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Learning strategies

I've put together in one long blog my five blog series on learning strategies. You could use this for departmental discussion or to inform schemes of work/curriculum plans. This 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.

PART 1

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 refer to them a number of times in our 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".


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
  • Tafaghodta
  • , M.H. (2010). Teaching L2 learners how to

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



    PART 2

    Using learning strategies 

    Working with strategies is firstly about making explicit the processes students are already using to help them learn and, secondly, exposing them to a greater range of strategies in order to widen their repertoire and make their learning even more effective.

    There is general agreement in the literature that instruction about strategies should be explicit and that we should not just assume students will pick them up. However, it is debatable whether strategies should be taught separately or integrated into normal language learning activities. Pachler et al (2014) take the latter view and we would agree. Whichever route you take, it is always worth reminding students to use strategies. It may serve little purpose to tell students once and assume they will always remember what to do.

    So we are talking here about integrating strategies into the whole ‘assessment for learning’ framework (formative assessment): helping students as often as possible to find the best way of working for themselves to make the maximum progress. To make things clearer for you, we present in summary form below a list of strategies under the headings meta-cognitive strategies, using what you know, using the imagination, using organisational skills and using resources (from the site of NCLRC – National Capital Language Resource Center – nclrc.org).

    Meta-cognitive strategies 

    Organising and planning: Plan the task or content sequence; set goals; plan how to accomplish the task.
    Manage your own learning: determine how you learn best; arrange conditions that help you learn; seek opportunities for practice; focus your attention on the task.
    Monitor: while working on a task, check your progress on the task; check your comprehension as you use the language; are you understanding?; check your production as you use the language; are you making sense?
    Evaluate: after completing a task, assess how well you have accomplished the learning task; assess how well you have applied the strategies; decide how effective the strategies were in helping you accomplish the task.

    Using what you know 

    Use background knowledge: think about and use what you already know to help you do the task; make associations.
    Make inferences and predictions: use context and what you know to figure out meaning; read and listen between the lines; anticipate information to come; make logical guesses about what will happen.
    Personalise: relate new concepts to your own life, that is, to your experiences, knowledge, beliefs and feelings.
    Transfer/use cognates: apply your linguistic knowledge of other languages (including your native language) to L2; recognize cognates. Substitute/paraphrase: think of a similar word or descriptive phrase for words you do not know in L2.

    Using the imagination 

    Use imagery: use or create an image to understand and/or represent information. Use real objects: manipulate real objects as you use the target language.
    Use role-play: act out and/or imagine yourself in different roles in L2.

    Using organisational skills 

    Find/apply patterns: apply a rule; make a rule; sound out and apply letter/sound rules.
    Group/classify: relate or categorize words or ideas according to attributes.
    Use graphic organizers/take notes: use or create visual representations (such as Venn diagrams, time lines, and charts) of important relationships between concepts; write down important words and ideas.
    Summarise: create a mental, oral, or written summary of information.
    Use selective attention: focus on specific information, structures, key words, phrases or ideas.

    Using resources

    Access information sources: use the dictionary, the internet, and other reference materials; seek out and use sources of information; follow a mode; ask questions. Cooperate: work with others, including the teacher, to complete tasks, build confidence, and give and receive feedback. Talk yourself through it: use your inner resources; reduce your anxiety by reminding yourself of your progress, the resources you have available and your goals.


    References

    National Capital Language Resource Center  http://www.nclrc.org/

    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.



    PART 3

    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

    Listening

     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.

    Reading

    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.

    References

    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.



    PART 4

    So far we have looked at the rationale behind learning strategies, how they may be categorised and how they may be used to support the teaching of listening and reading. This part looks at speaking and writing. As always, if any of this seems obvious to you, remember that it might not be to the less experienced teacher.

    Strategies for speaking 

    The ACTFL (American Council for the Teaching of Foreign Languages), in their 2012 guidelines, choose to divide the skill of speaking into two categories: presentational speaking (giving talks) and interpersonal speaking (conversation). This distinction is not referred to explicitly in the UK context.

    Presentational speaking

    Students can make use of some of the strategies mentioned in the previous blogs, such as planning and organising, monitoring their work as they go along, checking their work with others, redrafting and refining. They can use information sources to help, such as dictionaries, word lists, grammar summaries and model presentations to act as templates, record their work using mobile devices or a computer or use ‘text-to-speech’ programmes to hear any written material read aloud.

    They can also make sure they thoroughly rehearse any presentations with partners, adults or the teacher. Students will also need reminding about other non-linguistic elements of a good presentation, e.g. eye contact, clear delivery and tone of voice. As a teacher, you need to ‘model aloud’ all these strategies with your class to ensure they are all exploiting them; you cannot assume students will use them of their own accord. Recall that we have advocated the use of incorporating the use of strategies within the teaching sequence, not doing separate lessons on them. 'Thinking aloud' or 'modelling aloud' for students is a useful approach. "This is what I would do to get the best result."

    Interpersonal speaking 

    The site nclrc.org has a good number of strategies students can use to help with conversational speaking and which you can model for them. These include:

      Using substitute words or paraphrases when students get stuck, e.g. instead of turkey, say the bird you eat at Christmas.
    Working together to keep the conversation going. You can suggest: “When you try to think of a word, let your partner suggest vocabulary you can use. If your partner has trouble, help by offering what you know how to say. Helping each other learn will make the process more fun.”
     Think of L1 words which may be cognates and take a guess at the L2 word.
    Accessing sources of information, such as verb or word lists posted around the classroom.
    Using hesitation words to fill gaps when students get stuck. Give students examples and demonstrate them.

    Strategies for writing 

    When students are drafting pieces of writing, whether it be sentences, paragraphs, compositions, translations or essay there are a number of strategies you can help to develop.

      Students should be taught to check their work in a systematic way, looking for particular error types, especially the relationship between subject pronouns and verbs, adjectival agreements, verb tenses and inflections, gender and word order.
     The use of suitable information sources should be encouraged and advice given, as we have previously pointed out, on dictionary use; specific exercises are advised.
    Structuring of longer form written work needs to be taught, with good models presented.
     Students need guidance on matching their work to the demands of rubrics and mark schemes.
     It may seem like stating the obvious, but students need to be encouraged to go slowly when doing most written tasks, not take too many risks and check if in doubt; many students rush their work and make errors and omit content as a result. An exception may be when doing a written task to a time limit, such as writing using social media messaging. In this case quick reactions need to be developed.
     One vital strategy for weaker students especially is to encourage students to ‘use what they know’ and not translate willy-nilly from L1. Students need to know that they have to make compromises by simplifying what they want to write down. Again, you can model this for them. For example, if a student wants to write: “Last night we really enjoyed ourselves bowling. I got three strikes in a row”, you might recommend they write: “Last night I went bowling with my friends. It was fun and I played well.” If they do not have the means to render their preferred version clearly, they are better off writing something simpler. Although accuracy is not the most important element of communication, students like to get things right and see success. Simplifying is an important skill to develop in language learning.

    PART 5

    Let's look at a few revision strategies and make some general concluding remarks.

    Helping students revise 

    In languages, as for other subjects, revision before tests and examinations is a key ingredient of success. In many subjects students have a clear idea of what revision means, but in languages students often ask “How do I revise?” Unfortunately, from some students’ point of view, because of the cumulative nature of language learning, it is hard to improve one’s skills overnight, but there are some useful general strategies you can model for students which should improve their performance:

      Make use of practice test papers, often called ‘past papers’. Experience and research indicate that when students get used to doing similar types of test, they get better at them. This is partly because they get used to particular question types, but also because they encounter repeated examples of similar language items.
     Encourage the rote learning of vocabulary in themed clusters; we look at this in more detail in our chapter on vocabulary learning and teaching in The Language Teacher Toolkit. Some students benefit from using vocabulary learning apps.
     Many students make effective use of card filing systems in which they might record vocabulary or verb forms, for example.
     Encourage any independent listening and reading; you can recommend specific websites where students can access language at the right level. You can advise advanced level students to watch films, read online articles and listen to the radio using, for example, apps such as TuneIn Radio.
      Encourage students to use interactive grammar and text manipulation websites or apps such as languagesonline.org.uk or language-gym.com.
     Get students to write practice compositions and essays, firstly with help from the dictionary and model essays, subsequently with no support and to a time limit.
     Students preparing for oral assessment need to rehearse copiously with friends, adults, a language assistant or the teacher; they can record their voice too.
     Students of all ages benefit from testing each other on vocabulary in pairs.

    Concluding remarks 

    To recap, Ernesto Macaro (2006), in a review of the literature, reports the following claims about learning strategies based on evidence-based scholarship:

     Strategy use appears to correlate with various aspects of language learning success although there is a lack of consensus about whether the range, frequency and/or the nature of strategy use/strategies is the determinant factor.
     There are group differences and individual differences in strategy use.
     Strategy instruction/training appears to be effective in promoting successful learning if it is carried out over lengthy periods of time and if it includes a focus on meta-cognition, i.e. learning about learning.

    One further point: it's a good idea to not only teach students the language, but also teach them about how languages are learned. Our view is that if you engage students in thinking about the process of language learning, they are more likely to see the point of any activities they do and engage in them more positively. In this sense, it is not too fanciful to claim that you are not viewing students as mere recipients of your teaching, but as active participants in the learning process. Encouraging students to get into your way of thinking about language learning can raise their interest in the process and their general motivation. If you are have a clear idea of how students learn most effectively and can model this to them successfully, they will be more likely see a structure and point to their tasks.

    References


    Macaro, E. (2001). Learning Strategies in Foreign and Second Language Classrooms. London: Continuum.

    Macaro, E. (2007). Language learner strategies: Adhering to a theoretical framework. Language Learning Journal, 35, 239–243.



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