Language Learning Strategies

1 January 2017

Despite the profusion of rich and varied research on the role of Learning Strategies (LS) in second language acquisition (SLA), today, some twenty years on from the first attempts at exploring how learners go about the task of learning a second language, researchers are still struggling to agree upon a universally accepted definition for the concept of strategy. In 1991 Seliger complained that the indiscriminate use of the word strategy in SLA literature had brought us to a point of ‘semantic satiatiori in which the term had become devoid of any real meaning (1991, p- 36).

Less pessimistically, but in the same vein, Ellis (1994) referred to the concept of ‘strategy’ as ‘fuzzy … and not easy to tie dowri (1994, p. 529). The confusion surrounding the definition of ‘strategy’ arises from the research literature itself where the term has often been substituted for synonyms which have blurred the inherent meaning of the word by equating it with other similar concepts.

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Wenden (1987) has pointed out the multi-purpose use of the term to refer to all of the following: techniques, tactics, potentially conscious plans, consciously employed operations, problem-solving procedures, etc. 1987, p. 7).

In fact a closer look at the definitions of Learning Strategies offered by different researchers indicates the high degree of overlapping and lack of precision in their choice of terminology. While for Naiman et al. (1978), Stern (1983), Schmeck (1988) and Seliger (1991) strategies are seen as general learning approaches, with the more specific learner actions receiving the name of techniques or tactics, Rubin (1981) refers to general cognitive processes and specific strategies.

In her definition Wenden (1987) refers to language learning ‘behaviours’ while O’Malley and Chamot (1990) speak about ‘thoughts or behaviours’, leaving us in doubt as to whether strategies are to be considered as behavioural or mental or both. Finally Chesterfield and Chesterfield’s (1985) definition reflects their concern with learner interaction while Oxford (1990) stresses the affective side of learning. Unable, then, to agree upon one generally accepted definition of Learning Strategies, researchers have had to resort to listing what seem to be their main characteristics in an attempt to solve this conceptual problem (Wenden, 987; Ellis, 1994).

This has clarified very little, however, as the characteristics cited tend to be contradictory and vague. For example, Ellis (1994) states that ‘Strategies refer to both general approaches and specific actions or techniques to learn an L2’ or that ‘Some strategies are behavioural while others are mental. Thus some are directly observable while others are noi (1994, p. 532). Wenden (1987) lists problematicity (potential), consciousness and the directness/indirectness of their effect on learning as among their defining characteristics.

The persistence of such ambiguity around the construct of strategy is detrimental to the concerns of empirical research in the fields of second and foreign language development. Researchers have recognized the need to try to achieve some coherence across the field in terms of both the descriptive terminology and the conceptual characteristics inherent to the construct of strategy and while attempts in this direction have been made (Willing, 1989; Bialystok, 1990; Oxford and Cohen, 1992) as yet no consensus has been reached.

Given the diverging opinions of individual researchers on a series of important, yet conflictive, issues relating to the definition of Learning Strategies, it is vital that any discussion of strategies, in whatever context, should begin with an explicit statement of the position adopted with respect to these crucial conceptual and classificatory problems. The most serious points of contention in Language Learning Strategy research include: 1. The overlapping which occurs between terms such as process, strategy, tactic and technique.

The issue of consciousness as criteria to the definition of Learning Strategies. . The distinction between Learning, Production and Communication Strategies. Each of these areas has important implications for the nature of our understanding of LS and the role they play in the language learning process. Among the aims of the present study is that of proposing a framework for the classification of children’s FL Learning Strategies which is both coherent and psychologically plausible. In order to do this it is essential to provide a clear set of criteria for categorizing and distinguishing between various types of strategies.

Another point raised by Ellis (1994) is whether learning strategies are to be viewed as conscious and therefore intentional or subconscious and unintentional. Most investigators in this area of research have not considered this issue, with the exception of Chamot (1987) who believes that learning strategies are deliberate actions. The fourth problem mentioned by Ellis examines whether learning strategies are viewed as having a direct or indirect impact on interlanguage development. Various scholars (Ellis 1994) regard them as having an indirect influence, which is an opposite view to that adopted by Rubin (1987).

Nisbet and Shucksmith (1986) define learning strategies simply as “the processes that underlie performance on thinking tasks. ” They go on to explain that “strategies are more than simple sequences or agglomerations of skills; they go beyond the ‘strings’ or routines advocated in some study manual. They are almost always purposeful and goal-oriented, but they are perhaps not always carried out at a conscious or deliberate level. They can be lengthy or so rapid in execution that it is impossible to recapture, recall, or even be aware that one has used a strategy.

They move toward a metacognitive approach to strategy use and learning. They believe that since not all learning strategies are equal in terms of usability and ease of acquisition, there exists a hierarchy of strategies which are related to metacognition , or knowledge of one’s own mental processes. Oxford (1990) takes us to a definition which breaks the term learning strategies down to its roots – the word strategy. She informs us that this word comes from the Greek word ‘strategia’ which means generalship or the art of war. Strategy meant the management of the troops, ships or aircraft in a war situation.

She points out a similar word tactics which are tools to achieve the success of strategies. These two words, used interchangeably mean planning, competition, conscious manipulation, and movement toward a goal. In a problem solving situation, it would imply “using a plan, step or conscious action toward achievement of an objective. ” Oxford continues to expand on this definition by stating that “learning strategies are specific actions taken by the learner to make learning easier, faster, more enjoyable, more self-directed, more effective and more transferrable to new situations.

Wenden and Rubin (1987:19) define learning strategies as “… any sets of operations, steps, plans, routines used by the learner to facilitate the obtaining, storage, retrieval, and use of information. ” Richards and Platt (1992:209) state that learning strategies are “intentional behavior and thoughts used by learners during learning so as to better help them understand, learn, or remember new information. ” Faerch Claus and Casper (1983:67) stress that a learning strategy is “an attempt to develop linguistic and sociolinguistic competence in the target language.

According to Stern (1992:261), “the concept of learning strategy is dependent on the assumption that learners consciously engage in activities to achieve certain goals and learning strategies can be regarded as broadly conceived intentional directions and learning techniques. ” All language learners use language learning strategies either consciously or unconsciously when processing new information and performing tasks in the language classroom.

Since language classroom is like a problem-solving environment in which language learners are likely to face new input and difficult tasks given by their instructors, learners’ attempts to find the quickest or easiest way to do what is required, that is, using language learning strategies is inescapable. From reading through the definitions coined by researchers in the area of learning strategies, it would be appropriate to state that learning strategies, in essence, are actions taken by the learner to assist in learning more effectively.

Examples on some learning and communicative strategies used by ESL and EFL students So many studies and research have been conducted in both areas learning strategies and communicative strategies, and many researchers and linguists have been involved. Consequently, different definitions and classifications of strategies have been stated. However here, I will focus on the classification of communicative strategies suggested by Faerch and Kasper (1983), and on the classification of learning strategies suggested by Wenden and Rubin (1987).

I will also show how each set of strategies are used by ESL and EFL learners. I have chosen the previous classifications because they confirm with the knowledge of strategies I acquired throughout my teaching experience. Faerch and Kasper suggest that communicative strategies are classified into two categories each of which is classified or comprised of other subcategories. The first category is avoidance behavior and this consists of formal reduction and functional reduction strategies. Formal reduction strategies could be phonological, morphological, syntactic and lexical strategies.

Learners tend to use formal reduction strategies either to avoid making errors and/or they want to increase their fluency (Faerch& Kasper 1983: 40). On the other hand, functional reduction strategies include reduction of speech act and reduction of propositional context and these two are used by learners to reduce their communicative goals in order to avoid problems in interactions (ibid: 43). Achievement strategies are also called compensatory strategies and they consist of code switching, inter/intralingual, cooperative and non-linguistic strategies.

These strategies are used by learners to expand their communicative resources in interactions (ibid:45). The following figure has been designed based on what was mentioned above: Wenden and Rubin classified learning strategies into cognitive strategies and metacognitive strategies. Cognitive strategies are used by learners when they deal with steps, operations, or problem-solving that require direct analysis, transformation, or synthesis of learning materials (Wenden & Rubin,1987:23) and these strategies include clarification/verification, guessing/inductive inferencing, deductive reasoning, practice, memorizing and monitoring.

On the other hand, metacognitive strategies are used when the learner deals with knowledge about cognitive process and regulation of cognition. These strategies consist of choosing, prioritizing, self-management, advance preparation, advance organization, directed attention, selected attention and delayed production. The following figure has been designed based on the information mentioned above:

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