A Study of Learning Strategies in L2 Acquisition

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A Study of Learning Strategies in L2 Acquisition

    A Study of Learning Strategies in L2 Acquisition:

    来源?中国论文下载中心 [ 08-11-11 11:36:00 ] 作者?王治琴 编辑?studa0714

    AbstractWith the concept of autonomy being part of the mainstream of research and practice within the field of language education, the study of learning strategies in L2 acquisition has drawn much attention. This paper discusses the issues covering the fundamental aspect: identification and classification of learning strategy. The problems are reviewed concerning the definition and classification of learning strategies and then the paper tentatively introduces Cohen’s approach to defining learning strategies in terms of prototypicality of features of learning strategies. Key wordslearning strategies; definition; classification


    Second language teaching in recent years has shifted from the quest for the perfect teaching method to the internal factors of learners. According to Michael H. Long and Jack C. Richards (O’Malley & Chamot, 2001, preface), research in the case of

    learners has led to the study of 1) how learners approach learning, both in and out of classrooms, and 2) the kinds of strategies and cognitive processing they use in second language acquisition. As the theory and practice of language teaching enters a new century, the idea of helping leaners succeed in developing autonomy has become one of the prominent themes in the field of teaching education. Research on the behaviours involved in autonomous language learning has to a large extent drawn upon research on learning strategies (Benson, 2005).

    The study of learning strategies in second language acquisition started around the 1970s ( for example, Rubin 1975; Wong Fillmore 1976 and 1979; Stern 1975). It aimed at identifying the range of strategies. Much of the study has clearly been influenced by developments in cognitive psychology. The emergence of learning strategies traced back to answering the question: Why are some people more effective at learning than others? Effective learning is not merely a matter of a high IQ. What seems to be more important is the learners’ ability to respond to the particular learning situation and to manage their learning in an appropriate manner. More recent studies have tended to focus on the strategies when learners perform particular tasks. Over 30 years, it is probably true to say that the study of learning strategies is still in its infancy. There are many issues that need sorting out before strategy training can be implemented effectively ( Ellis, 1994) , One of the most essential issues is the definition and classification of learning strategy. This paper aims to enhance and complement the current theory.

    1.Definitions and redefinition of learning strategies

    It is not easy to tie down the definition of learning strategies partly because the concept of “strategy” itself is somewhat fuzzy and partly because terms such as skills, strategies, processes, and approaches are used differently by different people. Researchers have not gained a common understanding of learning strategies.

    Perspectives are so different that Ellis (1994) states that “definitions of learning strategies have tended to be ad hoc and atheoretical ” (p. 533).

    Some definitions of learning strategies produced by different researchers are as follows:

    Tarone (1980): A language learning strategy is an attempt to develop linguistic and sociolinguistic competence in the target language. The motivation of the use of this strategy is the desire to learn.

    Stern (1983): In our view strategy is best reserved for general tendencies or overall characteristics of the approach employed by the language learner, leaving techniques as the term to refer to particular forms of observable learning behaviour. Chomot(1987): Learning strategies are techniques, approaches or deliberate actions that students take in order to facilitate the learning, recall of both linguistic and content area information.

    Rubin (1987): Learning strategies are strategies which contribute to the development of the language system which the learner constructs and affect learning directly. Oxford (1989): Language learning strategies are behaviours or actions which learners use to make language learning more successful, self-directed and enjoyable. Cohen (1998) : Learning strategies are learning processes which are consciously selected by the learner. The words “consciously select” are important because they demonstrate the special character of strategy.

    Wenden(1998): Learning strategies are mental steps or operations that learners use to learn a new language and to regulate their efforts to do so.( as cited in Ellis, 1994, p. 531)

    The above definitions show that no researchers define language learning strategies in exactly the same way. All these definitions provide insights into understanding the process of learning a language. How to define learning strategies is crucial in underpinning the framework of researchers’ study. Definition is fundamental to laying the foundation for the areas of research. However, these definitions of language learning strategies reveals some problems. “Learning strategies” is such a broad word that it can refer to the general approaches or specific techniques used to learn a language. Maybe it is the main reason why the definitions are atheoretical. There are other two problems: Are learning strategies to be perceived of as behavioural or mental? Are learning strategies conscious and intentional or subconscious?

    A complete definition of learning strategies is not available. Perhaps one of the best approaches to defining learning strategies is to list the main charcteristics (Ellis, 1994). In this case, it would appear that the areas of consensus outweigh those of disagreement. Cohen (2005) , when he made a survey questionnaire among a group of second-language learner strategy experts to determine how they conceptualize and use the terminology in strategy research and practice, proposed a construct of learning strategy which was viewed not as an absolute, all-or-nothing feature but in terms of how far along a continuum a feature could possibly go before

    it stopped being descriptive of a strategy. This is an approach of defining learning strategies in terms of how prototypical the feature was. These features as follows are arranged in a descending order of agreement, with the features receiving the lowest level of agreement last.

    A. purpose or goal orientation: Most of respondents think learning strategies are goal-directed.

    B. sequence of actions: There was general consensus among respondents strategic behavior could fall along a continuum from a single action or a sequence of actions. C. focus of attention: There was relatively solid consensus for including attention as a feature on a continuum from focus on to focus away.

    D. degree of monitoring: There was relative consensus that monitoring deserves status as a prototypical feature of a strategy. The concern was for the extent of monitoring likely to be found in actual strategy behavior.

    E. level of observability: This feature received less acceptance because strategies are at various levels of observability along a continuum. There may be numerous strategies that involve mental processes.

    F. deliberateness: This proved to be a problematic distinction between deliberateness and automation. Some respondents strongly hold that once a process is automatic, it can no longer be a strategy since in this context “automatic” means habitual and unconscious.

    G. extent of evaluation: Only some respondents recognize evaluation as a necessary dimension for a strategy because in fact learners do not often reflect on how effectively they use the given strategy.

    F. self- initiation: What are the source of intiation? From the teacher, a peer or learners themselves? Tracking the source of types of strategies might provide useful insights about the value of strategy instruction.

    H. degree of planning: There are mixed views about the item. Some respondents hold the view that some intuitive students are not planning as much as they are instantly understanding the task and knowing the strategy to use, such a planning continuum might be a bit simplistic and require to really understand what planning the use of a strategy actually means.

    Cohen’s attempt to describe the prototypicality of strategies is a step forward concerning defining learning strategies. It might reflect the nature of learning strategies to a large extent because the answers to the questionnaire come from strategy experts. It is true that some problems still exist. For example, how does Cohen select some features as prototypicality? In the item F, self-intiation maybe has not much to do with strategies. However, the prototypicality sheds light on the further study. Greater clarity can serve the action along, and bring about greater consensus.

    2?Classification of learning strategies

    2.1 General introduction to its classifications

    Ellis (1994) notes that learning strategies differ in a number of ways, reflecting

    the type of learners under study, the setting and the particular interests of the researchers. Therefore, different researchers form different frameworks to classify learning strategies. The categories that have been established are high-inference in nature, which often needs considerable explanation on the part of the researchers (Ellis, 1994).

    However, there are many advantages in the classification of strategies. Strategy subsets enable researchers to describe the correspondence between mental processes and strategic processes (O’Malley&Chamot, 2001). Strategy inventories, as a valuable reference guide, may play an important role for teachers to carry on strategy training.

    The work of Rubin (1975,1981), Wenden(1983), Oxford (1985,1990), and O’Malley and Chamot (1990) has made great contributions to the knowledge of learning strategies. Among their work, Oxford’s Strategy Inventory for Language Learning ( SILL) is

    perhaps the most comprehensive classification of learning strategies to date (Ellis). SILL contained items tapping sixty-four individual strategies linking individual strategies as well as strategy groups with each of the four language skills (listening, reading, speaking and writing). Oxford divided learning strategies into two main groups: direct strategies and indirect strategies. Direct strategies consist of subconscious strategies directly involving the target language while indirect strategies provide indirect support for language learning through more conscious strategies such as focusing, planning, evaluating. These two classes are subdivided into six subcategories: memory, cognitive, compensation, social, affective and metacognitive. A big problem is that SILL fails to provide details of language learning strategies related to any specific language. What’s more, Oxford’s taxonomy fails to make a distinction between strategies directed at

    learning the L2 and those directed at using it (Ellis). The last problem is that compensation strategies are considered as a direct type of learning strategies rather than one type of production strategies, which is somewhat confusing. Despite these problems, Oxford’s inventory has a well-understood organization of specific

    strategies into a hierarchy of levels.

    2.2 O’Malley and Chamot framework of classification

    Unlike Oxford, O’Malley and Chamot have differentiated strategies into three categories depending on the level or type of processing involved: metacoginitive, cognitive and social/affective. They grounded the study of learning strategies within the information-processing model of learning developed by Anderson. Metacognitive strategies involve consciously directing one’s efforts into the learning task. These strategies are higher order executive skills that may entail planning learning, monitoring the process of learning, and evaluating the success of a particular strategy. They have an executive function. In O’Malley and Chamot

    framework of learning strategies, metacognitive strategies include advance organizers, directed attention, selective attention, self-management, advance preparation, self-monitoring, delayed production and self-evaluation.

    Cognitive strategies are defined as learning strategies that “operate directly on incoming information, manipulating it in ways that enhance learning” (O’Malley and Chamot 1990:44). They have an operative or cognitive-processing function,directly linked to the performance of particular learning tasks. Cognitive strategies include repetition, resourcing, grouping, note-taking

    deduction/induction, substition, elaboration, summarization, translation, transfer and inferencing.

    Social/affective strategies concern the ways in which learners interact with other leaners and native speakers or take control of one’s own feelings on language learning. Examples of such strategies are cooperation and question for clarification.

    O’Malley and Chamot’s three-way distinction is useful and has been generally

    accepted (Ellis,1994). Perhaps the reason is that this classification is more consistent with a learner’s use of strategies. It implies that second language acqusition is active and dynamic mental processes. For teachers, the classification is found to be useful for describing how to integrate strategies into instruction (O’Malley and Chamot, 2001).

    Their classification of strategies still remains problematic, however. First, like other classifications, this classification still has the problem that it is not clear whether the range of strategies is finite or infinite in number. Second, even O’Malley and Chamot talked about their problems (2001, p.144). In fact, the distinction between metacognitive and cognitive strategies is obscure without precise boundaries. Possibly what is metacognitive to one researcher is cognitive to another. “Directed attention” (deciding in advance to attend in general to a learning task and ignore irrelevant distractors) is classified into a metacognitive strategy and presumed to occur prior to the beginning of a task. But actually it is ongoing when students direct their attention to the task. Another example is “selective attention” (deciding in advance to attend to specific aspects of language input or siruational details that will cue the retention of language input.) , which sometimes has the feature of being an integral aspect of task performance, rather than the type of skill recognized as an executive function. Obviously, there is no agreement on what constitute learning strategies. Ellis (1994:558) analyzed the phenomonon as follows: There is no widely accepted theoretical basis for identifying and describing strategies. The work done to date has been essentially descriptive, reflecting the corpora of data that different researchers have worked on. No wonder that there is a state of confusion in the classification of strategies.

    These problems are serious blocks to reliable research(Ellis,1994). Because of different sets of strategies and the lack of agreement, it is impossible for the studies to reach any general conclusion. What can be done to solve the problem? Maybe some useful suggestions can be obtained from the study of vocabulary-learning strategies made by Brown and Perry’s study (1991) .The study of vocabulary-learning

    strategies is very promising. The success of the study lies in clarifying the learning targets and classifying strategies very precisely. Their study also shows that it is possible to locate vocabulary strategy research within a strong theoretical framework (Ellis). For the purpose of conducting research, specific strategy terms and operational definitions to describe strategic processing should be used (O’Malley and Chamot, 2001 ). On the other hand, perhaps criteria should

    be taken into consideration when developing an taxonomies of learning strategies. Rubin (1987) once proposed four criteria when developing an inventory of cognitive strategies. It might be a feasible approach.


    As mentioned above, the study of learning strategies is still in its infancy, so there is a lot of work to do. How to define and classify the term “learning strategy” is a worthwhile undertaking. Probably we should explore the issue based on some theoretical framework and generic criteria.


    [1] Anderson, N. J. (2002). The role of metacognition in second language teaching and learning. from org/resources/digest_pdfs/0110_Anderson.pdf/ survey2007-7.

    [2] Cohen, A. D. (2005). Coming to terms with language learner stategies: What do strategy experts think about the terminology and where would they direct their research? Working paper No. 12. from http;// paper/Andrew. Cohen/WP12.pdf/survey2007-7.

    [3] Ellis, R. (1999). The Study of Second Language Acquisition. Shanghai: 上海外


    [4] O’Malley, J.M.& A. U. Chamot. (2001). Learning Srrategies in Second Language Acquisition. Shanghai: 上海外语教育出版社.

    [5] Oxford, R. (1990). Language Learning Strategies: What every teacher should know. Rowley, Mass.: Newbury House.

    [6] Oxford, R. & D. Crookall. (1989). Research on language learning strategies: methods, findings and instructional issues. The Modern Language Journal, 73(iv), 404419.

    [7] Richards, J. C. & C. Lockhart. (2000). Reflective Teaching in Second Language Classrooms. Beijing: Foreign Language Teaching and Reaearch Press. [8]Stern, H. (1975). What can we learn from the good language learner? Canadian Modern Language Review 31.

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