Two Activities for Raising Consciousness of Language Learners' Strategies
Systematic inquiry into the learning strategies employed by second language learners captured the attention of researchers following the publication of observations by both Rubin (1975) and Stern (1975). Their articles and other follow-up efforts (e.g., Naiman et al. 1978; Rubin, 1981) suggested that more effective language learners might differ from less effective learners primarily in terms of the respective ways that they approach learning. Effective learners, for example, engage in a variety of activities that help them better learn, retain, and use what they have learned. This insight subsequently spawned a wealth of research on the role of strategies in second language learning.
Of particular significance for teachers has been research demonstrating the benefits to language learners of incorporating strategy instruction into the curriculum (O'Malley and Chamot 1990; Oxford 1990). On the other hand, efforts to do so have not always been easy nor have the results been unambiguously positive; however, the prospects of encouraging strategy use seem generally promising.
Even so, teachers who have not routinely taught strategy use may shy away from it due to unfamiliarity. Others more familiar with the literature might be discouraged by the belief that anything less than long-term strategy training is unlikely to pay off. There is some evidence, however, that students can benefit from even limited exposure to activities designed to raise their general level of awareness of language learning strategies (Flaitz & Feyten, 1996). At the same time, raising awareness of strategies is bound to involve learners in a critical assessment of their beliefs about language learning since, as Horwitz (1988) has hinted, learning strategies are tied to beliefs about language learning. Moreover, since beliefs are subject to cultural influence, students from different cultures are sometimes likely to exhibit different strategy preferences (Bedell & Oxford, 1996).
Regardless of any ambiguities surrounding the research literature related to language learning strategies, the particular activities presented here are supported on several counts:
- They are communicative vehicles that may permit students to explore their beliefs about language learning while perhaps raising their awareness regarding the possible benefits of conscious, purposeful use of learning strategies.
- They can serve as an introduction to a longer-term focus on strategic learning.
- Teachers who are reluctant to devote class time to learning strategies at the expense of language instruction per se can use the activities for other purposes, without apology, in conversation classes, culture classes, even grammar classes, as long as they are committed to communicative forms of language teaching.
The activities were initially developed for use at the ELI (English Language Institute) at the University of South Florida. The ELI is a five-level Intensive English Language Program that hosts international students from roughly 35 countries. At the beginning of each 15-week semester, students are introduced to the ways in which classes at the ELI might differ from what they are used to, and they are encouraged to reflect upon a variety of language learning strategies that they might adopt in order to take responsibility for their own learning. In short, we encourage them to seize all of their opportunities.
For a number of consecutive semesters, this objective was achieved at the ELI by means of a PowerPoint presentation delivered in the computer lab. Teachers reported varying degrees of satisfaction with this presentation. On the one hand, it was attractive and held students' attention, and some teachers were successful in delivering its message in an interactive manner that elicited active participation from the audience. On the other hand, ELI classes are composed of both new and continuing students, and the latter were not always enthusiastic about multiple encounters with the same content. Some teachers complained that the setting was not as conducive to participant interaction as it might be and recommended redesigning the presentation so that it would be delivered more deliberately as a communicative activity (in an ordinary classroom removed from the temptations of cyberspace).
Through a combination of guided whole-group and small-group discussions, students may become more aware of:
- their learning strategies
- their beliefs about second language learning
- the relationship between their own beliefs and the 'informed opinions' of trained language educators
- some steps they might take to become more effective language learners
Students consider which of a number of strategies they think will most help them learn English over the next several months, and they rank the top four and the bottom one. There are 11 suggestions phrased as statements of self-advice. Suggested time: 50 minutes. (See Appendix 1 for handout.)
Explain or elicit the general meaning of the term 'strategy' in the context of language learning . Strategies are steps that learners take to learn a language more quickly, easily, and/or effectively.
Go over the list of strategies and clarify any unfamiliar vocabulary. STUDENTS SHOULD NOT START RANKING YET.
Briefly elicit examples that clarify each strategy. Some items require little explanation, e.g., study with a partner or in groups. Other items might require more illustration, e.g., find creative ways to remember important words and phrases.
There are three blank lines for listing additional strategies at the bottom of the activity sheet. Consider reserving these as a task for groups that finish the group-ranking task early.
Students rank items as follows. Each student should select his/her top four strategies, i.e., the four strategies that he/she feels would be personally most useful. He/she might also indicate which strategy seems personally least useful.
Students form small groups (3-4 students). Each student presents and explains his/her top four strategies (and bottom one). This stage of the activity could take a number of different directions depending on the proficiency level of students.
- Classes of lower proficiency students might simply share their rankings.
- Classes of higher proficiency students should be encouraged to arrive at a group consensus. In the absence of significant overlap in individual responses, arriving at a group consensus might be difficult. To facilitate the process, the teacher can reframe the task as follows: To arrive at a group consensus each group member should try to imagine a set of strategies that he/she thinks might be most useful to language learners in general rather than just to himself/herself.
The purpose of the group ranking is to get students to discuss and think more deeply about the strategies. It is not really important whether or not groups are able to arrive at a consensus. Students may wish to reconsider their initial opinions in the light of further discussion, but they do not have to.
If some groups finish much more quickly than others, those groups might:
- Think of ways to realize the top four strategies (e.g., listing contexts for opportunities to use English outside of class).
- Think of other strategies not represented in the activity. The activity handout has blank spaces for this purpose.
The teacher can also call on a member from each group to orally summarize the discussions and the conclusions reached by the group. The teacher may want to display a tally of the results using the blackboard oroverhead projector and facilitate further discussion as appropriate.
Students reflect upon their beliefs about language learning and the kinds of strategies that might proceed from these beliefs. Suggested time: 50-75 minutes. (See Appendix 2 for handout.)
Students read a list of 11 statements about language learning and indicate whether they agree or disagree with each statement. They should be prepared to explain why they agree or disagree.
After responding individually, students assemble in small groups and discuss each statement. Their task is to try to arrive at a consensus. They should spend no more than 2-3 minutes on each statement. If there is a strong difference of opinion on any particular item, and the members of a group are not able to arrive at a consensus, they can 'agree to disagree' and move on to the next statement.
Each group reports to the whole class the results of their deliberations. Disparities of opinion might be discussed, and the discussion used as an opportunity to inform students of research-based generalizations and professional opinions with regard to the survey topics.
- Bedell, D.A. and Oxford, R.L. (1996). Cross-cultural comparisons of language learning strategies in the People's Republic of China and other countries. In R.L. Oxford (Ed.), Language learner strategies around the world: Cross cultural perspectives. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, Second Language Teaching & Curriculum Center.
- Flaitz, J. and Feyten, C. (1996). A two-phase study involving consciousness raising and strategy use for foreign language learners. In R.L. Oxford (Ed.), language learner strategies around the world: Cross cultural perspectives. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i, Second Language Teaching & Curriculum Center.
- Horwitz, E.K. (1988). The beliefs about language learning of beginning university foreign language students. Modern Language Journal, 72, 283Ð294.
- Naiman, N., Frohlich, M., Stern, H. H., and Todesco, A. (1978). The good language learner. Toronto: Ontario Institute for Studies in Education.
- O'Malley, J.M. & Chamot, A.U. (1990). Learning strategies in second language acquisition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- Oxford, R.L. (1990). Language learning strategies: What every teacher should know. Boston: Heinle & Heinle.
- Rubin, J. (1975). What the 'good language learner' can teach us. TESOL Quarterly, 9, 41-51.
- Rubin, J. (1981). Study of cognitive processes in second language learning. Applied Linguistics, 11, 117-131.
- Stern, H.H. (1975). What can we learn from the good language learner? Canadian Modern Language Review, 31, 304-318.
Appendix 1: Strategies for Language Learning
Which of the following strategies do you feel would most help you learn English over the next three months? Number your top four (1 =most important, 2 =second most important, etc). Which strategy do you feel would be least useful? Mark it with a ??
Put your ranking first and the group's ranking second.
I should …
- ___ ___ find opportunities to use English outside of class.
- ___ ___ use my native language, gestures, or other strategies when I can't find the right English words.
- ___ ___ not be afraid to make mistakes.
- ___ ___ try very hard not to make grammatical mistakes.
- ___ ___ keep a language journal, diary or notebook.
- ___ ___ find creative ways to remember important words and phrases.
- ___ ___ reward myself for my successes.
- ___ ___ read a lot in English, especially for enjoyment.
- ___ ___ study with a partner or in groups.
- ___ ___ record vocabulary and grammar points in a meaningful, systematic way.
- ___ ___ review often.
Can you think of any strategies to add to the list? Write them below:
Appendix 2: Beliefs about Language Learning
Read each of the following statements about language learning. Decide whether you agree or disagree. Discuss your answers with the other members of your group and try to reach a group consensus.
A = Agree D = Disagree
Put your answer first and the group's consensus second.
- ___ ___ When I read in English, I should look up every word I don't know.
- ___ ___ Children are better language learners than adults.
- ___ ___ I can learn English in one year if I study really hard.
- ___ ___ Making errors is not always a serious problem.
- ___ ___ The teacher should try to correct all of my mistakes.
- ___ ___ Language games take up valuable class time.
- ___ ___ Watching television and movies in English are two of the best ways to learn English.
- ___ ___ I can learn a lot of English just by living in the U. S.
- ___ ___ Ability to explain grammar rules is essential to speaking English.
- ___ ___ I might learn the mistakes or accents of other students by speaking together with them.
- ___ ___ Learning the culture will help me learn the language.