We have all noticed that certain learners seem to be particularly good at learning English. They pick things up more quickly than others students and are able to use new words almost immediately. There are, of course, a lot of reasons for this and, surely, some learners just have a natural talent for languages. However, it has been shown that students can learn to be better language learners and that teachers can help students to do so through a ‘Learner Training’ program.
Below is a bit of background on Learner Training (LT):
Learners are Active Decision Makers and use Learning Strategies
Learner Training (LT) theory essentially argues that less successful learners can improve their learning capabilities if they are trained to use learning strategies employed by successful language learners (O.Malley, 1987). At the center of this argument is the belief that L2 learners are active decision makers in their learning.
Krashen’s comprehensible input hypothesis (based in behaviorist theory) argues that structures can be acquired automatically if students are exposed to language input that is one step above their current level (Nunan, 1999). O.Malley and Chamot (1990, p.x) point out that, this ‘natural’ approach reduces the teacher’s role to that of ‘input provider’ and the students’ to that of ‘input receiver’.
While recognizing that some learning can take place through exposure to input alone, cognitive learning theorists put more emphasis on how the learners process this input. O.Malley and Chamot (ibid, p.x) argue that in addition to ‘input receivers’, learners are mindful actors in their learning and make “many conscious decisions at both a cognitive and metacognitive level” called learning strategies (LSs).
Simply stated, LSs are “the mental and communication processes that learners deploy to learn a second language” (Nunan, 1999). Research strongly suggests that LSs influence L2 learning and vary from learner to learner (O.Malley, 1987). LSs differ from other variables such as learning styles in that learning styles are more unchanging and are particular to the individual, whereas LSs can more easily be adopted or dropped by learners (Brown,1987; 2001). Moreover, LSs are diverse and include all “specific actions taken by the learner to make learning easier, faster, more enjoyable, more self-directed, more effective and more transferable to new situations” (Oxford, 1990: 8). Indeed, LSs range from those used for a specific grammar activity, to those used for planning and motivation. LSs also include production (or ‘use’) strategies, which learners use to retrieve and employ parts of the language (Anderson, 2005; Cohen, 1996).
Two Basic Types of Learning Strategies
A number of different categories have been proposed for classifying learning strategies and despite some confusion about terminology, these categories can help to clarify how learners use LSs (Cohen, 1996). Based on four commonly-cited LS taxonomies it is possible to group LSs into two main categories.
– The first category is comprised of those strategies employed to solve specific learning tasks. Examples of these are strategies used to store and retrieve language (memory strategies), those used to process the language (cognitive strategies) and those used to communicate in the language despite imperfect knowledge of the needed structures (compensation strategies) (Oxford, 1990). These strategies can be referred to as direct strategies.
– The second group, sometimes referred to as metacognitive, includes those strategies employed to manage the process of L2 learning. These strategies “allow learners to..coordinate their learning process” and include planning, evaluating, self-monitoring and emotional (affective) strategies used to help motivation and confidence (Oxford, 1990, p.135). This group can be called indirect strategies.
Good Language Learners and Learner Training
Naiman et al. (1978) and Rubin (1975) continued research on LSs by analyzing the strategies used by “good language learners” (GLLs). The research suggests that GLLs are those learners who, rather than simply having ‘a knack’ for languages, consciously employ LSs (O.Malley and Chamot,1990). Neil Anderson (2005, p.757) points out that not only do GLLs manipulate strategies and learning style, they also draw on a “wider repertoire of strategies”. Unsuccessful learners, on the other hand, tend to continue using inefficient or ineffective strategies without realizing that those strategies are not producing acquisition (Anderson, 2005).
Thus, the main variables that separate a GLL from an unsuccessful learner are the number of strategies known and the skill in using them (Chamot, 2004). However, as I mentioned above, we must not forget that many things, besides LSs, influence language learning success, including personality, culture, and learning style. Therefore, any conclusions taken from GLL research regarding LSs must take into account the complexity of the learner and the learning process.
Why Integrate Learner Training into your Curriculum?
Overall, LT is based on the idea that in addition to being a ‘natural’ process produced by exposure to comprehensible input, learning is also an active, conscious process for which learners use a series of strategies. The research on GLLs and LSs has led some researchers to conclude that L2 learners can be taught, or trained how to learn better (O.Malley and Chamot, 1990). As O.Malley and Chamot (Ibid: p.x) summarize, “teachers can encourage and assist students in using effective strategies for learning”.
In my experience, encouraging learners and raising their awareness of both direct and indirect learning strategies has increased learner motivation and enjoyment and has most certainly improved learning rates.
Over to you!
What has been your experience with Good Language Learners? What Learning Strategies do you teach your students? Does your curriculum include a Learner Training program of either direct or indirect strategies? Leave your comments!
Anderson, N. (2005) .L2 Learning Strategies.. In Hinkel, Eli(Ed.). Handbook of Research in Second Language Teaching and Learning. Mahwah, NJ, USA: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Incorporated. pp. 757-772.
Brown, H.D. (1987, 2nd Edition). Principles of Language Learning and Teaching. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall
Brown, H.D. (2001, 2nd Edition) Teaching by Principles: an interactive approach to language pedagogy. White Plains: Prentice Hall.
Chamot, A.U (2004). Issues in Language Learning Strategy Research and Teaching. Electronic Journal of Foreign Language Teaching [Online] 1/1, pp. 14-26. Available from: http://e-flt.nus.edu.sg/v1n12004/chamot.htm.
Cohen, A.D.(1996) Second language Learning and Use Strategies: Clarifying the Issues [Online]. http://www.carla.umn.edu/about/profiles/CohenPapers/SBIclarify.pdf
Nunan, D. (1999) Second Language Teaching & Learning. Boston: Heinle & Heinle
O.Malley, J.M. (1987) .The Effects of Training in the use of Learning Strategies on Learning English as a Second Language.. In Wenden, Learner Strategies for Language Learning. New York: Prentice Hall. pp 133-144.
O’ Malley, J.M., & Chamot, A.U. (1990). Learning strategies in second language acquisition. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.
Pachler, Norbert (1999). Teaching Modern Foreign Languages at Advanced Level. Florence, KY, USA: Routledge.
Wenden, A.L. (1991). Learner strategies for learner autonomy. London: Prentice-Hall International.