Language Learning Strategies for Classroom Application

Language Learning Strategies for Classroom Application


By:  Saad Abdul Maguid Saleh



Language learning strategies (LLS) are seen as a shift from focusing on teachers and teaching to learners and learning. Cohen (1998) defined such a shift when he states that “one potentially beneficial shift in teacher roles is from that of being exclusively the manager, controller and instructor to that of being a change agent – a facilitator of learning, whose role is to help their students to become more independent and more responsible for their own learning. In this role the teachers become partners in the learning process” (p. 97). Language learning strategies are different from teaching strategies (the techniques used by teachers to help learners learn) in that, the learner and not the teacher, is the one who exercises control over the operations of the designated activity (O'Malley et al. 1985a).


Definitions of Learning Strategies

Different ‘learning strategies’ (LS) definitions have been used in second or foreign language learning context. Tarone (1983: 67) defined LS as the attempts to develop “linguistic and sociolinguistic competence in the target language -- to incorporate these into one's interlanguage competence.” Weinstein and Mayer (1986) defined learning strategies broadly as “behaviours and thoughts that a learner engages in during learning” which are “intended to influence the learner's encoding process” (p. 315). Later, Mayer (1988), more specifically, defined LS as “behaviours of a learner that are intended to influence how the learner processes information” (p. 11). Weinstein et al. (1988) outlined LS in more detail: “learning strategies are considered to be any behaviours or thoughts that facilitate encoding in such a way that knowledge integration and retrieval are enhanced. More specifically, these thoughts and behaviours constitute organized plans of action designed to achieve a goal. Examples of learning strategies include actively rehearsing, summarizing, paraphrasing, imaging, elaborating, and outlining” (p. 291). Rubin (1987) later defined LS as those strategies that “contribute to the development of the language system which the learner constructs and affect learning directly” (p. 22). Language Learning strategies (LLS) for Oxford, (1992/1993: 18) are “specific actions, behaviours, steps, or techniques that students (often intentionally) use to improve their progress in developing L2 skills. These strategies can facilitate the internalisation, storage, retrieval, or use of the new language. Strategies are tools for the self-directed involvement necessary for developing communicative ability.”

The definitions referred to above illustrate that there has been a clear change of how scholars in the field see learning strategies. They began to focus on the product of leaning strategies, particularly in the linguistic or sociolinguistic competence aspects; later on, they meant to pay more consideration to the learning process itself and this appears from how language learning strategies are classified.


The importance of language learning strategies for students

The goal of strategy use is to “affect the learner's motivational or affective state, or the way in which the learner selects, acquires, organises, or interacts new knowledge” (Weinstein and Mayer 1986: 315). According to Oxford et al (1990), the language learner can benefit from strategy training which seeks to encourage greater responsibility and self-direction in the learner.

Within the recent trends in foreign/second language teaching the ‘Communicative Approach’ is seen as the suitable way for learners to develop their communicative competence. The language learning strategies (LLS) can help them do this. However, we should notice the differences between LLS and communicative strategies. Communicative strategies are intentionally and consciously used by speakers to cope with the difficulties in communicating in a foreign/second language. Language learning strategies, on the other hand, are the strategies the learners use to develop their learning strategies, in general, in the target language, and communication strategies are just one type of LLS. Oxford (1990b: 1) states that language learning strategies are “especially important for language learning because they are tools for active, self-directed movement, which is essential for developing communicative competence.”

The use of appropriate language learning strategies often results in improved proficiency or overall achievement in specific skill area (Thompson and Rubin, 1996; Oxford et al., 1993).


The basic characteristics of LLS:

·        Learning strategies are a set of processes and a routine for organising those processes (Garner, 1988: 64).

·        LLS allow learners to become more self-directed (Oxford, 1990b: 9). They are a desire for control and autonomy of learning on the part of the learner (Oxford, 1990a; Wenden and Rubin, 1987).

·        Only conscious strategies are LLS, and there must be a choice involved on the part of the learner (Cohen, 1990).

·        They may be visible as they are “specific actions or techniques” (Green and Oxford, 1995: 262) or invisible as they can involve “mental processing” (Williams and Burden, 1997: 133).

·        Learning strategies use is determined at a metacognitive level (Garner, 1988: 64).

·        LLS can be taught to students (Oxford, 1990b: 9).

·        Learning strategies are under the active, strategic control of the student while in use (Garner, 1988: 64).

·        Learning strategies have certain broad dimensions relating to their functions, their generalizability across texts, the scope of the learning task, and the extent to which they demand cognitive effort (Dansereau, 1985).

·        Transfer of a strategy from one language to another or from a language skill to another is a related to the goal of LLS (Pearson, 1988; Skehan, 1989).


The classification framework of learning strategies

Language learning strategies can be classified according to whether they are cognitive, metacognitive, affective, or social (Chamot, 1987; Oxford, 1990b). Alternative taxonomies have been offered by O’Malley and Chamot (1990), O’Malley et al., (1985a), Wenden and Rubin, (1987), Stern (1992), and Ellis (1994).

Six major groups of foreign or second language (L2) learning strategies have been identified by Oxford (1990b).

  1. Cognitive strategies  are mental strategies the learner uses to make sense of learning. They enable the learner to manipulate the language material in direct ways. When manipulating cognitive strategies, the learner is involved in practicing, receiving and sending messages, reasoning, analysing, note-taking, summarizing, synthesizing, outlining, reorganizing information todevelop stronger schemas (knowledge structures), practicing in naturalistic settings, and practicing structures and sounds formally.
  2. strategies are essential for the leaner to plan, monitor and evaluate learning. They are employed for managing the learning process. Learners are required to centre, arrange, plan and evaluate their learning.
  3. Memory-related strategies are used for storage of information. They help learners link one second or foreign language item or concept with another but do not necessarily involve deep understanding. Learners are to be given the chance for linking mental images, applying images and sounds, reviewing well, and employing action.
  4. Compensatory strategies help the learner make up for missing knowledge. Examples of such strategies include guessing from the context in listening and reading, using synonyms and “talking around” the missing word to aid speaking and writing and strictly for speaking, and using gestures or pause words.
  5. Affective strategies are concerned with the learner’s emotional needs such as identifying one’s mood and anxiety level, talking about feelings, rewarding oneself for good performance, and using deep breathing or positive self-talk.
  6. Social strategies help the learner work with others and understand the target culture. They lead to more interaction with the target language through cooperating with others, empathizing with others, asking questions to get verification, asking for clarification of a confusing point, asking for help in doing a language task, talking with a native-speaking conversation partner, and exploring cultural and social norms.

Can strategies be taught to students?

Teachers who experimented and integrated learning strategies in their teaching are convinced that strategies can be taught through direct instruction and over time students will maintain and transfer them to new tasks when necessary.

Research indicates that more successful language learners are aware of the strategies they use and why they use them (O'Malley and Chamot, 1990; Green and Oxford, 1995: 262), that they generally tailor their learning strategies to the language task and to their own personal needs as learners, as well (Wenden, 1991: 13).

Ellis and Sinclair (1989) suggest that learners can achieve their goals by focusing their attention on the process (i.e. on how to learn rather than what to learn) so that they can become more effective learners and take on more responsibility for their own learning (Ellis and Sinclair, 1989: 2; cf. Dickinson, 1992: 13). The opportunity to continuously investigate learners’ working styles while they are studying offers an ideal setting for investigating important questions about learners’ strategies (Jamieson and Chapelle, 1987).

Foreign or second language learners are often unaware of their strategies, so teachers have to raise such awareness and teach appropriate strategies taking into account that:


·        Strategies teaching should start at the beginning levels by providing them in the students’ first language.

·        Strategies should be integrated within the curriculum rather than taught as separate entity.

·        Teachers should identify strategies by name, describe them and model them.

·        Students need to have experience with a variety of strategies to be able to choose the one that works with them well.

·        In case of failure in language learning, students need to be assured that their failure may not be due to lack of intelligence but to lack in choosing appropriate strategies.


Considerations before applying LLS in classroom

Before applying LLS in classroom the teacher should:

1.     Investigate the teaching-learning situation:

Teachers have to take into account:

(1)    their students’ aptitudes, attitudes, needs, and interests; also they should consider learners’ motivations and attitudes concerning the leaning of new language and the improvement of existing ones (Oxford, 1992).

(2)    their teaching methods and how to enhance their students’ LLS, the choice of strategies for training “based on the following criteria: related to needs of the learners; more than one kind of strategy; useful and transferable strategies; different degrees of difficulty (e.g. not all complex strategies at once)” (ibid.).

(3)    the syllabus and how to integrate LLS in the teaching learning context. The teacher has to: “Prepare materials and activities for training strategies. Learners can also contribute to the materials collections or development. Make sure that materials and activities are interesting and varied” (ibid.).

2.     Consider how strategies should be trained:

Research suggests that teachers can succeed in training learners to use LLS through combining explicit and implicit means (Green and Oxford, 1995; O’Malley and Chamot, 1990; Rost and Ross, 1991). “Strategies should be trained using a coherent, step-by-step model. Strategy training or learner training must deal with issues like degree of motivation (high or low), kind of motivation (instrumental, integrative, etc., related to purpose for language learning), and attitudes (toward self, teacher, peers, target language, and target culture)” (Oxford, 1992).

3.     Reflect on the teaching learning context:

Teachers should create a learning environment where learners feel they can experiment with their language learning (Huang and Van Naerssen, 1987: 296; Ellis and Sinclair, 1989: 10). Before they ask their students to reflect on their learning, teachers have to reflect on their teaching-learning context. They can ask themselves questions such as “Is there a conflict between classroom activities I favour and those my learners prefer? Do my best learners share certain strategy preferences that distinguish them from less efficient learners?” (Nunan, 1989: 36). Training in metacognitive strategies should include both awareness raising or reflection on the nature of learning and training in the strategies/skills necessary to plan, monitor and evaluate learning activities. Teachers can ask students to reflect on how the strategies facilitate their learning process and encourage self-evaluation and reflection by asking students to assess the effectiveness of strategies used.


General procedures for teaching learning strategies

Researchers in LLS proposed the following classroom strategy training that the teacher can apply within the context of language tasks  (Oxford, 1992, Cohen, 2003; Winograd and Hare, 1988).

1.            Explain to students that you will be showing them specific techniques that they can use on their own to improve their English. Inform them that many of these techniques were suggested by successful language learners, and that if they use them, they too will be successful language learners.

2.            Tell students why they are learning about the strategy. Explaining the purpose of the lesson and its potential benefits seems to be a necessary step for moving from teacher control to student self-control of learning.

3.            Describe, model and give examples of potentially useful strategies.

4.            Teach the strategy in conjunction with a typical class activity, such as listening comprehension, pronunciation drills, grammar practice, or reading and writing lessons.

5.            Elicit additional examples from students based on the students’ own learning experiences.

6.            Delineate appropriate circumstances under which the strategy may be employed. Teachers may describe inappropriate instances for using the strategy.

7.            Lead small-group and whole-class discussion about strategies.

8.            After the strategy has been practiced in class, ask students to practice it on their own outside of class. Suggest specific situations in which they could practice the strategy, and ask for their own suggestions for additional situations.

9.            Encourage students to experiment with a broad range of strategies.

10.       Integrate strategies into everyday class material, explicitly and implicitly embedding them into the language tasks to provide for contextualized strategy practice.

11.       Have students report on their use of the strategy outside of class.

12.       Remind students about using a learning strategy when you introduce new material and make assignments.

13.       Check with students after exercise or assignment to find out if they remembered to use a learning strategy. Show students how to evaluate their successful/unsuccessful use of the strategy, including suggestions for fix-up strategies to resolve remaining problems.


Strategy assessment procedures

There are different assessment tools available for teachers that cover the strategies used by foreign/second language students. These tools include observations, interviews, surveys, self-reports, learner journals, dialogue journals, think-aloud techniques, and other measures. Each one of these assessment tools has their advantages and disadvantages, as analyzed by Oxford (1990b) and Cohen and Scott (1996). 

Some strategy assessment tools are:

1.            Think-aloud - Hosenfeld (1976) introduced the ‘think aloud’ introspective process to determine what strategies learners use while performing language tasks. Sarig (1987) classified the data from the think-aloud reports into four general types of behaviours or responses: (1) technical aid, (2) clarification and simplification, (3) coherence detection, and (4) monitoring moves.

2.            Strategy checklists - can be designed to elicit data on self-reported frequency of strategy use at three points in time: before, during and after the task (Cohen and Weaver, 1998).

3.            Diaries - can be structured or unstructured, can be written for self or for sharing, can focus on affective side as well as on strategies, can be directed by the teacher or not (Oxford, 1992).


Oxford (1996) compares a number of strategy assessment methods, as in table (1) below:


Table 1. Comparison of strategy assessment types (Oxford, 1996: 35-36)

Type of assessment

Appropriate uses

Limitations of use

Strategy questionnaires

Identify 'typical' strategies used by an individual; can be aggregated into group results; wide array of strategies can be measured by questionnaires.

Not useful for identifying specific strategies on a given language task at a given time.


Identify strategies that are readily observable for specific tasks.

Not useful for unobservable strategies (e.g. reasoning, analysing, mental self-talk) or for identifying 'typical' strategies.


Identify strategies used on specific tasks over a given time period or more 'typically' used strategies; usually more oriented toward task-specific rather than 'typical' strategies of an individual; depends on how interview questions are asked.

Usually less useful for identifying 'typical' strategies because of how interviews are conducted, but could be used for either task-specific or 'typical' strategies.

Dialogue journals, diaries

Identify strategies used on specific tasks over a given time period.

Less useful for identifying 'typical' strategies used more generally.

Recollective narratives (language learning histories)

Identify 'typical' strategies used in specific settings in the past.

Not intended for current strategies; depends on memory of learner.

Think-aloud protocols

Identify in-depth the strategies used in a given, ongoing task.

Not useful for identifying 'typical' strategies used more generally.

Strategy checklists

Identify strategies used on a just-completed task.

Not useful for identifying 'typical' strategies used more generally.


From the table shown above, teachers have to:

-         weave strategy teaching/training into their regular classes,

-         consider their selection of strategies to use in their teaching,

-         use more than one assessment tool,

-         consider differences in learners’ motivation, learning styles, and other factors that affect learning strategy choice and use, and

-         conceptualise LLS in a way that includes the social and affective aspects of learning.



This article suggests that teachers should consider integrating language learning strategies in their teaching. Learners have to explore ‘how’, ‘when’, and ‘why’ to use LLS, and evaluate and monitor their own learning (Cohen, 1998: 69). Teachers have to study their teaching context before they applying LLS in their classroom. They have to reflect and encourage their students’ reflection on the teaching/learning context. Teachers are to take into account students’ cultural context, as there is a relationship between strategy preferences and learners’ cultural background, which can have an impact on strategy choice and training. The teacher is recommended to use several different strategy assessment methods to best collect data for students’ development use in LLS.



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