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Learning strategies (1)

This post is co-authored with Gianfranco Conti of The Language Gym. When we wrote The Language Teacher Toolkit we had to do some pruning in the final edit and this is from a chapter about learning strategies which we did not include. So this is the equivalent of a demo tape or rough cut that didn't make the final album.

Introduction 

What makes a good language learner? Can we teach students ways of improving their own learning? ‘Learning strategies’ have come into focus since the 1970s and often feature as add-ons to the latest textbooks. We have already referred to them a number of times in this book, notably in our chapters about listening and reading. They are about teaching students how to learn and have been described as “a set of actions taken by the learner that will help make language learning more effective – i.e. will help a learner learn, store, retrieve and use information” (Norbert Pachler et al, 2014).

The former help students overcome their limited linguistic repertoire to ensure communication can happen. Such ‘coping strategies’ are clearly best developed through real life communication, but can be developed to some extent in the classroom. The latter are about teaching students specific ways to enhance their own learning and so make faster progress. We shall go on to look at some research evidence in this field and some specific ideas and techniques which you could use in the classroom.

What the research suggests

What the research says in the literature in this field a distinction is commonly made between communication strategies and learning strategies. The classification of learning strategies has varied over the years, but one useful one is this from J. Michael O’Malley and Anna Uhl Chamot (1990):

Metacognitive strategies, which involve thinking about the learning process, planning for learning, monitoring learning while it is taking place, or self‐evaluation of learning after a task has been completed.
Cognitive strategies, which invoke mental manipulation or transformation of materials or tasks, intended to enhance comprehension, acquisition or retention. Social/affective strategies, which consist of using social interactions to assist in the comprehension, learning or retention of information, as well as the mental control over personal emotion or attitude which may interfere with learning.

Here is another way of viewing the processes involved in learning strategies (see Carol Griffiths (2008), listed in Pachler et al):

 They are active they are what students do (both mental and physical behaviour).
 They are conscious (although they can become automatic, at some level students are partially conscious of them even if not attending to them fully).
 They are chosen by the student (there needs to be active involvement, hence the strategic element).
 They are purposeful (towards the goal of learning the language).
 They are used by the student to control or regulate their own learning.
 They are about learning the language (not employing what’s been learned). It is also worth pointing out that there is considerable overlap in the literature between the concept of learning strategies and another, known as ‘self-regulated learning’. The latter refers to learning that is guided by metacognition (thinking about one's thinking), strategic action (planning, monitoring, and evaluating personal progress against a standard), and motivation to learn.

Self-regulated learning emphasizes autonomy and control by the learner who monitors, directs, and regulates actions toward goals of learning and self-improvement. Can we be sure that learning strategies make a difference? There is a growing body of research to suggest that they do. For example, Larry Vandergrift and Marzieh Tafaghodtari carried out a study with 106 students studying French as a second language (FSL). They compared two groups taught by the same teacher and found that the group who used metacognitive learning strategies outperformed the control group in comprehension. In addition, the gains for less able listeners were greater than for skilled listeners.

In a comprehensive review of the literature carried out in 2005 by the EPPI-Centre (Institute of Education, London), the conclusion reached was: "There is sufficient research evidence to support claims that training language learners to use strategies is effective, but it is not possible to say from this evidence whether the effect of training is long-lasting or not. Furthermore it is not really known to what extent the specific mechanics of different training interventions are responsible for the effect, or if it is due to improved awareness that a broad range of training might engender in the learner."

So the conclusions to be drawn from research are not clear-cut; you can imagine how difficult it is to do research comparing groups of students who use learning strategies with other groups who do not when there are so many variables, as well as the teacher, in play. How can you be sure it is a learning strategy or strategies that have produced a particular outcome? The best language learners may just use successful strategies instinctively. This led Peter Skehan (1989) to state "there is always the possibility that the 'good' language learning strategies...are also used by bad language learners, but other reasons cause them to be unsuccessful".

In the next blog we look at how learning strategies can be used.

References


EPPI Centre (2005). Strategy Training in Language Learning – a Systematic Review of Available Research. Social Science Research Unit, Institute of Education, University of London.

http://eppi.ioe.ac.uk/eppiwebcontent/reel/review_groups/mfl/mfl_rv1/mfl_rv1.PDF

Griffiths, C. (2008). Lessons from Good Language Learners. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

O'Malley, J.M. and Chamot, A.U. (1990). Learning Strategies in Second Language Acquisition. Cambridge University Press.


Pachler, N, Evans, M., Redondo, A. and Fisher, L. (2014). Learning to Teach Foreign Languages in the Secondary School. London: Routledge.

Skehan, P. (1989). Individual Differences in Second-Language Learning. London: Edward Arnold.

Smith, S.P and Conti, G. (2016) The Language Teacher Toolkit. Createspace Publishing Platform.



  • Vandergrift
  • , L. and
  • Tafaghodtari
  • , M.H. (2010). Teaching L2 learners how to

  • listen does make a difference: an empirical study. Language Learning, 60/2.






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