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English for Specific Purposes World (ESP World)

English for Specific Purposes World

ISSN 1682-3257

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Strategies employed by students learning foreign languages for academic purposes

Dr. Eleni Griva * and Dr. Helen Tsakiridou

University of Western Macedonia,GREECE

Identifying Strategies employed by students learning foreign languages for academic purposes


The importance of identifying and developing strategies, in a context of learning foreign language for academic purposes, is stressed in the present paper. The theoretical background, concerning language learning strategies is provided, various definitions and taxonomies of strategies- presented by some researchers (O Malley, Oxford, Rubin, Stern)- are quoted and the significance of teachers role is underlined.

Furthermore, a study was carried out with 301 University students in order to identify the range and the types of learning strategies employed by the students while reading, listening, speaking and writing for academic purposes. The results provided a wealth of data about the learning strategies used, as well as the difficulties students face in the specific context. Knowledge about students learning preferences needs and strategies, on the part of the teachers as well as of the students themselves, should lead to suitable strategy training, contributing to students strategy development and reflection on the learning process.

Keywords: learning strategies, foreign language, English for academic purposes, language skills.

1. Learning strategies

1.1. Defining language learning strategies

Language learning strategies are defined as any sets of operations, steps, plans, routines used by the learner to facilitate the obtaining, storage, retrieval and use of information (Wenden and Rubin 1987, 19) or as thoughts used by the learners so as to better help them understand, learn or remember new information (Richards et al 1992, 209). Moreover, learning strategies are described as actions taken by second and foreign language learners to control and improve their own learning (Oxford 1990, ix) and as special ways of processing information that enhance comprehension, learning, or retention of the information (OMalley et al 1990, 1). They can be regarded as broadly conceived intentional directions and learning techniques (Stern 1992, 261), as learners are assumed to engage themselves consciously in activities in order to achieve certain goals.

There are some broad criteria, outlined by Wenden (1987, 7-8), describing language learning strategies:

-         Strategies are specific actions and techniques.

-         Some strategies are observable, but others may not be.

-         Strategies are generally problem-oriented. They are utilized to achieve certain comprehension or production goals.

-         Strategies can be learned. They may come under direct conscious control or they can become automatic through use.

1.2. Taxonomy of language learning strategies

Research in learning strategies (Brown et al 1982, Dansereau 1985, OMalley et al. 1985, Peacock 2001, Rubin 1987) grouped them into a metacognitive or executive function and an operative or cognitive processing function. Metacognitive strategies involve thinking about the learning process, planning for learning, monitoring of comprehension or production and self-evaluation after the learning activity is completed. Cognitive strategies are task oriented strategies used in learning or problem solving that require direct analysis, transformation or synthesis of learning material. A third group of strategies are concerned with the issues of social and affective processes on learning (OMalley et al. 1985, Peacock 2001). Social strategies involve cooperative learning and asking questions for clarification (Dansereau et al 1983), which lead to increased interaction with the target language, and affective strategies are concerned with the learners emotional requirements.

Moreover, according to Oxford (1990) language learning strategy system includes two major types: direct and indirect, which are subdivided into six broad strategy categories: cognitive strategies, memory strategies, compensation strategies (direct) and metacognitive strategies, affective strategies, social strategies (indirect) respectively.

1.3. The importance of language learning strategies in foreign language teaching

Language learning strategies are good indicators of how learners approach tasks or what problems they encounter during the language learning process. Consequently, language learning strategies, while non-observable or unconsciously used, provide teachers with valuable clues about how students select appropriate skills so to understand, learn or remember new input. The language learner, capable of using a wide variety of language learning strategies appropriately, can improve his/her language skills in a better way (Fedderholdt 1997). Thus developing skills in cognitive, metacognitive, social and affective areas can help the learner to build up independence and autonomy whereby he/she can take control of his/her own learning.

Studies (O Malley et al. 1985b, Wenden et al.1987, Oxford 1989) found that successful language learners generally use more learning strategies, and more facilitating ones, than do the less successful learners. Rubin (1981) indicated that a successful language learner exhibits the following characteristics: being a willing and accurate guesser, having a strong drive to communicate, often being uninhibited and not minding making mistakes in order to communicate, making full use of practice opportunities, monitoring his/her own speech as well as that of others, and paying attention to meaning. Chamot et al. (1989) claimed that what distinguishes good and bad learners is the flexibility and appropriateness with which strategies are used, rather than the number of strategies employed: in other words, the good learners choose the most suitable strategy for the task. Stern (1992) stated that a successful language learner uses the following strategies to cope with problems in second or foreign language acquisition and reach a good level of linguistic competence:

-         A personal learning style or positive learning strategies

-         An active approach to the learning task

-         Strategies of experimentation and planning with the object of developing the new language into an ordered system and of revising this system progressively

-         Willingness to practice

-         Willingness to use the language in real communication

-         Self-monitoring and critical sensitivity to language use


1.4. Learning strategy training

Most studies on strategy training focus on how to help the less successful learners utilize learning strategies used by more competent language learners. OMalley et al. (1990) and Oxford (1990) suggested a sequence or steps to follow, when conducting learning strategy instruction, which can be summarized as follows:

-         Diagnosis: developing students awareness of different strategies; identifying and assessing students learning strategies through observation, interviews, questionnaires and diaries.

-         Preparation: explaining the concept and importance of learning strategies and providing students with knowledge about language learning strategies.

-         Instruction: providing direct and informal instruction on learning strategies through explanation, modeling, practice and integration.

-         Evaluation: helping students evaluate their own strategies; evaluating the whole strategy training and modifying the training component if necessary.

Helping students understand adequate language learning strategies and training them to develop and use such strategies can be regarded as the appreciated features of language teachers. Thus teachers, aiming at helping students become successful language learners and training them in using adequate language learning strategies, should be familiar with investigating language learning strategies employed by students, their interests, needs and their learning styles.

A number of training studies indicated that learners can be trained to utilize a range of strategies (Carrell 1985, Hudson 1988), to gain metacognitive awareness and to monitor language comprehension (Carrell et al. 1989). Cohen et al. (1981), and Cohen et al. (1981) reported on a strategy-training program designed to: a) teach students to self observe, b) identify strategies, c) distinguish successful from unsuccessful strategies, d) provide strategy instruction, e) compare strategies before and after instruction; the program resulted in improved learners performance.

The relationships between strategy choice and use and other variables (year of study, language proficiency, gender, national origin, language teaching methods and learning styles) were examined by various scholars (Politzer et al. 1985, Ehrman et al. 1989, Oxford 1989). Studies (Rubin 1981) showed that there are some factors, as learning stage (beginning, intermediate and advanced level), age, context, individual styles and cultural differences, which affect strategy choice and use.

2. The study

2.1.The context

Taking into consideration all the above mentioned, we carried out a study in the academic year 2004-2005 at Western Macedonia University (Departments of Primary Education and Early childhood Education, and the School of Balkan Studies), which attempted to bring to light elements of the specific situation and to achieve a more accurate and relevant identification of students learning strategies.

English language is a core course, for the four semesters, in the Departments of Primary Education and Early childhood Education, where students have the choice to get enrolled either in the English or French classes. Moreover French language is an optional course, for the four semesters, in the School of Balkan Studies. Sessions are attended for two hours per week and students sit for semester examinations in order to be tested in reading comprehension and writing skills.

The broad purpose of the foreign language programs is to provide the students with language skills and strategies, so that they can operate in studying authentic materials suitable for their studies.

Precisely, the objectives of the courses are to provide students with the skills and strategies needed to meet their reading requirements in foreign language. So, they must be taught how to approach and consider the text in order to become independent and efficient readers (Grellet 1981, 9). Moreover, students need to extract some ideas from the texts for further use; they have to synthesize and apply new knowledge by generating written responses to text, such as summaries, note-making, answers to open-ended comprehension question and discussions on the topic of the text.

2.2. The Purpose of the study

The general purpose of the specific needs analysis project, conducted in an academic context, is to identify the strategies employed by the students, their needs and the difficulties encountered.

More concisely, the study intended to answer the following questions:

-         Which cognitive, metacognitive, social-affective strategies do the students use while reading, listening, speaking and writing for academic purpose?

-         Which are their needs concerning learning strategies?

-         Which difficulties do they encounter and what importance do they stress on specific strategies?

2.3. Procedures of identifying students needs

In order to identify students needs, a number of methods- as questionnaires, interviews, observations and thinking aloud (Berwick 1989, Schroder 1981)- are often used in combination as suitable tools. Moreover, case studies (Schmidt 1981, James 1984, Dudley Evans 1988), learner diaries (OBrien 1989) and tests (Floyd 1984, Brooks et al. 1990) are characterized as important information gathering instruments (West 1994, 7).

2.3.1. Questionnaires

In the specific study the self-report questionnaires, based on OMalleys taxonomy of language learning strategies, were used to collect data about students learning strategy preference and difficulties. Questionnaire are regarded as the most popular tool used in undertaking needs analysis (West 1994), which can be used to source information relating to both the Target Situation Analysis and the Present Situation Analysis, which seeking to establish what the students are like at the start of their language course (Robinson 1991, 9). It has unique advantages and, properly constructed and administered, it may serve as a most appropriate and useful data gathering device in a research project (Best 1987, 158).

During the pilot study phase, thirty (30) questionnaires were distributed and semi-structured interviews, averaged 45 minutes each, were undertaken with 20 volunteer students. Elaborating upon the responses from the interviews and the questionnaires, we extracted some useful information for designing the final version of the questionnaire, which was composed of three sections:

Section A: it dealt with students personal information: sex, level of language competence, department and semester.

Section B: it consisted of 28 closed type statements (Brown,2001; Verma,1999; Wallace:2000) designed to identify the strategies students employ and to examine the frequency of strategy use.

The twenty-eight strategies in use were categorized under the broad headings of metacognitive, cognitive and social / affective strategies. The classification and definition schemes that emerged from previous studies (Rubin 1981, Chamot 1987, and various studies reported in OMalley and Chamot 1990) provided a framework for the descriptions reported here, but modified whenever it was necessary in the context of the preset research.

The cognitive strategies were placed into the following question grouping:

a) Elaborating analysis: transferring-using circumlocution or synonym, contextualization, analyzing expressions, using imagery, analyzing contrastively, comprehension monitoring, translating b) practicing: creating mental linkage, repeating, recombining c) receiving sending messages: getting the idea quickly skimming and scanning d) overcoming limitations: using mime and gestures e) creating structure for input/output: note-taking, summarizing

Metacognitive strategies were classified as belonging to four question categories:

a) Arranging - planning learning: organizing learning-setting goals, using ways and conditions related to optimal language learning b) centering -monitoring learning c) evaluating learning d) problem identification

The social/ affective strategies in the overall picture were classified:

a) Asking for clarification b) encouraging / rewarding yourself c) cooperating with others d) taking risk

Section C: the students had to rank: a) the difficulties they encounter in using various learning strategies b) the importance they stress on specific strategies.

2.3.2. Participants

A total of 301 (65 male and 236 female) Second and Fourth semester undergraduate students, participated in the study: 226 students- aged between 19 and 21 years attending English language classes in the departments of primary education (121 students) and early childhood education (105 students) respectively and 75 students attending French language classes in the School of Balkan Studies, responded to the questionnaire. The language level of the majority of students (68,6%), who attend English classes, lies between advanced and high intermediate and hold a language certificate. On the other hand, 31,5% of the French course students reported that the language level lies between advanced and high intermediate.

3. Results

Regarding the Cognitive strategies, applied to the four skills, the results indicated the following:

In their vast majority (62,4%), the students declared that whenever they do not remember a word in a foreign language, they can use a circumlocution or synonym. The students who attend English language courses use more frequently (67,1%) this strategy than those who attend French language classes (47,9%) (X2 = 14.532, df=2, p<0,005). Moreover, both the more proficient English language students (87,9%) (X2 = 32.458, df=4, p<0,001) and French language students (X2 = 11.278, df=4, p<0,05) use this strategy more frequently than the less proficient language learners.

Furthermore, most of the students (77,3%) preferred identifying the clues from the context to understand the unknown words or difficult sentences in an English or French academic text. The more advanced English/ French language students (84,9%) use this strategy more frequently than the intermediate (68,2%) and low language level ones (42,5%) (X2 = 21.568, df=4, p<0,001).

A considerable number of respondents (43,1%) stated that they rarely define the meaning of a word or expression by breaking it down into parts. The French language students use this strategy more frequently (49,3%) than the English language students, while significant differences were found between the students of low language level who rarely use the strategy (60%) and the intermediate (41,2%) and high level students (35,1%) (x2= 10.932, df= 4, p<0.05). A small number of students (28,6%) stated that they use imagery to learn unknown words regardless of the English or French language level. On the other hand, a great number of students (66,6%) -regardless of their linguistic level - prefer comparing elements of the foreign language with elements of native language to determine similarities.

An important number of the students (56,9%) perceive the reading as a word by word and sentence by sentence process. The lower English/French language level students (73,1%) mentioned that they employ this strategy more frequently than the intermediate (50%) and proficient students (39,7%) (X2 = 25.959, df=4, p<0,001). The students rarely (66,8%) appeared to be relying on translating word by word when they study an academic text. The learners of French language seem to use it more often than those of English. However, looking up every unknown word in a dictionary is a frequently used strategy by the majority of students attending English language courses (52%) and French language courses (68%).

According to the data, a nearly small proportion of students of both languages English and French - (37,1%) appeared to follow frequently the strategy repeat a word or sentence over and over. Furthermore, the majority of students (69,4%) showed a major preference for drawing on prior knowledge and past experience to facilitate comprehension of the text or article. The proficient students of both English and French language (79,4%) use this strategy more frequently than the intermediate (74,5%) and low language level learners (59%) (X2 = 15.341, df=4, p<0,005). Moreover, 40,3% of the students preferred drafting and redrafting a piece of writing in English or French, in order to have a successful product.

It is worth mentioning the students tendency (69,2%) toward the skimming strategy to get an overview of the content and organization of the text, and then they read in detail focusing on the most interesting or relevant parts. Concisely, the students who attend the English language courses adopt this technique more frequently (71,1%) than those attending the French language courses (63,5%) (X2 = 7.492, df=4, p<0,05). Moreover, the more proficient English language students (77,6%) (X2 = 10.352, df=4, p<0,05) prefer using it more often than the intermediate (75,3%) and low level ones (60%).

Only 37,2% of the total number of the students declared that they switch to the mother tongue or mime and gestures when they cannot remember a word or phrase in the foreign language. The students who attend the French language courses showed more preference to this strategy (50,7%) than those attending the English language courses (32,9%) (X2 = 8.163, df=2, p<0,05). Besides, the less proficient English language learners (50%) preferred using it more often than the intermediate (26,8%) and high level ones (22,4%) (X2 = 14.124, df=4, p<0,01).

It is worth mentioning that note taking, an especially helpful strategy for understanding the context and structure of a reading text, was chosen by a small proportion of English and French language learners of all language levels (33,7%). Moreover, a great number of the respondents (55,3%) declared that they rarely make a summary of the information presented in an English or French text of their field; the lower language level students use this technique less frequently (68,7%) than the more proficient students (X2 = 20.565, df = 4, p <0.001).

Concerning the Metacognitive strategies, the data of the study showed that the majority of the respondents (85,6%), especially the english language learners (X2 = 14.819, df=2, p<0,005), declared that they rarely prefer organizing- planning their learning and setting goals for studying english / french books and articles related to their field of study. Moreover, only 35,5% of the total number of the students prefer seeking opportunities and using ways and conditions related to optimal language learning. The students who attend the French classes (45,3%) declared that they use more frequently this strategy than those attending English classes (32,7%) (X2 = 7.890, df=2, p<0,05).

Furthermore, the vast majority (76,3%) showed little monitoring of learning, as they rarely study specialized English or French texts and articles in order to improve their linguistic competence in the specific academic sector. There were no significant differences among the students of different language competence. It is worth mentioning the respondents tendency towards self -evaluating learning. Although a great number of English/French language students (74,2%), irrespectively of their language level, declared that they evaluate their learning based on their background knowledge and they try to avoid repeating these mistakes in the future, only 27,9% of the students frequently correct either their own mistakes or their peers mistakes.

Moreover, the majority of students claimed that they do not get involved in the process of problem identification. 69% of the total number, regardless of their language level, stated that they rarely discuss with the peers about the language difficulties in order to find out some solutions.

Regarding the Social/ affective strategies, 64,1% of the students, both of the English and French course, stated that they get used to asking the instructors or the peers for clarification about the parts they do not understand. Moreover, the majority of the participants (57,2%), irrespectively of their language level, declared that they reward themselves whenever they understand an academic text or perform a task in English or French. However a large number of the sample (58,9%), especially the students of lower English or French level (71,4%), stated that they feel anxious whenever they read a text or an article containing a lot of unknown words (X2 = 16.69, df=4, p<0,005).

Moreover, nearly half of the total number of the respondents (48,3%) had preference to cooperating with teachers and other peers. The students of French classes (59,2%)declared that they use this strategy more often than the students attending English classes (44,8%) (X2 = 6.773, df=2, p<0,05).

A certain number of respondents (45,6%)showed a major preference to taking risk to write in English / French, even though there is a chance of making a mistake or looking foolish. On the other hand, the majority of the students (69,1%) attending English/French classes hesitate asking questions, beginning a conversation regardless of their language level.

Concerning the Difficulties they encounter in using foreign language learning strategies, the frequency distribution of the data showed that the five most difficult strategies are considered to be the following:

Some students (11,2%) rated the strategy comprehending an academic text with a lot of unknown words highly in difficulty, as they feel very anxious whenever they read such a text and encounter comprehensive problems. Moreover, defining the meaning of a word or expression by breaking it down into parts was ranked second (8%). The metacognitive strategy centering monitoring of learning to improve their linguistic competence in the specific academic field followed with7,6%. The social strategy, pushing themselves to write in the foreign language, even though there is a chance of making a mistake came fourth (6,4%) and the cognitive strategy identifying the clues from the context to understand the unknown words or difficult sentences was ranked fifth in difficulty (6%).

With reference to the Usefulness of strategies for learning a foreign language for academic purposes, the students ranked the following five strategies as the most useful:

Looking up every word in a dictionary was viewed of highest importance (10,4%). Two social strategies followed: pushing themselves to write in English / French, even though there is a chance of making a mistake came second (7,8%) and asking the instructors or the peers for clarification came third (6,7%). The cognitive strategy contextualization was ranked fourth (6,3%) and skimming the text to get the idea quickly and then reading in detail was ranked fifth (5,9%) in usefulness.

4. Concluding remarks

Several insights were gained about describing and categorizing a large number of metacognitive, cognitive and social strategies used by the particular group, as well as about the difficulties encountered by students in adapting learning strategies in order to tackle an English academic text, to communicate orally or to write an essay . However, it is important to recognize that not all the strategies reported represent the characteristic behaviour of good learners. A number of learners use some cognitive strategies less frequently and often select those that are inappropriate either for a particular type of text, for a certain situation or a task.

It is remarkable that looking every word in a dictionary, was considered to be: a) the most useful technique, b) the most frequently used strategy in order to encounter reading comprehension problems by a great number of students.

Breaking a word down into parts to define the meaning is used less frequently by a significant proportion of students, as it is considered to be a difficult one. Furthermore, note-taking and summarizing, regarded as the most difficult strategies, were used rarely.

The frequent use of a range of cognitive strategies clearly differentiates the more proficient foreign language students from the less competent ones. It should be noted that students with lower language level preferred using some less productive strategies such as translating, frequent dictionary use, word-by-word reading and translating, switching to mother tongue, mime or gestures and they rarely use more productive strategies such as contextualization, note taking and summarizing. Precisely, the more proficient students prefer using more complicated strategies such as using a circumlocution or synonym whenever they do not remember a word in a foreign language, identifying clues from the context to understand the unknown words, ranked among the five most useful-however difficult strategies, drawing on schemata to facilitate comprehension, and skimming the text to get the idea quickly and then reading in detail, which was regarded, by a considerable number of students, as a very important and useful strategy for reading comprehension.

The emergence of clear and significant differences in strategy use between the two groups of participants (attending English language courses / attending French language courses) is important in certain cognitive strategies; taking into account the French language students responses, they seemed to employ more negative strategies such as translating word-by-word and switching to mother tongue and using mime or gestures, meanwhile some of more complicated, productive strategies (using a circumlocution or synonym, skimming the text to get the idea quickly and then reading in detail ) are less frequently used by this specific group of students. This happens because the average of this group of students is less competent in French language comparatively to the average of the group of students attending English classes.

The degree to which the students used certain metacognitive strategies indicates that some of the learners show understanding of the control they have over their own cognition; it also implies that only a small percentage have a good degree of understanding about their role as learners of foreign language, they appreciate the need to orientate themselves to the specific requirements of a task. It is remarkable that the majority of the students, irrespectively of their language level, do not often employ the metacognitive strategies of planning learning and setting goals for studying English, seeking opportunities to improve foreign language, and they rated them as the most difficult ones. Moreover, although a large number of students showed positive attitude towards evaluating their own learning based on schemata, a small proportion of them get involved in the process of discussing about identifying difficulties and problems, and self-correcting. On the other hand, they stand in need of participating interactively in the process of learning; they showed their preference to cooperating, initiating conversation, and asking for clarification, which are thought to be of high importance and usefulness. Moreover, it is significant that the vast majority of the participants feel very anxious about comprehending an academic text with a lot of unknown words, causing them a lot of uncertainty and lack of confidence.

Taking into consideration the research data, we could suggest the following:

A) Certain productive strategies like: note taking and summarizing, posing questions and initiating conversation, identifying the purpose of reading academic texts to improve language, discussing with peers and finding out the difficulties they encounter, organizing planning learning and setting goals for learning, correcting peers and their own mistakes should be promoted through classroom activities

B) Some of the more frequently used but unproductive strategies like: looking up every word in the dictionary, reading word by word, translating word by word while reading a text, feeling anxious about reading academic texts encompassing a lot of unknown words ought to be discouraged.

It is hoped that the findings of this study will foster changes in the teaching approach in the specific context, as knowledge about students strategy use and learning preferences, on the part of the teachers as well as the students, should lead to an increase in students reflection on their individual learning processes. Hopefully, this will empower students to adopt a more versatile approach to learning, to develop more confidence and to have greater control over their own learning outcomes.

Moreover, the information provided through students responses could be utilized to develop a strategy training mini-syllabus incorporated into the basic syllabus. In this way, students could:

  1. Become more conscious of the use of strategies (autonomous use of strategies).
  2. Be able to make necessary changes in their approach to foreign language learning in general.
  3. Be developed into active and responsive learners.
  4. Be discouraged from using unproductive strategies and encouraged to develop a wider range of productive strategies that could be promoted through classroom specific activities, facilitating the transfer of the strategies to new tasks and providing students with the tools to approach the four language skills with a greater sense of confidence.

Through strategy training, students with limited language proficiency could compensate by invoking top down and interactive processes, as well as combining strategies to facilitate comprehension and composing. Furthermore, they could be led to metacognitive awareness, which is identified as a key factor in the learning process (Devine 1993). Learning how to learn (Porquier et al. 1984) is an empowering experience, which can lead to an increase in achievement and self confidence that comes about when faculty and students engage in an ongoing dialogue about how the student learns, how the teacher teachers and how each can adapt to the other in the service of more effective learning (Claxton et al. 1987, 54).


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* Department of Primary Education, University of Western Macedonia, Florina, 53100, Greece.




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