Review of Strategies in Learning and Using a Second Language
|AUTHOR: Andrew D. Cohen
TITLE: Strategies in Learning and Using a Second Language
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
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
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
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,
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:
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,
Krashen, S.D. and Terrell, T.D. (1983) The natural approach. Oxford, UK:
Paivio, A. and Lambert, W. (1981) Dual coding and bilingual memory. Journal of
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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.