Madrid, D. (2000): “Learning Strategies”, en Teaching English as a Foreign Language, Barcelona: The Australian Institute.






Daniel Madrid

(University of Granada)





       One of the many consequences of the communicative language approach in language teaching and learning has been the enhancement of the role of the learner  in the language learning process. The old belief that the teacher teaches and learners learn what they are taught is not maintained nowadays, not only based on direct observation but also on research, which has repeatedly proved that learners regularly don’t learn what teachers teach. This phenomenon have contributed to focus our attention from the teacher to the learner, from the past focus on the improvement of teaching to an increased concern for how learners go about their learning tasks and how the process of learning takes place.


       On the other hand, the traditional curriculum distinctions between content and methodology is not so pronounced and the emphasis on curricular contents (what the students learn) has moved on to the process of learning  (how and why they learn), which is part of the methodological stage. Content and methodology, not only play a different role in today´s teaching and learning situations, the process of language learning has become part of the content of learning.  This focus on learning  and on the learner makes the classroom dynamics and the curriculum implementation very different from the past: the whole process is much more learner-centred and the students become more responsible about their learning than they were in the past. This means that they have to be more conscious about their individual learning processes and the strategies that they use in each learning act; that is, they are supposed to learn how to learn in order to know how they learn more efficiently.


       But this awareness about the learning processes cannot be taken for granted. It may be latent and at times it may work in a subconscious way, but it needs training. Awareness is not enough, learners need awareness with a purpose. The learners´ co-responsibility in the learning process implies reflecting and learning about themselves and knowing how to act autonomously as learners in each teaching and learning situation. It is this complex relationship between strategy and autonomy, learning to learn and  learner’s responsibility in the learning process what is crucial in this unit.


       So, this module is concerned with learning strategies (LS). It focuses on the application of LS to second language learning (SLL) and/or second language acquisition (SLA) by students learning English (or any other language) as a second (L2) or foreign language (FL). The different sections that we will introduce here describe the role that LS play in the SLL/SLA processes. We will follow  some of the major works on the topic (Rubin, 1975; Naiman et al. 1978; Chesterfield and Chesterfield, 1985; O’Malley and Chamot, 1990; Oxford, 1990; Wenden, 1991; Jiménez Raya, 1993; Manchón and Bruton, 1993; Beltrán, 1993 and Valcárcel, Coyle y Verdú, 1996).


       On the other hand, we will base most of our work on the cognitive theory of learning as developed in various contributions by Lanchman, Lanchman and Butterfield, (1979); Gagné, (1985); Shuell, (1986); Weinstein and Mayer, (1986) and, above all, Anderson, (1980, 1983 and 1985) and O’Malley and Chamot, (1990).






Do learners know the aspects or components of each English unit, what each section aims to, the skills they are developing? Read and match these sentences (from Madrid, D. and McLaren, N.  (1997): Making Progress 3, Workbook, (p. 5). Valladolid: Ed. La Calesa.):


What objectives can be achieved with this exercise?

What components or sections do learners and teachers find most useful to learn the language?  How much do learners learn when doing the following? (from Madrid, D. and McLaren, N.  (1997): Making Progress 1, Workbook, (p. 6). Valladolid: Ed. La Calesa.):





       Linguistic theories have long assumed that language is learnt separately from cognitive skills, according to different principles.  Language and linguistic processes are viewed as interacting with cognition but they maintain a separate identity. One of the principal cognitive processes that has not been taken into account in these theories is learning strategies. But more recently, some researchers have turned away from linguistic based theories towards the field of cognitive psychology in their attempts to explain the processes involved in SLL and SLA. Cognitive approaches to SLA consider that language is no longer seen as a unique and separate form of knowledge but as a complex cognitive skill that can be described within the context of how people acquire and store knowledge in general. O'Malley and Chamot have argued that SLA cannot be fully understood without taking into account the interaction between language and cognition in the storage of information in memory and in the acquisition of new information.


       The role of LS in the acquisition of information can be understood by reference to the information processing framework for learning. The purpose of this framework is to explain how information is stored in the memory and how new information is acquired. In its simplest form, the framework suggests that information is stored in two distinct ways, either in short-term memory or long-term memory.


       The short-term  memory (STM)


       If we lose our short term memory, as a result of a head injury in a motorbike accident, we can  tell the doctor details about –let’s say our infancy- but if asked where we  have left our motorbike, for example, we would reply: 'What motorbike are you talking about?' That is, the accident has damaged our short term memory (STM). Sometimes, of course, the contents of the STM are passed on to the long term memory (LTM) where they are structured. In order to pass into the long term memory, information must first be processed and structured in the short term memory so that it 'makes sense' to the student. The process of structuring new information takes time; but it is time well spent, because students find it almost impossible to remember something that they do not properly understand. This vital process of structuring or giving meaning to new information is demanding as well as time-consuming, so we must try to give our students as much help as we can. Learning activities that involve students in using the new ideas will aid clarification. This search for structure also explains why many learners appreciate being given summaries and well-organised notes.


            The long-term memory (LTM)


           Once the STM has 'made sense' of the information, it is then passed into the long term memory (LTM) where, unless it is subsequently used or recalled in some other way, it is again eventually forgotten. Forgetting and remembering, then, are not under direct conscious control; they are automatic. There is only one way to ensure that something is remembered: repetition and practice. As teachers, we must make sure that any knowledge we want our students to remember is recalled and used frequently. Watson, the father of the behaviourist school of psychology developed by Skinner, admitted this when he said that remembering depended on 'frequency and occurrence'.


           According to Weinstein and Mayer (1986), in this cognitive psychology paradigm, new information is acquired through a four-stage encoding process involving selection, acquisition, construction and integration (O’Malley and Chamot, 1990: 17-18):

-    Selection: in this stage learners focus on specific information of interest in the environment and transfer that information into working memory.

-    Acquisition: later, learners actively transfer information from working memory into long-term-memory for permanent storage.

-    Construction: thirdly, learners build internal connections between ideas contained in working memory, this information can be used to enrich the learner’s understanding or retentionof the new ideas.

-    Integration: in this final process, the learner searcher for prior knowledge in long-term memory and transfers this knowledge to working memory.


           Selection and acquisition determine how much is learned, whereas construction and integration determine what is learned and how it is organized.


            Nevertheless, other cognitive  models of learning propose a different sequence which includes (Madrid et al. 1998):

-  selecting information from the environment,

-  organizing the information,

-  relating it to what we already know,

-  retaining what we consider to be important,

-  using the information in appropriate contexts and situations,

-  reflecting on the success of the learning efforts and evaluating the effectiveness of results.



       Among the different alternatives and approaches to linguistic theories O'Malley and Chamot (1990) base most of their discussion on John Anderson's information processing model of cognitive skill learning (1980, 1983, 1985) for five reasons (1990:19):

-    Anderson’s work integrates numerous concepts that give the theory generality.

-    It covers a broad range behaviour other than theories: comprehension and production of oral and written texts, problem solving, etc.

-    The theory distinguishes between factual knowledge and procedural skills.

-    It incorporates strategic processing.

-    It has been continually updated, expanded and revised.



2.1. Representation in memory


       The representation of knowledge in memory is a key concept in Anderson's theory. He makes an important distinction between 'static' information or knowing about something, which is referred to as declarative knowledge and 'dynamic' information or knowing how to do something, which he terms procedural knowledge.


            Declarative or factual knowledge. It is stored in long term memory in the form of cognitive units of meaning such as:

a)   Propositional networks: associations of meaning between important elements in a sentence. Its basic unit is the node (similar to what people call ideas) and the connection between nodes are links.

b)   Schema: larger units of interconnected features which define a concept. Schemata may be composed of propositional neworks. Their principal value is that they facilitate making inferences about concepts.


            Procedural knowledge refers to the ability to understand and generate language or apply our knowledge of rules to solve a problem or carry out a particular skill, such as for example, riding a bicycle or playing the piano. It refers to the processes involved in learning how to do something successfully. In terms of language acquisition procedural knowledge is seen as our ability to understand and produce language (see Valcárcel, Coyle and Verdú, 1996). The representation of procedural knowledge in memory is a key issue  in cognitive theory  and is contained in what Anderson refers to production systems.




-    What’s the difference between STM and LTM?

-    Give some teaching recommendations to favour the development of LTM.

-    What’s the difference between declarative and procedural knowledge?

-    What are the components of declarative knowledge?

-    What kind of knowledge do we develop when we teach grammar rules?

-    What type of knowledge does the leaner develop when (s)he writes a composition? Why?





       The distinction made by Anderson between declarative and procedural knowledge has obvious implications for both the theory and practice of  SLA. Faerch and Kasper (1985, 1987) were the first to apply this concept to the field of SLA. They stated that the learner's declarative knowledge consisted of internalized interlanguage rules and memorized chunks of language whereas procedural knowledge were those strategies and procedures used by the learner to process L2 information for acquisition and use.  According to Faerch and Kasper, procedural knowledge can be differenciated into five separate components (O’Malley and Chamot, 1990:58-59):

1)   Reception procedures,  such as the use of inferencing to extrapolate meaning.

2)   Production procedures, such as planning and monitoring speech production.

3)   Conversational procedures, such as following linguistic principles that produce coherent texts.

4)   Communication strategies, which are intended to solve problems in speech comprehension.

5)   Learning procedures, such as the development of interlanguage kowledge through hypothesis formation and testing.


       As Faerch and Kasper suggest, most declarative knowledge is activated in a conscious manner, while procedural knowledge tends to be more automatic and is activated without awareness, except when the language user has interruptions in communication.


       Conscious awareness


       As Valcárcel et al. (1996:85) have pointed out,  the cognitive theory of skill learning differs somewhat from linguistic theories as regards the concept of conscious awareness in the language learning process. Krashen (1981, 1985), as we have already seen, distinguishes 'acquired ' knowledge from 'learnt' knowledge in terms of the unconscious acquisition of the L2 system in a natural setting when emphasis is on meaning as against the conscious study of L2 rules in the formal language classroom. In cognitive theory the learner is said to be consciously aware of the formal rules of the L2 during the early stages of SLA and becomes increasingly less aware of them as proficiency is achieved. For cognitive theorists conscious attention to language forms depends more on the stage the learner has reached in the acquisition of the skill and less on the type of learning setting involved. In this sense cognitive theory argues for learner awareness in SLA in contrast to Krashen's emphasis on unconscious acquisition.



       Implications for language teaching


       As Valcárcel et al. (1996) have argued, the idea that simply knowing 'about' the language is insufficient if what the learner wants is to be able to use the language for successful communication. To use the L2 functionally the learner must have acquired the necessary procedural knowledge, which, in Anderson's terms, can only be mastered slowly and after a great deal of practice. With this in mind it becomes clear that L2 teachers need to concentrate on providing learners with communicative activities which focus on language as the acquisition of a skill rather than as an object of study (see also Martínez and Valcárcel, 1992, 1993).


       Representation of meaning and language transfer


       The distinction between declarative and procedural knowledge has also important implications for the concept of language transfer. The transfer of knowledge from one language to another refers not only to declarative knowledge but also to the proceduralized knowledge involved in language comprehension and production. When processes are learned successfully in the L1 the learner is able to transfer them to similar situations in the L2. On the other hand, concepts related to natural categories such as science, mathematics, and technical subjects may be easier to transfer to the L2 than concepts related to culturally affected areas such as literature o social studies. This theory of the representation of meaning in memory is consistent with the notion of language transfer in SLA as an active learner strategy and an aid to acquisition (1996:83-84)



       Stages of skill acquisition


       The important question that follows from the distinction between declarative and procedural knowledge is how the mind proceeds from rule-bound declarative knowledge used in performance of a complex skill to the more automatic proceduralized  stage? Anderson described three stages in this process of skill acquisition: the cognitive, the associative and the autonomous (see O’Malley y Chamot, 1990:25-27):


       a) Cognitive stage

       Anderson describes the acquisition of a  complex skill in terms of the proceduralization of declarative knowledge. Applying this to SLA O'Malley and Chamot suggest that during the cognitive stage the L2 learner engages in conscious and intensive mental activity in order to make sense of the new language. In natural settings this would involve using the language functionally although the learner may not fully understand the underlying structures of the expressions used. In classroom settings the learner would pay deliberate attention to the formal structure of the language or to the use of  chunks and formulas in communicative activities. The principle characteristic of this first stage in the learning process is the concentrated attention paid to the new language forms in order to find meaning.


       b) Associative stage

       In the associative stage learners begin to use their previously acquired knowledge procedurally. The L2 is used for communicative purposes although errors can still be detected in learner speech. The learner continues, however, to have difficulty in using new L2 information as attention in this second stage, now directed at improving the language skill, reduces the amount of conscious effort available for transforming new input into declarative knowledge.


       c) Autonomous stage

       In the third and final autonomous stage, performance in the L2 resembles closely that of a native speaker. The learner uses the L2 fluently and without reference to linguistic rules. Language processing has become autonomous and acquisition of the skill accomplished.





Use a textbook and select three activities, each one related to the 3 stages established by O’Mally and Chamot:

a)       Cognitive stage

b)       Associative stage

c)      Autonomous stage





       4.1. Learning by formal rules


       As O'Malley and Chamot have pointed out (1990:27-31), the problem with Anderson’s theory, however, lies in the assumption that declarative knowledge for SLA consists essentially of the formal rules of the language. To accept Anderson's theory it is necessary to extend his definition of declarative knowledge to include not only the grammatical rules of the L2, which may or may not be taught explicitly in the second language classroom, but also those highly individual 'rules' which learners produce as a result of their own learning experience which reflect the imperfect and temporary form their interlanguage. The fact that skill acquisition  begins with the learning of the formal  rules of the language has also been criticized on the grounds that it could lead to an inefficient and tiresome teaching methodology (see Valcárcel et al. 1996:84-85). In the acquisition of an L2 learners prefer to become actively involved in performing the skill as early as possible in the learning process whether they are familiar with the formal rules of the language or not. A classroom approach which focused solely on learning grammatical rules before allowing the learner to attempt to perform the skill would soon prove frustrating. 



       4.2. Unitary process for learning complex skills


       Another problem with Anderson’s theory is the insistence on a single process to explain all forms of learning complex cognitive skills. As Rumelhart and Norman (1978) suggest, the learning of a complex cognitive skill may entail other processes. They distinguish three stages:

a)    Restructuring: it includes the development of novel structures for interpreting new information and for reorganizing existing knowledge.

b)   Accretion: gradual accumulation of new information by matching by matching new data to existing schemata.

c)    Tuning: it acts to refine  the existing knowledge  based on modification of available knowledge structures.


       But the point is whether restructuring, accretion and tuning represent unique forms of learning or can be represented through the stages described by Anderson (cognitive, associative, autonomous).



       4.3. Efficiency in the instructional approach


       Another possible limitation of Anderson’s theory of learning complex cognitive skills is that it may lead to inefficient instructional approaches. As Gagné (1985) notes, requiring students to learn rules as declarative knowledge before they can perform the steps in a complex skill is a tedious way to learn. A more effective method for learning a complex skill would be to model the performance required by the learner while providing opportunities for practising the components of the skill until they become automatic. In the communicative language classroom the teacher would model the use of the L2 and provide feedback to encourage meaningful communication.


       Faerch and Kasper (1985) have also proposed learning through imitation as one of the basic processes in the acquisition and automatization of a second language. They suggest that unanalysed chunks of language acquired through imitation are stored in short term memory where they are gradually combined and proceduralized for automatic use. A second process described in their work involves hypothesis formation and testing in which learners form hypotheses based on their previous L1 or L2 knowledge and test them out in comparison with L2 input acquired receptively, productively, metalingually or interactionally (see also Valcárcel et al. 1996). Learners are said to test hypothesis in at least one of four ways (O’Malley and Chamot, 1990:33):

1)   Receptively, by comparing hypotheses to second language input.

2)   Productively, by using the hypothesis to generate language and assessing the feedback.

3)   Metalingually, by consulting a native speaker or text.

4)   Interactionally, by making an intentional error to elicit a repair from a native speaker.



            The application of cognitive theory to SLA research is a relatively recent development and must be evaluated as such. The theory described here provides an interesting framework for the description of SLA as that of the acquisition of a complex cognitive skill and offers insights into such second language constructs as language transfer, interlanguage and the acquisition-learning distinction and the role played by learning strategies. However, assumptions made about the language learning process still require much empirical investigation if cognitive theory is to provide a valid alternative to the approaches of linguistic based theories.




Helping the learners to discover they learning style and the way they learn. Read and grade yourself (as an English learner) (from Madrid, D. and McLaren, N.  (1997): Making Progress 3, Workbook, (p. 12). Valladolid: Ed. La Calesa.):





       As we have anticipated earlier, Anderson does not distinguish LS from other cognitive processes, perhaps because his theory focuses not only on LS but fundamentally on describing how information is stored and retrieved. In Anderson’s theory, strategies can be represented the same way as any other complex skill and described as a set of actions that are fine-tuned until they become procedural knowledge.


            One of the basic principles of the cognitive theory just outlined is the idea that learners do not merely acquire knowledge but rather that they construct it by using their previous experience to understand and shape new information. The role of the teacher is no longer to simply supply this information, but to take an active part in the process of knowledge formation together with the learner. Knowledge, in other words, is constructed and shared. This means that instruction is not transformed directly into output, but that individuals build up their knowledge actively and meaningfully through the activation of mental processes. The cognitive theory that is based on  these assumptions is called constructivism. According to this view of learning individuals make their personal construction from  the information they receive and develop a certain degree of intellectual autonomy. Students are seen as active co-constructors of knowledge.  Constructivism  provides a rationale for teaching by negotiation. Teachers foster the development of higher-order thinking skills through challenging questions, modelling the learning process, and engaging in interactive dialogue with students. This form of learning is more demanding for the teacher, who should have not only a deep understanding of the subject matter but also the ability to connect it with the students’ cognitive network: previous concepts,  experiences and schema. This requires that the teacher transcend the transmission view of communication derived from the behaviorist cognitive network theories and apply  the principles of cognitive psychology (see Madrid et al., 1998)


       As Valcárcel et al. (1996) have argued, for learning to take place the learner must actively participate in the process. However, participating does not mean simply listening to the teacher or looking at the textbook. Taking part in the process of learning requires the activation and regulation of many additional factors such as:

-          motivation,

-          beliefs about learning,

-          previous knowledge,

-          interaction,

-          new information,

-          abilities and strategies.


       Learning is considered as a process of processes; this means that the acquisition of knowledge involves the activation of certain mental activities which must be adequately planned in order to fulfil initial expectations. However, not all learners know or possess these learning processes, or they use them inadequately, which could lead to poor learning or no learning at all. For this reason the field of cognitive psychology, in recent years, has tried to identify those cognitive processes employed by subjects as they learn, and they have become the major focus of educational innovation in schools. The identification of these processes is what will  permit the setting up of programmes of educational improvement and intervention. This is the true interpretation of what is meant by improving the quality of learning and here is where the role of strategies becomes important.


       If the nucleus of learning consists of those processes which act as mediators between instructional and informative input and the output of the learner, then the nature of learning, especially in what refers to the quantitative or qualitative nature of learning, will be determined by those processes or strategies which are put into practice. In this way learning depends on


-          what the learner does,

-          the processes he uses when learning,

-          the strategies which develop these processes .




Making the learners more aware of the strategies and skills developed when receiving oral input (the listening comprehension skill).

Answer the following questions after you have listened to a short passage (from Madrid, D. and McLaren, N.  (1997): Making Progress 3,  (p. 26). Valladolid: Ed. La Calesa.):







       In this section we will provide several definitions of learning strategies (LS) and we will describe them within the framework of Anderson’s cognitive theory. Some of the most popular LS definitions and the theorists who propose them are presented  in the following table:




LS definitions

Rubin (1975, 1987)

Techniques or devices which a learner may use to acquire second language knowledge.

“What learners do to learn and do to regulate their learning” (1987:19)

O’Malley and Chamot (1990)

Learning strategies are “the special thoughts or behaviours that individuals use to help them comprehend, learn, or retain new information”.

Weinstein and Mayer (1986)

“the way in which the learner selects, acquirers, organizes, or integrates new knowledge”.

Tarone (1981)

LS are “attempts to develop linguistic and sociolinguistic competence in the target language”

Oxford (1990)

“... operations employed by the learner to aid the acquisition, storage, retrieval, and use of information”.

“Learning strategies are specific actions  taken by the learner  to make learning easier, faster, more enjoyable, more self-directed, more effective, and more transferrable to new situations”.

Dansereau (1985)

special thoughts or behaviours that learners use to help them comprehend, retain and/or use the information

Stern (1992)

Learning Strategy: learners engage in activities to achieve certain goals, ... a choice of procedures, ... some form of long term planning.




Other alternative terms used for LS are:

tactics, techniques, potentially conscious plans, consciously employed operations, learning skills, functional skills, cognitive abilities, processing strategies, problem-solving procedures, basic skills,


The general features of language learning strategies, according to Oxford, are the following (1990:9-13):


1.      Contribute to the main goal: communicative competence. For example, metacognitive strategies help learners to regulate their cognition and to focus, plan and evaluate their progress. Affective strategies develop self-confidence and perseverance needed to become involved in language learning situations. Social strategies increase interaction and  empathy in communication.

2.      Allow learners to become more self-directed. Learners do not need to have the teacher around to guide them all the time. They are trained to rely more on themselves and be more responsible for their learning. They are expected to gain more confidence, involvement and proficiency.

3.      Expand the role of teachers. The traditional roles of teachers as authority figures, managers and directors of learning, leaders, controllers and evaluators are changed into a new direction to leave space to a new teacher who acts as facilitator, helper, guide, consultant, adviser and co-communicator.

4.      Are problem-oriented. LS are tools which are used because there’s a problem to solve, a task to accomplish, an objective to meet.

5.      Are specific actions taken by the learner. LS are specific actions or behaviours accomplished by the students to enhance their learning. Examples of these actions are: taking notes, planning for a language task, self-evaluating, etc.

6.      Involve many aspects of the learner, not just the cognitive. LS are not restricted to cognitive functions. They also include metacognitive functions like planning, evaluating, and arranging one’s own learning, and emotional and affective functions as well.

7.      Support learning both directly and indirectly. Some LS involve direct learning, but others like metacognitive, social or affective strategies have an indirect effect.

8.      Are not always observable. Some LS are not observable to the human eye. For example, the act of making mental associations cannot be seen. So, we need the learner’s cooperation to explore the non-observable LS.

9.      Are often conscious. LS are often conscious, but as Oxford suggests, after a certain amount of practice and use they may act in a automatic or subconscious way.

10.  Can be taught. Another important hypothesis stated by Oxford is that LS are easy to teach and modify through strategy training. This training is most effective when students learn why and when specific strategies are important, how to use these strategies and how to transfer them to new situations.

11.  Are flexible. LS are not always found in predictable sequences. There is a great deal of individuality in the way learners choose, combine and sequence strategies.

12.  Are influenced by a variety of factors. Many factors affect the choice of strategies: degree of awareness, stage of leaning, teacher expectations, age, sex, general learning style, personality traits, motivation level, etc.


       Some authors have proved that learning strategies develop with age, are used with increasing sophistication by older students, result in improved task performance and can be taught (Oxford, 1990; O’Malley and Chamot (1990).



6.1. Processes, strategies and techniques


       As Valcárcel et. al (1996:87) have noted, in the available research literature there is no consensus of opinion as to the number or indeed the names attributed to these learning processes and strategies. As Ellis (1985: 166) points out 'the metalanguage involved in the cognitive components of procedural knowledge is often confusing and vague'. Researchers do not use terms like process and strategy consistently. Sometimes they are used as synonyms for general mental operations and at other times to differentiate operations involved in language processing.


       A widely accepted definition of process and strategy is that put forward by Faerch and Kasper (1980) according to whom a process implies a sequence of operations in the development of a plan, as in reception or production processes, and a strategy is defined as a single operation or feature of that process (see LS taxonomy by Valcárcel et al.) Processes constitute the goals of the various learning strategies. In this way a learner classifies semantic elements in order to retain them in memory and store this new knowledge. Strategies consist of behaviours or concrete mental operations related to a specific goal which are carried out by students at the moment of learning. These behaviours are observable, either directly or indirectly, during the learning process.


       While the processes involved in learning are invisible and as such are difficult to evaluate and train, the strategies which activate them are more visible and more susceptible to teaching and training. To supply and promote the development of learning strategies in students is not a question of teaching them new content, but rather of training them in the acquisition of a skill which once learnt can be transferred to other situations, facilitating in this way the learning process. It is, in effect, a question of learning to learn. Learning is no longer restricted to the acquisition of content (declarative knowledge) but to the acquisition of skills (procedural knowledge) with which to learn this content.


       Given the lack of agreement among theorists and researchers, Valcárcel et al. (1996) have opted for the following terminology:

-    Processes are a general category of actions directed at the acquisition and transfer of information.

-    Strategies are defined as the special actions or behaviours that learners use to help them learn.

-    Tactic or technique is used to refer to specific learner activities.


       Techniques can be said to activate strategies in that they are observable behaviours which reveal the presence of  particular strategies in learners. Strategies play a mediating role between processes and techniques and set out to develop a particular learning process for which specific techniques are employed (Valcárcel et al. 1996: 86-87).



6.2. Strategies for SLL and SLA


       When we revise the bibliography on SLL/SLA strategies we find an important lack of agreement in terminology which can be misleading. As Oxford (1990: 17) puts it 'there is no complete agreement on exactly what strategies are; how many exist; how they should be defined, demarcated and categorized; and whether it is possible to create a real, scientifically validated hierarchy of strategies'. As Valcárcel et al. (1996) have argued, one cause for that confusion is mainly due to the fact that the research findings depend on the areas of study, age of subjects investigated, research data techniques, etc. Consequently, unless the SLA/FLA strategy paradigm finds a consistent conceptual framework in which linguistic acquisition, language learning in classroom settings, and cognitive psychology are combined and their scope limited, LA strategy researchers will continue to offer biased taxonomies of language learning strategies. The following sections will offer some brief comments on some of those studies most often referred to in the literature on learning strategies.





Helping the learner to become aware of the skills and strategies involved in the speaking skill. (from Madrid, D. and McLaren, N.  (1997): Making Progress 1,  (p. 38). Valladolid: Ed. La Calesa.):


-          Now design a similar activity which makes the learners aware of the skills and strategies involved in grammar activities. You can go over the examples in the appendix and take ideas.


-          Now let’s see how useful are the speaking activities to learn and how often are they practised in class? (from Madrid, D. and McLaren, N.  (1997): Making Progress 3, Workbook, (p. 38 ). Valladolid: Ed. La Calesa.):





6.3. Studies in learning strategies


       The literature on learning strategies in SLA emerged from a concerned for identifying the characteristics of effective learners. Research efforts concentrating on the good language learner (Rubin 1975; Naiman et al. 1978) have identified strategies reported by students that appear to contribute to learning. The list of strategies identified by Rubin and Thompson (1982) can be summarized under these statements. Effective learners ...


-    find their own way,

-    organize,

-    are creative,

-    make their own opportunities,

-    learn to live with uncertainty,

-    use mnemonics,

-    make errors work,

-    use their linguistic knowledge,

-    let context help them,

-    learn to make intelligent guesses,

-    learn some lines as wholes,

-    learn formalized routines,

-    learn production techniques,

-    use different styles of speech.




Exploring the learners opinion about their efficiency in using specific reading skills and strategies (from Madrid, D. and McLaren, N.  (1997): Making Progress 3, Workbook, (p. 46 ). Valladolid: Ed. La Calesa.):





Helping the learners to become more efficient in learning written English (from Madrid, D. and McLaren, N.  (1997): Making Progress 2,  (p. 78 ). Valladolid: Ed. La Calesa.) and (from Madrid, D. and McLaren, N.  (1997): Making Progress 1, Workbook, (p. 42 ). Valladolid: Ed. La Calesa.):


6.3.1. Rubin’s taxonomy


       It seems that it was Rubin (1975) who first introduced the idea that the behaviour of successful language learners might be different in some way from that of others. This early work anticipated that competent individuals are effective because of special ways of processing information. There was also the suggestion that these could be learned by others who had not discovered them on their own. Rubin's research mostly used young adults as subjects, students who happened to be taking ESL classes at the University of Hawaii. Based on this research, Rubin proposed a classification scheme that includes learning strategies under two primary groupings which she calls Primary strategies, within which she includes one group of 'Strategies that directly affect learning', and another group which includes 'Processes that contribute indirectly to learning':


Strategies that directly affect learning (Rubin, 1975)



- Clarification/verification: Asks for an example of how to use a word or expression, repeats words to confirm understanding

- Monitoring: Corrects errors in own/other's pronunciation, vocabulary,

  spelling, grammar, style.

- Memorization:Takes notes of new items, pronounces out loud, finds a

    mnemonic, writes items repeatedly.

- Guessing/inductive inferencing: Guesses meaning from key words,

    structures, pictures, context, etc.

- Deductive reasoning: Compares native/other language to target

    language; Groups words; Looks for rule of co-occurrence

- Practice: Experiments with new sounds; Repeats sentences until

    pronounced easily; Listens carefully and tries to imitate.


Processes that contribute indirectly to learning



- Creates opportunities for practice: Creates situation with native

    speaker; Initiates conversation with fellow students; Spends time in

    language lab, listening to TV, etc.

- Production tricks: Uses circumlocutions, synonyms, or cognates; Uses

    formulaic interaction; Contextualizes to clarify meaning




Efficiency of group work (from Madrid, D. and McLaren, N.  (1997): Making Progress 1, Workbook, (p. 66 ). Valladolid: Ed. La Calesa.):



6.3.2. Naiman,  Frölich, Stern and Todesco’s contribution


       Naiman et al. (1978) proposed an alternative classification scheme which contains five broad categories of learning strategies and a number of secondary categories. The primary strategies were found to be common to all good language learners interviewed, whereas the secondary strategies were represented only in some of the good learners:


Primary strategy classification and representative secondary strategies (Naiman et al. 1978)


- Active task approach:

          1. Responds positively to learning opportunity or seeks and exploits

             learning environments.

          2. Adds related language learning activities to regular clasroom


          3. Practices

- Realization of language as a system:

          1. Analyzes individual problems

          2. Makes L1/L2 comparison

          3. Analyzes target language to make inferences

          4. Makes use of fact that language is a system

- Realization of language as a means of communication and interaction:

          1. Emphasizes fluency over accuracy

          2. Seeks communicative situations with L2 speakers

- Management of affective demands:

          1. Finds sociocultural meanings

          2. Copes with affective demands in learning

- Monitoring L2 performance:

          1. Constantly revises L2 system by testing inferences and asking L2

             native speakers for feedback.



       Naiman et al. (1978) also identified what they referred to as "techniques" for second language learning, which differed from strategies in their scheme by being focused on specific aspects of language learning. The techniques, with selected examples of each, are as follows (see Valcárcel et al. 1996: 90):

Sound acquisition: repeating aloud after a teacher, a native speaker, or a tape; listening carefully; and talking aloud, including role playing.

Grammar: Following rules given in texts; inferring grammar rules from texts; comparing L1 and L2; and memorizing structures and using them often.

Vocabulary: making up charts and memorizing them; learning words in context; learning words that are associated; using new words in phrases; using a dictionary when necessary; and carrying a notebook to note down new items.

Listening comprehension: listening to the radio, records, TV, movies, tapes, etc.; and exposing oneself to different accents and registers.

Learning to talk: not being afraid to make mistakes; making contact with native speakers; asking for corrections; and memorizing dialogues.

Learning to write: having pen pals; writing frequently; and frequent reading of what you expect to write.

Learning to read: reading something every day; reading things that are familiar; reading texts at the beginner's level; and looking for meaning from context without consulting a dictionary.



Read the techniques proposed by Naiman et al. (1978) again and relate them to the information provided by the learner in connection with the way they proceed when learning vocabulary (from Madrid, D. and McLaren, N.  (1997): Making Progress 2,  (p. 38). Valladolid: Ed. La Calesa.):



       As Valcárcel et al. (1996) have noticed, although the Rubin (1975) and Naiman et al. (1978) classification schemes are substantially different, and do not have any grounding in theories of second language acquisition or cognition, and their studies do not specify which strategies are fundamental to learning and which ones might be most useful, they did, however serve as a basis for further research. Although, not explicitly, they give recognizition to metacognitive and social strategies. In fact many teachers will see their own classroom practices reflected in this early research and will be able to recognize the techniques and strategies used by 'good language learners'.


6.3.3. O’Malley and Chamot’s studies (1990)


       One of the best known research work on SL learning strategies was conducted in the 1980s by O'Malley, Chamot, Stewner-Manzanares, Kupper and Russo (1985) in the United States, with an explicit theoretical background in cognitive theory. In a first study, O'Malley et al. (1985a) collected strategy data on the basis of interviews with secondary-school ESL learners, interviews with their teachers and observations and from situations outside the classroom. In this study they reported 26 strategies identified (O'Malley & Chamot 1990: 119).        After completing their initial study with ESL students, O'Malley et al.  extended their research to students studying a foreign language in high school and college settings to determine if the strategies discovered in ESL students would be the same as those used by native English-speaking students learning a foreign language. The results of these studies provided a refinement of their previous definitions of learning strategies, an analysis of strategic differences between effective and less effective students, longitudinal comparisons of students, and a description of preferred strategies for different types of foreign language tasks. This is the final taxonomy after their foreign language longitudinal study (O’Malley and Chamot:1990:137-139)



They involve thinking about the learning process, planning for learning, monitoring the learning task, and evaluating how well one has learned.

1. Planning: Previewing the organizing concept or principle of an anticipated learning task (advance organization); proposing strategies for handling an upcoming task; generating a plan for the parts, sequence, main ideas, or language functions to be used in handling a task.

2. Directed attention: Deciding in advance to attend in general to a learning task and to ignore irrelevant distractors; maintaining attention during task execution.

3. Selective attention: Deciding in advance to attend to specific aspects of language input or situational details to assist in performance of a task; attending to specific aspects of language input during task execution.

4. Self-management: Understanding the conditions that help one successfully accomplish language tasks and arranging for the presence of those conditions; controlling one's language performance to maximize use of what is already known.

5. Self-monitoring: Checking, verifying, or correcting one's comprehension or performance in the course of language task.

6. Problem identification: Explicitily identifying the central points needing resolution in a task or identifying an aspect of the task that hinders its succesful completion.

7. Self-evaluation: Checking the outcomes of one's own language performance against an internal measure of completeness and accuracy; checking one's language repertoire, strategy use, or ability to perform the task at hand.



They involve interacting with the material to be learned, manipulating the material mentally or physically, or applying a specific technique to a learning task.

1. Repetition: Imitating a language model, including overt practice and silent rehearsal.

2. Resourcing: Using available reference sources of information about the target language, including dictionaries, textbooks, and prior work.

3. Grouping: Ordering, classifying, or labelling material used in a language task based on common attributes; recalling information based on grouping previously done.

4. Note taking: Writing down key words and concepts in abbreviated verbal, graphic, or numerical form to assist performance of language task.

5. Deduction/Induction: Conciously applying learned or self-developed rules to produce or understand the target language.

6. Substitution: Selecting alternative approaches, revised plans, or different words or phrases to accomplish a language task.

7. Elaboration: Relating new information to prior knowledge; relating different parts of new informa- tion to each other; making meaningful personal associations to information presented, in the following ways:

a.        Personal elaborations: making judgements about or reacting personally to the material presented.

b.        World elaboration: Using knowledge gained from experience in the world.

c.        Academic elaboration: Using knowledge gained in academic situations.

d.        Between parts elaboration: Relating parts of the task to each other.

e.        Question elaboration: Using a combination of questions and world knowledge to brainstorm logical solutions to a task.

f.         Sel-evaluative elaboration: Judging self in relation to materials.

g.       Creative elaboration: making up a story line, or adopting a clever perspective.

h.       Imagery: Using mental or actual pictures or visuals to represent information; coded as a separate category, but viewed as a form of elaboration.

8. Summarizing: Making a mental, oral, or written summary of language and information presented in a task.

9. Translation: Rendering ideas from one language to another in a relatively verbatim manner.

10. Transfer: Using previously acquired linguistic knowledge to facilitate a language task.

11. Inferencing: Using available information to guess the meanings or usage of unfamiliar language items associated with a language task, to predict outcomes, or to fill in missing information.





They involve interacting with another person to assist learning or using affective control to assist a learning task.



1. Questioning for clarification: Asking for explanation, verification, rephrasing, or examples about the material; asking for clarification or verification about the task; posing questions to the self.

2. Cooperation: Working together with peers to solve a problem, pool information, check a learning task, model a language activity, or get feedback on oral or written performance.

3. Self-talk: Reducing anxiety by using mental techniques that make one feel competent to do a learning task.

4. Self-reinforcement: Providing personal motivation by arranging rewards for oneself when a language learning activity has been successfully completed.




       O’Malley and Chamot research work has also provided some very important conclusions:


-          Foreign language (FL) students and ESL students showed similar patterns of metacognitive and cognitive strategy use.

-          Students at all levels reported using far more cognitive strategies than metacognitive ones.

-          In metacognitive strategy use FL students predominantly reported using planning strategies, such as selective attention, organizational planning, and self-management.

-          In cognitive strategy use, students at the beginning level of language study relied most on repetition, translation and transfer, whereas more advanced students relied most on inferencing.

-          Use of social and affective strategies was reported much less frequently than use of metacognitive strategies.

-          FL students of all ability levels were found to use learning strategies. More effective students used learning strategies more often and had a wider repertoire of learning strategies than did less effective students.

-          Strategies which involve simple operations on linguistic material, such as repetition and memorization, or the use of formulaic language, seem to be the first acquired and are the most frequently used in secondary school classrooms (O'Malley et al. 1985a).

-          More sophisticated strategies such as elaboration, monitoring, or grouping, etc. which involve the transformation on material emerge later and are employed less frequently.

-          Perhaps the simpler strategies are available to all and training can influence their frequency and appropriateness of use.

-          The more complex strategies might not be available to everyone, and their use may have to be explicitly taught to some students.

-          The use of metacognitive strategies, the most exciting development in recent strategy research, may not translate directly into easy application, since such strategies may be the most demanding of all to teach to students and implement effectively.

-          The use of strategies reported by FL students is highly related to the type of instruction they received in classrooms as cognitive strategies are directly related to specific learning tasks. For example, in a classroom in which grammar is emphasized, successful students would use deduction as a strategy in applying rules to formulate correct sentences, and in a classroom in which vocabulary acquisition or reading for details is emphasized, students would find translation as a strategy to be effective. That brings into prominence the role of teachers and the type of instruction students are involved in. One consequence to be drawn from that is the importance of the role played by teachers.

-          O'Malley et al. report from their training study that it seems that strategy training can have a direct influence on performance. Possibly the most trainable strategies are those which have the quickest return and the less trainable strategies are those associated with aspects of language learning and cognitive processes, and whose effects can only be observed if they are used over extended periods of time.






Helping students to become more efficient when watching videos in English and develop as many strategies (cognitive, metacognitive, social and affective) as possible (from Madrid, D. and McLaren, N.  (1997): Making Progress 2,  (p. 54). Valladolid: Ed. La Calesa.):


6.3.4. Oxford’s contribution (1990)


       Oxford’s (1990)  work on strategies is perhaps the most widely known among language teachers in recent years. In her book, she presents a strategy system which is divided into two major classes: direct and indirect. These two classes are subdivided into a total of six groups:




Direct class:

-          memory strategies

-          cognitive strategies

-          compensation strategies


Indirect class:

-          Social strategies

-          Affective strategies

-          Metacognitive strategies




          According to Oxford, direct and indirect strategies support each other and each strategy group is capable of  connecting with and assisting every other strategy group, as follows (1990:15): Memory Strategies , Cognitive Strategies, Social Strategies, Compensation Strategies , Metacognitive Strategies, Affective

Strategies .


       As Oxford (1990) has noticed, at this stage in the short history of language learning strategy research, there is not complete agreement on exactly what strategies are, how many strategies exist; how they should be defined, demarcated, and categorized; and whether it is –or ever will be- possible to create a real, scientifically validated hierarchy of strategies. Even though classification conflicts are inevitable, she proposes the following taxonomy (1990:18-21):



(Memory, cognitive, compensation strategies)



A.      Creating mental linkages:

1.      Grouping

2.      Associating/elaborating

3.      Placing new words into a context

B.      Applying images and sounds:

1.      Using imagery

2.      Semantic mapping

3.      Using keywords

4.      Representing sounds in memory

C.      Reviewing well:

1.      Structured reviewing

D.      Employing action:

1.      Using physical response or sensation

2.      Using mechanical techniques



A.      Practicing:

1.      Repeating

2.      Formally practicing with sounds and writing systems

3.      Recognizing and using formulas and patterns

4.      Recombining

5.      Practicing naturalistically

B.      Receiving and sending messages:

1.      Getting the idea quickly

2.      Using resources for receiving and sending messages

C.      Analyzing and reasoning:

1.      Reasoning deductively

2.      Analysing expressions

3.      Analysing contrastively (across languages)

4.      Translating

5.      Transfering

D.      Creating structure for input and output:

1.      Taking notes

2.      Summarizing

3.      Highlighting



A.      Guessing Intelligently:

1.      Using linguistic clues

2.      Using other clues

B.      Overcoming limitations in speaking and writing:

1.      Switching to the mother tongue

2.      Getting help

3.      Using mime or gesture

4.      Avoiding communication partially or totally

5.      Selecting the topic

6.      Adjusting or approximating the message

7.      Coining words

8.      Using a circumlocution or synonym




(Metacognitive, Affective and Social Strategies)



A.      Centering your learning:

1.      Overviewing and linking with already know material

2.      Paying attention

3.      Delaying speech production to focus on listening

B.      Arranging and planning your learning:

1.      Finding out about language learning

2.      Organizing

3.      Setting goals and objectives

4.      Identifying the purpose of a language task

5.      Planning for a language task

6.      Seeking practice opportunities

C: Evaluating your learning:

1.      Self-monitoring

2.      Self-evaluating



A.      Lowering your anxiety:

1.      Using progressive relaxation, deep breathing or meditation

2.      Using music

3.      Using laughter

B.      Encouraging yourself:

1.      Making positive statements

2.      Taking risks wisely

3.      Rewarding yourself

C.      Taking your emotional temperature:

1.      Listening to your body

2.      Using a checklist

3.      Writing a language learning diary

4.      Discussing your feelings with someone else




A.      Asking questions:

1.      Asking for clarification

2.      Asking for correction

B.      Cooperating with others:

1.      Cooperating with peers

2.      Cooperating with proficiency users of the new language

C.    Empathizing with others:

1.      Developing cultural understanding

2.      Becoming aware of others thoughts and feelings






Read Oxford’s taxonomy again and select six activities in an English textbook so that each activity or exercise implies the development of a strategy belonging to these groups of strategies:

-          Memory strategies                                   - Social strategies

-          Cognitive strategies                                  - Affective strategies

-          Compensation strategies                           - Metacogniitve strategies



       According to Valcárcel et al. (1996),  Oxford's work is not very clear as regards her treatment of cognitive strategies since the classification scheme she suggests continually confuses the concepts of processes, strategies and techniques, from the point of view we outlined above. What it would seem to be is more of a good summary of all the possible strategies and techniques so far identified by other researchers, with examples of each strategy linking them with each of the four language skills, than a systematic approach to learning strategies with empirically valid research results to justify this particular classification. However, having said that, the block of strategies she refers to as 'indirect strategies' including metacognitive, affective and social strategies does seem to be a more clarifying, systematic and relevant grouping.



6.3.5.   Valcárcel, Coyle and  Verdú’s taxonomy (1996)


       For Valcárcel et al. (1996), the cognitive component of procedural knowledge comprising LA depends on mental processes involved in hypothesis formation through reception of new L2 knowledge (internalizing input), hypothesis formation through production (interaction) and automatization through language use (output). In the following tables they offer a tentative proposal of a possible classification of those processes, strategies and techniques taken from the currently available taxonomies, trying to link the ones closely related with the instructional process (see Gagné 1974 and Beltrán 1993: 42) with those identified in the literature on SLA and which they consider as most applicable to the field of classroom foreign language learning.


















Planning learning tasks



Organizational planning










Problem identification


- Setting goals and  objectives.

- Identifiying the purpose of a task.


- Planning the parts, sequence, main ideas, to be used in handling task.


- Identifiying and controlling one's language performance.

- Evaluate one's own capacity.


- Checking, verifying or correcting one's errors.


- Identifying the central points needing resolution in a task.












Emotional control


Encouraging oneself










Decision taking

- Self-talk to lower one's learning anxiety.


- Making positive statements.

- Taking risks wisely.

- Rewarding oneself.



- Writing language learning diary.

- Discussing learning feelings with someone else.

- Active participation in learning tasks.

- Self-evaluation


- Giving priorities to learning needs













Questioning for clarification


Appeal for assistance







Empathizing with others

- Asking for explanation, or verification.


- Asking for correction


- Working together with peers to solve a problem, pool information, model a language activity or get feedback on oral   or written performance.


- Becoming aware of others' thoughts and  feelings.

- Developing cultural understanding.

II. ACQUISITION (Codification)









Directed attention




Intensive attention



Selective attention




- Exploring / setting aims of learning task.

- Getting global information.

- Activation of previous knowledge.


- Physical response.

- Underlining, ticking.


- Taking notes.

- Matching.


- Making associations: using clues, using imagery.











- Grouping, semantic mapping.

- Key word method.

- Placing new words into context.

- Reviewing.

- Speaking to self.


- Repeating a language model overt practice

- Silent rehearsal.

- Using formulas & patterns.
















- Recombining.

- Substitution.

- Note-taking.

- Paraphrasing.


- Display & referential questions.

- Practising patterns in pairs and groups.


- Analysing contrastively L1>< L2.

- Inducing meaning and rules from context.


- Using dictionaries, grammar indexes, textbooks.













- Rendering ideas from one language to another.



- Applying rules & meaning deductively.



- Deducing meaning from existing knowledge.


- Building texts (oral/written) with help of  cues.


- Making reports from received information.



Low level transfer



High level Transfer




- Apply knowledge to seemingly similar tasks (semicontrolled production).


- Apply knowledge to different tasks (free  production).

2. LANGUAGE USE        FOR                         COMMUNICATION

Overcoming limitations in speaking and writing

- Guessing from context.

- Getting help.

- Code-switching.

- Foreignizing words.

- Using mime or gesture.

- Coding words.

- Planning discourse in advance.

- Restructuring discourse.

- Using a circumlocution or synonym.

- Simplifying or avoiding L2 rules.



 Of products



 Of processes









- Checking the outcomes of one's languague performance



- Checking strategy use or ability to perform the task at hand.


- Diagnosis and detection of abilities and requirements.


- Interaction evaluation-learning


- Evaluation of goal achievement.



The role assigned by some authors to LS seems to be fundamental. For example, Brown et al. (1983) conclude that the strategies, or the deliberate plans and routines used in learning, remembering, and problem solving are the primary determinants of learning outcomes. They also highlight the distinction between cognitive and metacognitive strategies. As we have illustrated in the previous taxonomies, the former, in O’Malley and Chamot’s words,  “involve interacting with the material to be learned, manipulating the material mentally or physically, or applying a specific technique to a learning task”, the latter, “involve thinking about the learning process, planning for learning, monitoring the learning task, and evaluating how well one has learned” (see O’Malley and Chamot’s taxonomy).


            Consequently, metacognitive strategies involve both the knowledge about learning (metacognitive knowledge) and control or evaluation over learning (metacognitive strategies). Metacognitive knowledge refers to knowledge of one’s own cognitive processes. According to Brown et al. (1983) it is stable, thus it is retrievable for use with learning tasks. It is also statable, that is it can be reflected upon and used as the topic of discussion with others. Nevertherless, it may be fallible, so that what one believes about one’s cognitive processes may be inaccurate, such as the belief that simple rote repetition is the key that underlies all learning. It seems to appear late in development, since the ability of learners to step back from learning and reflect on their cognitive processess may require prior learning experiences as a point of reference.



            But regulation of learning, as distinguished from knowledge about learning, entails the use of metacognitive strategies. These include in O’Malley and Chamot’s taxonomy the following:

1. Planning

2. Directed attention

3.   Selective attention

4.   Self-management

5.   Self-monitoring

6.   Problem identification

7.  Self-evaluation


According to O’Malley and Chamot, metacognitive strategies do not necessarily share the qualities of being stable and statable with metacognitive knowledge, and may be more task- and age-dependent. In the following section we provide techniques to help the students develop their metacognition in connection to the learning activities and learning strategies that they are constantly using to learn English.






-                    How efficient are you as an English learner? How many strategies do you usually use for learning? Read the Valcárcel et al. taxonomy, the column headed with STRATEGIES in a vertical direction, and grade yourself by writing the correspondent score by each strategy. Use the following scale:


5 = always                      4 = very often                       3 = usually           2 = seldom                            1 = never


When you have graded yourself according to the 36 strategies, sum up the scores and get the total. Was your total low or high? (notice that the possible maximum score is 180).



-                      Now work out the subtotals for each of the three groups and each of the ten processes. Which of the ten PROCESSES obtained  the lowest score? So, what techniques should you use to improve your learning?






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