LEARNING STRATEGIES, TEACHING STRATEGIES
AND NEW CURRICULAR DEMANDS: A CRITICAL VIEW
Perspectives, a Journal of TESOL-Italy, Vol. XXIX, No. 2, Fall 2002
Perspectives, a Journal of TESOL-Italy, Vol. XXIX, No. 2, Fall 2002
In the past few years there has been a growing pressure on both teachers
and students to prove, show and “certify” what they are able to do. There
has been a growing concern for productivity, for the returns that school work
can bring in. The emphasis seems to shift more and more towards competence
- what you can do - and towards performance - showing that you can do it.
In a way, this has resulted in a shift of attention away from the how -
how you achieve that competence, the process you have to go through, and also
what schools and teachers can do to make learning possible and rewarding for all
In this paper I will argue one basic idea and four main points. The basic
idea is that learning strategies are essential components of a
curriculum, as bridges between competence (what you have to learn to do)
and process (what you have
to go through to reach that result).
The four main points are:
Learning strategies are
essential in a curriculum
By learning strategies I mean any action which you may have to
take to solve a problem in learning, to help you make the most of your learning
process, to speed up and optimize your cognitive, affective or social behaviour.
To give an example, I will put the reader of this paper in a testing situation.
Please consider this sign1,
which is removed from the context where
it usually appears, answer the questions beneath it, and then compare your
answers with my comments.
is this sign for?
would you find it?
is the key word that helped you to decide?
Clearly, this sign is addressed to drivers in a hospital car park, and
the key word is patients. In this particular case most of the information
in the sign is explicit, and you have probably not felt the need to stop
and think - you have almost automatically processed it. There are no
great problems involved, your brain has relied mostly on routine behaviour, and
so no specific strategies were called for. But consider this other sign
and answer the same questions:
is this sign for?
would you find it?
helped you to decide?
In this case the knowledge of words such as take, bathroom,
towels and beach was not enough – there is something more
involved in the comprehension of this short message. You have to access your
general knowledge of the world, so that you can associate these words with a very
specific situation - you start making hypotheses, like, these towels are not
mine, otherwise they wouldn't ask me to leave them in the bathroom ... in what
sort of public place do I use towels that don't belong to me? So by a
process of gradual approximation you come to think of hotels, and call in your
knowledge of the socio-cultural conventions associated with hotels, beaches and
hotel customers. Of course, because the sign is not placed in its proper context,
the surface meaning of the words is not enough to make comprehension possible in
an automatic way - you had recourse to a strategy. Notice that you used
this strategy unconsciously, although, if asked how you went about it,
you could describe your steps in the process, as I have just done.
To argue that strategies are important as bridges in the curriculum, I will use a metaphor: the curriculum as iceberg (Fig. 1).
Above the surface of this iceberg we have competence and performance
- this refers to the question: What can you do, and to what extent can you show
me that you can do it? But below the surface is your learning process.
This refers to the question: How do you come to be able to do it? It is exactly
here, halfway between competence (the "what") and process (the "how")
that I put in learning strategies - to support and help you make the most
of your learning process. If you think back to the sign about bathroom towels,
you will realize that for a fraction of a second the sign did not make sense to
you. However, because you are good strategy users, you immediately recognised
that you needed something else: you prompted your brain to set in motion a
process of association and a process of inference, you acted strategically.
Notice that when we consider strategies in the curriculum we are only
still very much near the surface of the curriculum iceberg. Deeper below, we
come to the question: Why can I do something just in that particular way I do
it? We are obviously talking about learning style, aptitudes and intelligences,
a person’s unique way of learning, her or his individual differences.
This clearly makes a constraint on the range of strategies that come most
familiar to people. For example, there are people who like and are good at using
inference, but there are other people who find inference a difficult and even
As we move even deeper down the iceberg, we come to the very basic
questions: What do a foreign language and a foreign culture look like to me?
What does learning a language mean to me? And what role can I play in it, what
role should my teacher play? Do I think I can learn a language? Do I want
to learn a language? Here we are concerned with very basic beliefs and values,
attitudes and motivations2.
Again, notice how these
issues feed back to the upper layers in the iceberg. Suppose that a student
believes that reading is a passive process, in which all you have to do is let
the text flow from the page into your mind. We could urge this student to use a
variety of inference and association strategies, but she would probably put up
some resistance to them and might even think that we were not doing our job as
teachers because we are not giving her the necessary information.
So strategies are placed in a strategic position in the curriculum, but
they cannot be divorced from the total context, which sets heavy constraints on
To summarise my basic idea, we could say that
Learning strategies belong to
strategies belong to the learner, and should be kept distinct from teaching
strategies, may seem obvious, even banal, but in fact most of the time teachers
are the source of strategies, they hold them in store for students and seem to
“dispense” them when they think it appropriate. Textbooks are often full of
strategies, but students rarely spot them as learning strategies, let
alone think that learning strategies, as the term says, should belong to
them. How often do teachers prompt students to use inference to deduce the
meaning of unknown words? How often do they prompt learners not to stop when
they meet a problem in reading or listening, but to go on and make hypotheses?
And yet ... just leave students alone, on their own, and they will often fail to
use those very strategies if teachers are not there to prompt them. Just give
students a different task, and they will fail to transfer the strategies. Just
let time pass ... and strategy training will melt as ice in the sun.
What's wrong with this? I would like to argue that one of the possible
reasons for this is a sort of confusion as to the respective roles of teachers
and learners. Learning strategies are often locked in the package of teachers’
resources and techniques, so that, in the student's eyes, they remain part of
the teacher's strategies. In this way students remain unaware that
strategic behaviour belongs to them. I invite the reader to reconsider
how I dealt with the bathroom towels example earlier in this paper: I chose a
task and a text which naturally invited the
reader to use strategies, and this is what actually happened. If I had stopped
there, the reader might have seen all this as a technique which I had used to
make my paper more active and concrete - in other words, the reader might have
perceived what s/he had done as a result of my own strategies as a writer,
not as the result of her/his strategies as a reader. But then I briefly
discussed how and why the reader had used the strategies. In this
way I tried to make the reader aware of what s/he had done, not so much
of what I had done. The difference is subtle, but I believe extremely
important. Unless teachers make learning strategies visible by
disentangling them from their own teaching strategies, students will not
be able to perceive them as tools that belong to them:
"One of the most critical aspects of strategies instruction is tied
to a shift from more traditional instruction that teachers found it difficult to
make - a shift from implicit, teacher-directed use of strategies to explicit
instruction with the goal of student-regulated strategies use." (National
Foreign Language Resource Center 1996)
So I can summarise my first main point with a word: explicit. I am
advocating a shift from implicit presentation of strategies to explicit
instruction, with the goal of promoting students' sense of belonging and
There are no "good"
There are no intrinsically “good” strategies because people need to
discover their own. Let me quote Rod Ellis (1994: 558) here, when he wrote that
"much of the research on language learning strategies has been based
on the assumption that there are "good" learning strategies. But this
As a matter of fact, most of the strategy instruction that is carried out
in classrooms and through materials belongs to one or more of the following
types (Benson 1995):
I do not want to imply that this is all wrong and useless. Of course
making hypotheses on a text is a sensible thing to do. Of course outlines and
mind maps are useful. Of course people can learn from what other people have
done to solve problems. However, one big risk that one can run in using these
techniques is that one may see them as inherently good, as useful in absolute
terms, thus forgetting the context of use of strategies, with reference both to
the learner and to the task. On the one hand, we have already seen how the use
of specific strategies is conditioned by individual differences - so the right
question to ask is not, "Is this strategy good?", but rather, "Is
it good for me?". On the other hand, the task itself has its own
features and sets its own constraints: using an outline or a mind map can be
useful, depending on a number of factors, for example, the kind of text I have
to write, the time I have, whether I can or want to work on my own or with other
people, whether I can write a draft and then revise it, and so on. So teachers
can still use a variety of techniques to present and practise strategies, on two
"... Teachers need to make it clear that the goal of strategies
instruction is not to supplant strategies that are already working, but to make
students aware of the full range of strategies that students could be choosing
from. Having more alternatives in one's strategic repertoire can increase one's
ability to meet challenges in language comprehension and production. Moreover,
teachers need to emphasize that the most important component of strategies use
is being able to evaluate the effectiveness of strategies and choose
alternatives when needed." (National Foreign Language Resource Center 1996)
I can summarise my second main point with the words experiential
and reflective. Rather than just giving tips, suggestions or advice, we
can let students experience strategies in the context of actual tasks and then
we can let them talk or write about what they think has really worked for
We need tasks that prompt the
use of strategies
My third main point is that we should start from tasks, not from
strategies. This seems obvious, but the tendency in teaching practices and
teaching materials has been to focus not on actual learner
strategies (that is, what students really do when they try to solve problems),
but rather on what teachers, researchers and materials writers have identified
as general categories of "good" strategies. So we talk about
classification strategies, planning strategies, communication strategies, and so
on. We can rely on rather exhaustive lists and taxonomies of strategies, but we
often forget that these categories, lists and taxonomies are the result of
generalizations: they have been processed and neatly rearranged to serve as the
basis for research studies, for syllabuses and for developing materials, but
they do not reflect what learners actually do in the context of actual
tasks while trying to solve actual problems.
So if we take a set of strategies, for example, association strategies
for vocabulary development, or inference strategies for text comprehension, and
set out to teach them, we run the risk of believing that what we are teaching is
really what students would be doing in real contexts. But things do not work
exactly in that way. Research has repeatedly shown that the choice of strategies
depends on a number of factors, including the language being learned, the level
of proficiency, the learning goals, and the learner's characteristics, such as
age, sex, learning style, beliefs and motivations (Oxford 1989).
I am not suggesting that we should not use ready-made strategy
packages, as are often provided by coursebooks. But I would like to stress the
fact that the starting point for strategy development should not be strategies,
but rather language learning tasks which prompt the use of strategies. Obviously,
not all tasks are suitable for this kind of work. Only those tasks which include
a genuine problem to solve really call for strategy use. This has clear
implications for materials design. Notice that problem-solving can be a feature
of the most demanding project work, but also of a reading passage which creates
expectations and calls for higher cognitive skills such as inference and
association. Of course this is not meant to make things more difficult for
students! We should continue to be aware of the balance we should keep between task
difficulty and students’ ability. It is like walking on a tight
rope: if the task is too easy, no strategy will be called for and no new
knowledge or competence will be produced – we will fall on one side. If the
task is too difficult, even the best strategy cannot make up for abilities that
one does not yet possess – we will fall on the other side. So the question is
how to find the right balance so that the task poses a problem which can be
solved by using strategies, a task which involves a slight stretch for
most of the students in a class.
Once we have decided to focus on one or more tasks of this kind, we
should then identify the possible strategies that could help a learner to do the
task: for example, given a reading passage, what strategies could be used to
tackle it? In this respect, I think that textbooks should help teachers become
more aware of the possible strategies involved in doing a particular
task. Our next step would be, not to directly teach students the
strategies we are aware of, but to help them become aware of their own
strategies and then come up with our own strategies for them to compare
and discuss, adapt and maybe change.
The word I would use to summarise my third main point is embedded
- to remind us that strategy instruction should start from tasks, from real
problems, so that students can perceive strategies not as isolated pieces of
instruction, or even worse, as a hindrance to learning ("just another brick
in the wall", to quote the Pink Floyd's famous song), but as the normal,
standard way of approaching tasks3.
should become part of selected classroom discourse
I have just shown that promoting strategy use is really a matter of
investigating what works best for individual learners in the context of
particular tasks. Teaching learning strategies is not teaching in the
traditional sense. We select a specific task that lends itself particularly well
to strategy work because it poses a problem. Then we set students to work on the
task, and, as they work through it, or just after they have finished working on
it, we sort of "weave in" a moment of reflection and discussion on the
strategies that they have used - or perhaps not used. When I say "weave
in", I really mean integrating this discussion within classroom discourse,
within what we and our students actually say when we are together, working on
the same task. When we interact, we are not just speakers or listeners: in the
same way, when we are working on strategies, we are exchanging information,
thoughts and feelings - students presenting their strategies and us weaving in
our own strategies, discussing and negotiating possible ways of approaching the
problems posed by the task..
If we look at things like this, we can start viewing the question of time
in a different way. One of the most frequent reservations and even criticisms
about strategies instruction is that it takes time, and time is at a premium
today. But if we view strategy work as part of our normal, routine interaction
with students, then it is mainly a question of checking the results of a task
not just in terms of right or wrong answers (the "product"), but also
in terms of the strategies used ("the process"). This will not
necessarily take much time - a few minutes here and there may be enough, if this
becomes part of our systematic way of dealing with tasks. Of course, it is part
of our job as teachers to select the most appropriate tasks and the most
appropriate moments to "weave in" this thread of strategic work; it is
a question of selecting and evaluating times and circumstances.
My last main point can thus be summarized by using the word evaluative
- to remind us that we need to evaluate what strategies to focus on in which
contexts; but also, to remind us that students too need to evaluate their
use of strategies.
Learning strategies are essential components of a curriculum, as bridges
between competence and process.
In the light of this belief, in this paper I have argued that an approach to
strategies education should be explicit, experiential, embedded
and evaluative - what I call the "4E approach". Such an
approach seems to be promising in that it offers
value - because
strategies are first and foremost applied to specific language tasks;
value - because
strategies can be developed across language skills and communicative activities;
value - because
strategies can be made to overflow through the watertight compartments of school
subjects; and, last but not least,
learning value -
because strategies can be part of our effort to equip students with learning
tools for the rest of their lives.
1 This sign, and the next in this paper, were taken from the University
of Cambridge Local Examinations Syndicate handbooks for the Key English and the
Preliminary English Tests.
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2 On the impact of beliefs on learner and teacher strategies see Woods
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3 The question of integrating strategies instruction into curricular
activities is always on the forefront of teachers' concerns: "... to what
extent is the "time out" from syllabus content taken by the class
justifiable in terms of improved language learning skills and improved language
competence? Should strategy training be embedded in a scheme of work or should
it be done as a "recognisably" separate activity? Should the training
be done at the beginning of a course of study (thus putting off actual language
learning) or should it run alongside the course of study?" (Macaro 1997)
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A selection of links from the Author's web page: www.learningpaths.org
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Official Site of the AILA Scientific Commission on Learner Autonomy. http://www.vuw.ac.nz/lals/div1/ailasc/
Learning Strategies Database.
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Applications of Research.
Learning to Learn:
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information and links on such basic issues as consciousness, metacognition,
learning styles, memory, language, reading, problem solving, creativity and the
biology of learning. http://snow.utoronto.ca/Learn2/introll.html
Second Language Learning Strategies Project.
Center for Advanced Research on Language Acquisition, University of Minnesota,
What strategies do students report using in learning a second language? How do
strategies affect the learning process? How can teachers help effective strategy
www.learningpaths.org Luciano Mariani, Milan, Italy