Before one can discuss the teacher’s role in learner strategy training, it is worth explaining what learner strategy training is. According to H. Douglas Brown, learner strategy training is the work of researchers and teachers on the application of both learning and communication strategies to classroom learning.
To fully understand the definition, one should also understand what learning and communication strategies are. In short, learning strategies deal with the receptive domain of intake, memory, storage, and recall, and refer to methods that students use to learn. They are divided into three major categories.
- “Metacognitive” strategies are responsible for planning, and arranging learning, centering one’s learning, and self-monitoring.
- “Cognitive” strategies involve more direct manipulation of the learning material itself and are responsible for marking new words in a text, memorizing by sentences, taking notes, etc.
- “Socioaffective” strategies have to do with cooperation with other learners, relaxation, asking questions.
Communication strategies on the other hand involve the employment of verbal or nonverbal mechanisms for the productive communication of information, like language switching, literal translation, or word coinage.
As mentioned above application of these strategies in a classroom is what learner strategy training is. But what role should the teacher take in this process? Should he/she be available on every student’s wish, or should he/she rather limit his presence?
Wenden was among the first out of many people to say that learner strategies are the key to learner’s autonomy, and that one of the most important goals of language training should be facilitating of that autonomy, so as to make the learner self-sufficient and independent. One approach to learner training on the basis of explicitness of purpose is blind training. Learners are kept in the dark about the importance of the activities they are being instructed to do.
They therefore, perform particular strategies but are not helped to understand their significance. The emphasis of this approach is on learning something, and not on learning to learn. Brown referred to studies which have shown that blind training results in impro ved performance of the task to which it is tied. However, ordinarily, students do not continue to use the strategy. Also they cannot identify situations in which it can be used. For example, during pre-listening tasks, students explain key words, provide an advance organizer, and do different kinds of comprehension questions. These are the strategies which students could use on their own in different situations, in different context, but they cannot, because they are not aware of them. This approach implies that the teacher acts as an instructor, providing tasks, but not informing students about the learning strategies.
The other approach is informed training which tells learners that a strategy can be helpful and why. Students are not only instructed in the use of the strategy but in the need for it and its anticipated effects. They are given feedback about their performance so that they can estimate the effectiveness of the training. Informed training places emphasis on learning to learn. Such training, has been proven by studies referred to in Brown’s books, to be more effective. Students use the learned strategy more frequently and more effectively. The teacher should, therefore, act as a guide, explain and stress the importance of strategies, and explain to students how to learn; they are led to focus on the nature of learning.
Having stated that informed training is more effective, a teacher should introduce cognitive, metacognitive, and social-affective learning strategies to his/her lessons. For instance, when a teacher is planning a test, he/she should provide guidelines, tell students how to prepare, and how to learn new vocabulary. Oxford’s Strategy Classification System lists styles and strategies, the teacher should incorporate in his/her lessons. As far as the example with learning new vocabulary is concerned, the teacher should provide his/her students with memory strategies, like creating mental linkages, including grouping, placing new words into a context, or applying images and sounds like using imagery, keywords, etc.
However, one must remember not to be on every student’s wish. Rubin and Stern observed that good language learners find their own way, taking charge of their learning, organize information about the language, use mnemonics, and other memory strategies. A successful language learner takes charge of his/her own learning, and thus becomes autonomous. The teacher should promote learner’s autonomy as it facilitates learning. Not everything can be taught at class, some students need to work additionally on certain aspects of language on their own because they may need more practice than is done in classroom.
Because new research has shown that learners themselves can benefit by becoming more strategic in their language learning, several different models of learner strategy training are now being practised in language classes around the world.
- Teachers include actual strategy practice into their techniques and materials. One way to do this is by studying one’s own lesson plans to see if they incorporate various ways that students can learn the language the teacher is modelling, practising or presenting, in order to appeal to a variety of learning styles and strategies. One’s teaching should allow learners to approach the task at hand in a variety of ways.
- Recent textbooks are now including strategy training as part of a content-centered approach, for example a conversation text states: "Managing Your Learning: Working with other language learners improves your listening and speaking skills" (from Earle-Carlin & Proctor)
- Through checklists, tests, and interviews, teachers can become aware of students tendencies, and then offer advice, a change, or other techniques
- Compensatory techniques help students overcome their weakness.
What is more, the teacher should carefully study his/her students’ own teaching. If the teacher wants to train his/her learners in using language learning strategies, it is very important to know something about students’ interests, motivations, and learning styles. By observation, one can notice what strategies students are already using (as mentioned above – by checklists, tests, interviews, etc.), and offer advice if necessary. Teachers can also conduct a short questionnaire. Sharkey for instance, asks students to complete statements such as "In this class I want to/will/won't....", "My favourite/least favourite kinds of class activities are...", "I am studying English because...", etc.
The application of learning strategies in the teaching depends on the kind of training (blind or informed) mentioned above.
There may be many approaches which refer to teacher’s role in learning strategy training, but it is virtually impossible to argue with a statement by Brown, that “Teaching learners how to learn is crucial”.
• ‘Learning Strategies in Second Language Acquisition’ J. Michael O’Malley, Anna Uhl Chamot
• ‘Learner Strategies for Learner Autonomy’ Anita Wenden
• ‘Learner Strategies in Language Learning’ Anita Wenden, Joan Rubin
• ‘Principles of Language Learning and Teaching’ – Third Edition – H. Douglas Brown