Language Learning Strategies : Theory and Research

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Language Learning Strategies: Theory and Research
by Carol Griffiths
School of Foundations Studies
AIS St Helens, Auckland, New Zealand
Occasional Paper No. 1
February 2004
What is considered by many to be the pioneering work in the field of language
learning strategies was carried out in the mid seventies by researchers such as Rubin
(1975) and Stern (1975). Although nearly a quarter of a century has passed since then,
the language learning strategy field continues to be characterised by “no consensus”
(O’Malley et al, 1985, p.22) and the concept of language learning strategies itself
remains “fuzzy” (Ellis, 1994, p.529). This article attempts to clarify some of the
fuzziness by trying first of all to establish basic terminology and going on to discuss
definition and classification of language learning strategies. The development of
language learning strategy theory and how it fits into the framework of contemporary
language teaching and learning for students who speak other languages is examined,
and research on language learning strategies to date is reviewed.

As Wenden (1985) reminds us, there is an old proverb which states: “Give a man a
fish and he eats for a day. Teach him how to fish and he eats for a lifetime”. Applied
to the language teaching and learning field, this proverb might be interpreted to mean
that if students are provided with answers, the immediate problem is solved. But if
they are taught the strategies to work out the answers for themselves, they are
empowered to manage their own learning.
Since the pioneering work carried out in the mid-seventies (for instance by Rubin,
1975; Stern, 1975) there has been an awareness that language learning strategies have
the potential to be “an extremely powerful learning tool” (O’Malley, Chamot,
Stewner-Manzanares, Kupper, and Russo, 1985, p.43). In spite of this awareness, and
in spite of much useful and interesting work having been carried out in the
intervening years (nearly a quarter of a century), the language learning strategy field
continues to be characterised by “confusion” and “no consensus” (O’Malley et al,
1985, p.22) while Ellis (1994, p.529) comments that the language learning strategy
concept remains “fuzzy”.
Considering the potential usefulness of language learning strategies as a language
teaching and learning tool, I would like to try to put this rather fuzzy picture in to
some sort of perspective. I will begin by looking at the basic terminology, the
frequently conflicting use of which does nothing to aid consensus. I will then discuss
definition and classification of language learning strategies, and go on from there to
look at language learning strategies from a theoretical perspective before reviewing
language learning strategy research to date.
Before attempting to define and classify language learning strategies as used by
speakers of other languages, I would like first of all to provide a rationale for the
choice of the term strategy. Although used by many prominent writers (such as Rubin,
1975; O’Malley et al, 1985; Oxford, 1990) the term strategy is not without its
controversy. Consensus is not assisted by some writers’ use of conflicting
terminology such as learning behaviours (Wesche, 1977; Politzer and McGroarty,
1985), tactics (Seliger, 1984) and techniques (Stern, 1992) more or less (but not
always exactly) synonymously with the term strategy. Larsen-Freeman and Long
(1991, p.199) opt for the term strategy since, as they point out, Rubin (1975) used it
“in perhaps the earliest study in this area and it enjoys the widest currency today”. For
this reason, strategy is the term which will be used for the purposes of the present

Definition and Classification
Since the work done by researchers such as Rubin (1975) and Stern (1975) in the mid-
seventies, awareness has been slowly growing of the importance of the strategies used
by learners in the language learning process, since ultimately, like the proverbial
horse led to water but which must do the drinking itself, even with the best teachers
and methods, students are the only ones who can actually do the learning. As Nyikos
and Oxford (1993, p.11) put it: “learning begins with the learner”.
This growing awareness has resulted in more recent years in what Skehan (1989,
p.285) calls an “explosion of activity” in the field of language learning strategy
research. In spite of this activity, however, defining and classifying language learning
strategies remains no easy task. Wenden and Rubin (1987, p.7) talk of “the elusive
nature of the term”, Ellis (1994, p.529) describes the concept as “fuzzy”, while
O’Malley et al (1985, p.22) put it this way:
There is no consensus on what constitutes a learning strategy in second
language learning or how these differ from other types of learner
activities. Learning, teaching and communication strategies are often
interlaced in discussions of language learning and are often applied to the
same behaviour. Further, even within the group of activities most often
referred to as learning strategies, there is considerable confusion about
definitions of specific strategies and about the hierarchic relationship
among strategies.
One of the earliest researchers in this field, Rubin (1975, p.43) provided a very broad
definition of learning strategies as “the techniques or devices which a learner may use
to acquire knowledge”. In 1981 (pp.124-126) she identified two kinds of learning
strategies: those which contribute directly to learning, and those which contribute
indirectly to learning. The direct learning strategies she divided into six types
(clarification/verification, monitoring, memorization, guessing/inductive inferencing,
deductive reasoning, practice), and the indirect learning strategies she divided into two
types (creating opportunities for practice, production tricks).
Under production tricks, Rubin included communication strategies. This is a
controversial inclusion since learning strategies and communication strategies are seen
by some as two quite separate manifestations of language learner behaviour. Brown
(1980, p.87), for instance, draws a clear distinction between learning strategies and
communication strategies on the grounds that “communication is the output modality
and learning is the input modality”. Brown suggests that, while a learner generally

applies the same fundamental strategies (such as rule transference) used in learning a
language to communicating in that language, there are other communication strategies
such as avoidance or message abandonment which do not result in learning. Brown
(1994, p.118) concedes, however, that “in the arena of linguistic interaction, it is
sometimes distinguish between the two”.
Ellis (1986) is another who views strategies for learning and strategies for using,
including communication strategies or “devices for compensating for inadequate
resources” (p.165), as quite different manifestations of a more general phenomenon
which he calls learner strategies. He argues that it is even possible that successful use
of communication strategies may actually prevent language learning since skilful
compensation for lack of linguistic knowledge may obviate the need for learning.
Tarone (1980) takes a different point of view. She suggests that by helping students to
say what they want or need to say, communication strategies can help to expand
language. Even if the communication is not perfect in grammatical or lexical terms, in
the process of using the language for communication the learner will be exposed to
language input which may result in learning and which therefore may be considered a
learning strategy. The key point in this argument would seem to be that in order to be
considered a learning strategy rather than a communication strategy, the “basic
motivation is not to communicate but to learn” (Tarone, 1980, p.419). The problems
with differentiating between communication strategies and learning strategies on the
grounds of motivation or intention, however, as Tarone (1981) acknowledges, are that
we have, in practice, no way of determining what motivates a learner, that learners
may have a dual motivation to both learn and communicate, or that learners may learn
language even when the basic motivation was to communicate. As Tarone (1981,
p.290) aptly comments, “the relationship of learning strategies to communication
strategies is somewhat problematic”.
Ellis (1994, p.530) also concedes that there is “no easy way of telling whether a
strategy is motivated by a desire to learn or a desire to communicate”. This inability to
differentiate clearly between communication and learning strategies does nothing to
simplify the decision regarding what should or should not be included in learning
strategy taxonomies such as Rubin’s and others’, and leads to what Stern (1992, p.264)
acknowledges is “a certain arbitrariness in the classification of learning strategies”.
Working at much the same time as Rubin in the mid-seventies, Stern (1975) produced
a list of ten language learning strategies which he believed to be characteristic of good
language learners. At the top of the list he put “personal learning style” (p.311). Stern
later defined “strategies” as “broadly conceived intentional directions” (1992, p.261),
which is more similar to the definition of the term styles as used by other writers such
as Willing (1988) and Nunan (1991). The “behavioural manifestations of the
strategies” (Stern, 1992, p.261) he called techniques - a definition which would fit
better with what Rubin (1975) calls strategies. This inconsistent use of basic

terminology as employed by key researchers and writers in the language learning
strategy field has contributed to difficulties with definition and classification which
remain to this day.
When O’Malley et al (1985) came to conduct their research, they used the definition
of learning strategies as being “operations or steps used by a learner that will facilitate
the acquisition, storage, retrieval or use of information” (p.23), a definition originally
used by Rigney (1978). In an attempt to produce a classification scheme with
mutually exclusive categories, O’Malley and his colleagues developed a taxonomy of
their own identifying 26 strategies which they divided into three categories:
metacognitive (knowing about learning), cognitive (specific to distinct learning
activities) and social. The metacognitive and cognitive categories correspond
approximately with Rubin’s indirect and direct strategies. However, the addition of
the social mediation category was an important step in the direction of acknowledging
the importance of interactional strategies in language learning.
Oxford (1990) took this process a step further. Like O’Malley et al (1985), she used
Rigney’s definition of language learning strategies as “operations employed by the
learner to aid the acquisition, storage, retrieval, and use of information” (Oxford,
1990, p.8) as a base. Attempting to redress the perceived problem that many strategy
inventories appeared to emphasise cognitive and metacognitive strategies and to
ascribe much less importance to affective and social strategies, she classified learning
strategies into six groups: memory strategies (which relate to how students remember
language), cognitive strategies (which relate to how students think about their
learning), compensation strategies (which enable students to make up for limited
knowledge), metacognitive strategies (relating to how students manage their own
learning), affective strategies (relating to students’ feelings) and social strategies
(which involve learning by interaction with others).
These six categories (which underlie the Strategy Inventory for Language Learning
(SILL) used by Oxford and others for a great deal of research in the learning strategy
field) were further divided into direct strategies (those which directly involve the
target language such as reviewing and practising) and indirect strategies (those which
provide indirect support for language learning such as planning, co-operating and
seeking opportunities). Although Oxford’s taxonomy is “perhaps the most
comprehensive classification of learning strategies to date” (Ellis, 1994, p.539), it is
still, of necessity, somewhat selective since “dozens and perhaps hundreds of such
strategies exist” (Oxford, Lavine and Crookall, 1989, p.29). Oxford (1990)
acknowledges the possibility that the categories will overlap, and gives as an example
the metacognitive strategy of planning, which, in as far as planning requires
reasoning, might also be considered a cognitive strategy. She also deals with the
difficulty of whether a compensation strategy such as looking for synonyms when the
exact word is unknown is a learning strategy or a communication strategy. Although
Ellis (1994, p.539) comments that compensation strategies are included “somewhat

confusingly”, Oxford (1990, p.49) justifies including such behaviours as learning
strategies on the grounds that they “help learners become more fluent in what they
already know [and] may lead learners to gain new information about what is
appropriate or permissible in the target language”. However, she acknowledges that
there is no complete agreement on exactly what strategies are; how many
strategies exist; how they should be defined, demarcated, and
categorised; and whether it is - or ever will be - possible to create a real,
scientifically validated hierarchy of strategies....Classification conflicts
are inevitable.
Amid this welter of overlapping material and conflicting opinion, the process of
establishing terminology, definitions and classification systems for language learning
strategies is far from straightforward. In the face of the lack of consensus which is a
feature of the language learning strategy field, whatever term may be used, and
however it may be defined or classified, it is inevitably going to come into conflict
with one or other of the competing terms, definitions and classification systems. I
would, however, like to suggest that Rigney’s (1978) definition together with
Oxford’s (1990) classification system can provide a useful base for understanding
language learning strategies (Rubin’s 1975 term) and for launching research.
The Development of Language Learning Strategy Theory
As noted by Griffiths and Parr (2001) over the years many different methods and
approaches to the teaching and learning of language to and by speakers of other
languages (SOL), each with its own theoretical basis, have come and gone in and out
of fashion (for instance the grammar-translation method, the audio lingual method,
the communicative approach). Language learning strategies, although still fuzzily
defined and controversially classified, are increasingly attracting the interest of
contemporary educators because of their potential to enhance learning. In the light of
this interest, I would like to take a look at the theory underlying language learning
strategies beginning from the perspective of the various other theories, methods and
approaches from which, and alongside which, language learning strategy theory has
Derived from the way Latin and Greek were taught, the grammar-translation method,
as its name suggests, relied heavily on the teaching of grammar and practising
translation as its main teaching and learning activities (Richards, Platt and Platt,
1992). The major focus of this method tended to be reading and writing, with very
little attention paid to speaking and listening. Vocabulary was typically taught in lists,
and a high priority was given to accuracy and to the ability to construct correct

sentences. Instruction was typically conducted in the students’ native language. This
resulted in, as Richards and Rodgers (1986, pp.3-4) put it,
the type of grammar-translation courses remembered with distaste by
thousands of school learners, for whom foreign language learning meant
a tedious experience of memorising endless lists of unusable grammar
rules and vocabulary and attempting to produce perfect translations of
stilted or literary prose.
The possibility that students might use language learning strategies to promote their
own learning had little or no place in grammar-translation theory, and is rarely if ever
mentioned in any literature on the subject, as Tarone and Yule (1989, p.133) point out
when they comment “relatively little attention seems to have been paid, in any
consistent way, to considerations of the whole process from the learner’s point of
view”. It tended to be assumed that if learners simply followed the grammar-
translation method they would, as a matter of course, learn language, although the
seeds of an awareness of the importance of the learner’s contribution to the learning
process was perhaps there in, for instance, suggestions for how to remember
vocabulary lists (mnemonics, grouping, repetition etc) which were quite common in
grammar-translation classrooms.
The audio lingual method grew partly out of a reaction against the limitations of the
grammar-translation method, and partly out of the urgent war-time demands for fluent
speakers of languages such as German, Italian and Japanese. The “Army Method” was
developed to produce military personnel with conversational proficiency in the target
language. After the war, the “Army Method” attracted the attention of linguists
already looking for an alternative to grammar-translation and became known as the
audio lingual method. By the sixties, audiolingualism was widespread (Richards and
Rodgers, 1986).
In direct contrast to the grammar-translation method, the audio lingual method was
based on the belief that speaking and listening are the most basic language skills and
should be emphasised before reading and writing (Richards, Platt and Platt, 1992).
Audio lingual teaching methods depended heavily on drills and repetition, which were
justified according to behaviourist theories that language is a system of habits which
can be taught and learnt on the stimulus, response and reinforcement basis that
behaviourists believed controlled all human learning, including language learning.
Since audio lingual theory depended on the automatic patterning of behaviour there
was little or no recognition given to any conscious contribution which the individual
learner might make in the learning process. Indeed, learners were discouraged from
taking initiative in the learning situation because they might make mistakes (Richards
and Rodgers, 1986). If anything, there was even less place for individual language
learning strategies in audio lingual theory than there had been in grammar-translation

theory, except, perhaps, in a very limited form in the exercising of memory and
cognitive strategies by means of repetition and substitution exercises, and even this
was rarely, if ever, made explicit. The effect of audio lingual techniques of rote
learning, repetition, imitation, memorisation and pattern practice was to minimise the
importance of explicit learning strategies in the language learning process (Stern,
In the early sixties, audiolingualism was commonly seen as a major breakthrough
which would revolutionise the teaching and learning of languages. No more tedious
grammar rules! No more vocabulary lists! No more hours spent translating boring
texts! Audiolingualism, as Stern (1980, p.465) puts it “raised hopes of ushering in a
golden age of language learning”. By the end of the sixties, however, the limitations of
the audio lingual method were beginning to make themselves obvious. Contrary to
audio lingual theory, as Hutchinson and Waters (1990) comment, language learners
did not act according to behaviourist expectations. They wanted to translate things,
demanded grammar rules, found endless repetition boring and not conducive to
It was at this time, in the mid to late sixties, that the ideas of the highly influential
linguist, Noam Chomsky (for instance Chomsky, 1965; 1968) began to have a major
effect on linguistic theory. Chomsky postulated that all normal human beings are born
with a Language Acquisition Device (LAD) which enables them to develop language
from an innate set of principles which he called the Universal Grammar (UG).
Chomsky’s theory of Transformational-Generative Grammar attempts to explain how
original utterances are generated from a language user’s underlying competence.
Chomsky believed that behaviourist theory could not explain the complexities of
generative grammar and concluded that “the creative aspect of language use, when
investigated with care and respect for the facts, shows that current notions of habit and
generalisation, as determinants of behaviour or knowledge, are quite inadequate”
(Chomsky, 1968, p.84).
Although Chomsky’s theories directly related mainly to first language learners, his
view of the learner as a generator of rules was taken up by Corder (1967) who argued
that language errors made by students who are speakers of other languages indicate the
development of underlying linguistic competence and reflect the learners’ attempts to
organise linguistic input. The intermediate system created while the learner is trying to
come to terms with the target language was later called “interlanguage” (IL) by
Selinker (1972) who viewed learner errors as evidence of positive efforts by the
student to learn the new language. This view of language learning allowed for the
possibility of learners making deliberate attempts to control their own learning and,
along with theories of cognitive processes in language learning promoted by writers
such as McLaughlin (1978) and Bialystok (1978), contributed to a research thrust in
the mid to late seventies aimed at discovering how learners employ learning strategies
to promote the learning of language (for instance Rubin, 1975; Stern, 1975; Naiman,

Frohlich, Stern and Todesco, 1978). The idea that teachers should be concerned not
only with “finding the best method or with getting the correct answer” but also with
assisting a student in order to “enable him to learn on his own” (Rubin 1975, p.45)
was, at the time, quite revolutionary.
At much the same time, however, as researchers such as Rubin, Stern and Naiman et
were working to develop an awareness of language learning strategies, Krashen (for
instance Krashen, 1976; 1977) dealt the fledgling language learning strategy
movement a body blow and took off in almost exactly the opposite direction.
Challenging the rule-driven theories of the grammar-translation method, the audio
lingual behaviourist theories that language can be taught as a system of habits, as well
as the idea of learners being able to consciously control their own learning, Krashen
proposed his five hypotheses. Summarised briefly (Krashen and Terrell, 1983), these
consist of the Acquisition-Learning Hypothesis (conscious learning is an ineffective
way of developing language, which is better acquired through natural
communication), the Natural Order Hypothesis (grammatical structures of a language
are acquired in a predictable order), the Monitor Hypothesis (conscious learning is of
very little value to an adult language learner, and can only be useful under certain
conditions as a monitor or editor), the Input Hypothesis (language is acquired by
understanding input which is a little beyond the current level of competence
(comprehensible input)) and the Affective Filter Hypothesis (a learner’s emotions and
attitudes can act as a filter which slows down the acquisition of language. When the
affective filter is high it can block language development).
Taken to their extreme, Krashen’s hypotheses led to the belief that conscious teaching
and learning were not useful in the language learning process, and that any attempt to
teach or learn language in a formal kind of a way was doomed to failure. By
implication, therefore, since in Krashen’s view conscious learning had so little value,
there was very little room for conscious language learning strategies to play a role in
the process of language development. Many of Krashen’s ideas have been soundly
criticised over the years, and his penchant for sweeping statements, such as “speech
cannot be taught directly but ‘emerges’ on its own as a result of building competence
via comprehensible input” (Krashen, 1985, p.2) and “when the filter is ‘down’ and
comprehensible input is presented and comprehended, acquisition is inevitable. It is, in
fact, unavoidable and cannot be prevented” (Krashen, 1985, p.4), have made him easy
to challenge. McLaughlin (1978), for instance, approaching the issue from a cognitive
psychologist’s point of view, proposed an information-processing approach to
language development whereby students can obtain knowledge of a language by
thinking through the rules until they become automatic, a view which is quite contrary
to the assertions of the Monitor Hypothesis. Gregg (1984, p.94) voiced the criticism
that “each of Krashen’s hypotheses is marked by serious flaws”, while Pienemann (for
instance Pienemann, 1985; 1989), challenging the claims of the Acquisition-Learning
Hypothesis, postulated that language can be taught and learnt when the learner is
ready (Teachability Hypothesis).

In spite of the many challenges, Krashen’s views have been and remain very
influential in the language teaching and learning field. Even a harsh critic such as
Gregg, who censures Krashen for being “incoherent” and “dogmatic” admits that “he
is often right on the important questions” (Gregg, 1984, pp.94-95), and in as far as
Krashen (for instance Krashen, 1981) believed that language develops through natural
communication, he might be considered one of the driving forces behind the
communicative language teaching movement which is in vogue to the present day.
An important theoretical principle underlying the communicative language teaching
movement was called “communicative competence” by Hymes (1972).
Communicative competence is the ability to use language to convey and interpret
meaning, and it was later divided by Canale and Swain (1980) into four separate
components: grammatical competence (which relates to the learner’s knowledge of
the vocabulary, phonology and rules of the language), discourse competence (which
relates to the learner’s ability to connect utterances into a meaningful whole),
sociolinguistic competence (which relates to the learner’s ability to use language
appropriately) and strategic competence (which relates to a learner’s ability to employ
strategies to compensate for imperfect knowledge). Another cornerstone of
communicative language teaching theory is the belief that how language functions is
more important than knowledge of form or structure. The concept of the
communicative functions of language promoted by Wilkins (1976) have had a strong
influence on contemporary language learning programmes and textbooks. Other well-
known figures in the field have consolidated and extended the theories of
communicative language teaching. Widdowson, for instance, believes that by using a
communicative approach language can be developed incidentally, as a by-product of
using it (1978), and that “knowing will emerge from doing” (1991, p.160), while
Littlewood (1981) stresses the need to give learners extensive opportunities to use the
target language for real communicative purposes, and believes that the ability to
communicate effectively is more important than perfect mastery.
Although “the communicative approach implicitly encourages learners to take greater
responsibility for their own learning” (Oxford et al, 1989, p.33), typically the
emphasis in the communicative language movement, as in previous methods and
approaches, has been on how teachers teach, with relatively little attention paid to
how learners learn. Even today, when the communicative approach underlies a
substantial number of syllabuses for speakers of other languages, and in spite of
insights from a now considerable body of research, it is unusual to find textbooks
which include learning strategies in their material. A rare exception is Blueprint
(Abbs and Freebairn, 1991), and even in this series, the space dedicated to learning
strategies consists of no more than a paragraph at the end of each section.
Other less widely adopted language teaching and learning methods and approaches
include, among others, situational language teaching (whereby grammar and