Chinese Learners and English Plural Forms

November 2006. Volume 1 Issue 3

Chinese Learners and English Plural Forms

Liu Jing, Evie Tindall and Deanna Nisbet
Regent University, Virginia, U.S.A

Bio Data:

Liu Jing (American version: Jing Liu) is a doctoral fellow in the School of Education at Regent University. She was an assistant professor at Henan University in China. Her academic background includes teaching Japanese, English, and Chinese as a second language. Her present research interests include second language acquisition, learner autonomy in language learning, and technology in language learning.

Dr. Evie Tindall is an associate professor who teaches in the TESOL program in the School of Education at Regent University. Her areas of expertise include reading and language arts, special populations, and teacher collaboration. Dr. Tindall has extensive experience as a teacher, consultant, and conference speaker.

Dr. Deanna Nisbet is an assistant professor and director of the TESOL program in the School of Education at Regent University. She has more than 15 years’ experience teaching at the community college, undergraduate and graduate levels. Prior to entering the teaching profession, she worked in the fields of human resource development and marketing. Dr Nisbet’s areas of expertise include first and second language acquisition and literacy for second language learners.

Article: PDF version

Many Chinese students experience difficulty with the use of plural forms in English. The authors of this article explore this phenomenon by examining features of Chinese and English that may affect plural formation, highlighting specific areas of challenge for Chinese learners, and presenting an array of recommended instructional resources.

Key words: Chinese learners, plural forms, EFL, ESL, instructional practices

Learning, including learning a second or foreign language, is influenced by students’ prior knowledge (Brown, 2000). In the case of Chinese students learning English, prior knowledge of Chinese language patterns may notably affect their acquisition of English (Brown, 2000; Lightbown & Spada, 1999; Odlin, 2003). Language transfer, or the incorporation of patterns from the native language into the target language, is a common source of errors among learners of a second or foreign language (Brown, 2000; Lightbown & Spada, 1999). While by no means the only source of learner errors, language transfer often plays a significant role (Lightbown & Spada, 1999).

As reported by Jia (2003), one area where language transfer is particularly prevalent among Chinese learners is the formation of English plurals. Moreover, in a study analyzing English errors of Chinese learners, Mohamed, Lian, and Eliza (2004) pinpoint the misuse of singular and plural forms as one of the errors. This phenomenon may spring from different morphological and syntactic features between Chinese and English. Grammatically, Chinese is not as complex as English in that it possesses little of what is traditionally known in European languages as inflectional morphology (Norman, 1988). Instead, as Norman further indicates, word order, particles, and prepositions carry most of the grammatical roles in Chinese. In contrast, English is an inflectional language, in which prefixes or suffixes play a significant grammatical role (Fromkin & Rodman, 1998).

This article explores the challenges that Chinese students encounter in the formation of English plurals. To this end, the authors (a) examine linguistic features of Chinese and English that may affect plural formation in English, (b) highlight specific areas of challenge for Chinese learners, and (c) present an array of recommended instructional practices.

Aspects of the Chinese Language that Affect the Formation of Plurals in English
To better understand the challenges Chinese students encounter when forming English plurals, some background pertaining to the writing system and structure of both languages is essential.

Writing system. According to Chen (1999), the earliest reliable records of Chinese date back more than 3000 years ago in the form of oracle bone script. From the very beginning, Chinese writing shows its pictographic origin (Norman, 1988). In other words, written Chinese is ideographic, consisting of an individual character or ideogram for every syllable, with each character representing an object or idea rather than a sound. English, on the other hand, is phonographic, with written symbols representing discrete sounds.

It is important to note that the Chinese language, although ideographic, does have a means of representing its sound system in written form. However, this system, Pinyin, is used only as a means of indicating pronunciation. In the Chinese school curriculum, Pinyin is usually taught in the last stage of kindergarten or the first stage of elementary school. After children acquire knowledge of the Chinese sound system, they quickly move on to learning characters, which constitute the Chinese writing system.

Morphological and syntactic structure. English and Chinese belong to different language families. English is classified as an Indo-European language, whereas Chinese is of the Sino-Tibetan family (Fromkin & Rodman, 1998). A distinctive characteristic of Sino-Tibetan languages is monosyllabism, which means that each morpheme is represented by a syllable (Ho, 1997). However, in modern Chinese, according to Chao (1968), words have become dissyllabic or polysyllabic. Specifically, separate words are often joined together to make new meanings. Frequently, when words are linked, the resultant word is idiomatic, having a different meaning than its individual elements. For example, the word, dian bing xiang (电冰箱, which means refrigerator, is composed of three words dian (电) electricity, bing (冰) ice, and xiang (箱) box.

Additionally, Chinese grammar is less morphologically complex than English grammar (Li & Thompson, 1981). Chinese characters are invariable in structure and allow no internal changes (Ho, 1997). Thus, grammatical functions and word meaning cannot be indicated through inflectional or derivational changes as in English. Instead, Chinese uses word order or functional words to realize grammatical roles. For example, the character le(了 )is used to indicate that an action has been completed (similar to the perfect tense or past tense in English), as illustrated in the following sentences: Zuo tian wo qu le Zhongshan Gong Yuan. (昨天我去了中山公园). I went to Zhongshan Park yesterday. Similarly, the character zhe 着)indicates a continual action or state. This is seen in the following sentence: Ta men zheng tan zhe hua ne(他们正谈着话呢). They are having a talk just now.

In sum, two aspects of the Chinese language that are pertinent to the formation of English plurals are the ideographic writing system and the morphological and syntactic structure of the language. These aspects are markedly different from those of English. Understandably, when Chinese students grapple with the incongruence in these two linguistic systems, problems can arise. Specifically, the use of plural forms presents challenges to many Chinese students learning English.

Plural Forms in Chinese and English
Chinese plural forms. As previously noted, the Chinese language does not use inflections to realize grammatical functions. Rather, Chinese is highly contextual. For this reason, the formation of plurals involves a certain degree of ambiguity. To illustrate, the sentence, shu xia you tu zi (树下有兔子), can be translated as (a) There is a rabbit under the tree, (b) There are rabbits under the tree, or (c) There are rabbits under the trees. The meaning must be derived from the greater context, or the clues in the overall discourse.

While this reliance on context may appear to the non-speaker of Chinese to be imprecise, there are many instances where the context precisely indicates the plural form. An example is as follows: Yi xie xue sheng zai jiao shi li, lao shi zheng gei xue sheng jiang yi ge gu shi. (一些学生在教室里, 老师正给学生讲一个故事). Literally these two sentences are translated, *There aresome student in the classroom. Teacher is telling a story to student. In the first sentence, the determiner, some, is used to indicate that there is more than one student. However, in the second sentence, there is no determiner. It is expected that the reader will naturally understand the plural meaning of the word student because of the context already established within the previous sentence. Thus, context is a primary means of addressing the plural form in Chinese.

However, plurals can be formed in two other ways. First, the use of a numeral or a determiner in front of a noun denotes the plural meaning. Examples include the following: wu zhang zhuo zi(五张桌子 *five desk) and na xie xue sheng (那些学生 *those student). Second, the addition of the morpheme -men to certain types of words can also indicate the formation of a plural. This is illustrated in the following words: lao shi men (老师们teachers), ren men (人们people), hai zi men (孩子们children), wo men (我们we or us). As seen in the aforementioned examples, the morpheme –men(们)is used primarily in conjunction with nouns pertaining to people. One restriction regarding the use of this morpheme is as follows: If there is a numeral that indicates a plural form before the noun, -men (们)cannot be used; for example, san ge lao shi men *三个老师们three teacher + plural marker -men) is not correct. Thus, this means of forming plurals is somewhat limited. It should be noted that in this regard it is not equivalent to the English plural morpheme -s or -es.

English plural forms. As with the Chinese language, English addresses plural forms in a number of ways. English is a language in which inflectional morphemes are used to show grammatical relationships (Klammer, Schulz, & Volpe, 2004). Klammer, Schulz, and Volpe list eight inflectional morphemes, one of which is the plural morpheme. However, because of the arbitrary nature of the English language, plural formation involves more than just adding a plural morpheme. Specifically, English plurals can be formed through (a) the addition of the morpheme –s or –es, (b) the changing of one or more internal vowels, (c) the use of the same form for singular and plural, and (d) the application of the rules of foreign plural nouns to English words (see Table 1).

Most plural nouns in English are formed by adding the morpheme -s or –es (Azar, 1999). Therefore, the use of -s and -es is pervasive and somewhat rule-governed. It is widely known that –es is used for words ending in ch, sh, ss, x, or z; however, exceptions exist. Table 1 provides a summary of some common rules for plural formation involving -s and -es.

Common Rules of Plural Formation Examples Some Exceptions to the Rules
When a noun ends in a consonant + y, change the y to i and add –es

factory – factories

baby – babies

When y is preceded by a vowel, add only –s

guy – guys

boy – boys

When y is preceded by a vowel, add only –s

potato – potatoes

tomato – tomatoes

memos, kilos, pianos, photos, solos 
Note: For some English words, the plural form can be either –s, or –es:
zero – zeros/zeroes,

volcano – volcanos/volcanoes

When a noun ends in a vowel + o, add –s.

zoo – zoos, bamboo – bamboos, radio – radios

When a noun ends in f, or fe, change the f orfe to v, and add –s

wife – wives, shelf-shelves,

knife – knives

beliefs, roofs, chiefs, roofs
When a noun ends inch, sh, ss, x, or z, add-es.

lunch – lunches
wish – wishes

box – boxes


Adapted from Bo (1998)

Another means of forming plurals involves changing one or more internal vowels. Some examples include man-men, mouse-mice, and goose-geese. Interestingly, some plurals involve no change at all. In other words, for some lexical items, the singular and plural forms are exactly the same. This is illustrated in the words deer, sheep, and fish. Finally, because English incorporates words from other languages, some English plurals are formed according to the rules of these languages, as in the case of criterion–criteria, basis– bases, and stimulus–stimuli.

As depicted in Table 2, Chinese and English are distinctly different in regard to the formation of plural nouns.

Table 2
The Formation of Plurals in Chinese and English

Chinese English
The use of a numeral before a noun The addition of the morpheme –sor –es
The use of a determiner before a noun The changing of one or more internal vowel(s)
The use of a suffix –menafter a person-related noun The use of the same form for singular and plural
The contextual indication of a plural meaning The application of the rules of foreign plurals to English words

Understanding these fundamental differences between the two language systems is essential to Chinese students learning to form English plurals. Yet, this alone is not enough. In order to master the nuances of plural formation, Chinese students must also have a thorough understanding of the concept of count and non-count nouns. The matter of count and non-count nouns will be explored further in the next section of this article as the authors address areas of challenge related to English plural forms.

Areas of Challenge
Omission of the morpheme -s/-es. Initially, Chinese learners of English may omit the morpheme -s/-es. To illustrate, phrases such as * three student, * five desk, and*ten apple commonly occur in the beginning and intermediate stages of learning English. As previously noted, students may make these types of errors because they are applying rules from their native language to the formation of plurals in English. In this case, ESL/EFL teachers should emphasize the need to add -s or -es to the end of nouns referring to more than one thing (i.e., count nouns). Once students master this concept, they will be able to accurately form many English plurals.

Over-generalization of rules. English rules tend to be fraught with exceptions, and this is certainly the case with plural forms. As students progress, they encounter the arbitrary nature of English inflections. A problem that emerges at this stage is over-generalization of rules. To illustrate, students may use gooses instead of geese, or deersin place ofdeer. Most English teachers recognize the omission of the morpheme -s/-es and the over-generalization of rules as areas of difficulty faced by many beginning and intermediate students in regard to the use of plural forms. However, they may not anticipate that advanced learners may also make systematic errors. The source of these errors, in many cases, can be traced back to the matter of count and non-count nouns.

Count and non-count nouns. Simply put, count nouns are those that can be enumerated or counted. Examples include desk, tree, and chair. On the other hand, non-count nouns are mass nouns, which do not normally occur in the plural form. They often refer to abstractions and carry a collective meaning. Examples include love, honesty, luggage,and water. In a broad sense, the terms count and non-count nouns are conceptualized in the same way in English and Chinese. However, differences exist in how individual lexical items are categorized. For example, some items classified as count nouns in Chinese are classified as non-count nouns in English. Specific examples include furniture, baggage, luggage, mail, bread, and chalk. Because of this discrepancy, Chinese students may tend to make the following types of errors.
*There are a lot of good furnitures in his house.
*I got two mails today.
*I had two breads today.
*There are three chalks on the desk.

Further, in Chinese, most nouns that are considered count nounsare preceded by a classifier, and most nouns viewed as non-count nounsare preceded by a measure word. This is illustrated below.
A: san zhang yizi (三张椅子three + classifier + chair)
English: three chairs
wu ge xuesheng (五个学生five + classifier + student)
English: five students
B: liang bei kafei (两杯咖啡two + measure word + coffee)
English: two cups of coffee
san wan shui (三碗水three + measure word + water)
English: three bowls of water

Thus, in general, classifiers signal count nouns and measure words signal non-count nouns. No such consistently clear distinction is present in English. This can be a source of confusion for Chinese learners. In the case of advanced learners, a problem arises with words that are not visible or tangible, and do not require a classifier or a measure word. These words are usually abstract, and they are considered non-count nouns in the Chinese language. Some examples include desire, feeling, smell, cost, sound, attitude, congratulation, blessing, laugh, thought, difficulty, gain, and strength. The problem is that in English, these words may be used as either count or non-count nouns, depending on the context. Understandably, this blurred distinction can be confusing for Chinese learners of English. The following sentences taken from one advanced learner’s writing depict this confusion regarding classification of count and non-count nouns.
*Congratulation on your graduation.
*There is some strange sound in the sky.
*I have mixed feeling about going home.

To further explore this phenomenon, consider the English sentence, “I have mixed feelings about going home.” In this construction, there is no classifier to indicate that the word feeling is a count noun. Thus, Chinese students may tend to drop the plural morpheme –s, particularly if they view feeling as an abstract concept, which their prior knowledge of Chinese would lead them to do. In short, even for advanced learners, pre-conceptualizations concerning the classification of count and non-count nouns in Chinese may markedly affect their acquisition of plural forms in English. Table 3 highlights some examples of the distinct differences between Chinese and English in terms of count and non-count nouns.

Table 3
Count and Non-count Nouns: Examples of Distinct Differences

Type of Noun English Classification Source of Difficulty for Chinese Learners
Nouns that have a collective meaning such asfurniture, mail, andjewelry

These nouns are classified as non-count.
Under each category, the individual piece is usually a count noun, such as bed, letter,and ring.

There is no distinction between the collective meaning and individual parts in Chinese.  The wordsfurniture, mail, andjewelry could be perceived as count nouns. 
Nouns that are not visible or tangible (abstract nouns)

These may be classified as either count or non-count,depending on the context. Examples include difficulty, talk, light, andsound.

These words are perceived to be non-count nouns in Chinese. 

It is noteworthy that there is a distinction between spoken English and written English in terms of the use of plural forms. Carter (2004) characterizes spoken English as spontaneous and immediate, noting that it allows only limited planning and thinking time. He concludes that written discourses tend to be more structured and organized, whereas talk can appear rather loose and fragmented. For this reason, generally speaking, Chinese students show more accurate use of plural forms in writing than in speaking.

Recommended Instructional Practices

As noted throughout this article, many Chinese learners encounter challenges in regard to the formation of English plurals. Knowing this, teachers can anticipate difficulties and support students’ learning of English plural forms through various instructional practices. The following instructional recommendations are a compilation of (a) the results of a survey of instructional practices of experienced ESL/EFL teachers who work closely with Chinese students; (b) literature on second language acquisition, learner autonomy, and teaching methodology for English language learners; and (c) the personal and professional experience of one of the authors as an English language learner and scholar.

1. Teach key differences in forming plurals between Chinese and English.

To assist Chinese students with the task of mastering English plurals, teachers can acquaint them with information regarding major differences between the way plurals are formed in the two languages. In doing this, teachers should begin with what students know about their native language and then address the differences in plural formation in English. This “known to unknown” instructional sequence (Carnine, Silbert, Kame’enui, & Tarver, 2004) has both an affective and cognitive impact. It not only engages students’ interest and builds their confidence, but also initiates the construction of new linguistic schemata for the formation of plurals in English. A visual as seen in Table 3 can be used to support the teaching and learning of the differences in plural formation between Chinese and English.

2. Teach English rules for plural formation.

Although English rules for forming plurals are replete with exceptions, many hold true for a high percentage of words. Direct teaching of rules (Zhang, 2003) should be accompanied by student practice in meaningful contexts using all of the language modes. This includes conversations in small groups, reading extensively in English with a focus on plural forms, and writing using plural forms. Another recommendation for teaching plural rules is to categorize words according to the different rules. Materials from Azar (1999) and Quirk, Greenbaum, Leech, and Svartvik (1985) provide rich resources for teaching the categorizing strategy. Finally, the use of a graphic organizer of commonly-known English plural rules can enhance learning and retention (see Table 1).

3. Teach the commonalities and the distinct differences between Chinese and English regarding count and non-count nouns.

Because the matter of count and non-count nouns is particularly difficult for many Chinese students, more teaching and practice time should be allotted to this aspect of plural formation. Teachers can begin by introducing count and non-count nouns when they present vocabulary. Additionally, teachers are encouraged to use the strategies described in the previously-presented recommendations (#1 and 2 above) for the teaching of count and non-count nouns as well. These strategies include (a) the “known to unknown” instructional sequence, (b) the categorizing strategy, (c) practice employing all the language modes, and (d) a graphic organizer (see Table 3).

4. Teach students language learning strategies with an emphasis on learning vocabulary

Language learning strategy instruction has been a major area of focus among first and second language educators since the 1970s. Language learning strategies are defined as “specific actions taken by the learner to make learning faster, more enjoyable, more self-directed, more effective, and more transferable to new situations” (Oxford, 1990, p. 8). In a review of the literature regarding Chinese students’ use of language learning strategies, Zhang (2003) reports that good language learners use more and better strategies for learning vocabulary. These strategies include doing vocabulary exercises, making associations, guessing, using context clues, classifying, memorizing, and consulting a dictionary. A key recommendation provided by Zhang is that teachers consciously guide students in the use of a variety of different strategies for learning vocabulary.

5. Teach students to use a variety of resources when encountering unknown or confusing plural forms. Because an important focus of all instruction is to develop independent learners, the introduction of resources that support learner autonomy is essential (Dickinson, 1992; Little, 1991; Little, 1996; Oxford, 1990; Wenden, 1991). For those instances when students encounter unknown or confusing English plural forms, the following three instructional resources are recommended: (a) the self-questioning strategy, (b) the dictionary, and (c) informational technology. To begin, teachers can directly teach the use of the self-questioning strategy. This is an overarching strategy in that it encompasses all three of the aforementioned resources. Specifically, this strategy provides students with a systematic problem-solving process to use when encountering unknown or confusing plurals. The self-questioning strategy includes the following three steps.

  • What do I already know about plural forms? Does this word match a rule, or fit into a category that I already know?
  • How can I find out more about this plural form? What is the most efficient way to learn about this word? Should I use a dictionary or informational technology?
  • What is my strategy for remembering this plural form? How will I remember what I have learned about this word? What is my personal strategy?

A second instructional resource for learning about English plural forms is the dictionary. Teachers should focus on teaching students how to be strategic in their use of this resource. One example of strategic use is employing the dictionary when seeking initial understanding of plural forms in English. Specifically, Chinese students can use an English-Chinese dictionary to identify count and non-count nouns. Usually, the letter c is placed after a count noun, and the letter u is placed after a non-count noun. As students progress in language learning, they should be encouraged to move beyond dependence on the dictionary to developing their own strategies for classifying and retaining the information as well as utilizing informational technology.
Informational technology is a third instructional resource. This resource provides an abundant array of information for students. Any grammatical topic is readily available on the internet. For example, typing English plural forms on the Google search engine yields numerous grammatical guides on this topic. Learners can also take advantage of word processing tools on a computer. Specifically, attending to writing on a computer screen supports learning about correct English plural forms. This is particularly true for beginning and intermediate learners who are learning the rules for English plural forms and may overgeneralize the rules that they have learned. For example, if one writes, “There are three bird in the tree,” the incorrect plural form is identified by a wavy green line under the word bird. If one writes, “I bought five potatos today,” a wavy red line automatically signals the incorrect use of plural formation. In this case, one can choose the right word by putting the cursor on the incorrect word and right clicking. Finally, using the spelling and grammar check at the end of any writing assignment is another means of addressing and correcting problems with plural forms.
5. Teach students to develop their own resources.

In the process of learning English, most students receive oral and/or written feedback from their teachers, friends, and native English speakers. Efficient English learners try not to make the same mistake twice. Teachers can encourage students to self-monitor their use of plural forms and record, correct, and categorize their own errors. By doing this, students create their own tailor-made resources. In order to monitor their progress, students should type all the sentences with the errors and categorize the errors in a word document. Students can highlight the corrected area(s), and then at the end of the sentence, put a comment or two in parentheses regarding the error(s). To illustrate, the following entry would be placed under the category of adding -s or -es toEnglish nouns.

I am also well trained to find scholarly resources by using library databases and other Internet tools.
(I need to add s. There is more than one database).
Note that the student typed the sentence under the correct category, marked the plural form, and made a comment at the end of the sentence. Students should revisit the document regularly, review their errors, and check the efficacy of their strategies for correction and retention. This method can be used not only for plural forms, but also for other common errors in learning English.

Prior knowledge of Chinese language patterns may notably influence Chinese learners’ acquisition of English. Language transfer, or the incorporation of forms from the native language into the target language, is one major source of errors among learners of a second or foreign language. One area where language transfer is particularly prevalent among Chinese learners is the formation of English plurals. This article provides an overview of the linguistic features of Chinese and English that may affect formation of English plural forms and pinpoints three major sources of difficulty for many Chinese students. To address these highlighted areas, the authors have recommended a number of instructional practices. The primary focus of these practices is to develop independent language learners. Specifically, teachers can use the foundational information and the five instructional practices presented in this article to equip Chinese learners to be strategic and resourceful as they address the challenges of English plural forms.

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Category: 2006