turned out, very little was held in common. They all had unique strengths in their approaches.

I will summarize the first language leaner in  “Success with Foreign Languages – Seven Who Achieved it”.  This chapter is entitled “Ann Learning Norwegian” and Ann’s strategies are discussed.  Reminding students that some of them are very successful and they need to think about copying each other’s strategies is important.  If they are hoping a teacher with good methods will do it all for them, their growth will be stunted.  Teachers are often monolingual, and their dedication to their craft is no substitute for the students’ own journey of internalizing various good ideas into how they learn a language.  Below are Stevick’s observations about Ann:

  • Ann, an American learning Norwegian, uses her ears more than she does her eyes – She listens carefully and doesn’t need to write it down for it to be important to her.
  • She’s good at making a sound she’s only heard a few times – I love trying to repeat words as closely as I’ve heard them, trying to impress the native speaker as well.
  • She’s good at hearing the different in variations of her own language – such as a Canadian picking out an East-coast accent, Native Accent, Newfoundland accent, etc.
  • She doesn’t mind that the spelling system of her language is irregular – English spelling is frustrating compared to other languages, and good language learners don’t waste time arguing, they just accept it.
  • When somebody corrects Ann, she repeats it – “It doesn’t bother me. In fact, I’m grateful. And if I don’t get it right, I’ll say it again. I keep on until I get a look of affirmation from the person.”
  • Ann talks to everyone! – She even talks to animals at the zoo, and they respond, she is certain of this. Ann has a lot of good ideas.  She is a gifted language learner, but is she really gifted, or is she just being creative in her learning strategies?

This kind of inquisitive person sounds exciting to be around and reminds me of small children—especially my 14-month-old who takes unabashed risks every second in producing sounds she thinks are intelligible. We pretend we understand and she just keeps gurgling.

What torments me these days is that my inquisitive nature seems to be dying.  I have given up trying to learn Asian languages (mostly I can only say Ni hao and Sayonara), and I’m attempting to learn French.  I try to read groceries in French as practice, but I’m just not getting conversational!  Alas, my Gr.1 daughter told me she wants to leave French-Immersion and learn English instead.  Now I can’t even learn languages vicariously through my children. C’est la vie!

James-EdelAll the best in your class,

James Edel



Reader: Please help and comment by telling me how you or your students have gotten the knack of something—a strategy you use(d) to remember vocabulary, for example.  Maybe we can all become more successful language learners!

  1. To read more about Ann and other language learners from “Success with Foreign Languages – Seven Who Achieved it”, Click here:

(Note: though quite readable due to the interviews with 7 subjects, be prepared for some dense reading in Stevick’s analysis)

  1. See this link for other free pdf files compliments of Stevick: