Section A
Section B

Module 2.6: Learning Strategies

Learning strategies are also critical to the language acquisition process. They are usually applied spontaneously and they often come to students as the situation demands. There are times, however, when such strategies are applied methodically after being taught from somewhere else (the teacher, books, peers, trial and error). Strategies that children use to learn will generally be consistent with their personality, their individual learning styles, and their cultural backgrounds. For example, students who are outgoing and high-risk takers and for whom being assertive is acceptable culturally will be more willing to use overt learning strategies such as seeking out people with whom they can speak, asking questions, and so forth.

For example, the Teach International Teacher Training Program encourages its teachers to become high-risk takers even before their arrival in their country of destination. Taking deliberate steps to expose oneself to the language one will need overseas is the first approach. Once there, finding a living situation in which you will have constant interaction with the target language; memorising short chunks of dialogue and practising them at every opportunity (greetings, directions, requests, money, food, clothing); seeking the input of shop owners, business and community people; and working with a tutor to review your daily conversations are all ways that you can start to immerse yourself and acquire the target language at a rapid rate.

While many people may be reticent to pursue language goals in this way, they might feel comfortable and recognise the value in some of the learning strategies: making friends with native speakers, seeking a tutor or language helper, debriefing after conversations, and keeping progress notes.

Students can choose and use strategies, maintain them over time, and transfer them to new situations when needed. Teachers should model as many as they can and students who are not doing as well as they should be in the language learning process should be assured that their apparent failure is probably not due to a deficiency in intelligence but rather a lack of appropriate strategies.

The following is a sample from the Oxford strategy inventory for students learning English that identifies a few areas that may need focus. The students are to tell how true specific statements about strategies are for them:

  • I actively seek out opportunities to speak with native English speakers.
  • I ask for help from English speakers.
  • I try to relax whenever I feel afraid of using English.
  • I look for opportunities to read as much as possible in English.
  • I try not to translate word for word.
  • I say or write new English words several times, etc.

Just the survey itself may be enough to make older children aware of the many strategies they can incorporate into their language learning practices.

Here are a few strategies that teachers may want to share with their older students, aged 11 to the oldest child’s class that they have. They are categorised by skill area. The teacher may want to translate them into the students’ first language so they can benefit from them by using many of them right from the start.

1. Listening

  • Focus attention as completely as possible on what is being said.
  • Relax and let the language flow into your mind.
  • Don’t be upset if you don’t understand everything.
  • Relate what you hear to what you already know.
  • Listen for key words and ideas.
  • Look for overall meaning.
  • Try not to be afraid to ask relevant questions about meaning when it is appropriate.
  • Make guesses about what is being said.
  • In conversation, check out your guesses by conversation checks (is this what you said?).
  • Whenever possible, pay attention to the forms fluent speakers of English are using.
  • Keep a notebook to write down what you have learnt, new words, meanings, conversations, concepts, structures, idioms etc.

2. Speaking

  • Think about what you are going to say.
  • Think about the structures you are using but do not let them interfere with what you want to say.
  • Do not be afraid to make mistakes (they are normal as you are learning a language).
  • When you are not understood, use repetition, gestures, synonyms, definitions, examples, acting out, whatever comes naturally as you begin to feel more proficient in the language; occasionally record the interactions you have with native English speakers and analyse them; ask someone to help you with this.

3. Pronunciation

  • Seek interactional opportunities with fluent speakers.
  • Pay attention to the rhythm, intonation, and stress of fluent speakers.
  • Realise that you will not always be understood (keep trying).
  • Ask for modelling when appropriate.
  • Rehearse – have fun with the language.
  • Learn to self-monitor.

4. Reading

  • See what the reading material is about (look the text over; think about the title, subtitles; notice the pictures).
  • Try to imagine what you might learn from the text.
  • While you read, relax and feel the words and sentences flow together.
  • Question yourself as you read (what is the author trying to say here? How does it relate to what you already know? What does it have to do with what the author has just said? What might come next?)
  • Do not stop reading each time you find an unfamiliar word or phrase.
  • If a word seems critical but the meaning is not coming clear to you as you read, look in a dictionary.
  • You may want to talk about a new concept or phrase with a peer or teacher.
  • Make a note of any parts you do not understand; you can return later and re-read for better understanding.
  • Think about what you learnt from the text; discuss it; write about it.

5. Vocabulary Development

  • Make your own word bank or dictionary, using only those items that you think will be useful to you and your peers.
  • Group new words and phrases into logical categories.
  • Try to focus on the chunks of meaning rather than only on individual words.
  • Use various dictionaries including bilingual ones.
  • Use the new words or phrases in your own contexts.

6. Writing

  • Find out as much as you can about your topic.
  • Brainstorm for ideas (discuss with peers, the teacher, family members, and others in the school or in your community).
  • Make a plan; map out your ideas.
  • Think about the structures you are using but do not let them interfere with what you want to say.
  • Begin writing (do not worry about making mistakes); let your ideas flow.
  • Rewrite making whatever changes seem necessary.
  • Think of writing as a process through which the product develops gradually.
  • Consult with peers.
  • Rewrite and consult as many times as necessary.
  • Share your writing with others.

It is important to remember that most strategies are too complex to be reduced to lists. All the teacher has to do is listen to students’ conversations about what they are doing to find that they indeed are aware. It is also important that a focus on strategies not be so extensive or intrusive as to interfere with learning. Sometimes too much emphasis on strategies causes students to lose the meaning of what they are learning as they become focused on how they are learning. Furthermore, strategies that may be inappropriate culturally or that students may not be ready for or do not need, could be a waste of time. On the other hand, instruction in strategies that is well-timed and suited to the needs of the students can make a noticeable difference in the way they approach learning a second language.