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English Language Learning Strategic Attitudes for Foreign Language Learners

by Administrator on June 22, 2010

English Language Learning Strategic Attitudes for Foreign Language Learners

During the last few decades a continuing but significant move has taken place, resulting in less emphasis on teachers and teaching and greater stress on learners and learning.

This article provides an overview of key issues concerning the use of language learning strategies (LLS) in second and foreign language (L2/FL) learning and teaching

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”. Later Mayer (1988) more specifically defined LS as “behaviours of a learner that are intended to influence how the learner processes information”.

A good number of definitions and meanings have been used for Language learning strategies (LLS) by key figures in the field. Tarone (1983) defined a Learning strategy as “an attempt to develop linguistic and sociolinguistic competence in the target language — to incorporate these into one’s interlanguage competence”. Rubin (1987) suggests that Learning strategies “are strategies which contribute to the development of the language system which the learner constructs and affect learning directly”. O’Malley and Chamot (1990) defined Learning Strategies as “the special thoughts or behaviours that individuals use to help them comprehend, learn, or retain new information”. Oxford (1990) views that language learning strategies are the specific actions, behaviours, steps, or techniques that students (often intentionally) use to improve their progress in developing language skills. These strategies 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. 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), though there appears to be an obvious relationship between one’s language learning style and his or her usual or preferred language learning strategies.

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).

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, Skehan 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

Within ‘communicative’ approaches to language teaching a key goal is for the learner to develop communicative competence in the target L2/FL, and LLS can help students in doing so. Communication strategies are used by speakers intentionally and consciously in order to cope with difficulties in communicating in a L2/FL.

In addition to developing students’ communicative competence, LLS are important because research suggests that training students to use LLS can help them become better language learners. Early research on ‘good language learners’ by Naiman, Frohlich, Stern, and Todesco (1978, 1996), Rubin (1975), and Stern (1975) suggested a number of positive strategies that such students employ, ranging from using an active task approach in and monitoring one’s L2/FL performance to listening to the radio in the L2/FL and speaking with native speakers.

A study by O’Malley and Chamot (1990) also suggests that effective L2/FL learners are aware of the LLS they use and why they use them. Graham’s (1997) work in French further indicates that L2/FL teachers can help students understand good LLS and should train them to develop and use them.

With the above background on Learning Strategies and some of the related literature, this section provides an overview of how LLS and LLS training have been or may be used in the classroom, and briefly describes a three step approach to implementing LLS training in the L2/FL classroom.

LLS and LLS training may be integrated into a variety of classes for L2/FL students. One type of course that appears to be becoming more popular, especially in intensive English programmes, is one focusing on the language learning process itself.

It is crucial for teachers to study their teaching context, paying special attention to their students, their materials, and their own teaching. If they are going to train their students in using LLS, it is crucial to know something about these individuals, their interests, motivations, learning styles, etc. By observing their behaviour in class, for example, one will be able to see what LLS they already appear to be using. Do they often ask for clarification, verification, or correction, as discussed briefly above? Do they co-operate with their peers or seem to have much contact outside of class with proficient L2/FL users? Beyond observation, however, one can prepare a short questionnaire that students can fill in at the beginning of a course, describing themselves and their language learning.

Talking to students informally before or after class, or more formally interviewing select students about these topics can also provide a lot of information about one’s students, their goals, motivations, and LLS, and their understanding of the particular course being taught.

Beyond the students, however, one’s teaching materials are also important in considering LLS and LLS training. Textbooks, for example, should be analyzed to see whether they already include LLS or LLS training. Working with other language, learner improves their listening and speaking skills. Audiotapes, videotapes, hand-outs, and other materials for the course at hand should also be examined for LLS or for specific ways that LLS training might be implemented in using them. Perhaps teachers will be surprised to find many LLS incorporated into their materials, with more possibilities than they had imagined. If not, they might look for new texts or other teaching materials that do provide such opportunities.

After teachers have studied their teaching context, begin to focus on specific LLS in their regular teaching that are relevant to learners, materials, and teaching style. If teachers have found 10 different LLS for writing explicitly used in your text, for example, they could highlight these as they go through the course, giving students clear examples.

Graham (1997) declares, LLS training “needs to be integrated into students’ regular classes if they are going to appreciate their relevance for language learning tasks; students need to constantly monitor and evaluate the strategies they develop and use; and they need to be aware of the nature, function and importance of such strategies” . Whether it is a specific conversation, reading, writing, or other class, an organized and informed focus on LLS and LLS training will help students learn and provide more opportunities for them to take responsibility for their learning.

As Graham suggests, “those teachers who have thought carefully about how they learned a language, about which strategies are most appropriate for which tasks, are more likely to be successful in developing ’strategic competence’ in their students” (p. 170). Beyond contemplating one’s own language learning, it is also crucial to reflect on one’s LLS training and teaching in the classroom. After each class, for example, one might ponder the effectiveness of the lesson and the role of LLS and LLS training within it. An informal log of such reflections and one’s personal assessment of the class, either in a notebook or on the actual lesson plans, might be used later to reflect on LLS training in the course as a whole after its completion.

In addition to the teacher’s own reflections, it is essential to encourage learner reflection, both during and after the LLS training in the class or course.

In an interesting action research study involving “guided reflection” As Graham (170) declares, “For learners, a vital component of self-directed learning lies in the on-going evaluation of the methods, they have employed on tasks and of their achievements within the…programme” Whatever the context or method, it is important for L2/FL learners to have the chance to reflect on their language learning and LLS use.

The first, and most important, concerns the professionalism of teachers who use LLS and LLS training in their work. As Davis (1997) has aptly noted, “our actions speak louder than words”, and it is therefore important for professionals who use LLS training to also model such strategies both within their classroom teaching and, especially in EFL contexts, in their own FL learning. Furthermore, LLS obviously involve individuals’ unique cognitive, social, and affective learning styles and strategies. As an educator I am interested in helping my students learn and reflect on their learning, but I also question the tone and motivation reflected in some of the LLS literature. Oxford (1990a), for example, seems to describe many of my Japanese EFL students when she writes:

Motivation is a key concern both for teachers and students. Yet while teachers hope to motivate our students and enhance their learning, professionally we must be very clear not to manipulate them in the process, recognising that ultimately learning is the student’s responsibility. If our teaching is appropriate and learner-centred, we will not manipulate our students as we encourage them to develop and use their own LLS. Instead we will take learners’ motivations and learning styles into account as we teach in order for them to improve their L2/FL skills and LLS.

The second reflection pertains to the integration of LLS into both language learning/teaching theory and curriculum. The focus of this article is largely practical, noting why LLS are useful and how they can or might be included in regular L2/FL classes.

The related challenge, is how to integrate LLS into our L2/FL curriculum, especially in places like Bangladesh where “learner-centred” approaches or materials may not be implemented very easily. Using texts which incorporate LLS training, such as those in the Tapestry series, remains difficult in FL contexts when they are mainly oriented to L2 ones. Many FL teachers include LLS and LLS training in the FL curriculum of their regular, everyday language (as opposed to content) classes. This final point brings us to this and other questions for future LLS research.

The article has provided a brief overview of Language Learning Strategies (LLS) by examining their background and summarizing the relevant literature. It has also sketched out some ways that LLS training has been used and offered a three step approach for teachers to consider in implementing it within their own L2/FL classes. It has also upheld two important issues, posed questions for further LLS study, and noted a number of contacts that readers may use in networking on LLS in L2/FL education.

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Cohen, A. (1990). Language Learning: Insights for Learners, Teachers, and Researchers. New York: Newbury House.

Ellis, G., & Sinclair, B. (1989). Learning to Learn English: A Course in Learner Training. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Ellis, R. (1994). The Study of Second Language Acquisition. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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Gardner, D., & Miller, L. (Eds.). (1996). Tasks for Independent Language Learning. Alexandria, VA: TESOL.

Graham, S. (1997). Effective Language Learning. Clevedon, Avon: Multilingual

Nunan, D. (1995). Closing the gap between learning and instruction. TESOL Quarterly, 29(1), 133-158.

Nunan, D. (1996). Learner strategy training in the classroom: An action research study. TESOL Journal, 6(1), 35-41.

Offner, M. (1997). Teaching English conversation in Japan: Teaching how to learn. The Internet TESL Journal [on-line serial], 3(3) [March 1997].

O’Malley, J.M., & Chamot, A. (1990). Learning Strategies in Second Language Acquisition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Oxford, R. (1990). Language Learning Strategies: What Every Teacher Should Know. New York: Newbury House.

Skehan, P. (1989). Language learning strategies (Chapter 5). Individual Differences in Second-Language Learning (pp. 73- 99). London: Edward Arnold.

Tarone, E. (1983). Some thoughts on the notion of ‘communication stategy’. In C. Faerch & G. Kasper (Eds.), Strategies in Interlanguage Communication (pp. 61-74). London: Longman.

M.Enamul Hoque has been an English language teacher for over 15 years in different Government institutes of Bangladesh. He is an Instructor of ELT in the Education and Training Wing, Ministry of Environment and Forest. He has MA in English from Dhaka University, and M.Phil in Applied Linguistics and ELT from the Jahangirnagar University, Dhaka, Bangladesh. He has published widely on a variety of topics and is particularly interested in English language teaching and applied linguistics.

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