The Strategy Factor in Successful Language Learning

The Strategy Factor in Successful Language Learning

by Carol Griffiths


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This book addresses fundamental questions regarding the relationships between successful language learning and strategy use and development according to learner, situational or target variables. It considers strategy effectiveness from an individual point of view and discusses pedagogical issues, especially relating to teacher perceptions and training, classroom and learner factors, methodology and content. The book begins by discussing underlying theoretical issues and then presents evidence from empirical studies; in addition to presenting a quantitative view, the book also takes a qualitative look at strategy use by individuals. Rather than focusing on strategies divorced from the 'real world' of the classroom, this book explores the issues from the teaching/learning point of view.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781847699404
Publisher: Multilingual Matters Ltd.
Publication date: 05/15/2013
Series: Second Language Acquisition Series , #67
Pages: 240
Product dimensions: 5.77(w) x 8.38(h) x 0.48(d)

About the Author

Carol Griffiths has many years' experience as teacher, manager and teacher trainer in the field of English Language Teaching. She completed a PhD researching language learning strategies at the University of Auckland, New Zealand, and learner issues continue to be her main research interest. Carol is currently working as a teacher trainer at Fatih University in Istanbul, Turkey, having previously worked in New Zealand, Indonesia, Japan, China, North Korea and UK.

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The Strategy Factor in Successful Language Learning

By Carol Griffiths

Multilingual Matters

Copyright © 2013 Carol Griffiths
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-84769-943-5


A Conceptual Perspective

1.1 Basic Concepts

There is an old proverb which states: 'Give a man a fish and he eats for a day. Teach him how to fish and he eats for a lifetime.' Applied to the language teaching and learning field, this proverb might be interpreted to mean that if students are provided with answers, the immediate problem is solved. However, if they are taught the strategies to work out the answers for themselves, they may be empowered to manage their own learning. It is on this fundamental premise that this book is based.

Over the years, a great deal of effort has gone into developing theories, methods and approaches for teaching language (such as the Grammar Translation Method, audiolingualism and the communicative approach). However, issues relating to the learner have been treated with 'relative neglect' (Dansereau, 1978: 78) and much less attention has been paid to the language development process from the learning point of view (Tarone & Yule, 1989). Although valuable work has been and continues to be done on the questions of how language is acquired/learnt/developed (e.g. Doughty & Long, 2003; Eckman et al., 1984; Ellis, 1986, 1994, 2008; Krashen, 1981; Spada & Lightbown, 2002; Winitz, 1981), when it is considered that the learner forms one half of the teaching/learning partnership, it might be considered surprising that, in general, the significance of the learner's role has continued to be 'underestimated' (Larsen-Freeman, 2001: 12).

In the 1970s, the possibility that success in language learning might be related to how students go about the task was explored by writers such as Naiman et al. (1978), Rubin (1975) and Stern (1975). Writers such as O'Malley (1987), Oxford (1990, 2011b), Wenden (1991), Cohen (1998, 2011), Chamot (2001, 2008), Macaro (2006) and Griffiths (2008a) have continued to suggest that learners might be able to learn language more effectively by the use of language learning strategies, which have the potential to be 'an extremely powerful learning tool' (O'Malley et al., 1985: 43). O'Malley et al. (1985: 22) noted, however, that there was 'no consensus' regarding basic concepts such as terminology, definition, classification and underpinning theory. Although this was written more than 20 years ago, much of the 'conceptual ambiguity' (Dornyei & Skehan, 2003: 610) remains to this day.

1.2 Terminology

Some of this ambiguity arises at the very basic level of terminology. This applies especially to the learning tool phenomenon itself, to the language being learnt, and to those who are trying to learn a new language.

1.2.1 Strategies

Although promising in terms of its potential to facilitate successful learning, there is 'considerable confusion' (O'Malley et al., 1985: 22) in the language learning strategy field; indeed, there is a great deal of controversy over the very term strategy itself, before we even begin to think about definition, classification and theory. Consensus is not assisted by some writers' use of conflicting terminology such as learning behaviours (Politzer, 1983; Politzer & McGroarty, 1985; Wesche, 1977), tactics (Seliger, 1984) and techniques (Stern, 1992). These rival terms are often used more or less (but not always exactly) synonymously with the term strategy as used elsewhere in the literature.

Strategy, of course, is originally a military term, as some (e.g. Larsen-Freeman & Long, 1991; Oxford, 1990, 2011b) point out, and there are those who find the somewhat bellicose overtones of the term unfortunate. A military strategy tends to be an overall plan of attack or 'plans for winning a war' (Oxford, 2011a: 168); the term tactics tends to be applied to smaller manoeuvres within the overall strategy. Perhaps, however, we do not need to concern ourselves too much with the way the term was used in battle when we are applying it to language learning, although it is an interesting comparison!

According to Larsen-Freeman and Long (1991: 199), the term strategy was used by Rubin (1975) 'in perhaps the earliest study in this area and it enjoys the widest currency today' (for instance, among many others, Chamot, 1987; Cohen, 1991, 2011; Cohen & Macaro, 2007; Lam & Wong, 2000; O'Neil, 1978; Oxford, 1990, 2011b; Pearson, 1988; Purpura, 1999; Weinstein, 1978; Wenden, 1985). It is acknowledged, however, that strategy is not the only term which has been, or which might be, used to cover the thoughts and behaviours involved.

Although the term tactics is employed by some writers to denote a specific activity within an overall strategy (e.g. Oxford, 2011b), the point at which a given behaviour ceases to be a tactic and becomes a strategy or vice versa is not entirely easy to pinpoint. Is an action such as asking a teacher for help with words I don't understand, for instance, a tactic or a strategy? If it is considered a tactic within, say, a broader strategy such as reviewing vocabulary regularly, what then would writing down the teacher's explanation become – a sub-tactic? And what about learning what I have written down? It all becomes very messy. And does it matter? Do we really need to introduce yet more terms into an already confused picture?

1.2.2 Target language

No less controversial than the term strategy itself is the term for the language the strategies are being used to learn. Many writers opt for the term second language (SL or L2) (for instance, among many others, Ausubel, 1964; Chaudron, 1995; Cook, 1991; Donato, 2000; Harley et al., 1990; Hylenstam & Pienemann, 1985; Krashen, 1982; Phillipson et al., 1991; Schumann, 1978; Sharwood Smith, 1994; Spolsky, 1989; Wolfson & Judd, 1983), even though it may be used 'somewhat confusingly' (Ellis, 1994: 12). The term is confusing because it does not allow for the many students who may already be multilingual and who may be in the process of learning a third, fourth or subsequent language, and therefore it does not reflect the resource that learners may already possess. There is also frequent confusion between the terms second language (studied in the environment where the language is spoken, for instance international students studying English in New Zealand or the USA), foreign language (FL) (studied in an environment other than where it is spoken, for instance French as it is taught in England or Turkey) and heritage language (the language derived from a particular cultural heritage spoken in a dominant language environment, for instance Hebrew as spoken in the USA).

Other terms such as non-native language (NNL) and non-primary language (NPL), where native and primary are usually defined as the one spoken in the home, are not always as straightforward as might initially be supposed, since many homes and backgrounds around the world operate in more than one language. Still other terms which have been suggested, such as additional language or additive language, tend to make the language sound either margin-alised or like a brand of food or petrol! In the face of these debates, the term used in this book will be target language (TL) – the one the students are aiming to learn.

1.2.3 Speakers of other languages

Yet another controversial term is that used for those who are trying to learn a target language. The term SOL (speakers of other languages), as favoured by publications such as TESOL Quarterly, TESOL Matters and TESOLANZ Journal, although somewhat long and clumsy, has arisen partly to avoid the second/foreign language learner confusion. Descriptors such as non-native, non-primary and non-English-speaking-background (NESB) have been used, but the intrinsically negative perspective of these terms make them less than universally acceptable.

Unfortunately, the universally acceptable term for those who already speak other languages and are trying to learn a new one has yet to be coined. For the purposes of the present work, however, the term speakers of other languages (SOL) will be used.

1.3 Definition

Language learning strategies have been notoriously difficult to define (e.g. Oxford, 1990; Oxford & Cohen, 1992). One of the earliest researchers in this field, Rubin (1975: 43) provided a very broad definition of learning strategies as 'the techniques or devices which a learner may use to acquire knowledge'. By means of observing students in classrooms, observing herself, talking to good language learners and eliciting observations from teachers, Rubin isolated seven strategies characteristic of good language learners, namely:

guessing/inferring (by using clues);

communicating (for instance, by means of circumlocution, gestures, etc.);

managing inhibitions (for instance, of appearing foolish);

attending to form (for instance, by looking for patterns);

practising (for instance, pronunciation);

monitoring one's own and the speech of others;

attending to meaning (for instance, by attending to context).

At around the same time as Rubin published her 'good learner' study, Stern (1975) produced a list of 10 language learning strategies used by good language learners. He believed that good language learners are characterised by positive learning strategies, among which he included:



developing the new language into an ordered system;

revising progressively;

searching for meaning;


using the language in real communication;


developing the target language into a separate reference system;

learning to think in the target language.

Although Stern's work was an important addition to the developing body of research on the relationship between language learning strategies and the successful language learner, these strategies were listed as a rather confused mixture with 'characteristics', such as 'active', 'tolerant' and 'outgoing' (Stern, 1975: 316).

In another pioneering piece of research at around the same time, Naiman and colleagues (1978) also tried to find out what people known to be good at languages had in common. Identified as 'essential for successful language learning' (Naiman et al., 1978: 225) were strategies for:

coming to grips with the language as a system;

using the language in real communication;

monitoring the interlanguage;

coming to terms with the affective demands of language learning;

coping with ambiguity.

As we can see, there is little agreement among these three important early studies, causing O'Malley et al. (1985: 22) to lament that 'there is no consensus on what constitutes a learning strategy in second language learning'. Subsequently, Wenden and Rubin (1987: 7) talk of 'the elusive nature of the term' and Ellis (1994: 529) describes the concept as 'fuzzy', while Cohen (1998: 3) talks of 'conflicting views'.

Difficulties such as those noted above, as well as 'a lack of theoretical rigour' (Macaro, 2006: 320), have led Macaro to despair of achieving an all-encompassing definition. He opts instead (Macaro, 2006: 327–330) for listing defining characteristics according to:

• location of strategies;

• size, abstractness and relationship to other strategies;

• explicitness of goal orientation;

• transferability

Dornyei and Skehan (2003: 610) go even further and discuss abandoning the strategy concept altogether in the face of a 'theoretical muddle' which has never been 'cleared away'. They recommend the adoption of the 'more versatile' concept of self-regulation, which 'refers to the degree to which individuals are active participants in their own learning' (Dornyei & Skehan, 2003: 611).

However, the slippery strategy concept hangs on tenaciously, and refuses to be so easily dismissed. This is evidenced by an ongoing stream of publications on the subject (e.g. Chamot, 2008; Cohen, 2011; Cohen & Macaro, 2007; Griffiths, 2008a; Oxford, 2011b, etc.).

If we look carefully at the literature of the last several decades, I would like to suggest:

• that it is possible to identify the essential characteristics of language learning strategies and to incorporate them into a workable definition;

• that there are six key features (listed and explained below) which define language learning strategies and distinguish them from other learner characteristics or learning behaviours (such as learning style, skills and communication strategies).

1.3.1 Activity

Rubin (1975) stressed the active nature of strategies – they are what learners do. Larsen-Freeman (2001: 12) is another who argues that the learner is not 'merely a passive recipient' and that language learning is not merely a 'unilateral process ... dependent on some benevolent, skilful, more proficient interlocutor'.

It needs to be understood, however, that although there is a considerable degree of consensus that strategies are active, not all writers agree on the nature of the activity. Macaro (2006), for instance, insists that strategies are a mental activity. Oxford (for example, 1990), however, would include physical activities, such as writing in a notebook or physically acting out new words, as examples of strategic behaviour. Since these two experts disagree on this question, researchers need to be aware that they will need to make their own decision about where they stand on the issue, to select strategy items according to their own contexts, participants, research purpose and understanding of the concept, and to be prepared to justify their choices.

Macaro and Oxford's mental/physical divergence notwithstanding, there seems to be fairly general agreement in the literature about the activity dimension of strategies. For this reason, verbs (especially gerunds) are often used to specify strategic activities, for instance:

revising regularly;

controlling schedules so that English study is done;

studying English grammar;

consciously learning new vocabulary.

and so on (taken from the English Language Learning Strategy Inventory (ELLSI): Griffiths, 2003b, see Appendix).

Oxford (1990) in the well-known Strategy Inventory for Language Learning (SILL) chooses to express the strategic activity in terms of first-person verbs, such as:

I use rhymes to remember new English words.

I try to find patterns in English.

I think about my progress in learning English.

I look for words in my own language that are similar to new words in English.

As we can see from these two inventories, the active nature of strategies tends to be reflected in the very nature of the grammar which is used to itemise them.

It is this activity component which distinguishes strategies from style, a closely related concept with which the strategy concept is frequently confused. The confusion began early in the literature. Working at much the same time as Rubin in the mid-1970s, Stern (1975) produced a list of 10 language learning strategies which he believed to be characteristic of good language learners. At the top of the list he put 'personal learning style' (Stern, 1975: 311), thereby confusing the concepts of learning style and learning strategy and contributing to the difficulties with definition which remain to this day.

The key distinction drawn by Wenden (1991: 36) between styles and strategies is that styles are 'the learner's characteristic, and consistent way of perceiving, interacting with and responding to the learning environment'. Styles are relatively enduring, whereas strategies are 'amenable to change' (Wenden, 1991: 18, author's italics). According to Reid (1998a: ix), learning styles are 'internally based characteristics', whereas learning strategies are activities which students use to improve their learning. Because of this distinction, whereas strategies are usually expressed by means of verbs (practising, using, planning, and so on), learning styles are commonly identified either in adjectival terms, such as:



kinaesthetic (Fleming & Mills, 1992) or as nouns, such as:




diverger (Kolb, 1976)

Learning styles, or 'general approaches to learning' (Cohen, 1998: 15) are therefore related to, but distinct from, language learning strategies, although strategy choice may be influenced by learning style (Cohen, 2012; Griffiths, 2012; Wenden, 1991). We might expect, for instance, that a student who prefers an aural style would tend to choose strategic activities which involve the sense of hearing, a converger might select strategies which synthesise information, and so on.


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Table of Contents

Acknowledgements viii

Introduction ix

1 A Conceptual Perspective 1

1.1 Basic Concepts 1

1.2 Terminology 2

1.3 Definition 5

1.4 Effectiveness 15

1.5 Theoretical Underpinnings 38

1.6 Classification 40

1.7 Issues in Research Methodology 45

1.8 Conclusion 49

1.9 Conceptual Areas for Further Research 50

2 A Quantitative Perspective 52

2.1 Fundamental Questions 52

2.2 Is Frequency of Language Learning Strategy Use Related to Successful Language Learning? 53

2.3 Is Quantity of Language Learning Strategy Use Related to Successful Language Learning? 56

2.4 Are Some Strategy Types More Related to Successful Learning Than Others? 58

2.5 Are Learner Variables Related to Strategy Choice? 68

2.6 Are Situational Variables Related to Strategy Choice? 76

2.7 Are Target Variables Related to Strategy Choice? 79

2.8 Do Strategies Change Over Time? 83

2.9 How Do Strategy Changes Relate to Progress? 86

2.10 Which is the Chicken and Which is the Egg? 91

2.11 Conclusion 92

2.12 Quantitative Areas for Further Research 93

3 A Qualitative Perspective 95

3.1 The Individual Language Learner 95

3.2 What Can We Learn From the Interviews? 120

3.3 Conclusion 135

3.4 Qualitative Areas for Further Research 136

4 A Pedagogical Perspective 138

4.1 The Place of Strategies in Overall Theories of Teaching 138

4.2 Strategy Instruction 144

4.3 Previous Research Into Strategy Instruction 145

4.4 Strategy Instruction Programmes 149

4.5 Teachers' Perceptions 152

4.6 The Classroom Experience 159

4.7 HOW Should Strategy Instruction Be Conducted? 160

4.8 WHAT Should Be Included in Strategy Instruction? 162

4.9 The Issue of Confidence and the Tornado Effect 167

4.10 Learner Variables 168

4.11 Situational Variables 172

4.12 Target Variables 173

4.13 Teacher Training 174

4.14 Conclusion 176

4.15 Pedagogical Areas for Further Research 177

5 Overview 178

5.1 The Strategy Concept 178

5.2 Quantitative Research 179

5.3 Qualitative Research 180

5.4 Pedagogical Research 180

5.5 Conclusion 181

Appendix 1 Language Skills Development Strategy Questionnaire 182

Appendix 2 English Language Learning Strategy Inventory (Students' Version) 185

Appendix 3 Interview Guide 186

Appendix 4 English Language Learning Strategy Inventory (Teachers' Version) 187

Glossary 188

References 199

Index 218

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