Review: Psychology for Language Teachers – Marion Williams and Robert Burden.

I love summer for two reasons. One, I get to thoroughly relax and take a much-needed break, usually on a beach somewhere (this year was Spain and Italy). Two, I get to read to my heart’s content, both ELT-related books as well as my secret indulgence, fantasy novels. Now, while I am sure you would all find my reviews of Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time riveting, I’ll stick to reviewing the more language-focused books here. Over the last month or so I’ve been reading Williams and Burden’s Psychology for Language Teachers. It is on the recommended reading list for the NILE MAPDLE and it has been on my to-read list for a while. As usual, I’ll aim to provide you all with my thoughts on the book as well as the general overview of what it contains.

Three-sentence summary

Psychology for Language Teachers is a well-written account of how the field of psychology (especially the realms of constructivism and social interaction theory) plays a significant role in the learning AND teaching of languages. The writers take the reader on a journey through some of the major breakthroughs in psychology from the 1960s-1990s (it was written in 1997) and provide clear ideas on how these insights might be applied to a social-interactionist approach to language teaching. They provide a very clear rationale as to why such an approach should be taken and plenty of references for ‘interested readers’ who want to go further down the proverbial ‘psychology’ rabbit hole.

Three takeaways

Ok, so even though this book was written way back in 1997, there are plenty – and I mean plenty! – of takeaways. I’ll try and keep these as succinct as I can.

  • Learning is more than the transmission and receiving of information – it involves everything and everyone: So this is an obvious one for most of us; however, I want to emphasise why this is an important takeaway. The writers really look at the learning process as truly holistic, in that it involves not only content, but the people themselves, their interactions, the environment, etc. They also talk about a number of models that help to conceptualise how the ‘environment’ affects learning and teaching (e.g. Bronfenbrenner’s Ecological perspectives or Molnar and Lindquist’s Systems). In essence, the learner is part of a system – well, many systems really, and all of these systems interact with one another in some way. These interactions have an affect on learning and teaching, and as such should be taken into account. What I found really interesting is that the authors did not ‘subscribe’ fully to any of the models they presented; rather, they said that these factors need to be taken into account, but what we often forget is that learners and teachers will interpret these in a myriad of different ways – what is important then is this co-construction of meaning and understanding of factors. One of my favourite quotes from the book that related to this takeaway is:

Learning occurs within a variety of often overlapping contexts, some of which are conducive to the process of cognitive, affective, moral and social development than others. 

Williams & Burden, 1997, p.188
  • Learning is a social act: This book pushes heavily the social-interactionist perspective to language teaching (while applying principles from constructivism), and the authors provide plenty of reasons why this perspective should be at the forefront of ELT. One of the first things that is made clear is that learning is a social act and teaching is also a social act. With this in mind, we can say that it is almost impossible to learn something new without the input of something or someone else (e.g. parents, friends, teachers, books (and therefore authors), etc.). Teachers and learners, thus, play an important role in the learning process; learners bring with them prior knowledge and the ability to co-construct meaning, while teachers, play an important mediating role in the process, helping learners progress through to their next level of development (drawing on Vygotsky’s ZPD here). The authors write that as teachers we need to really understand how certain interactions between our learners and ourselves foster positive learning experiences and environments – and we should aim to include as many of these as possible.
  • There are many learner factors that can aid in creating positive learning environments: As mentioned, the learner is not simply an empty glass for us teachers to fill up with our water of knowledge. Rather, they are entities that make up a complex learning system – they themselves being a kind of system, made up of many individual factors that are likely to affect their learning. Some of these include:
    • Feelings and attitudes towards the subject/teacher: Everyone remembers the subject at school they hated. And they also remember the subject they loved. There are many reasons why these love and hate relationships occurred, but two of the predominant ones are likely to be interest and relationship with the teacher. It goes without saying that a person is less likely to enjoy learning something if they do not find it interesting. Furthermore, it is hard to really want to participate if your relationship with the teacher (or your peers for that matter) is not positive.
    • Meaningfulness: Learners generally will learn something that they find meaningful (Williams & Burden, 1997). As teachers, however, it is very difficult for us to guess how the content we present will be interpreted by learners as each individual interprets content in their own way. This, of course, can be negated by having a strong understanding of what our learners hold as important, interesting, etc. through communication, discussions, etc. This way we can better exploit what pedagogic materials, activities, techniques, etc. we have at our disposal to meet these ‘meaningfulness’ criteria.
    • Learning preferences vary: Each learner is an individual and as such will have varying preferences on how to do certain activities tasks (do not confuse this with learning styles, which have be debunked time and time again!). In order to meet these learning preferences, we as teachers can ensure that there is a variety of activity types (e.g. some analytic, some more creative) as well as providing opportunities for learners to reflect on their experiences and make explicit what they they likes and didn’t like (regarding the mode of interaction).
    • Proficiency with direct and indirect language learning strategies: Each learner makes use of a number of different learning strategies. The authors put forward a number of ‘compositions’ but one that I found easy to grasp and quite useful with regard to conceptualisation is Oxford’s (1990) Direct and Indirect language learning strategies. She built on previous work in the area and categorises strategies into six somewhat specific categories and then puts these six into two broader categories: direct and indirect (see below). What is clear is that not all learners make use of certain strategies (both consciously and unconsciously) effectively. This in turn affects their ability to use language, ‘perform’ and, in a sense, succeed at communication. Being aware of our learners capabilities will help us as teachers decide what areas we can focus on or where our learners may need further ‘learner training’.
      • Direct strategies: Memory, Cognitive and Compensatory
      • Indirect strategies: Metacognitive, Affective and Social
    • Sense of agency and autonomy: The writers stressed the importance of learners being able to make their own choices in learning. Why? Well, because learners are more motivated to learn when they have control over their learning (to a degree). When discussing this learner factor, there were three main areas that came up: Locus of causality, locus of control and effectiveness motivation (see below). What I took away from this is that learners need be provided with opportunities to be autonomous; however, not all learners are ‘ready’ to be ‘let go’ – they need support to become fully autonomous. In order for this to occur, certain learner training may need to occur.
      • Locus of causality: This refers to how we interpret the cause of actions. de Charms (1984) uses the terms Origins and Pawns, with Origins being those who see themselves as the causes of their actions, while Pawns being those who see their causes for actions as originating from external sources (e.g. other people). What was interesting is that in reality we are all a little bit of both, depending on the situation.
      • Locus of control: This refers to the feeling of being in control, with the more control we have the more positive we feel, and vice versa. Another interesting viewpoint regrading failure from Seligman (1975) is that of learned-helplessness and mastery orientation. There are some who feel that they fail because of their lack of ability – the ‘I can’t do it because I don’t have the ability to do it, so I’ll never be able to do it (learned-helplessness)’. On the other hand, there are those who take on a mastery approach and say that they failed because they didn’t try hard enough or they didn’t know something; in essence, they attribute failure not to their lack of ability, but rather to something else.
      • Effectiveness motivation: This refers to one’s sense of self-efficacy and the belief in their own ability to perform in a certain way. In a very simplified view, we could say that low self-efficacy is negative and detrimental to language learning, while high self-efficacy is positive and beneficial to language learning (Bandura, 1977).
    • Self-perception: How learners view themselves is vitally important. If learners see themselves in a negative light, they are less likely to want to participate, learn, etc.

What I liked

  • Even though this book was written in 1997, I still felt that a lot of what they were saying was very relevant. I was constantly reflecting on my classes while reading and thinking ‘oh, that makes sense now’.
  • It is written in a way that it provides you with a general overview of what’s important as well as very clear implications for the classroom, something I appreciated a lot. I’m not sure about a lot of you, but I still find it difficult to interpret studies and books and find relevant implications for teaching and learning. Having them provided made my life a lot easier.
  • It starts off small and gets bigger. What do I mean by this? Well, it starts with the learner, then moves to the teacher and others, then to the environment, etc. It seemed fairly logical to me.
  • It focused quite a lot of attention on both the teacher as well as ‘tasks’, which I found surprising. I wasn’t expecting such a focus on teachers or on tasks themselves, so it was great to read about how we can affect learning and the roles we can/should take on. It was also interesting to see that since this publication, we are still not super far along in determining factors of task difficultly and being able to determine/create tasks that will have a specific outcome (I recently read Ellis et al.’s Task-Based Language Teaching and it was here that they stated pretty much the same thing as in Psychology for Language Teachers).
  • It has a ‘putting it altogether’ chapter. At the end, there is a great summary of all the points brought up. Obviously it is very concise; however, it helped remind me of what I had read and it made writing this review a whole lot easier!

What I didn’t like

There were quite a number of models and theories that were mentioned ‘in passing’ and I would have liked to have gone deeper into them. I suppose the scope of this book doesn’t really allow for this, but it would have been nice to have just a little more information on some of the theories.

Who should read this book?

  • Teachers with a few years of teaching under their belts: I feel that if you are an inexperienced teacher, many of the points brought up in the book may go over your head. With this in mind, I would recommend this to teachers who have been teaching for at least three years. It is definitely worthwhile, although perhaps there are some other more recent books that might be worth the few extra pennies.
  • Delta/DipTESOL candidates: Loads of information in here that will give you plenty of ‘links’ to other authors. The books contains some good summaries of motivation theories as well as learner factors.
  • Trainers: A good one for the shelf, although not particularly teacher training focused per se. I would recommend it, though, because I feel it has helped me conceptualise the class and the learner more effectively which can help when guiding/coaching teachers.

Final notes

A worthwhile read overall, with plenty of insights and takeaways. I have tried my best to put as much info here without being ‘too much’ – I found it really difficult to really capture the essence of the 240-page book here, though. I really enjoyed reading this book, but I will say that if you are looking for practical ideas, look elsewhere. This is very much looking at implications for learning and teaching, and aimed at teachers looking to better their teaching practice. You can also see where I have tried to generalise many of the points that presented – please do not misinterpret this. I have written many points here in a very, very simplified way. If you really want to understand them, I suggest taking a look for yourself.

Have you read this book? Would you like to? Let me know your thoughts 🙂

Book details

Title: Psychology for Language Teachers

Authors: Marion Williams and Robert L. Burden

ISBN: 9780521498807

Amazon affiliate link Spain

Amazon affiliate link UK


Bandura, A.R. (1977). Self-efficacy: toward a unifying theory of behavioural change. Psychological Review, 41, 191-215.

de Charms, R. (1984). Motivation enhancement in educational settings. In C. Ames and R.E. Ames (Eds.) Research on Motivation in Education, vol. 1, Student Motivation. New York: Academic Press.

Seligman, M.E.P. (1975). Helplessness: on depression, development, and death. San Francisco: Freeman.

Oxford, R. (1990). Language Learning Strategies: What every teacher should know. New York: Newbury House.

Williams, M. & Burden, R.L. (1997). Psychology for Language Teachers. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


  1. AB says:

    I jumped to this post first after a break from your blog (I’ve been teaching this month), as I don’t think I’ve actually read this title, but it’s a perennial question: Do my students like me? I’ve always struggled to be in tune with teens, and it’s really challenging to mold oneself to the “firm but fair” teacher with young learners. I think the aspect of “meaningfulness” that you mention in your post becomes key to planning any lesson. I should source this book and give it a read, as I’ll be curious to see the finer details of what it covers.

    When I was taking my MA, in terms of the aspect of psychology, I remember being introduced to the concept of reflexive practice, which differs from reflective practice in that an individual is supposed to identify links to their past (i.e, childhood/adolescent/early adult) behaviors and education when analyzing what they did in the classroom (or other workplace setting).


    1. Thanks for the comments, Zoe. I know what you mean, very difficult at times to mold yourself differently. But like you said, that meaningfulness really does help create the best contexts for learning and, perhaps almost as importantly, enjoyment.

      I would love to be able to get all learners to be able to look back on their past and identify those links you mention. I’ve just written a short post on activities for the first few weeks, and one of them is learner pathways (an adaptation of career pathways from Wright and Bolitho). It aims to do that in a sense – but I feel like I need to do this more, especially when learners ‘succeed’ at something (and fail as well!).


  2. Sandy Millin says:

    This looks fascinating and definitely one to add to my list. Have you read Exploring Psychology in Language Teaching? I think that’s the title. Mercer et al, Oxford. It’d be a good complement to this one.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I haven’t but it is on my list! I imagine much like yourself, my list just keeps getting longer and longer – when will I have the time?! 🙂


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