Factors Affecting Strategy Use

  1. Introduction

This essay is mainly concerned with the research carried out to investigate the effect of certain variables that influence the choice and use of language learning strategies (LLSs). After discussing some of the definitions proposed for LLSs, different stages of LLSs research are outlined. Then, the factors which affect language learning strategy use are discussed in some detail. Finally, the conclusion summarises the important points raised in the essay.

2. Definition and Stages of Language Learning Strategies Research

Learning strategies have been given various definitions by different researchers. For example, Chamot and Kupper (1989:13) regard LLSs as “techniques which students use to comprehend, store, and remember new information and skills”. Oxford et al (1989:29) define LLSs as “actions, behaviours, steps, or techniques…used by learners to enhance learning”. Oxford (1990:8) considers LLSs as “specific actions taken by the learner to make learning easier, faster, more enjoyable, more self-directed, more effective, and more transferable to new situations”. O’Malley & Chamot (1990: 1) regarded LLS as “special thoughts or behaviours that individuals use to help them comprehend, learn or retain new information”. Of course, other definitions have been suggested by other researchers, but due to the nature of this study which aims at exploring the factors that affect the use of LLS, the researcher will not discuss the various definitions proposed by different researchers.

The first stage of LLS research aimed at the identification of strategies is believed to be fundamental to language learning success. During the 1980s researchers mainly focused on the collection of data from learners to identify their use of specific strategies. As a result of this phase of research several classifications and taxonomies of LLS were developed. Bialystok (1979) classified LLS according to the purpose (whether formal or functional) and modality (oral or written) of language use. Rubin (1981) classified LLS according to the direct or indirect role they play in language learning, while Politzer (1983) categorized LLS according to the context in which they are employed (i.e. whether in the classroom, in self-instruction setting or in interaction with others). Wenden (1991) however, categorized LLS into cognitive and self-management types. Cognitive strategies are for selecting, comprehending, storing and retrieving input, while self-management strategies include those for planning, monitoring and evaluating language learning.

In fact, the most important taxonomies of LLSs which were productive in conducting studies and useful in the field of language learning and teaching are those of O’Malley et al. (1985a) and Oxford (1990). Building on their previous study, O’Malley et al. (1985a) classified LLS into three main categories: metacognitive, cognitive and social mediation. Metacognitive strategies include processes such as ‘planning’, ‘self-monitoring’, and ‘self-evaluation’. Cognitive strategies include ‘note-taking’, ‘repetition’, ‘deduction’ and ‘resourcing’. Social mediation strategies are concerned with the ways in which learners interact with native speakers and include strategies of co-operation and asking for clarification.

Oxford (1990) classified LLSs into two categories: direct and indirect. Direct strategies are divided into memory strategies, cognitive strategies and compensation strategies. Memory strategies help learners “store and retrieve new information” (Oxford, 1990: 37). They facilitate memory processing. Cognitive strategies range “from repeating to analyzing and summarizing” (Oxford, 1990:43). Compensation strategies help learners to use the new linguistic input in comprehension or production regardless of their limited linguistic knowledge (Oxford, 1990: 47 and Yang, 1999: 527).

Indirect Strategies include three sets: metacognitive strategies, affective strategies, and social strategies. Metacognitive strategies help learners to “coordinate their own learning process” (Oxford, 1990:135-136). They provide the learners with ways to organise and evaluate their learning. Affective strategies help learners in controlling their emotions, motivations and attitudes (Oxford, 1990:135). Social strategies facilitate learning through interaction and learning with others (Oxford, 1990:135,145).


3. Factors Affecting Strategy Use

The last two decades have witnessed a considerable increase in the amount of research on the effect of different factors on the use of language learning strategies by second/foreign language learners. After the identification and classification of LLSs, researchers focused on the identification of learners’ use of specific LLS and the factors affecting that use. Those factors included, among others, the level of proficiency, age, gender, learner beliefs, cultural background, career choice and motivation. These factors will be discussed below.

3.1 Beliefs

It is believed that learners’ beliefs about language learning influence the way and the outcome of their learning (Palmer and Goetz, 1988). Learners’ awareness of LLSs affects their selection of strategies (Nisbet and Shucksmith, 1986).

Wenden (1986) found that learners were able to discuss their beliefs about the effective ways to learn a second language, the language itself, and the selection of strategies.

Horwitz (1987, 1988) has designed the Beliefs About Language Learning Inventory (BALLI) to assess learners’ beliefs about language learning. Victori and Lockhart (1995) concentrated on the students’ beliefs about strategies’ effectiveness.

Researchers (Abraham and Van, 1987; Horwitz, 1987, 1988; Wenden, 1986, 1987) argued that learners’ beliefs about language learning provide an explanation for their selection of specific LLSs. Learners’ beliefs about language itself and how it is learned seem to affect their use of strategies.

Yang (1999: 518) found that EFL learners’ beliefs are significantly related to their use of LLSs. He (1999:530) found that those learners with strong self-efficacy beliefs used several types of LLSs, and that students’ “beliefs about the value and nature of spoken English” were significantly correlated with “more frequent use of formal oral practice strategies”.

Riley (1996:155) maintains that beliefs about a language and how it is learned may form or at least influence learners’ behaviour in the process of learning that language. Wen and Johnson (1997: 40) found that belief variables were very influential and consistent on strategies variables, which led them to recommend that teachers and syllabus designers have to take into account the learners’ preconceived knowledge about learning a language.

Evidence suggests that language learners have certain beliefs about how languages are learned (Wenden, 1986, 1991 and Wenden and Rubin, 1987) and that those beliefs influence LLS use.

3.2 Age

Due to the rarity of longitudinal studies in the area of LLSs as they are “virtually non-existent” in the field of Second Language Acquisition research in general (Larsen-Freeman and Long, 1991: 166), fewer studies have been found to investigate the use of LLSs by different age groups. This is justified by the fact that research is constrained by time limits and is confined to homogeneous samples (e.g. young children, secondary school, university students or adults). Therefore, to see what effect age has on LLS use, one has to draw conclusions from the results of such studies. A study of young children (Wong-Fillmore, 1979) showed that cognitive and social strategies were very important. Chesterfield and Chesterfield (1985) conducted a study on bilingual learners and found that children developed receptive strategies (repetition and memorization) first. Then they developed strategies which allowed them to start and maintain interactions (e.g. attention getting and asking for clarification). Finally, they developed strategies for the identification and monitoring of grammatical errors.

Purdie and Oliver (1999) surveyed 58 Australian primary school children learning English and found that metacognitive strategies were the most frequently used and that social strategies ranked next in importance.

Omally et al (1985a, 1985b) studied secondary school students and found that cognitive strategies were generally used and that metacognitive strategies were reported by some more advanced learners. Kaylani (1996) investigated 255 high school EFL students in Jordan and found that the frequency of use of metacognitive strategies were significantly higher for the more proficient learners.

Ramirez (1986) after identifying successful strategies employed by 105 learners of French at three levels of study (grade 8, grade 9-10 and grade 10-11) in two high schools in New York concluded that successful learning behaviours were dependent on the task, and that years of study influenced LLS use. The study also showed that certain strategies were employed more than others at different levels of study.

White (1993) studied LLS use by specific age groups of learners of French and Japanese in New Zealand and found that learners aged over thirty used metacognitive self-management strategies more than those who were younger.

Studies such as those mentioned above provide evidence that age does have an effect on LLS use.


3.3 Gender

Several studies of strategy use found that females reported a greater use of strategies than males. Politzer (1983), for example, examined ninety undergraduate foreign language learners, found a “relatively minor” (p.62) difference between male and female learners with females making a greater use of social interaction strategies. Likewise, Ehrman and Oxford (1988) studied seventy-eight subjects and found that females used more strategies than males on four SILL factors: general strategies, authentic language use, searching for and communicating meaning, and self-management strategies.

Similarly, Oxford and Nyikos (1989) who investigated 1200 undergraduate university learners of French, Spanish, German, Russian and Italian found that females reported more frequent strategy use than males of formal practice strategies (e.g. comparing languages, formulating and revising rules, and analysing words), general study strategies (e.g. studying hard, neglecting distractions, being prepared, organising, and managing time) and conversational input elicitation strategies (e.g. asking to speak slowly, requesting pronunciation correction, and guessing what the speaker will say).

On the other hand, other studies show that males had a greater use of certain strategies than females. Tran’s (1988) study of immigrant Vietnamese aged from 40 to 92, in the USA revealed that males made greater use of strategies to learn and to improve their English language skills (e.g. taking English courses, practicing English with American friends and watching television or listening to the radio in English).

A second study which revealed that males made greater use of a particular strategy was that of Nyikos (1990). By studying the vocabulary recall of university level beginner learners of German using different combinations of colour and picture stimuli, Nyikos (1990), found that males were better when a visual-spatial stimulus of colour plus picture was used. However, females recalled more when colour was the mediator. Nyikos suggested that such strategies were the result of the socialisation of males and females and that such differences should be considered when the use of strategies was promoted in language learning.

3.4 Level of proficiency

Generally, the results of the studies which have investigated the relationship between language proficiency and LLS use indicate that high proficient learners use greater and wider variety of LLSs. However, there is no conclusive evidence to suggest a causal relationship between high proficiency and LLS use. In some learners more strategy use might increase proficiency, in others the opposite might be true (Skehan 1989).  Discussing this issue, MacIntyre (1994: 188) posed the question “Does the use of certain strategies lead to (cause) improved ability level or does an elevated level of ability lead to the use of different strategies?” and argued that it is difficult to determine whether strategy use contributes to proficiency or proficiency influences strategy selection.

O’Malley et al. (1985a) found that ESL school beginners reported using more strategies than did the students from the intermediate level. In another study conducted on school learners of Spanish and Russian, O’Malley and Chamot (1990) found that beginners reported less use of strategies than did those from the intermediate level.

Huang and van Naerssen (1987) studied high and low proficient English learners in China and found that highly proficient students reported more use of functional practice strategies. Using interviews with under-achieving learners in English language schools in London, Porte (1988) found that they used vocabulary strategies similar to those used by good language learners. Vann and Abraham (1990) studied the strategies used by unsuccessful learners of academic English in the USA and found that, contrary to expectations, they actively used strategies similar to those employed by successful learners.

In the first part of a three-phase study of strategy use of first, third, fifth and sixth year high school students learning Spanish in the USA, Chamot and Küpper (1989) found that learners at the higher levels reported using more strategies than did the beginners. In the second phase of their longitudinal study of twenty-seven effective and thirteen ineffective learners, Chamot and Küpper (1989: 17) found that more successful learners used LLSs more frequently, more appropriately and with greater variety than did the ineffective students.

In a study of 1200 undergraduate foreign language learners, Oxford and Nyikos (1989) found that greater strategy use accompanied perceptions of higher proficiency and that those who had been studying the language for four or five years used more strategies than did those who were less experienced language learners. In a study of university students in Puerto Rico, Green and Oxford (1995) also found that students with the highest proficiency level made greater use of cognitive strategies than did those of the lowest proficiency level.

Collecting data by means of verbal reports from 36 school learners of French in Canada, Anderson and Vandergrift (1996) found that the dominance of cognitive strategy use among all students declined as the level of proficiency increased. They also found that whenever levels of proficiency increased so did the use of metacognitive strategies.

3.5 Cultural Background

Despite the fact that learners of different cultural backgrounds tend to use particular kinds of strategies, it is difficult to say that previous studies and research have comprehensively investigated the effects of cultural background in determining strategy preferences. The main finding in Bedell’s (1993) study cited in Oxford, et.  al. (1995) was that learners from various cultural backgrounds use certain types of strategies at different levels of frequency. According to Politzer and McGroarty (1985), Asian students tend to prefer rote memorization strategies and rule-oriented strategies. In their study, Politzer and McGroarty (1985) administered a questionnaire to 18 Asian learners (mainly Japanese) and 19 Hispanics (Latin American speakers of Spanish) enrolled in a preparatory course for graduate study in the USA to investigate the relationship between the students’ L1 background/ethnicity and their strategy use. The study revealed that Asian students scored lower than the Hispanic learners on the scale of good language behaviours. The researchers concluded that such behaviours represent social interactions in which Asian learners are less likely to engage in than Hispanics.   Politzer and McGroarty (1985:113-114) claim that classroom behaviours such as asking the teacher, correcting classmates, volunteering answers and other social interaction behaviours such as asking for help and asking others to repeat are apparently more a part of the Western rather than the Asian repertoire.

Lengkanawati (2004) gathered data from 56 students at two universities in Australia learning Indonesian as a Foreign Language (IFL) and 114 students learning English as a Foreign Language in a university in Indonesia and found that the differences among the two groups in LLS use were due to differences in their learning culture.

Oxford (1994) found Taiwanese students to be more structured, analytic, memory-based, and metacognitively oriented than other groups. McGroarty (1987) cited in Oxford, et. al. (1995) found that Spanish learners use traditional strategies such as using a dictionary to learn new words. Similarly, O’Malley and Chamot (1990) found that Asian learners prefer their own established rote learning strategies. Correspondingly, Huang and Van Naerrsen (1987); Tyacke and Mendelsohn (1986) point out that learners of Asian background prefer strategies of rote memorization and that they concentrate on the linguistic code. According to O’Malley et al. (1985) Asian learners were more unwilling than Hispanic learners to use new learning techniques. The use of strategies that are different from those used by other cultural groups led Politzer and Mc Groarty (1985) to conclude that many accepted “good” language-learning strategies may be based on ethnocentric assumptions, namely Western, about effective language learning. MacIntyre (1994) also, suggested that the effect of ethnicity as a determinant of strategy use may be more clearly understood by investigating the differences usually associated with the variable rather than with the variable itself.

3.6 Career choice

The choice of a certain occupation or field of specialisation has been associated with strategy choice. The study of Politzer and McGroarty (1985), mentioned above, has shown that learners who were majors in engineering or other physical sciences scored lower than did majors from social sciences and humanities background. However, no firm conclusion was drawn from this study as the distinction between the two groups was very similar, and largely overlapped.

In a study of three groups of learners (professional language trainers, native-speaker language teachers, and students), Ehrman and Oxford (1988) found that professional language trainers reported using a wider variety of strategies than the other groups in the sample, with students reporting less use of all types of strategies.

3.7 Motivation

Motivation of language learners is said to be influential on the selection and use of strategy in various studies. Politzer and McGroarty (1985) indicated that the goal of the English language learning is a major topic in any discussion of language learning strategies. Oxford (1989a) argued that learners learn target languages for different reasons and purposes and this could have an effect on their choice of learning strategies. Oxford and Nyikos (1989: 295) asserted that motivation had a “pervasive influence on the reported use of specific kinds of strategies…” , while Nyikos and Oxford (1993), reporting on a study of university language learners in the USA who were taking a language as a requirement, reported that the students concentrating on obtaining good grades focused on formal, rule related processing strategies and academic study strategies, rather than on strategies which improve skills for authentic and communicative language use.

4. Conclusion

This essay has briefly reviewed the literature related to LLS research. Exploring the different definitions suggested for LLSs has provided an overview of the stages of research carried out to identify and classify LLSs. Finally, this paper provided a review of several studies which identified various variables that were found to have an effect on the choice and use of LLSs.


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