18 March 2015

Do learning strategies help us learn a language better?

By Dr Wang Su Chen

If you are reading this article, chances are that you are going through it with the English you learned during your school days, either as a second or a third language. It means that you have reached a high level of competence in the language. It also means that you have an understanding of what is involved in learning it. Think about how you did it. How did you become good at it? If you used learning strategies, what strategies did you use?

Scholars say that chances are that you would have used several or all of these strategies – cognitive, metacognitive, memory-related, compensatory, affective, and social strategies. These are broad categories of mental and physical acts which help the learner master a language. Some also say that good language learners have the following characteristics: they are willing to guess, they are keen to talk, unafraid to make mistakes, focus on form, seize opportunities to speak and write, monitor their language and that of others, and try hard to understand what is written or said; and you might see yourself reflected in these descriptions, or perhaps not. Have these researchers correctly described you as a language learner?

Language learning strategies have been the subject of education research for more than three decades now, the focus being on the learner and his or her learning, in contrast to earlier research, which focused much more on the teacher and his or her teaching methods and other factors. These earlier research studies investigated teaching approaches such as the grammar-translation approach, audio-lingual, immersion, the functional-notional, and the communicative approach, and the general conclusion was that no single teaching approach was better than the other: every approach had strengths and weaknesses.

Disillusioned by the lack of success in teacher-centred approaches, researchers have turned their attention away from the teacher to the learner and are now exploring learner-centred approaches in language learning, focusing on the student’s learning strategies and individual differences which affect the learning process. That is, the research focus is now on who the learner is, what the learner does, and how the learner learns in the hope of finding nuggets of wisdom to be passed on to improve the success chances of less successful learners.

The findings have been mixed, however; certain strategies have been shown to be associated with successful learning, but not consistently so, depending on the groups being studied, their backgrounds and many other intervening factors. Despite the years of research, language learning strategy studies have not gone far beyond the taxonomy stage of identifying them. Most researchers are still using Rebecca Oxford’s Strategy Inventory of Language Learning, but it remains an inventory without a theoretical home, so it seems.

There is, furthermore, the practical problem of how to transfer effective learning strategies to poor language learners. For this, strategy instruction has been tried out, but reports on such training have not been clearly positive: good learners pick up and use strategies quickly to speed up their learning; poor learners do not. If that is so, then how are learning strategies supposed to help poor learners? In strategy instruction, there are also practical problems such as whether such training should be embedded in the language lessons or taught separately in a compressed mode. Again, the research findings have been mixed.

Moreover, if we examine the notion that strategies should be taught to learners, are we not reverting to teacher-centeredness in the sense that we have the teacher teaching the learner how to learn, and are we not back in the area of the teacher’s teaching methods and methodologies?

The point is that in a learning-teaching situation such as the classroom, lecture hall, laboratory or even the football field, learning and teaching is a two-way process in which both the teacher and the learner are vital elements in the equation. Both must apply themselves for the learning to take place successfully. It is popular these days to say that the learner must learn to take responsibility for his or her learning; he or she must learn to use strategies effectively, and so on. In reality, many learners need to be shown how to strategise. They need to learn how to take responsibility for their learning, and so forth. It is the teacher’s role to demonstrate to them through modelling, instruction, correction, scaffolding, graded practice, contextualised learning, and the like.

So, coming back to the question of learning strategies, do they help us learn a language better? Perhaps an answer lies in what the term “strategy” means. The term, which comes from the Greek word strategia, is used in the military to mean the art of planning and directing overall military operations in a war or battle. In business, it often means a high-level plan of action to achieve an intended set of goals. In language learning, it translates into a learner’s conscious directing of his or her attention and efforts towards achieving a learning goal. So, just as the military general or a company chief executive in business has a high-level plan, so too, the language learner who deliberately strategises his learning plan and actions may be expected to be more successful than one who does not. But that learner may still need to be shown how to strategise by the teacher. Learning strategies are a part of the dynamic learner-teacher relationship.

Dr Wang Su Chen is Dean and Associate Professor of the Faculty of Language and Communication at Swinburne University of Technology Sarawak Campus. She is contactable at swang@swinburne.edu.my