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Learning strategies (3)

This is the third in the mini-series of blogs about learning strategies. So far, we have looked at some (rather scant) research evidence for the effectiveness of strategies. Bear in mind that a lack of research evidence does not mean strategies do not work; if there is any consensus, it is that they are probably useful and probably best used when integrated into a normal teaching sequence. We then looked at a classification of different types of strategies.

In this blog Gianfanco and I look at how you might integrate strategies into your teaching. There is nothing revolutionary about this stuff! You may do a good deal of this type of thing already, but you may also be new to the concepts and applications of learning strategies.

Let's look at how you might use strategies, particularly with regard to the teaching of listening and reading. Remember: this is just about how you help students to use strategies to become better listeners and readers.

How to teach strategies 

The research suggests that for strategies to work they need to be applied repeatedly and teachers need to keep re-modelling them to students who may otherwise quickly forget to use them. Here is one approach to explaining strategies to students:
1. Explain what the strategy is.
2. Explain why it should be learned and applied.
3. Explain how to use the strategy. Here, you break down the strategy, or model it in use for students.
4. Explain when the strategy should be used.
5. Explain how to evaluate use of the strategy. Next, we’ll look at how this would work in practice.

Strategies for listening and reading

In our chapters in The Language Teacher Toolkit on listening and reading, we examine in some detail top-down and bottom-up processing skills. In our chapter on teaching and learning vocabulary we considered various strategies to acquire new words. Here we summarise some more general strategies which can be taught and regularly revised with students. These are taken from the Pachler et al (2014) book:


 Work out the type of text (conversation, news, etc.).
 Work out the level of formality.
 Work out the general topic (gist).
 Pay attention to background clues (background noises, background scene if video).
 Think about the tone of voice.
 Make use of facial and body language (if video).
 Seek out familiar words and phrases.
 Seek out cognates.

Students could also raise their hands when they hear a word they recognise, try to focus on the breaks between words and listen for clues from tense word order (e.g. in German). You can model all these strategies by talking them through during an activity, using language such as: “I would listen through once to get the gist, not get hung up on individual words. Don’t worry if it seems hard at first; that’s normal. Then second time through you can listen out for individual words and understand a bit more,” etc.

You can subsequently review strategies with them after an activity has been completed with language such as: “How did you find that? Did you listen for cognates? Did it get easier third time through?” etc.


Let's suppose you have given this short text in French to a low intermediate or intermediate level class:

1. Un robot est un type de machine spéciale. C’est une machine qui peut se déplacer en suivant les instructions d'un ordinateur. Comme c’est une machine, il ne se trompe pas, il ne se fatigue pas et ne se plaint jamais. 
 2. Les robots sont partout autour de nous. Par exemple, les robots fabriquent les voitures. Certains sont utilisés pour explorer des endroits dangereux. Par exemple, les robots peuvent explorer des volcans ou la surface des planètes. Certains robots sont utilisés pour nettoyer. Il y a par exemple des aspirateurs-robots. 
 3. Certains robots ressemblent à des humains, mais ils sont rares. On utilise des robots pour désamorcer des bombes. Les drones sont utilisés dans des guerres, mais ils ont beaucoup d’usages paisibles. Par exemple ils surveillent des terres agricoles. 
 4. Il y a longtemps, les gens imaginaient des robots. Il y a plus de 2000 ans, le célèbre poète grec Homère imaginait des robots en or, mais le premier véritable robot a été fabriqué en 1961 aux Etats-Unis. Il s’appelait Unimate. Il a été utilisé pour aider à fabriquer des voitures et il ressemblait à un bras géant. 
 5. A l'avenir, nous aurons beaucoup plus de robots. Ils vont des choses que nous ne pouvons ou ne voulons pas faire. Ou bien ils vont des choses qui sont trop dangereux pour nous. Ils vont nous aider lutter contre les incendies, ils nous aideront à combattre les guerres et ils vont nous aider à combattre des maladies. Ils vont nous aider à découvrir des choses. 

One approach to teaching this text whilst incorporating strategies would be as follows:

1. Ask the students in pairs to jot down in two minutes anything they know about robots. This activates prior knowledge and raises interest in the subject. Quickly get the students to feed back. (This is their first strategy, though you may not choose to mention it yet.)

2. Tell them you have a real French article about robots, which will tell them more about the subject. Read it to them, perhaps asking them to follow the text with a ruler or their finger (depending on the ability of the class). This enables them to hear and see sound-word relationships and gives them a first contact with the text.

3. Explain that they are going to use a clever second strategy to help them understand the text. Then get them to highlight or underline any words they recognise because they look like English words. Explain that these words are called cognates. Model how you would go about it, ‘thinking aloud’ as you do it. Get feedback. Remind them that they can do this with any text they read.

4. Next, so the lesson does not become one solely based on talking about strategies, read out some true/false sentences in French. Match the difficulty level of these to the class.

5. You can now introduce a third strategy. Tell them this is to help them understand the text, then give an example and how you identified the verb. To help them understand in more detail, ask the students to highlight or underline any words they think are verbs. If they need reminding what a verb is, what it looks like (from its ending) or where they are likely to find it, then do so. Get feedback.

6. Now do a ‘find the French’ task. Give students, orally, about ten English phrases which they have to identify in the text. With weaker groups do them in the order they appear in the text and make them as easy as they need to be. The students can write these down (so that they are all busy). Get feedback.

7. Now make a statement in English and ask the students to match it to one of the numbered paragraphs. Get feedback.

8. You can now give the class some written questions in English to answer with the help of a dictionary or glossary. This is their fourth strategy: using resources. You can go around offering help where it is needed. If the class is very well-controlled, students could work in pairs. Get feedback.

9. Review the strategies the class used and elicit whether they found them useful. Remind the students that they should not use the dictionary too much and can often understand the meaning without knowing every single word. Tell them that you will try these strategies again next time with another article. You might even ask them if there are any topics they would like to read about. You may wish to reflect on how the above approach compares with just handing out a text with questions for students to answer, not just in terms of effectiveness, but in terms of developing active learners and building your relationship with the class.

To conclude this third post, we would point out that high-attaining linguists may have relatively little use for strategies, or indeed may use them instinctively. For lower-attaining students, however, those who find things hard and ask "how do I improve?", strategies may be a useful route to go down.


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

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


  1. Hi Steve and Gianfranco

    Just to let you know that we’ve shortlisted this blog post for this month’s TeachingEnglish blog award and there's a post about it on the TeachingEnglish Facebook page, if you’d like to check there for likes and comments.



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