Language Learners Strategies:
Issues in Classification
Andrew D. Cohen
University of Minnesota
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Language Learner Strategies
Learners’ conscious and semiconscious thoughts and
behaviors, having the explicit
goal of improving the knowledge
and understanding of the second
language, as well as behaviors
for using the language that has
been learned or for getting
around gaps in language
proficiency.
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Ways to Classify Learner Strategies
By goal: Language learning strategies
(e.g., identifying, distinguishing,
grouping, memorizing strategies) or
language use strategies (e.g., retrieval,
rehearsal, communicative, and cover
strategies).
By function: Metacognitive, cognitive,
affective, or social strategies.
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By skill: Listening, speaking, reading,
writing, vocabulary, or translation
strategies.
Other: Strategies by proficiency levels,
by specific cultures (i.e., learning the
language of a specific culture), or by
specific languages.
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Concerns about Strategies
• Distinguishing language learning strategies
from language use strategies may not always
be easy.
• The same strategy (e.g., “interrupting a
conversation in order to take part”) may reflect
all four functions, depending on the instant:
metacognitive, cognitive, social, and affective.
• Are strategy descriptions in strategy measures
fine-tuned enough to be meaningful?
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• Problematic terminological distinctions:
strategies vs. processes
macro- vs. micro-strategies
general vs. specific strategies
tactics or techniques vs. strategies
overt/motor strategies (e.g., writing marginal
summaries) vs. strategies involving thought
processes (e.g., connecting a visual with a word)
strategies as intention to act vs. strategies as
action itself
strategic knowledge vs. strategic action
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• Overlapping (confusing?) concepts
used to refer to learners taking control
of their own language learning:
self-management
self-regulation
autonomous language learning
independent language learning
individual language learning
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• Must strategies be conscious? Do you agree
with the following?
Strategies can be classified as conscious mental
activity. They must contain not only an action but
a goal (or an intention) and a learning situation.
Whereas a mental action might be subconscious,
an action with a goal/intention and related to a
learning situation can only be conscious.
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Strategies vs. skills
• What we have been referring to as strategies
may actually be skills, or at least a
combination of strategies interacting with
one another. So, “summarizing a text” or
“looking a word up in a dictionary” is not a
strategy but a skill, operationalized through
either a sequence of or a cluster of
strategies.
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Describing Strategies Prototypically
More strategy-like
Less strategy-like
Purposeful, goal-directed
No clear goal
Planned
Unplanned
Self-initiated
Initiated by another source
More deliberate
More automatic
As the focus of attention
With attention elsewhere
Monitored
Unmonitored
Evaluated
Unevaluated
As a sequence of actions
As a single action
Visible to an observer
Invisible to an observer
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What are learner strategies for?
for enhancing learning.
for performing specified tasks.
for solving specific problems.
for compensating for a deficit in learning.
for making learning easier, faster, more
enjoyable.
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Individual differences in language learning
• The strategies that learners use and the
effectiveness of these strategies depend on
the learners themselves (e.g., age, gender,
language aptitude, intelligence, cognitive and
learning style preferences, selfconcept/image, personality, attitudes,
motivation, prior knowledge), the learning
task at hand (e.g., type, complexity,
difficulty, and generality), and the learning
environment (e.g., the learning culture, the
richness of input and output opportunities).
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References
• Cohen, A. D. & Macaro, E. (Eds.) (Forthcoming,
2007). Language learner strategies: 30 years of
research and practice. Oxford: Oxford University
Press.
• Macaro, E. (2004). Fourteen features of a language
learner strategy. Working Paper No. 4. Auckland, NZ:
Centre for Research in International Education, AIS
St Helens.
http://crie.org.nz/research_paper/1Ernesto_Macaro_
WP4.pdf.
http://www.crie.org.nz/research_paper/2Ernesto_Ma
caro_WP4.2.pdf.
http://www.crie.org.nz/research_paper/3Ernesto_Ma
caro_WP4.3.pdf.
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