January 1999 — Volume 3, Number 4
Strategies in Learning and Using a Second Language
Andrew D Cohen (1998)
London and New York: Longman
Pp. xi + 294
ISBN 0 582 305888 (paper)
The term strategies, in the second-language-learning sense, has come to be applied to the conscious moves made by second-language speakers intended to be useful in either learning or using the second language. Strategies can be very different in nature, ranging from planning the organisation of one’s learning (a metacognitive learning strategy) through using mnemonic devices to learn vocabulary (cognitive learning strategies) and rehearsing what one expects to say (a performance strategy) to bolstering one’s self-confidence for a language task by means of “self-talk” (an affective strategy).
Ever since Naiman et al. (1976) noted that “good” language learners appeared to use a larger number and range of strategies than “poor” language learners, the implications of understanding strategy use have seemed increasingly important. However, there are still many questions to resolve. Does strategy use actually aid language learning, or is it just something that good learners do? Are some strategies better than others, or is it the number and range of strategies used that counts? Are there “bad” strategies that actually making learning or performance worse? Can “poor” language learners benefit from being taught the strategies that “good” learners use, or do you need to be a good learner already to use some of the strategies? Does strategy training affect language learning, and if so is the effect direct, or does such training serve mainly to raise motivation and awareness? If learners are encouraged to use strategies to organise their own learning, for example, what are the implications for the role of the classroom teacher? Such issues have already prompted a considerable volume of research and writing, and directly or indirectly made a significant impact on language learning, at least in some places. For example, the establishment of self-access centres and the encouragement of learner independence are essentially based on the assumption that students will be able to use viable metacognitive learning strategies.
Ellis (1994) writes: “The study of learning strategies holds considerable promise, both for language pedagogy and for explaining individual differences in second language learning. It is probably true to say, however, that it is still in its infancy. For this reason, perhaps, discussions of learning strategies typically conclude with the problems that have surfaced and that need to be addressed before progress can be made” (p. 558). Any new book which [-1-] continues the exploration of this infant area of study is therefore potentially exciting, especially if it contains accounts of hitherto unpublished empirical research, as is the case with Strategies in Learning and Using a Second Language. Any up-to-date, comprehensive account of the current state of knowledge about strategies is also likely to be welcome; and Andrew Cohen’s title certainly sounds as though this might be such a book.
Perhaps my expectations were set too high. The book presents information from a new research project, but it is research that takes us only a short step further down the road. And, despite the implied promise of the title, this book does not provide a comprehensive review of the area; nor, in fairness, does it claim to do so.
Strategies in Learning and Using a Second Language is in fact something of a patchwork. It consists of a series of essentially separate articles, some written by Cohen alone, some co-authored with others, which have been stitched together to form a book. Some of the material has been published previously, though it has been revised for this publication. Some of the chapters are themselves patchworks, consisting of materials drawn from different articles on related themes. There is nothing intrinsically wrong, of course, with a patchwork approach–there are many books that consist of separate articles which together add up to something coherent and significant. In this case, however, the pieces that form the patchwork do not fit altogether easily with each other. Furthermore, there are gaps in the finished piece: elements one would expect to be included, but which are not there. Despite the author’s efforts to link the disparate chapters, the book lacks a strong sense of coherence and unity.
The core of the book is a previously unpublished report of a research study on “The impact of strategies based instruction on speaking a foreign language.” A total of 55 American university students of French and Norwegian were taught courses in their respective target languages for a period of ten weeks. Twenty-three students were in classes which followed the normal syllabuses, while thirty-two were in classes where training in a broad range of strategies was integrated into the teaching. Before and after the course students reported on their strategy use, and their speaking skills were tested in three speaking tasks (the pre- and post-tests of speaking skills were identical). Ratings of students’ performances were compared for the treatment and the control groups, and were also correlated with reported changes in strategy use. The treatment groups generally did better on the post-test than the control groups for the three different tasks and on the various assessment scales used, though the differences in scores were mostly non-significant. The picture which emerged when scores on the various scales were correlated with changes in strategy use was very confused. Where statistically significant relationships were [-2-] discovered, the reasons for them were far from evident; thus, for example, an increase by the experimental group in reported use of the strategy “translating specific words from English” correlated significantly with improved performance on a rating scale for grammar, but negatively and significantly with a rating scale for self-confidence. Patterns in reported strategy use changed for the control groups (who had received no specific strategy training) as well as the experimental groups. The general impression created was that the effect of strategy training over this short course had been to some extent beneficial, but the specific nature of the benefit and the reasons for it are unclear. Even though the conclusions are not clear-cut, however, this is a thorough and quite important piece of research which has implications for the design of future research projects.
The rest of the book consists of other articles of varying degrees of interest, arranged before and after the central study described above. After an introduction and a chapter defining some terminology, there is an essay on research methodology for the field; this discusses advantages and disadvantages of several methods of determining which strategies are being used, and focuses particularly on self-report, the method used in the study described above. An article on strategy training follows; it reviews various methods of strategy training at considerable length, but is at times frustratingly short on specifics. For example, despite the fact that we are twice told that the choice of strategies in which learners should be trained depends on such factors as “their current and intended levels of proficiency, their experience with foreign language strategy use or with learning other languages, their learning style preferences and personality characteristics,” etc. (p. 89), and despite the fact that there is a section explicitly entitled “Selecting the strategies,” there is no systematic discussion as to what strategies, or types of strategies, would suit what types of learners (though admittedly there are one or two examples of strategies which “might” suit particular types of learners). The article sets out many questions that have to be considered, but provides little help in arriving at the answers.
After the central research study, we find a chapter headed “Strategies for choosing the language of thought.” As Cohen points out, little work has been done in determining the advantages and disadvantages of deliberately choosing whether to think in the native language, the target language, or even some other language during learning or use of the target language. The chapter contains a certain amount of discussion of research on which language people do think in, based in part on published studies. The latter part of the chapter discusses the findings of a study of the language of thought of children in a Spanish immersion elementary school. There is quite a lot which is of interest in this chapter, but its relationship to the concept of strategies is at times tenuous (as the language of thought is certainly not always a deliberate [-3-] choice), and all the material in this chapter has been published previously in other forms.
“Strategy use in testing situations” begins with a section which considers strategies from a rather different angle. The article demonstrates how strategies used by learners in certain types of test (for example, multiple choice tests of reading comprehension) can undermine the validity of the tests, because in arriving at their answers, the testees do not use the skills which the tests are intended to sample. Thus, they may select a particular multiple choice answer on a “reading comprehension” test because words found in the question stem and in one particular answer option occur together in the same sentence in the text, or because only one of the answers suggested matches the stem grammatically, or on the basis of general knowledge. Such test-taking strategies will often result in a higher score being achieved than the students’ actual ability to understand the text would merit. None of this will be news to researchers in the field of testing. The second part of the chapter reports on a study of “Strategies in producing oral speech acts” where the speech acts in question are produced as part of a language test. Here, appropriate production strategies are perceived as being helpful to the process of testing. Cohen argues finally that test-taking strategies should be taken into account both in designing and validating tests and in the process of preparing students to take the tests.
The book ends with a conclusion, which essentially repeats the main points from the various chapters.
The most immediately striking gap in the book is any chapter focussing on direct discussion of actual strategies and their use, rather than categories of strategies. Various taxonomies of strategies are referred to, in particularly Rebecca Oxford’s Strategy Inventory for Language Learning (1990), but there is no systematic presentation here of lists of strategies, nor yet any systematic discussion of what individual strategies are thought to achieve. Anyone coming new to the subject would find it frustrating that one only gradually and incidentally discovers some examples of the strategies that students use, or of strategies which it is thought they might usefully be taught. Another gap which might be felt in the book, given that it takes as its subject strategies of all types (including strategies for passing examinations!), is a chapter focussing on the thorny issue of how closely strategies of the different types are related, and thus the extent to which it is appropriate to consider them all together as aspects of a single construct.
But is this a fair point for a reviewer to make? Why should such items be included, when perhaps Cohen has nothing new to say about them? Well, this book really does seem to be intended for a wide audience, including non-specialists in the field, and thus I feel [-4-] that it should ideally serve to some extent as a general survey of the topic. The introduction says that it is “primarily for teachers, administrators and researchers” (p. 1). The next sentence adds “teacher trainers” for good measure, and the discussion exercises at the end of each chapter might seem to suggest teacher trainees as members of the potential audience as well. The back cover blurb (for which, of course, Cohen is not responsible) adds that the book is “highly suitable for undergraduate and postgraduate students of applied linguistics and will be of interest to foreign language students.” Quite a range of people, then, many of them not very familiar with the subject of strategy use, might think this book was for them. Cohen goes on to state: “The book is intended to bring together in one volume a series of different themes which . . . focus on second language learners and their strategies” (p. 1). To me, “bringing together” suggests linking separate elements to form a whole which has a certain sense of completeness, and which requires that one examine the central as well as more peripheral themes. Finally, I feel that such chapters would simply make for a better, more satisfying book for anyone who reads it through as a whole, rather than dipping into it as a series of separate articles.
This book will undoubtedly find its way onto the shelves of university libraries, as well as many methodology libraries in school staff-rooms. It is after all a book in a prominent series (Longman’s Applied Linguistics and Language Studies), on a topic of much current interest, written by a well-known researcher in the field. It includes the only published report of a recent research study. But I’m afraid I cannot imagine that this will ever come to be regarded as a key book in the area of strategies study. The individual chapters will remain as a series of separate articles, read for different purposes by different people on different occasions, and probably with varying degrees of satisfaction.
Ellis, R. (1994). The study of second language acquisition. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Oxford, R. L. (1990). Language learning strategies: What every teacher should know. Rowley, MA: Newbury House.
Naiman, N., Frohlich, M., Stern, H. H. & Todesco, A. (1976). The good language learner. Research in Education Series No. 7. Toronto: The Ontario Institute for Studies in Education.
University of Aarhus, Denmark
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