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Review of Strategies in Learning and Using a Second Language
AUTHOR: Andrew D. Cohen TITLE: Strategies in Learning and Using a Second Language PUBLISHER: Longman YEAR: 2011
James Rock, Department of Foreign Languages and Literature, Catholic University of the Sacred Heart (Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore), Milan, Italy
This is a substantially revised second edition of the book, which preserves some existing material from the first edition and also introduces new, often innovative, perspectives on second language learner strategies. The book is intended to appeal to a diverse group of readers, ranging from second language (L2) researches to language teachers and administrators of language programs. The book's overriding theme is that language learning and language use strategies play a significant role in helping language learners achieve long-term success in languages beyond the first language (L1).
The book begins with an introductory chapter that explains the rationale behind the second edition of the book. The author brings to light the difficulty he had in initially selecting the different themes to be included, and subsequently tying the themes together meaningfully within a logical framework. The introductory chapter concludes with a summary of the key concepts and themes to be discussed in the following chapters.
The second chapter, ''Coming to terms with second language learning and language use strategies'', initially investigates some terminological issues with language learner strategies (Section 2.1). To assist the author in this regard, the views of 19 experts in the field of learner strategies contribute to the discussion. This is achieved by asking the group of experts to complete a questionnaire on language learner strategy terminology and various needs associated with strategy work. This data is subsequently presented throughout the chapter (Section 2.3). Some of the issues discussed include underlining the problem in reaching consensus as to what constitutes a strategy, and how strategies are best classified. This is often due to diverse conceptualisations regarding the level of consciousness required for a function to be considered strategic. The majority of the experts involved consider a learner's level of attention as being best viewed as a feature on a continuum, and as such, it can vary from the learner being fully focused on the strategy at one end, to the learner only paying minimal attention at the other end. A discussion is also provided about several features of strategies (Section 2.4), which includes the way strategies combine to effectively enhance learning, and their potential for leading to learning.
Results of the survey also identified some of the reasons for using language learner strategies (Section 2.5). There was general consensus that they should be used to enhance learning, to perform specified tasks, to solve specific problems, and to make learning easier, faster, and more enjoyable. There was, however, some disagreement as to whether learner strategies compensate for a deficit in language proficiency. Regarding the use of specific terms related to learners' use of strategies (Section 2.7), there is a lack of clarity in the use of such terms by researchers. Although many experts stated using specific terminology, such as autonomous language learning, self-regulation, self-management, independent language learning, and individual language learning, they did so to a greater or lesser extent and there was often diversity in how the terms were applied.
The final section of the chapter describes how the use of specific language learning and use strategies are often linked to a learner's learning style preference (Section 2.8). The author maintains that learners could benefit from attempting to alter their learning style, in order to benefit from using alternative learning approaches. It is also felt that teachers should assess learners' style preferences before deciding on a particular instructional approach for a class. The chapter concludes with an assessment of the importance of learner motivation and context when using learner strategies (Section 2.9).
In Chapter Three, ''Methods for investigating language learning and language use strategies'', several approaches that are used to gather data on language learner strategies are addressed (Section 3.2). Some of these methods were regularly used in the past, and continue to be used to gather strategy data (e.g. questionnaires, observation, verbal reports, and recollective studies); however, some new methods that utilise modern technology, including blogging and user tracking, are also discussed. A brief description of each approach is provided and the advantages and disadvantages are also highlighted. The author emphasises a greater need for qualitative research, which can provide more accurate information regarding how learners actually use strategies. Verbal report data is seen by the author as being an effective way of obtaining self-revelation or retrospective data on the cognitive processes learners use to perform L2 tasks (Section 3.3). A full description of the three distinct types of verbal report methodology (i.e. self-revelation, self-observation, self-report) is provided.
In the final part of the chapter, the author stresses the need for researchers to be more systematic when undertaking verbal report studies (Section 3.3.2). This helps facilitate comparisons across studies and replication of studies. The chapter concludes by suggesting that researchers should not confine themselves to using a single research method, but rather seek to combine various methods in an effort to gather the most useful data possible for a particular study.
Chapter Four, ''The practice of strategy instruction'', begins with a brief discussion of the theoretical rationale behind strategy instruction and its ultimate goals. The suggestion is made that as L2 teaching has become more student-directed over the years, the relevance of explicitly showing learners how to use language learning and language use strategies has gained acceptance (Section 4.1). The argument is put forward that the role of classroom teachers in such an environment is radically different and that teachers should be seen as facilitators, coaches, or coordinators, rather than as instructors. Similarly, learners should be considered to be practitioners of learning rather than ''targets of learning'' (Allwright and Hanks, 2009: 2).
In Section 4.2.2, three frameworks for explicit strategy instruction are described. They all focus on helping learners: a) become more aware of the types of strategies they use; b) stimulate increased use strategies; and c) encourage monitoring and evaluation of strategy use. This is followed in Section 4.2.3 by a description of the means by which strategy instruction can be delivered to learners. This ranges from explicitly training learners in strategy use through special study-skills courses, to implicitly embedding strategies into tasks in textbooks. The point is made that strategy instruction should not be prescriptive, but rather aim to make the learners' own strategy repertoire more functional and supportive. In Section 4.2.5, some ideas are put forward about ways in which teachers can develop the necessary tools required to carry out strategy instruction. A strategy instruction course at the University of Minnesota (CARLA) is described in detail, and the point is stressed that strategy instruction must be adapted to the needs of the learners in order for it to be effective. In Section 4.2.6, readers are taken through a step-by-step approach to designing a strategy instruction program. The chapter concludes with an in-depth analysis of the roles of teachers in strategy instruction.
Chapter Five, ''Research on strategy instruction'', begins with a review of some early studies on strategy instruction. Many of those studies place a lot of emphasis on the impact of strategy instruction on reported strategy use rather than actual strategy use (Gu, 1996). This is followed by a discussion of more recent studies of strategy instruction in all four skill areas, as well as vocabulary and grammar (Section 5.2.2). The dominant theme that emerges from this review is that participants who received strategy instruction outperformed those students who did not. Some interesting points also mentioned include the suggestion that strategy instruction benefits more-proficient learners (Ikeda & Takeuchi, 2003), and that listening strategy instruction does not appear to be influenced by a learner's prior attainment or prior attitude, their gender, or bilingual status (Harris & Grenfell, 2008).
The remainder of Chapter Five reports on a study by Cohen, which investigates the effects of strategy instruction on learners attending L2 classes at the University of Minnesota. Fifty-five students took part in the study, with 32 participants comprising an experimental group and the remaining 23 participants serving as a comparison group. The students were all studying either French or Norwegian as a foreign language at the university and were reported to have an intermediate or advanced level of the L2. The experimental group all received strategy instruction, specifically aimed at improving L2 speaking skills. The findings of the study revealed that systematic strategy instruction had a positive effect on speaking performance and helped encourage learners to use strategies more adeptly. Notwithstanding certain limitations of the study, as described by Cohen, the findings highlight the benefits of systematically introducing and reinforcing strategies in the classroom, embedding strategies into class materials, and the importance of providing teachers with training on how to implement strategy instruction. The study is also considered to be a good example of strategy research that combines both quantitative and qualitative methods.
Chapter Six, ''Strategies for choosing the language of thought'', begins with the author emphasising the fact that bilinguals and multilinguals are often aware of their language of thought when performing specific cognitive operations. This, according to Cohen, is evidence that learners are clearly strategising, which can have significant implications for ultimate success at learning. The point is made that many researchers over the years have openly referred to the detrimental effect that thinking in an L1 can have on L2 learning (Gattegno, 1976; Krashen & Terrell, 1983). Cohen wonders whether this admonition to eliminate the L1 could effectively be ignoring the potentially beneficial effects of thinking in an L1.
In Section 6.2, Cohen focuses on investigating the role of the target language in improving language ability. He initially discusses what it means to think in the target language (Section 6.2.1), and then examines some of the factors that influence the language of thought (Section 6.2.2). This involves reporting the results of a short survey, conducted by Cohen, with graduate students at the University of Minnesota. He uses the results of this survey to explore what it means to think in a target language. Cohen acknowledges that there are times when learners unconsciously think in a given language, but there also times when they purposely use either the L1 or the L2 as the language of thought. Such use of the L1 is described by Cohen as being often used by students in formulating thoughts in learning.
In Section 6.3, Cohen discusses a number of studies that go against the maxim that thinking in the L1 is harmful for L2 development. He considers several studies of L2 writing (Section 6.3.2) that support the use of translation (Paivio & Lambert, 1981; Kobayashi & Rinnert, 1992; Brooks, 1993). In the study by Kobayashi & Rinnert (1992), the essays of students, which were initially written in the L1 and subsequently translated into the L2, were rated higher than the essays of students who wrote their essays directly in English. Regarding reading (Section 6.3.3), a study by Kern (1994) found that it was beneficial to translate into the L1 while reading in the L2. This finding was also supported by Hawras (1996), who found translation to make the material more user-friendly and to remove affective barriers. In Section 6.3.4, Cohen describes some limitations with mental translation studies, which are followed by some suggestions for future research.
The chapter concludes with an analysis of the language of thought of a group of elementary students in a Spanish immersion program. The study investigated how immersion students use the L1 and L2 when processing language in their minds. The focus was examining the language of thought used in processing numerical and word problems in math. The findings of the study reveal that English plays a significant role in the internal language environment of immersion students.
In Chapter Seven, ''Strategy use in language assessment'', Cohen continues his investigation of language use strategies, this time in relation to the types of strategies used by learners in language assessment. The author is keen to see whether obtaining a greater understanding of the test-taking strategies of learners can ultimately help in validating tests. The chapter opens with a discussion of validation issues related to tests, and suggests that tests often fail to examine the aspects of language that teachers think they are examining. Furthermore, learners often use strategies that are detrimental to their performance on a test, which may, therefore, lead to misleading test results.
The chapter then discusses the strategies used in test taking (Section 7.2). Discussion is initially provided about early test-taking strategy studies, which focused on analysing the format of the test, such as multiple-choice (Dollerup et al., 1982), cloze and C-test (Klein-Braley, 1981), and summarisation tasks (Cohen, 1994b). This is followed in Section 7.2.5 by a review of more recent research related to test-taking strategies. Such research is seen to focus on: a) validating language tests; b) investigating the relationship between respondents' language proficiency and their test-taking strategies; and c) evaluating the effectiveness of strategy instruction for improving respondents' performance on high-stakes standardised tests. Cohen, in relation to test validity, argues that findings from test-taking strategy research are valuable and should be used to complement research findings from correlational and experimental means. The focus should be placed, therefore, on examining the process of test taking rather than focusing solely on the products of the test taking process (Bachman, 1990).
The final part of the chapter describes an empirical study (Cohen & Olshtain, 1993) which examined the kinds of strategies used to produce speech acts in a role-play situation. The findings of the study reveal that the subjects frequently thought in more than one language, rarely planned the specific lexis and grammatical structures of their utterances, and did not focus much on grammar or pronunciation.
In Chapter Eight, ''Discussion and conclusions'', the issues discussed in the preceding chapters are reviewed. This is followed by a discussion of some areas of controversy and developments regarding L2 learner strategies. Cohen highlights one area of development as being the creation of the Spanish Grammar Strategies website. This website was originally designed in order to provide a model of how strategy websites could be developed in other skill areas. He suggests that the advantage of such a website is its specificity and the fact that learners can quickly gain a working knowledge of the exact nature of learner strategies.
This second edition of Andrew D. Cohen's book is a valuable contribution to the field of language learner strategies. Unlike most texts in the field of learner strategies, which generally focus on one or two specific areas, this text is beneficial due to its integration of numerous themes. Each topic is explored in detail, and there is a good balance between theoretical background information and the presentation and discussion of up-to-date research. The book is easily readable and the ubiquitous collection of discussion questions and activities at the end of each chapter encourages readers to actively test their knowledge of the information found in each chapter.
The innovative approach adopted by Cohen, in which he gathered data from experts on language learner strategies, is particularly illuminating. It represents a unique way of addressing his concern regarding the lack of consensus amongst researchers on basic items of terminology and concepts surrounding strategies. The study goes some way, therefore, towards achieving some kind of overview of the range of views expressed, and provides an indication of the most commonly held beliefs by experts in the field. Another notable aspect of the book is the attention Cohen gives to qualitative research methods. His detailed discussion of verbal report and his call for more systematicity and consistency in collecting verbal report data is a welcomed addition to the field of strategy research. This is significant, as a lot of previous research has concentrated on quantitative research methods. Cohen's interest in getting inside the learner's head and investigating actual strategy use, rather than reported strategy use, is particularly relevant.
In relation to the previous point, another positive aspect of this book is the chapter on the 'Language of thought'. This is an often ignored point in the L2 strategy literature, and is an area of strategy use which could have a significant impact on learning. Of particular interest are the results of mental translation into the L1 during L2 writing and reading tasks. The realisation that the L1 could have beneficial effects on L2 development should arouse significant interest within the field of strategy instruction and language teaching in general.
This is a thought-provoking book that will hopefully stimulate further research. It is highly recommended for language teachers, researchers, syllabus designers, test designers and program administrators.
Allwright, D. and Hanks, J. (2009) The developing language learner: An introduction to exploratory practice. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.
Bachman, L.F. (1990) Fundamental considerations in language testing. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
Brooks, A. (1993) Translation as a writing strategy for intermediate-level French composition. Department of French and Italian, Vanderbilt University, Nashville, TN.
Cohen, A.D. (1994b) English for academic purposes in Brazil: The use of summary tasks. In C. Hill and K. Parry (eds.), From testing to assessment: English as an international language. London: Longman, 174-204.
Cohen, A.D. and Olshtain, E. (1993) The production of speech acts by EFL learners. TESOL Quarterly, 27(1), 33-56.
Dollerup, C., Glahn, E. and Rosenberg Hansen, C. (1982) Reading strategies and test-solving techniques in an EFL-reading comprehension test -- a preliminary report. Journal of Applied Language Study, 1(1), 93-99.
Gattegno, C. (1976) The common sense of teaching foreign languages. New York: Educational Solutions.
Gu, P.Y. (1996) Robin Hood in SLA: What has the learner strategy research taught us? Asian Journal of English language Teaching, 6, 1-29.
Harris, V. and Grenfell, M. (2008) Learning to learn languages: The differential response of learners to strategy instruction. Unpublished manuscript. London: Department of Educational Studies, University of London.
Hawras, S. (1996) Towards describing bilingual and multilingual behavior: Implications for ESL instruction. Double Plan B Paper, English as a Second Language Department, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis.
Ikeda, M. and Takeuchi, O. (2003) Can strategy instruction help ESL learners to improve their reading ability? An empirical study. JACET Bulletin, 37, 49-60.
Kern, R.G. (1994) The role of mental translation in second language reading. Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 16(4), 441-61.
Klein-Braley, C. (1981) Empirical investigation of cloze tests: An examination of the validity of cloze tests as tests of general language proficiency in English for German university students. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Duisberg, Duisberg, West Germany.
Kobayashi, H. and Rinnert, C. (1992) Effects of first language on second language writing: Translation versus direct composition. Language Learning, 42(2), 183-215.
Krashen, S.D. and Terrell, T.D. (1983) The natural approach. Oxford, UK: Pergamon Press.
Paivio, A. and Lambert, W. (1981) Dual coding and bilingual memory. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, 20(5), 532-39.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
James Rock is a lecturer in the Department of Foreign Languages and
Literature at the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart (Università
Cattolica del Sacro Cuore) in Milan, Italy. He teaches both undergraduate
and postgraduate courses. His current research interests include second
language acquisition, vocabulary learning strategies, and the use of
Q-methodology in learner strategy research.