ESL Articles List
Language Learning Strategies: An Overview for L2 Teachers

First published in Essays in Languages and Literatures, 8, at Kwansei Gakuin University, December 1997.

This article provides an overview of language learning strategies (LLS) for second and foreign language (L2/FL) teachers. To do so it outlines the background of LLS and LLS training, discusses a three step approach teachers may follow in using LLS in their classes, and summarises key reflections and questions for future research on this aspect of L2/FL education. It also lists helpful contacts and internet sites where readers may access up-to-date information on LLS teaching and research.

Within the field of education over the last few decades a gradual but significant shift has taken place, resulting in less emphasis on teachers and teaching and greater stress on learners and learning. This change has been reflected in various ways in language education and applied linguistics, ranging from the Northeast Conference (1990) entitled "Shifting the Instructional Focus to the Learner" and annual "Learners, Conferences" held in conjuction with the TESL Canada convention since 1991, to key works on "the learner-centred curriculum" (Nunan, 1988, 1995) and "learner-centredness as language education" (Tudor, 1996).

This article provides an overview of key issues concerning one consequence of the above shift: the focus on and use of language learning strategies (LLS) in second and foreign language (L2/FL) learning and teaching. In doing so, the first section outlines some background on LLS and summarises key points from the LLS literature. The second section considers some practical issues related to using LLS in the classroom, outlining a three step approach to implementing LLS training in normal L2/FL courses. The third section then briefly discusses some important issues and questions for further LLS research. In the fourth section the article ends by noting a number of contacts readers may use to locate and receive up-to-date information on LLS teaching and research in this widely developing area in L2/FL education. 


Learning Strategies

In a helpful survey article, Weinstein and Mayer (1986) defined learning strategies (LS) 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). These early definitions from the educational literature reflect the roots of LS in cognitive science, with its essential assumptions that human beings process information and that learning involves such information processing. Clearly, LS are involved in all learning, regardless of the content and context. LS are thus used in learning and teaching math, science, history, languages and other subjects, both in classroom settings and more informal learning environments. For insight into the literature on LS outside of language education, the works of Dansereau (1985) and Weinstein, Goetz and Alexander (1988) are key, and one recent LS study of note is that of Fuchs, Fuchs, Mathes and Simmons (1997). In the rest of this paper, the focus will specifically be on language LS in L2/FL learning.

Language Learning Strategies Defined

Within L2/FL education, a number of definitions of LLS have been used by key figures in the field. Early on, Tarone (1983) defined a LS as "an attempt to develop linguistic and sociolinguistic competence in the target language -- to incoporate these into one,s interlanguage competence" (p. 67). Rubin (1987) later wrote that LS "are strategies which contribute to the development of the language system which the learner constructs and affect learning directly" (p. 22). In their seminal study, O,Malley and Chamot (1990) defined LS as "the special thoughts or behaviours that individuals use to help them comprehend, learn, or retain new information" (p. 1). Finally, building on work in her book for teachers (Oxford, 1990a), Oxford (1992/1993) provides specific examples of LLS (i.e., "In learning ESL, Trang watches U.S. TV soap operas, guessing the meaning of new expressions and predicting what will come next") and this helpful definition:

...language learning strageties -- specific actions, behaviours, steps, or techniques that students (often intentionally) use to improve their progress in developing L2 skills. These strageties can facilitate the internalization, storage, retrieval, or use of the new language. Strategies are tools for the self-directed involvement necessary for developing communicative ability. (Oxford, 1992/1993, p. 18)

From these definitions, a change over time may be noted: from the early focus on the product of LSS (linguistic or sociolinguistic competence), there is now a greater emphasis on the processes and the characteristics of LLS. At the same time, we should note that LLS are distinct from learning styles, which refer more broadly to a learner,s "natural, habitual, and preferred way(s) of absorbing, processing, and retaining new information and skills" (Reid, 1995, p. viii), though there appears to be an obvious relationship between one,s language learning style and his or her usual or preferred language learning strategies.

What are the Characteristics of LLS?

Although the terminology is not always uniform, with some writers using the terms "learner strategies" (Wendin & Rubin, 1987), others "learning strategies" (O,Malley & Chamot, 1990; Chamot & O,Malley, 1994), and still others "language learning strategies" (Oxford, 1990a, 1996), there are a number of basic characteristics in the generally accepted view of LLS. First, LLS are learner generated; they are steps taken by language learners. Second, LLS enhance language learning and help develop language competence, as reflected in the learner,s skills in listening, speaking, reading, or writing the L2 or FL. Third, LLS may be visible (behaviours, steps, techniques, etc.) or unseen (thoughts, mental processes). Fourth, LLS involve information and memory (vocabulary knowledge, grammar rules, etc.).

Reading the LLS literature, it is clear that a number of further aspects of LLS are less uniformly accepted. When discussing LLS, Oxford (1990a) and others such as Wenden and Rubin (1987) note a desire for control and autonomy of learning on the part of the learner through LLS. Cohen (1990) insists that only conscious strategies are LLS, and that there must be a choice involved on the part of the learner. Transfer of a strategy from one language or language skill to another is a related goal of LLS, as Pearson (1988) and Skehan (1989) have discussed. In her teacher-oriented text, Oxford summarises her view of LLS by listing twelve key features. In addition to the characteristics noted above, she states that LLS:

  • allow learners to become more self-directed
  • expand the role of language teachers
  • are problem-oriented
  • involve many aspects, not just the cognitive
  • can be taught
  • are flexible
  • are influenced by a variety of factors.
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