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The role of learning strategies in sla teaching our students how to learn
Scris de mihaiela lazar   
Miercuri, 08 Martie 2017 21:36



Profesor: Elisabeta Maxim

Școala Gimnazială Ștefan cel Mare Botoşani

“Learning strategies are the conscious thoughts and actions that learners take in order to achieve a learning goal. Strategic learners have metacognitive knowledge about their own thinking and learning approaches, a good understanding of what a task entails, and the ability to orchestrate the strategies that best meet both the task demands and their own learning strengths.”

Anna Uhl Chamot


An important contribution that learners make to acquiring a second language is their use of learning strategies – the techniques or procedures that facilitate a learning task. Learning strategies are important in second language acquisition for two major reasons:

Ø In investigating strategies used by second language learners during the learning process, we gain insights into the cognitive, social and affective processes involved in language learning – these insights can help us understand these mental processes as they relate to second language acquisition and can also clarify similarities and differences between language learning and general learning processes.

Ø It may be possible to teach less successful language learners to use strategies that characterize their more successful peers, thus helping students who are experiencing difficulty in learning a second language become better language learners.

Therefore, two major goals in language learning strategy research are to:

1. identify and compare the learning strategies used by more and less successful language learners

2. provide instruction to less successful language learners that helps them become more successful in their language study.

Identification of language learning strategies

Researchers have used a variety of approaches for identifying the mental processes used by learners as they seek to understand, remember and use a new language. Observation of students in language classrooms has proved singularly fruitless as a method of identifying students’ strategies. The reason why classroom observation yields little information about students’ use of learning strategies is that most learning strategies are mental processes and as such are not directly observable in terms of outward behaviour. Therefore, research in this area has relied for the most part on learners self-reports. These self-reports have been made through:

ü retrospective interviews

ü stimulated recall interviews

ü questionnaires

ü written diaries and journals

ü think-aloud protocols concurrent with a learning task.


Each of these methods has limitations, but at the present time the only way to gain any insight at all into the unobservable mental learning strategies of learners is by asking them to reveal their thinking processes.
As Grenfell and Harris (1999) have stated:

[…] it is not easy to get inside the ‘black box’ of the human brain and find out what is going on there. We work with what we can get, which, despite the limitations, provides food for thought […]

In retrospective interviews, learners are asked to reflect on a learning task and recall what strategies or ‘special tricks’ they used to carry out the task. The task may be a recently completed one or a typical task with which the learner is familiar, such as learning and remembering vocabulary words or reading a story in the target language. The questions may be:

- open-ended

e.g. What do you do when you are reading and you see an unfamiliar word?

- specific

e.g. When you are reading and see an unfamiliar word, do you make inferences about the meaning or just read on?

- that they provide a great deal of flexibility, as the interviewer can clarify the questions if necessary, ask follow-up questions and comment on the student’s responses;

- in addition, if the retrospective interview is conducted with a small group of three or four students, one student’s comments can spur the memories of other students about their uses of learning strategies.

- are that students may not report their strategy use accurately, that they may report what they perceive as the interviewer’s preferred answers

- that they may claim to use strategies that they have been encouraged- by teachers rather than actually used by students.

A stimulated recall interview is more likely to accurately reveal students’ learning strategies because it is conducted immediately after the student has engaged in a learning task. The actual task is videotaped, the interviewer then plays back the videotape, pausing if necessary, and asks the students to describe his or her thoughts at that specific moment during the learning task.

- studying learning strategies through stimulated recall interviews can produce task-specific strategy descriptions with corroborating evidence of their use.

- however, this method is time-consuming and only yields the strategies- used on one occasion for a specific task. It does not reveal the range of students’ strategies or their frequency across tasks.

Questionnaires are the easiest way to collect data about students’ reported use of learning strategies and questionnaires such as Oxford’s Strategy Inventory for Language Learning (SILL) have been used extensively to collect data on large numbers of language learners.

- a questionnaire that has now been tested in many countries and translated into several languages

- the 50 items divided into six categories (direct - memory, cognitive, compensation and indirect - metacognitive, affective, social), each presents a possible strategy which responders must indicate on a five-point scale of ‘never true of me’ to ‘always true of me’.

Other studies have developed questionnaires focused on particular learning activities in which their subjects were engaged. These questionnaires are based on tasks that students have just completed, reasoning that students will be more likely to remember and to report accurately if little time has elapsed. The limitations of this approach are that, to date, there has been no standardization of either tasks or follow up questionnaires, so that it is impossible to make comparisons across studies.

On the other hand, the SILL is a standardized measure with versions for students of a variety of languages, and as such can be used to collect and analyze information about large numbers of language learners. It has also been used in studies that correlate strategy use with variables such as learning styles, gender, proficiency level, and culture.

- one of the advantages of questionnaires, aside from their ease of administration, is that students are asked to rate the frequency with which they use a particular strategy, rather than only indicating whether they use it at all.

- students may not understand the intend of a question, that they may answer according to their perception of the ‘right answer’ and that the questionnaire may not fully elicit all of a student’s strategies.

Diaries and journals have also been used to collect information about language learners’ strategies. In these, learners write personal observations about their own learning experiences and the ways in which they have solved or attempted to solve language problems.

- as with other verbal reports, learners may not necessarily provide accurate descriptions of their learning strategies.

Rubin suggests using diaries for instructional purposes as a way to help students develop metacognitive awareness of their own learning processes and strategies.

A think-aloud protocol involves a one-to-one interview in which the language learner is given a target language task and asked to describe his or her thoughts while working on it. The interviewer may prompt with open-ended questions such as: What are you thinking right now? Why did you stop and start over?. Think-aloud interviews are recorded and transcribed verbatim, then analysed for evidence of learning strategies.
The rich insights into language learning strategies provided through think-aloud protocols tend to reveal on-line processing, rather than metacognitive aspects of planning or evaluating.

- often provide a very clear picture of a learner's on-line processing strategies

- these include the presence of the interviewer and the somewhat- artificial situation, which may affect the learner’s response. e.g. The learner may not engage in his / her usual amount of planning before engaging in the task because of a perception that the interviewer wants the task to be completed quickly. Similarly, once the task is completed, the learner may not (without a direct prompt) take the time to look back on the task and evaluate his / her performance.

- an additional drawback of think-aloud procedures is that individual- interviews, transcription and analysis are extraordinarily labour-intensive.

In spite of these difficulties, however, data collected through think-aloud protocols provide rich insights into language learning strategies. The instructional applications of the tools that researchers have used to identify language learning strategies are especially valuable for teachers who wish to discover their students’ current learning strategies before beginning to teach learning strategies. For example, teachers can ask students to complete a language task, and then lead a classroom discussion about how students completed the task and point out the learning strategies that students mention. Teachers could also develop a questionnaire appropriate for the age and proficiency level of their students and have students complete it immediately after completing a task. For a more global picture of their students’ learning strategies in general, teachers might want to use the SILL. When strategy instruction is underway and students show evidence that they understand and are using some of the strategies independently, teachers could ask them to keep a diary or journal about their use of strategies in the language class and in other contexts, thus encouraging transfer. Teachers can make their own thinking public by “thinking aloud” as they work on a task familiar to students, commenting on their own learning strategies as they go. All of these approaches can help students develop their own metacognition about themselves as strategic learners.

Since any type of self-report is subject to the limitations of the individual reporting, it would seem advisable to use two or three different types in any research study so that triangulation can help establish validity and reliability.

The good language learner

Research on language learning strategies has focused mainly on descriptive studies that have identified characteristics of ‘the good language learner’ and compared the strategies of more effective and less effective language learners. These studies have been important in understanding how language learners use strategies and they have provided important information to guide experimental studies to identify the effects of learning strategies instruction on students.

These studies identified the good language learner as one who:

ü is an active learner

ü monitors language production

ü practices communicating in the language

ü makes use of prior linguistic knowledge

ü use various memorization techniques

ü asks for clarification.

Other investigations compared the learning strategy profiles of more and less successful students in ESL classrooms. Differences between more and less effective learners were found in the number and range of strategies used, in how the strategies were applied to the task, and whether they were appropriate for the task. These studies confirmed that good language learners demonstrated adeptness at matching strategies to the task they were working on, while the less successful learners seemed to lack the metacognitive knowledge about task requirements needed to select appropriate strategies.

Applied research on language learning strategies investigates the feasibility of helping students become more effective language learners by teaching them some of the learning strategies that descriptive studies have identified as characteristic of the “good language learner”.

Models for language learning strategy instruction

A number of models for teaching learning strategies in both first and second language contexts have been developed. These instructional models share many features.

ü all agree on the importance of developing students’ metacognitive understanding of the value of learning strategies and suggest that this is facilitated through teacher demonstration and modelling.

ü all emphasize the importance of providing multiple practice opportunities with the strategies so that students can use them autonomously.

ü all suggest that students should evaluate how well a strategy has worked, choose strategies for a task, and actively transfer strategies to new tasks.

All the models begin by identifying students’ current learning strategies through activities such as completing questionnaires, engaging in discussions about familiar tasks, and reflecting on strategies used immediately after performing a task. These models all suggest that the teacher should model the new strategy, thus making the instruction explicit. The CALLA model (Cognitive Academic Language Learning Approach - Chamot) is recursive rather than linear so that teachers and students always have the option of revisiting prior instructional phases as needed. The Grenfell and Harris model, on the other hand, has students work through a cycle of six steps, then begin a new cycle. The Cohen model (Styles and Strategies-Based Instruction) has the teacher take on a variety of roles in order to help students learn to use learning strategies appropriate to their own learning styles. The Grenfell and Harris model provides initial familiarization with the new strategies, then has students make personal action plans to improve their own learning, whereas the CALLA model builds in a self-evaluation phase for students to reflect on their use of strategies before going on to transfer the strategies to new tasks.

In summary, current models of language learning strategy instruction are solidly based on developing students’ knowledge about their own thinking and strategic processes and encouraging them to adopt strategies that will improve their language learning and proficiency.

What questions still need to be answered?

Although we have learned a great deal about language learning strategies in the last twenty or more years, there is a need for further studies that describe learners’ current strategies, that teach learners new strategies and that develop teachers’ ability to provide learning strategy instruction in the classroom. It is important that learning strategies research continue for only through a better understanding of learning and teaching process can more language learners achieve the level of success that currently characterizes only a small proportion of all of the students studying a foreign or second language around the world.

Chamot, A.U., O' Malley, J.M., 1994 - The CALLA handbook: Implementing the Cognitive Academic Language Learning Approach, White Plains, NY: Addison Wesley Longman.

Chamot, A.U., Barnhardt, S., El-Dinary, P.B., Robbins, J., 1999 - The learning strategies handbook, White Plains, NY: Addison Wesley Longman.

O' Malley, J.M., & Chamot, A.U., 1990 - Learning strategies in second language acquisition, Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.

Oxford, R.L., 1990 - Language learning strategies: What every teacher should know, New York: Newbury House.
Rubin, J., & Thompson, I., 1994 - How to be a more successful language learner (2nd ed.). Boston, MA: Heinle & Heinle.

Wenden, A.L., 1991 - Learner strategies for learner autonomy, London: Prentice-Hall International.



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