Learning Paths




  Perspectives, a Journal of TESOL-Italy, Vol. XXIX, No. 2, Fall 2002

Luciano Mariani




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 students.


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.






Who is this sign for?

Where would you find it?

Which 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:







Who is this sign for?

Where would you find it?

What 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 painful process.


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 their use.


To summarise my basic idea, we could say that



Learning strategies belong to the learner


That learning 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 self-regulation.



There are no "good" strategies


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 is questionable.".


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 essential conditions:


"... 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 them.



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.



Strategies 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

§         task-based value - because strategies are first and foremost applied to specific language tasks;

§         skills-based value - because strategies can be developed across language skills and communicative activities;

§         cross-curricular value - because strategies can be made to overflow through the watertight compartments of school subjects; and, last but not least,

§         lifelong 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. Back to text

2 On the impact of beliefs on learner and teacher strategies see Woods 1997. Back to text

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) Back to text




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Center for Research on Learning. Strategic Instruction Model. Lawrence: University of Kansas, 2001.

Cohen, A.D. Strategies in Learning and Using a Second Language. Harlow: Longman, 1998.

Cotterall, S. and Crabbe, D. (eds.). Learner Autonomy in Language Learning: Defining the Field and Effecting Change. Frankfurt: Peter Lang, 1999.

Ellis, R. The Study of Second Language Acquisition. Oxford: University Press, 1994.

Gardner, D. and Miller, L. (eds.). Tasks for Independent Language Learning. Alexandria: TESOL, 1996.

Kasper, G. and Kellerman, E. (eds.). Communication Strategies. Psycholinguistic and Sociolinguistic Perspectives. Harlow: Longman, 1997.

Lessard-Clouston, M. "Language Learning Strategies: An Overview for L2 Teachers." The Internet TESL Journal, Vol. III, No. 12, 1997.

Little, D. "Strategies in Language Learning and Teaching: Some Introductory Reflections." CILT Research Forum:"Strategies in Language Learning", 1997.

Lowes, R. and Target, F. Helping Students to Learn. A Guide to Learner Autonomy. London: Richmond Publishing, 1998.

Macaro, E. "Learners' Strategies in Year 9: a Pilot Project." CILT Research Forum:
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Mariani, L. Portfolio. Strumenti per documentare e valutare cosa si impara e come si impara. Bologna: Zanichelli, 2000.

Mariani, L. and Pozzo, G. Stili, Strategie e Strumenti nell'Apprendimento Linguistico. Imparare a Imparare, Insegnare a Imparare. Firenze: La Nuova Italia, Collana LEND, 2002.

National Foreign Language Resource Center. Teaching Strategies to Develop Effective Foreign Language Learners. Report in progress: Draft 11/20/96.

Oxford, R.. "Use of language learning strategies: A synthesis of studies with implications for strategy training." System, 17(2), 1989.

Uhl Chamot, A. and O’Malley, J.M. The CALLA Handbook. Implementing the Cognitive Academic Language Learning Approach. White Plains: Addison-Wesley,1994.

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Weaver, S.J. and Cohen, A.D. Strategies-Based Instruction: A Teacher-training Manual. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Center for Advanced Research on Language Acquisition, 1997.

Woods D. "Decision-making in Language Learning: A Lens for Examining Learner Strategies." Language Teacher Online, 1997.



Web sites


A selection of links from the Author's web page: www.learningpaths.org


Learner Autonomy in Language Learning. The Official Site of the AILA Scientific Commission on Learner Autonomy. http://www.vuw.ac.nz/lals/div1/ailasc/

Learning Strategies Database. Center for Advancement of Learning, Muskingum College, New Concord, Ohio. A rich selection of general-purpose and content-specific strategies with a bibliography of learning strategies resources. http://muskingum.edu/~cal/database/genpurpose.html

University of Central Florida Faculty Center for Teaching and Learning. Personal Learning Styles: Inventories, Learning Styles Summary, Articles, Applications of Research.      http://reach.ucf.edu/~fctl/research/styles.html

Learning to Learn: Thinking and Learning Skills. University of Toronto, Canada. Ideas, 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, USA. What strategies do students report using in learning a second language? How do strategies affect the learning process? How can teachers help effective strategy instruction? http://carla.acad.umn.edu/slstrategies.html


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