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Online Resources: Digests

August 2003
EDO-FL-03-02

Strategy Training for Second Language Learners

Andrew Cohen, Center for Advanced Research on Language Acquisition, University of Minnesota

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Students of foreign language are being encouraged to learn and use a broad range of language learning strategies that can be tapped throughout the learning process. This approach is based on the belief that learning will be facilitated by making students aware of the range of strategies from which they can choose during language learning and use. The most efficient way to heighten learner awareness is to provide strategy training—explicit instruction in how to apply language learning strategies—as part of the foreign language curriculum. This digest discusses the goals of strategy training, highlights approaches to such training, and lists steps for designing strategy training programs.

Goals of Strategy Training

Strategy training aims to provide learners with the tools to do the following:

  • Self-diagnose their strengths and weaknesses in language learning

  • Become aware of what helps them to learn the target language most efficiently

  • Develop a broad range of problem-solving skills

  • Experiment with familiar and unfamiliar learning strategies

  • Make decisions about how to approach a language task

  • Monitor and self-evaluate their performance

  • Transfer successful strategies to new learning contexts

Strategies can be categorized as either language learning or language use strategies. Language learning strategies are conscious thoughts and behaviors used by learners with the explicit goal of improving their knowledge and understanding of a target language. They include cognitive strategies for memorizing and manipulating target language structures, metacognitive strategies for managing and supervising strategy use, affective strategies for gauging emotional reactions to learning and for lowering anxieties, and social strategies for enhancing learning, such as cooperating with other learners and seeking to interact with native speakers.

Language use strategies come into play once the language material is already accessible, even in some preliminary form. Their focus is to help students utilize the language they have already learned. Language use strategies include strategies for retrieving information about the language already stored in memory, rehearsing target language structures, and communicating in the language despite gaps in target language knowledge.

Frameworks for Strategy Training

Although no empirical evidence has yet been provided to determine a single best method for conducting strategy training, at least three different instructional frameworks have been identified. Each has been designed to raise student awareness of the purpose and rationale of strategy use, give students opportunities to practice the strategies they are being taught, and help them use the strategies in new learning contexts.

One framework, proposed by Pearson and Dole (1987) with reference to first language learning but applicable to the study of a second language as well, targets isolated strategies by including explicit modeling and explanation of the benefits of applying a specific strategy, extensive functional practice with the strategy, and an opportunity to transfer the strategy to new learning contexts. The sequence includes the following steps:

  • Initial modeling of the strategy by the teacher, with direct explanation of the strategy’s use and importance

  • Guided practice with the strategy

  • Consolidation, where teachers help students identify the strategy and decide when it might be used

  • Independent practice with the strategy

  • Application of the strategy to new tasks

In the second framework , Oxford et al. (1990) outline a useful sequence for the introduction of strategies that emphasizes explicit strategy awareness, discussion of the benefits of strategy use, functional and contextualized practice with the strategies, self-evaluation and monitoring of language performance, and suggestions for or demonstrations of the transferability of the strategies to new tasks. This sequence is not prescriptive of strategies that the learners are supposed to use, but rather descriptive of the various strategies that they could use for a broad range of learning tasks.

The third framework, developed by Chamot and O’Malley (1994), is especially useful after students have already had practice in applying a broad range of strategies in a variety of contexts. Their approach to helping students complete language learning tasks can be described as a four-stage problem-solving process.

  1. Planning. Students plan ways to approach a learning task.

  2. Monitoring. Students self-monitor their performance by paying attention to their strategy use and checking comprehension.

  3. Problem Solving. Students find solutions to problems they encounter.

  4. Evaluation. Students learn to evaluate the effectiveness of a given strategy after it has been applied to a learning task.

Options for Providing Strategy Training

A variety of instructional models for foreign language strategy training have already been developed and implemented in a variety of educational settings. Seven of these are described below.

General Study Skills Courses. These courses are sometimes intended for students with academic difficulties but can also target successful students who want to improve their study habits. Many general academic skills can be transferred to the process of learning a foreign language, such as using flash cards, overcoming anxiety, and learning good note-taking skills. These courses sometimes include language learning as a specific topic to highlight how learning a foreign language may differ from learning other academic subjects. Foreign language students can be encouraged to participate in order to develop general learning strategies.

Awareness Training: Lectures and Discussion. Also known as consciousness-raising or familiarization training, this consists most often of isolated lectures and discussions and is usually separate from regular classroom instruction. This approach provides students with a general introduction to strategy applications. Oxford (1990) describes awareness training as “a program in which participants become aware of and familiar with the general idea of language learning strategies and the way such strategies can help them accomplish various language tasks” (p. 202).

Strategy Workshops. Short workshops are another, usually more intensive, approach to increasing learner awareness of strategies through various consciousness-raising and strategy-assessment activities. They may help to improve specific language skills or present ideas for learning certain aspects of a particular foreign language. These workshops may be offered as non-credit courses or required as part of a language or academic skills course. They often combine lectures, hands-on practice with specific strategies, and discussions about the effectiveness of strategy use.

Peer Tutoring. “Tandem” or peer tutoring programs began in the 1970s in Europe and are flourishing in many universities across the United States. Holec (1988) describes this system as “a direct language exchange” program that pairs students of different native language backgrounds for mutual tutoring sessions (e.g., an English-speaking student studying Italian and a native-Italian-speaking student learning English). Requirements of the tutoring sessions are that students have regular meetings, alternate roles of learner and teacher, practice the two languages separately, and devote equal amounts of time to each language. Often, students exchange suggestions about the language learning strategies they use, thus providing an ad hoc form of strategy training.

Another approach to peer sessions is to encourage students who are studying the same language to organize regular target-language study groups. Students who have already completed the language course may also be invited to these meetings. Less proficient students can benefit from the language skills of more proficient students, and more proficient students may yield better insights into the particular difficulties of the target language than a teacher.

Strategies in Language Textbooks. Many foreign language textbooks have begun to embed strategies into their curricula. However, unless the strategies are explained, modeled, or reinforced by the classroom teacher, students may not be aware that they are using strategies at all. A few language textbooks provide strategy-embedded activities and explicit explanations of the benefits and applications of the strategies they address. Because the focus of the activities is contextualized language learning, learners can develop their learning strategy repertoires while learning the target language. One advantage of using textbooks with explicit strategy training is that students do not need extracurricular training; the textbooks reinforce strategy use across both tasks and skills, encouraging students to continue applying them on their own.

Videotaped Mini-Courses. Rubin (1996) developed an interactive videodisc program and accompanying instructional guide aimed at raising students’ awareness of learning strategies and of the learning process in general, to show students how to transfer strategies to new tasks and to help them take charge of their own progress while learning the language. Using authentic language situations, the instructional program includes 20 foreign languages and offers the opportunity to select the language, topic, and difficulty level. Materials are structured to expose students to various strategies for use in many different contexts.

Strategies-Based Instruction (SBI). SBI is a learner-centered approach to teaching that extends classroom strategy training to include both implicit and explicit integration of strategies into the course content. Students experience the advantages of systematically applying the strategies to the learning and use of the language they are studying. In addition, they have opportunities to share their preferred strategies with other students and to increase their strategy use in the typical language tasks they are asked to perform. Teachers can individualize strategy training, suggest language-specific strategies, and reinforce strategies while presenting the regular course content. In a typical SBI classroom, teachers do the following:

  • Describe, model, and give examples of potentially useful strategies

  • Elicit additional examples from students, based on students’ own learning experiences

  • Lead small-group and whole-class discussions about strategies

  • Encourage students to experiment with a broad range of strategies

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

Teachers may conduct SBI instruction by starting with established course materials, then determining which strategies to insert and where; starting with a set of strategies they wish to focus on and design activities around them; or inserting strategies spontaneously into the lessons whenever it seems appropriate (e.g., to help students overcome problems with difficult material or to speed up the lesson).

Steps for Designing Strategy Training

The approaches outlined above offer options for providing strategy training to a large number of learners. Based on the needs, resources, and time available to an institution, the next step is to plan the instruction students will receive. The following seven steps are based largely on suggestions of strategy training by Oxford (1990). The model is especially useful because it can be adapted to the needs of various groups of learners, the resources available, and the length of the strategy training. See Cohen (1998) for a thorough description of these steps.

  1. Determine learners’ needs and the resources available for training.

  2. Select the strategies to be taught.

  3. Consider the benefits of integrated strategy training.

  4. Consider motivational issues.

  5. Prepare the materials and activities.

  6. Conduct explicit strategy training.

  7. Evaluate and revise the strategy training.

Conclusion

The guidelines for implementing strategy training programs provide a variety of options for tailoring the training to meet the needs of a large number of students, as well as to the needs of the individual institution or language program. The most important considerations in the design of a strategy training program are the students’ needs, the available resources ( e.g, time, money, materials, availability of teacher trainers), and the feasibility of providing this kind of instruction.

When including strategies-based instruction in a foreign language curriculum, it is important to choose an instructional model that introduces the strategies to the students and raises awareness of their learning preferences; teaches them to identify, practice, evaluate, and transfer strategies to new learning situations; and promotes learner autonomy to enable students to continue their learning after they leave the language classroom.

Note

The information in this digest was drawn from chapter 4 of Cohen (1998).

References

Chamot, A. U., & O’Malley, J. M. (1994). The CALLA handbook: Implementing the cognitive academic language learning approach. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.

Cohen, A. D. (1998). Strategies in learning and using a second language. New York: Longman.

Holec, H. (1988). Autonomy and self-directed learning: Present fields of application. Project no. 12: Learning and teaching modern languages for communication. Strasbourg, France: Council for Cultural Co-operation.

Oxford, R. (1990). Language learning strategies: What every teacher should know. New York: Newbury/Harper Collins.

Oxford, R. L., Crookall, D., Cohen, A., Lavine, R., Nyikos, M., & Sutter, W. (1990). Strategy training for language learners: Six situational case studies and a training model. Foreign Language Annals, 22(3), 197-216.

Pearson, P. D., & Dole, J. A. (1987). Explicit comprehension instruction: A review of research and a new conceptualization of learning. Elementary School Journal, 88, 151-65.

Rubin, J. (1996). Using multimedia for learner strategy instruction. In Oxford, R.L. (Ed.), Language learning strategies around the world: Cross-cultural perspectives (pp. 151-56). Honolulu: University of Hawai’i, Second Language Teaching & Curriculum Center.


This digest was prepared with funding from the U.S. Dept. of Education, Office of Educational Research and Improvement, National Library of Education, under contract no. ED-99-CO-0008. The opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect the positions or policies of ED, OERI, or NLE.