The Internet TESL Journal

Language Learning Strategies in Foreign Language Learning and Teaching

Murat Hismanoglu
mhismanoglu [at]
Hacettepe University (Ankara, Turkey)
This paper aims at emphasizing the importance of language learning strategies in foreign language learning and teaching. It summarizes the background of language learning strategies, defines the concept of a language learning strategy, and outlines the taxonomy of language learning strategies proposed by several researchers. It also takes into account the teacher's role in strategy training and poses questions for further research on language learning strategies.


There has been a prominent shift within the field of language learning and teaching over the last twenty years with greater emphasis being put on learners and learning rather than on teachers and teaching. In parallel to this new shift of interest, how learners process new information and what kinds of strategies they employ to understand, learn or remember the information has been the primary concern of the researchers dealing with the area of foreign language learning. This paper provides the background of language learning strategies, gives various definitions and taxonomies of language learning strategies presented by several researchers. It also stresses the importance of language learning strategies for foreign language learning and the teacher's role in strategy training. In the last section, the paper exhibits some questions for further research on language learning strategies.

Background of Language Learning Strategies

Research into language learning strategies began in the 1960s. Particularly, developments in cognitive psychology influenced much of the research done on language learning strategies (Wiliams and Burden 1997:149). In most of the research on language learning strategies, the primary concern has been on "identifying what good language learners report they do to learn a second or foreign language, or, in some cases, are observed doing while learning a second or foreign language." (Rubin and Wenden 1987:19). In 1966, Aaron Carton published his study entitled The Method of Inference in Foreign Language Study, which was the first attempt on learner strategies.After Carton, in 1971, Rubin started doing research focussing on the strategies of successful learners and stated that, once identified, such strategies could be made available to less successful learners. Rubin (1975) classified strategies in terms of processes contributing directly or indirectly to language learning. Wong-Fillmore (1976), Tarone (1977), Naiman et al. (1978), Bialystok (1979), Cohen and Aphek (1981), Wenden (1982), Chamot and O'Malley (1987), Politzer and McGroarty (1985), Conti and Kolsody (1997), and many others studied strategies used by language learners during the process of foreign language learning.

Definition of a Language Learning Strategy

The term language learning strategy has been defined by many researchers. Wenden and Rubin (1987:19) define learning strategies as "... any sets of operations, steps, plans, routines used by the learner to facilitate the obtaining, storage, retrieval, and use of information." Richards and Platt (1992:209) state that learning strategies are "intentional behavior and thoughts used by learners during learning so as to better help them understand, learn, or remember new information." Faerch Claus and Casper (1983:67) stress that a learning strategy is "an attempt to develop linguistic and sociolinguistic competence in the target language." According to Stern (1992:261), "the concept of learning strategy is dependent on the assumption that learners consciously engage in activities to achieve certain goals and learning strategies can be regarded as broadly conceived intentional directions and learning techniques." All language learners use language learning strategies either consciously or unconsciously when processing new information and performing tasks in the language classroom. Since language classroom is like a problem-solving environment in which language learners are likely to face new input and difficult tasks given by their instructors, learners' attempts to find the quickest or easiest way to do what is required, that is, using language learning strategies is inescapable.

Language learning strategies language learners use during the act of processing the new information and performing tasks have been identified and described by researchers. In the following section, how various researchers have categorized language learning strategies will be shortly summarized:

Taxonomy of Language Learning Strategies

Language Learning Strategies have been classified by many scholars (Wenden and Rubin 1987; O'Malley et al. 1985; Oxford 1990; Stern 1992; Ellis 1994, etc. ). However, most of these attempts to classify language learning strategies reflect more or less the same categorizations of language learning strategies without any radical changes. In what follows, Rubin's (1987), Oxford's (1990), O'Malley's (1985), and Stern's (1992) taxonomies of language learning strategies will be handled:

Rubin's (1987) Classification of Language Learning Strategies

Rubin, who pionered much of the work in the field of strategies, makes the distinction between strategies contributing directly to learning and those contributing indirectly to learning. According to Rubin, there are three types of strategies used by learners that contribute directly or indirectly to language learning. These are:

Learning Strategies

They are of two main types, being the strategies contributing directly to the development of the language system constructed by the learner:

Cognitive Learning Strategies

They refer to the steps or operations used in learning or problem-solving that require direct analysis, transformation, or synthesis of learning materials. Rubin identified 6 main cognitive learning strategies contributing directly to language learning:

Metacognitive Learning Strategies

These strategies are used to oversee, regulate or self-direct language learning. They involve various processes as planning, prioritising, setting goals, and self-management.

Communication Strategies

They are less directly related to language learning since their focus is on the process of participating in a conversation and getting meaning across or clarifying what the speaker intended. Communication strategies are used by speakers when faced with some difficulty due to the fact that their communication ends outrun their communication means or when confronted with misunderstanding by a co-speaker.

Social Strategies

Social strategies are those activities learners engage in which afford them opportunities to be exposed to and practise their knowledge. Although these strategies provide exposure to the target language, they contribute indirectly to learning since they do not lead directly to the obtaining, storing, retrieving, and using of language (Rubin and Wenden 1987:23-27).

Oxford's (1990) Classification of Language Learning Strategies

Oxford (1990:9) sees the aim of language learning strategies as being oriented towards the development of communicative competence. Oxford divides language learning strategies into two main classes, direct and indirect, which are further subdivided into 6 groups. In Oxford's system, metacognitive strategies help learners to regulate their learning. Affective strategies are concerned with the learner's emotional requirements such as confidence, while social strategies lead to increased interaction with the target language. Cognitive strategies are the mental strategies learners use to make sense of their learning, memory strategies are those used for storage of information, and compensation strategies help learners to overcome knowledge gaps to continue the communication. Oxford's (1990:17) taxonomy of language learning strategies is shown in the following :

It can be seen that much of the recent work in this area has been underpinned by a broad concept of language learning strategies that goes beyond cognitive processes to include social and communicative strategies.

O'Malley's (1985) Classification of Language Learning Strategies

O'Malley et al. (1985:582-584) divide language learning strategies into three main subcategories:

Metacognitive Strategies

It can be stated that metacognitive is a term to express executive function, strategies which require planning for learning, thinking about the learning process as it is taking place, monitoring of one's production or comprehension, and evaluating learning after an activity is completed. Among the main metacognitive strategies, it is possible to include advance organizers, directed attention, selective attention, self-management, functional planning, self-monitoring, delayed production, self-evaluation.

Cognitive Strategies

Cognitive strategies are more limited to specific learning tasks and they involve more direct manipulation of the learning material itself. Repetition, resourcing, translation, grouping, note taking, deduction, recombination, imagery, auditory representation, key word, contextualization, elaboration, transfer, inferencing are among the most important cognitive strategies.

Socioaffective Strategies

As to the socioaffective strategies, it can be stated that they are related with social-mediating activity and transacting with others. Cooperation and question for clarification are the main socioaffective strategies (Brown 1987:93-94).

Stern's (1992) Classification of Language Learning Strategies

According to Stern (1992:262-266), there are five main language learning strategies. These are as follows:

Management and Planning Strategies

These strategies are related with the learner's intention to direct his own learning. A learner can take charge of the development of his own programme when he is helped by a teacher whose role is that of an adviser and resource person. That is to say that the learner must:

Cognitive Strategies

They are steps or operations used in learning or problem solving that require direct analysis, transformation, or synthesis of learning materials. In the following, some of the cognitive strategies are exhibited:

Communicative - Experiential Strategies

Communication strategies, such as circumlocution, gesturing, paraphrase, or asking for repetition and explanation are techniques used by learners so as to keep a conversation going. The purpose of using these techniques is to avoid interrupting the flow of communication (Stern 1992:265).

Interpersonal Strategies

They should monitor their own development and evaluate their own performance. Learners should contact with native speakers and cooperate with them. Learners must become acquainted with the target culture (Stern 1992: 265-266).

Affective Strategies

It is evident that good language learners employ distinct affective strategies. Language learning can be frustrating in some cases. In some cases, the feeling of strangeness can be evoked by the foreign language. In some other cases, L2 learners may have negative feelings about native speakers of L2. Good language learners are more or less conscious of these emotional problems. Good language learners try to create associations of positive affect towards the foreign language and its speakers as well as towards the learning activities involved. Learning training can help students to face up to the emotional difficulties and to overcome them by drawing attention to the potential frustrations or pointing them out as they arise (Stern 1992:266).

Importance of Language Learning Strategies in Language Learning and Teaching

Since the amount of information to be processed by language learners is high in language classroom, learners use different language learning strategies in performing the tasks and processing the new input they face. Language learning strategies are good indicators of how learners approach tasks or problems encountered during the process of language learning. In other words, language learning strategies, while nonobservable or unconsciously used in some cases, give language teachers valuable clues about how their students assess the situation, plan, select appropriate skills so as to understand, learn, or remember new input presented in the language classroom. According to Fedderholdt (1997:1), the language learner capable of using a wide variety of language learning strategies appropriately can improve his language skills in a better way. Metacognitive strategies improve organization of learning time, self-monitoring, and self-evaluation. Cognitive strategies include using previous knowledge to help solve new problems. Socioaffective strategies include asking native speakers to correct their pronunciation, or asking a classmate to work together on a particular language problem. Developing skills in three areas, such as metacognitive, cognitive, and socioaffective can help the language learner build up learner independence and autonomy whereby he can take control of his own learning. Lessard-Clouston (1997:3) states that language learning strategies contribute to the development of the communicative competence of the students. Being a broad concept, language learning strategies are used to refer to all strategies foreign language learners use in learning the target language and communication strategies are one type of language learning strategies. It follows from this that language teachers aiming at developing the communicative competence of the students and language learning should be familiar with language learning strategies. As Oxford (1990:1) states, language learning strategies "... are especially important for language learning because they are tools for active, self-directed movement, which is essential for developing communicative competence." Besides developing the communicative competence of the students, teachers who train students to use language learning strategies can help them become better language learners. Helping students understand good language learning strategies and training them to develop and use such good language learning strategies can be considered to be the appreciated characteristics of a good language teacher (Lessard-Clouston 1997:3). Research into the good language learning strategies revealed a number of positive strategies so that such strategies could also be used by bad language learners trying to become more successful in language learning. However, there is always the possibility that bad language learners can also use the same good language learning strategies while becoming unsuccessful owing to some other reasons. At this point, it should be strongly stressed that using the same good language learning strategies does not guarantee that bad learners will also become successful in language learning since other factors may also play role in success.

The Teacher's Role in Strategy Training

The language teacher aiming at training his students in using language learning strategies should learn about the students, their interests, motivations, and learning styles. The teacher can learn what language learning strategies students already appear to be using, observing their behavior in class. Do they ask for clarification, verification or correction? Do they cooperate with their peers or seem to have much contact outside of class with proficient foreign language users? Besides observing their behavior in class, the teacher can prepare a short questionnaire so that students can fill in at the beginning of a course to describe themselves and their language learning. Thus, the teacher can learn the purpose of their learning a language, their favorite / least favorite kinds of class activities, and the reason why they learn a language. The teacher can have adequate knowledge about the students, their goals, motivations, language learning strategies, and their understanding of the course to be taught (Lessard-Clouston 1997:5). It is a fact that each learner within the same classroom may have different learning styles and varied awareness of the use of strategies. The teacher cannot attribute importance to only one group and support the analytical approach or only give input by using the auditory mode. The language teacher should, therefore, provide a wide range of learning strategies in order to meet the needs and expectations of his students possessing different learning styles, motivations, strategy preferences, etc. Therefore, it can be stated that the most important teacher role in foreign language teaching is the provision of a range of tasks to match varied learning styles (Hall 1997:4).               

In addition to the students, the language teacher should also analyze his textbook to see whether the textbook already includes language learning strategies or language learning strategies training. The language teacher should look for new texts or other teaching materials if language learning strategies are not already included within his materials.

The language teacher should also study his own teaching method and overall classroom style. Analyzing his lesson plans, the language teacher can determine whether his lesson plans give learners chance to use a variety of learning styles and strategies or not. The teacher can see whether his teaching allows learners to approach the task at hand in different ways or not. The language teacher can also be aware of whether his strategy training is implicit, explicit, or both. It should be emphasized that questioning himself about what he plans to do before each lesson and evaluating his lesson plan after the lesson in terms of strategy training, the teacher can become better prepared to focus on language learning strategies and strategy training during the process of his teaching (Lessard-Clouston 1997:5).


Language learning strategies, being specific actions, behaviors, tactics, or techniques, facilitate the learning of the target language by the language learner. All language learners, needless to say, use language learning strategies in the learning process. Since the factors like age, gender, personality, motivation, self-concept, life-experience, learning style, excitement, anxiety, etc. affect the way in which language learners learn the target language, it is not reasonable to support the idea that all language learners use the same good language learning strategies or should be trained in using and developing the same strategies to become successful learners. As Lessard-Clouston (1997:8) mentions, studies to be done on language learning strategies and strategy training should move beyond descriptive taxonomies of language learning strategies and attempt to seek for answers to a wide range of questions, such as: What types of language learning strategies appear to work best with what learners in which contexts? Does language learning strategies or language learning strategies training transfer easily between L2 and FL contexts? What is the role of language proficiency in language learning strategies use and training? How long does it take to train specific learners in certain language learning strategies? How can one best assess and measure success in language learning strategies use or training? Are certain language learning strategies learned more easily in classroom and non-classroom contexts? What language learning strategies should be taught at different proficiency levels? It can be expected that answers to the above mentioned and many other questions from research in a variety of settings will pave the way for building the theory that seems necessary for more language learning strategies work to be relevant to current L2 / FL teaching practice.


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The Internet TESL Journal, Vol. VI, No. 8, August 2000