Teach them more strategies?
Willy A Renandya, 18 May 2022
Joan Rubin’s seminal article ‘What the good language learner can teach us’ (1975) provided the impetus to the subsequent discussions and debates about the role of individual learner differences in language learning.
Research on individual differences covering such a wide range as aptitude, motivation and learning strategies began to appear in the ELT professional literature.
Of these, learning strategies received the most research attention, spearheaded perhaps by Rebecca Oxford and her research team (see Oxford, 1990; 2016) who developed a theoretical framework for investigating learning strategies from cognitive, affective and social perspectives.
Oxford’s Strategy Inventory for Language Learning (SILL) questionnaire has been widely used by researchers from around the world to investigate the relationship between learning strategies and learner proficiency.
One of the reasons for the popularity of learning strategies is the belief that good language learners use effective strategies to aid their learning, while poor language learners do not.
If we know the strategies that good language learners do, we can teach these to our less successful students. For roughly about 20 years or so (from the late 1970s to 1990s), the field witnessed a proliferation of research on various aspects of learner strategies.
The majority of these studies are correlational in nature, with the results showing a positive association between strategy use and proficiency. Green and Oxford (1995) for example reported that more proficient learners tended to possess a larger number of strategies and use these more frequently compared to the less proficient learners.
The positive results have led strategy researchers to make a strong claim about the role of learning strategies in language learning, as demonstrated by the following quote:
… strategies are the L2 learner’s tool kit for active, conscious, purposeful, and attentive learning and they pave the way toward greater proficiency, learner autonomy and self-regulation (Hsiao & Oxford, 2002, p. 372)
However, a number of researchers have expressed concerns about such a strong claim. Correlational data are interesting but need to be interpreted with care.
It is not very clear for example whether increased strategy use leads to higher proficiency. It may well be that it is the latter, namely higher proficiency, that enables students to use a greater number of strategies.
Skehan (1989) for example pointed out that “… learner strategies do not determine proficiency, but are permitted by it” (p. 97). His point was shared by a number of other scholars (e.g., Bremner, 1998, Rees-Miller 1993 and Renandya, 2012).
Indeed, more recent studies in L2 listening showed that strategies played a minor role in predicting L2 listening comprehension of EFL learners (Wallace, 2020; Du & Man, 2022). These studies show that vocabulary, not strategies, is the strongest predictor of students’ listening comprehension.
We feel it is about time that we relook at our belief about learning strategies. Brief training in learning strategies is probably fine, but giving strategy training too much attention is probably not the most productive way of utilizing our instructional resources (Willingham, 2006).