Achieving Success with Learning Strategies

Students learning a language have two kinds of knowledge working for them:

  • Their knowledge of their first language
  • Their awareness of learning strategies, the mechanisms they use, consciously or unconsciously, to manage the absorption of new material

Students differ as language learners in part because of differences in ability, motivation, or effort, but a major difference lies in their knowledge about and skill in using “how to learn” techniques, that is, learning strategies. Classroom research demonstrates the role of learning strategies in effective language learning:

  • Good learners are able to identify the best strategy for a specific task; poor learners have difficulty choosing the best strategy for a specific task
  • Good learners are flexible in their approach and adopt a different strategy if the first one doesn’t work; poor learners have a limited variety of strategies in their repertoires and stay with the first strategy they have chosen even when it doesn’t work
  • Good learners have confidence in their learning ability; poor learners lack confidence in their learning ability
  • Good learners expect to succeed, fulfill their expectation, and become more motivated; poor learners: expect to do poorly, fulfill their expectation, and lose motivation

Through learning strategies instruction, you can show your students that their success or lack of it in the language classroom is due to the way they go about learning rather than to forces beyond their control. Most students can learn how to use strategies more effectively; when they do so, they become more self reliant and better able to learn independently. They begin to take more responsibility for their own learning, and their motivation increases because they have increased confidence in their learning ability and specific techniques for successful language learning.

As a teacher, you can tap into students’ knowledge about how languages work and how learning happens – their metacognition — to help them direct and monitor the language learning process in two ways:

  • By encouraging them to recognize their own thinking processes. As they develop this kind of self-knowledge, their ability to self-regulate will also increase. They will become able to plan how to proceed with a learning task, monitor their own performance on an ongoing basis, and evaluate their learning upon task completion. Students with greater metacognitive awareness understand the similarity between the current learning task and previous ones, know the strategies required for successful learning, and anticipate success as a result of knowing how to learn.
  • By describing specific learning strategies, demonstrating their application to designated learning tasks, and having students practice using them. In order to continue to be successful with learning tasks, students need to be aware of the strategies that led to their success and recognize the value of using them again. By devoting class time to learning strategies, you can reiterate their importance and value.

The first step in providing strategies instruction is to identify the strategies that will be effective in the context of the language skills you are teaching. In the context of developing listening skills, for example, you may decide to demonstrate both the metacognitive strategy of monitoring and the task-based strategies of using background knowledge and using selective attention.

To teach language learning strategies effectively, you should do several things:

  • Build on the strategies your students already use by learning what their current strategies are and making them aware of the range of strategies used by their classmates
  • Integrate strategy instruction with regular lessons, rather than teaching the strategies separately from language learning activities
  • Be explicit: name the strategy, tell students why and how it will help them, and demonstrate its use
  • Provide choice by letting students decide which strategies work best for them
  • Guide students in transferring a familiar strategy to new problems
  • Plan continuous instruction in language learning strategies throughout the course
  • Use the target language as much as possible for strategies instruction

See Planning a Lesson for guidance on integrating strategy instruction into a language lesson.


Learning Strategies for Language Learners

Learning strategies researchers have generated many lists of strategies reported by students. Those listed here are ones that teachers can teach and that students have found useful in learning a language.

Metacognitive Strategies

  • Organize/plan
    • Set goals
    • Plan how to accomplish the task
    • Plan the task or content sequence
  • Manage your own learning
    • Determine how you learn best
    • Arrange conditions that help you learn
    • Seek opportunities for practice
    • Focus your attention on the task
  • Monitor while working on a task
    • Check your progress on the task
    • Check your comprehension as you use the language. Are you understanding?
    • Check your production as you use the language. Are you making sense?
  • Evaluate after completing a task
    • Assess how well you have accomplished the learning task
    • Assess how well you have used learning strategies
    • Decide how effective the strategies were in helping you accomplish the task

Task-based Strategies

Use what you know

  • Use background knowledge
    • Think about and use what you already know to help you do the task
    • Make associations
  • Make inferences
    • Use context and what you know to figure out meaning
    • Read and listen between the lines
  • Make predictions
    • Anticipate information to come
    • Make logical guesses about what will happen
  • Personalize
    • Relate new concepts to your own experiences, knowledge, beliefs, and feelings
  • Transfer / use cognates
    • Apply your linguistic knowledge of other languages (including your first language) to the target language
    • Recognize cognates
  • Substitute / paraphrase
    • Think of a similar word or descriptive phrase for words you do not know in the target language

Use your imagination

  • Use imagery
    • Use or create an image to understand or represent information
  • Use real objects / role play
    • Act out or imagine yourself in different roles in the target language
    • Manipulate real objects as you use the target language

Use your organizational skills

  • Find / apply patterns
    • Apply a rule
    • Make a rule
    • Sound out and apply letter / sound rules
  • Group / classify
    • Relate or categorize words and ideas according to attributes
  • Use graphic organizers / take notes
    • Use or create visual representations (such as time lines, charts, and Venn diagrams) to show important relationships between ideas
    • Write down important words and ideas
  • Summarize
    • Create a mental, oral, or written summary of information
  • Use selective attention
    • Focus on specific information, key words, phrases, or ideas

Use a variety of resources

  • Use information sources
    • Use the dictionary, the internet, and other reference materials
    • Seek out and use people, places, reading material, and other sources of information
    • Follow a model
    • Ask questions
  • Cooperate
    • Work with others to complete tasks, build confidence, and give and receive feedback
  • Talk yourself through it
    • Use your inner resources. Reduce your anxiety by reminding yourself of your progress, the resources you have available, and your goals.


Resources on Learning Strategies

Chamot, Anna Uhl. CALLA Content and Language Learning Strategies. (2006).

Chamot, Anna Uhl. Issues in Language Learning Strategy Research and Teaching. Electronic Journal of Foreign Language Teaching, Vol. 1 (2004).

Cohen, Andrew D. Second language learning and use strategies: Clarifying the issues. Center for Advanced Research on Language Acquisition, 1996.

Cohen, Andrew D. Strategy training for second language learners. ERIC Digest ED482492 (2003).

National Capital Language Resource Center. Defining and Organizing Language Learning Strategies.

Oxford, Rebecca. Language learning styles and strategies: An overview. In Jacqueline van Kampen & Sergio Baauw, Eds., Proceedings of GALA 2003. Netherlands Graduate School of Linguistics, 2004.

Rubin, Joan. Teaching language-learning strategies. In C. Chapelle, Ed., The encyclopedia of applied linguistics (Blackwell, 2013).

Wong, Lillian L. C., & David Nunan. The learning styles and strategies of effective language learners. System 39 (June 2011): 144-163.

Read More

Understanding Language Acquisition

Promoting Engagement in Language Learning

Understanding Multiple Intelligences



Material for this section is drawn from the module “Teaching Learning Strategies to Language Students” by Anna Uhl Chamot in Modules for the Professional Preparation of Teaching Assistants in Foreign Languages (Grace Stovall Burkart, Ed.; Washington, DC: Center for Applied Linguistics, 1998).