Exploring learner styles: which bird are you teaching?

general birdsI took up birdwatching about 2 years ago. It’s a really relaxing hobby which, believe it or not, has helped me as a teacher. Obviously, finding a way to relieve stress is important in any job. Taking country walks and making a few new sightings of local wildlife helps me to chill out. But more importantly, as I’ve come to appreciate the differences in behaviour and personality of our feathered friends, I’ve also become more interested in the learning behaviour and styles of my students. In a rather quirky, zoomorphic way, I’ve tried to categorise some learner types in relation to birds I spotted during my walks!


The bird: these birds love a good long sing-song and they are ubiquitous in England. They’ve got a fair few types of calls. Their most distinctive behaviour is regular rustling in dead leaves and along the bottom of hedgerows searching for grub.

The learner: fairly fluent and not shy in the slightest. Just as the bird constantly rustles, these learners dig under the surface of language to search for patterns. However, just as the blackbird can’t rustle in the same place for too long, these learners have a short attention span when it comes to analysing language, preferring to fall back on those strong speaking skills where they are in their comfort zone. Like the bird’s long calls, these learners also like big chunks of language, like idioms.

Red Kite

red kiteThe bird: once considered vermin in England, these birds were hunted to extinction in the UK. They were reintroduced in the late 1980s, their numbers greatly increased, and now they are considered pests again!

The learner: One supposed ‘pest’ of ELT is the use of L1 in the classroom, and the grammar translation method. Theorists like Guy Cook suggest that use of L1 is not all bad, but my experiences in South Korean high schools where L1 and translation predominated gave me mixed feelings on the topic.

Just as the red kite seems beautiful and elegant, so too is the language of these learners. They appear more fluent and competent than they are because they’ve learnt a lot of big language chunks by rote, and have often learnt intonation patterns well. Just as the kite has a powerful form, the learner’s strengths are in form and structure of the language. Just like a kite when it’s nesting, these students can be quite shy.

Little egret


The bird: a white heron that is becoming more common in England. Has a strange defining feature – big, yellow, floppy feet. Sometimes you don’t see these as their feet get covered in mud when the bird is wading. Expert hunter, keen eye for a fish.

The learner: The colourful feet of the little egret are like the learner’s creativity. Sometimes you can’t see how imaginative some learners are, but if you find the right activity you could expose that creative side. However, just like little egrets are often on their own, some creative students could feel a bit isolated if they aren’t working with like-minded students. Pair them with extroverts.


jayThe bird: often heard but rarely seen. It took me a long while to spot one of these. They have a great streak of colour and a funny little hop.

The learner: similarities with egret learners, but the funny hop represents a good sense of humour. Just as you can hear a Jay, these learners a quite vocal. However, approach them when monitoring and they will just stop talking – they hate it when the teacher is listening to them. If they know that the teacher is paying attention, they often drop in a bit of humour to mask their insecurity.


The bird: they do exactly what their name suggests – walk along the shore, turning stones over with their beak to find food. They do this relentlessly, although they can get easily startled. Often in groups.

The learner: Meticulous. All about details, they are constantly looking for information when it comes to language structures. They always think there is more to learn when it comes to grammar, and they’ve probably completed Raymond Murphy’s Grammar in Use about 100 times off their own back. Just as turnstones get startled, so do these learners when it comes to using the language. They are firmly ‘accuracy’ over ‘fluency’. They like sharing their knowledge in groups, but hate being the group spokesperson.


heronThe bird: probably the most cumbersome flier in the bird kingdom. They look incredibly unorthodox to me. Like the egret, they are adept at hunting.

The learner: the hunting is like language analysis, which these learners are good at. But what defines them is their confidence. Just as a heron appears rather unnatural when in the air, these learners try to talk quickly and fluently and are very keen, but can often be pretty inaccurate. However, these learners (like herons) achieve their goal despite the difficulties. They will be able to get their message across and communicate, just in a roundabout kind of way.

Jack Snipe

jack snipe

The bird: a wading bird that stands in the reeds, quite elusive and shy. Does this funny thing when it bobs up and down on the spot. A prize spot for a beginner birdwatcher.

The learner: Just as waders have only their feet in the water a lot of the time, these learners like to just ‘dip their toes in’. They are quite shy and prefer to take a back seat, but the bobbing represents their inner urge to volunteer answers and show how much they understand. When nominated to give answers, they normally show great competence. Just as the jack snipe is a good spot for twitchers, these learners are good to teach as they are very disciplined, but will contribute a lot if you give them a chance.


The bird: owls are nocturnal (a lot of them)

The learner: also nocturnal. They learn most of their language at the pub in the evening. If your school organises pub nights, these learners will be the first to turn up.

The robinrobin

The bird: very territorial, the robin is no stranger to being on the defensive. However, it is also very friendly and a very welcome sight in the garden.

The learner: very social, they undertake communicative activities with aplomb. They interact well and complement others, and enjoy giving peer correction. However, their ‘territory’ is the classroom, and their application outside this domain is sometimes lacking. They are ‘fluency’ over ‘accuracy’, and rarely bother with homework that involves practising grammar forms. Can be complacent. Similar to blackbirds but less analytical.

Now you’ve read the above, it might be fun to think about these questions:

Are certain nationalities certain birds? Is it ok to generalise/stereotype?

In your opinion, who are the hardest birds to teach? Who are the easiest?

What other learner styles have you noticed? Could you compare them to other birds/animals? 

I’d love to read your comments on this!

(Note: all photos either by me or from Wikipedia)


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