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Review of Teaching & Researching: Language Learning Strategies
AUTHOR: Rebecca L. Oxford TITLE: Teaching and Researching: Language Learning Strategies SERIES TITLE: Applied Linguistics in Action PUBLISHER: Pearson Education Limited YEAR: 2011
Marije C. Michel, Department of English Linguistics, University of Mannheim, Germany
SUMMARY In this book Rebecca Oxford summarizes over thirty years of research and teaching on second language (L2) learning strategies. She focuses on self-regulated learning strategies, that is, ‘deliberate, goal-directed attempts to manage and control efforts to learn the L2’ (p. 12). Oxford presents a comprehensive and detailed review of work on language learning strategies. Importantly, the author addresses a wide range of aspects from well-researched cognitive and affective perspectives to more neglected topics like sociocultural characteristics or neurocognitive facets of strategy use, teaching, and learning.
The main part of the book (section I) discusses the author’s model of strategic self-regulated learning, referred to as the S2R-model. Oxford gives an overview of fundamental dimensions (cognitive, affective, and sociocultural-interactive) and integrated theories (e.g., Vygotsky’s model of self-regulated learning) that relate to L2 learning strategies. Furthermore, the extensive appendices list demonstrative examples of different strategies used in action. Section II presents practical applications of strategy assessment (e.g., think-aloud protocols) and strategy assistance (e.g., how to instruct learners on strategy use) concerning the S2R model. Section III discusses how to do research into L2 learning strategies (e.g., quantitative, qualitative, and mixed methods) and summarizes the findings of relevant research up to now (e.g., results of reading strategy research). The final section, IV, covers where one may find more information about language learning strategies (e.g., journals, websites). The book concludes with an elaborate glossary of concepts and terms relating to language learning strategies.
As all books from the Pearson series ‘Applied Linguistics in Action’ the textual information in Oxford’s book is endorsed by visual enhancements. For example, every chapter starts with preview questions, and a detailed table of contents is highlighted in a different typeface. Many tables and figures summarize key aspects graphically. Every chapter finishes with suggestions for further reading.
Section I: The S2R Model In chapter 1, Oxford starts by introducing her model of strategic self-regulated (S2R) language learning that classifies different strategies into three broad dimensions of cognitive, affective and sociocultural-interactive strategies. Within each dimension she distinguishes meta-strategies from strategies. There are eight meta-strategies: ‘Paying attention’, ‘Planning’, ‘Obtaining and Using Resources’, ‘Organizing’, ‘Implementing Plans’, ‘Orchestrating Strategy Use’, ‘Monitoring’, and ‘Evaluating’ that all can be applied to cognitive, affective or sociocultural-interactive aspects of L2 learning. There are six strategies at the actual level of cognition: 'Using the Senses to Understand and Remember', 'Activating Knowledge’, ‘Reasoning’, ‘Conceptualizing with Details’, ‘Conceptualizing Broadly’, or ‘Going Beyond the Immediate Data’. Oxford names two affective strategies: 'Activating Supportive Emotions, Beliefs and Attitudes' and 'Generating and Maintaining Motivation’, and three sociocultural-interactive strategies which refer to ‘Overcoming Knowledge Gaps in Communication’, ‘Interacting to Learn and Communicate’ and ‘Dealing with Sociocultural Contexts and Identities’.
All strategies are based on different types of meta-knowledge related to person (individual), group or culture (community), task (short-term immediate), whole-process (long-term), and strategy (meta-strategies and strategy). As a whole these knowledge types influence the conditional knowledge that explains when, why, and where to use a given strategy.
In real-life a strategy manifests itself as, what the author calls, a tactic, that is an actual (meta-) strategy in action for a given learner in a given situation, like the tactic that ‘two learners study together before a major test’ as an example of the sociocultural-interactive strategy to ‘interact in order to learn’.
After defining the concepts of S2R, the author focuses on the relationship between language learning strategies and individual learning styles (e.g., whether one is an analytic, visual and/or extraverted learner). This chapter concludes by highlighting the strengths of the S2R model in contrast to other models. As the author stresses, one of the main achievements is that the model not only acknowledges cognitive aspects, but treats the affective and sociocultural-interactive dimensions to a similar extent. The remaining three chapters of section I provide a detailed review of these three main categories of strategies.
Chapter 2 focuses on (meta-)cognitive strategies. To refer to the cognitive side of strategic learning Oxford uses the metaphor of a ‘construction manager’ in charge of planning, organizing, coordinating, monitoring, and evaluating language learning. This chapter relates the cognitive aspects to other theories of learning. Discussed are relations to schema theory, e.g., how information is transferred from short-term to long-term memory through the building of schemata that are elaborated and through practice become flexible; cognitive-information processing theory about how declarative knowledge (awareness and explicit information about strategies) becomes procedural knowledge (automatic use of a strategy); activity theory where a language learning goal can be met by a chain of tactics based on different strategies; cognitive load theory, how different strategies can be used to deal with the intrinsic and non-intrinsic cognitive load of language learning situations; even neurobiological aspects of learning are addressed, e.g., that neurological research findings situate higher cognition, like the strategy of reasoning, in the prefrontal cortex of the brain.
In chapter 3, Oxford discusses (meta-)affective strategies which she refers to metaphorically as the ‘electricity workers’. The main message of this chapter is that affective aspects of language learning are at least as important as the cognitive side -- nothing works without electricity. Therefore, it is important to make use of strategies that influence the affective aspects of language learning, that is, to create optimistic emotions, beliefs, and attitudes and to build and maintain motivation for L2 learning. Aspects of L2 learning that are related to (meta-)affective strategies are among others anxiety, self-esteem, beliefs about L2 learning, and (most extensively discussed in this chapter) motivation. Oxford explains how the strategic setting of goals concerning mastery and performance in the L2 helps learners e.g., to keep a positive attitude and strengthen L2 learning motivation. Furthermore, she stresses that attention to strategies that (as neuropsychological evidence suggests) lower language output anxiety should be part of every teacher’s repertoire.
Chapter 4 reviews (meta-)sociocultural-interactive strategies, that is, the ‘community manager’, who takes care of the highly interacting social, historical, and imaginative layers of culture during language learning. Oxford stresses that language learning and language use are tightly connected such that sociocultural-interactive aspects of language use cannot be separated from learning a new language. Therefore, strategies to enhance language learning will need to take into account sociocultural and interactive characteristics of the L2 and the L2 community. The S2R model acknowledges the importance of sociocultural-interactive strategies by situating them at the same level next to cognitive and affective strategies. The author explains that strategy instruction may intend to improve intercultural competence as a whole but ideally may aim at including ways to manage emotions e.g., when learners are confronted with an L2 culture that is very different from their own background.
Appendices A-F conclude section I with 35 pages of concrete examples of authentic tactics classified by their basic function in relation to (meta-)cognitive, (meta-)affective, and (meta-)sociocultural-interactive strategies respectively. For example, one tactic -- ‘I envision that I will perform well on the English entrance examination. Since this exam is so important, it helps to have a positive image.’ -- serves the basic function of ‘using a positive imagery for expectations’ as part of the strategy ‘Generating and Maintaining Motivation’.
Section II: Strategy Assessment and Assistance The second part of the book presents a useful practical and applied guide to evaluate and instruct the use of language learning strategies. It may be most relevant to practitioners.
In Chapter 5, Oxford reviews strategy assessment by discussing four key methodological issues: (1) assessment based on self-report vs. observations; (2) task specific vs. global assessment; (3) cultural appropriateness of assessment; (4) quantitative, qualitative, or mixed assessment. When dealing with these issues the author gives a detailed analysis of the pros and cons of different methods of assessment. For example, she addresses the intrusiveness of think-aloud protocols or how task specific colour-coding enhanced students’ awareness of strategy use. She gives advices on what type of strategy questionnaire (task specific or general) would serve best for what purpose (e.g., diagnostic) and group (children or adults). Finally, this chapter formulates some guiding questions in order to assess the quality of an assessment tool, e.g., relating to its validity and reliability.
Chapter 6 presents a useful collection of suggestions how teachers can assist learners in acquiring and improving language learning strategies. The author states that a single well taught lesson on strategies is well worth the time as it can have large benefits concerning the effectiveness of an L2 learner’s effort to reach higher levels of target language competence. Furthermore, research findings suggest that students profit most from explicit strategy instruction. Generally, instruction may follow the path from (1) identifying, awareness raising and self-reflection on strategies frequently used via (2) introducing, naming and modeling new strategies to (3) encouraging students to try, practice and evaluate these new strategies. Importantly, whether a language learning strategy is useful depends to a large extent to individual learner factors and the specific goal of a learner. The author acknowledges these facts by presenting various strategy assessment tools for different populations, e.g., for adult versus child learners or by highlighting the special needs of distance learners.
Section III: Researching Learning Strategies This section focuses on research into language learning strategies. Due to its detailed explanations of basic concepts, it is particularly relevant to students.
Chapter 7 gives an introduction into general research methodology that may also be useful beyond language learning strategies. It outlines differences between quantitative, qualitative, and mixed models of research design. When reviewing quantitative methods, the tables in this chapter explain different threats to experimental research (e.g., due to selection or researcher bias). In the paragraphs about qualitative research several ‘how to’-models exemplify the ways to conduct, for example, a narrative study. Another set of tables systematically displays what questions one may ask when checking e.g., for process or catalytic validity.
In chapter 8 a summary of the most important findings from research into language learning strategies is presented. The chapter is organized into separate paragraphs addressing the four language skills reading, writing, listening, and speaking, as well as vocabulary and grammar. It seems that top-down strategies in listening and reading are most beneficial. Research into general strategy use suggests that students benefit most from the capacity to have available many different strategies they can use at appropriate moments for a given task -- rather than overarching ‘best’ strategies that work for all learners. The author concludes that reading and vocabulary have been studied quite extensively while listening and grammar are stepchildren of strategies research. She therefore calls for more research especially into these subfields and into the combination of e.g., reading and writing strategy use.
Section IV: Resources The last chapter gives a short of the different dimensions of strategies, defining the field of language learning strategy teaching and research. Oxford lists journals and books that treat language learning strategies. Furthermore, some digital databases (websites, corpora) are given. Finally, the author pleads for more research into language learning strategies and asks for greater awareness among teachers and learners about the utility of effective language learning strategies.
The book concludes with an elaborate Glossary of 25 pages starting with ‘accommodation’ (the cultural process of adjusting attitudes), via ‘motivation’ to ‘ZPD’ (Zone of proximal development following Vygotsky’s sociocultural theory).
EVALUATION Oxford presents a broad, detailed, and comprehensive overview of research and teaching on language learning strategies. As it summarizes the research findings in this field of the last thirty years, this book was much needed. The field of language learning strategies is a vast area and the author took up the challenge of collecting this information. She succeeds in presenting a clearly structured and well outlined review. The volume situates language learning strategies in relation to other fields within and beyond second language acquisition. In discussing the theoretical bases and the empirical evidence, by giving practical guidelines for instruction and many authentic examples, it is a welcome contribution to the Pearson series on ‘Applied Linguistics in Action’.
Still, some critical aspects should be considered. First, the volume aims at practitioners, students, and researchers. However, it may be useful only to the two former audience types or for scholars seeking to enter the field. Others, more deeply interested in research into language learning strategies, may find the volume at times basic (in particular chapters 7 and 9) or find it to discuss some topics too briefly (e.g., the neurobiological evidence in section I).
A second point of concern is that information given in boxes and graphs on occasion repeats the text, creating some redundancy. This may help students capture the importance of these aspects and, furthermore, acknowledges different learning styles (e.g., analytic vs. visual). However, some readers may prefer a more selective presentation of the issues discussed. Likewise, the appendices to section I, which present over two hundred examples of tactics assigned to their category of strategies, do give a comprehensive collection of authentic language learner statements, but some readers may prefer a selection of some exemplary tactics over a full list.
Third, the author is concise in explaining why the S2R model uses the dimensions, categories, and strategies it does, and how these differ from other models of language learning strategies. These personal statements make it rather like an oral lecture. While these reflections model for students how to deal with theoretical questions, advanced readers may find it enough to see that decisions are based on empirical and theoretical evidence.
Finally, a more practical issue concerns the magnitude of examples and tables (that often require the reader to turn the book back and forth from portrait to landscape reading). At times, these make it difficult to read and follow the coherent line of text, that is, the tabular presentation masks the importance of the issues reviewed, rather than emphasizing them.
In sum, although this book on learning strategies is sorely needed, and while the author definitely provides a complete treatment of the topic, it may suffer a bit from its own aim to be comprehensive. A more selective approach to the topics under review would make it more attractive -- in particular for researchers.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
Marije Michel holds a PhD in Applied Linguistics from the University of
Amsterdam in the Netherlands. She is currently working as a post-doctoral
fellow in the Department of English Linguistics, University of Mannheim,
Germany. Her research focuses on cognitive and interactive aspects of
task-based performance in adult second language learners as she
investigates effects of task complexity and priming during task-based