Language Learning Strategies: An Holistic View

By | Maret 12, 2017

Carol Griffiths
Fatih University, Istanbul, Turkey

Gökhan Cansiz
Fatih University, Istanbul, Turkey


The language learning strategy question has been debated on a number of levels, including definition, the strategy/success relationship and strategy coordination. In addition, awareness has been steadily growing of the importance of taking an holistic view of the strategy phenomenon and examining strategies not just in isolation but as part of an overall picture which includes learning situation, learning target and individual learner characteristics. This article will first of all review the literature and the previous research on these controversial issues, and suggest a workable definition. Then, in order to illustrate the importance of such an holistic view, the results of a small scale study which looks at the strategies used by 16 successful language learners who were all either teaching English or teaching in English at university level will be reported. The quantitative results indicated that these successful learners used many strategies, especially those that suited their goals and their situations; they also frequently used and carefully orchestrated strategy repertoires which suited their own individual needs. The responses of one highly successful respondent were also examined qualitatively. The implications of these findings and the importance of viewing learners holistically are discussed and suggestions are made for ongoing research.

Keywords: learner differences, learning target, learning context, orchestration, number, frequency

1. Introduction

When Rubin (1975) identified seven learning strategies which she believed to be typical of good language learners, it was optimistically anticipated that in order to learn language effectively, all that was necessary was for all learners to adopt the strategies used by good learners, and a great deal of effort was put into discovering what these strategies might be. Unfortunately, in the years since, this initial optimism has been shown to be overly simplistic, and controversy has raged on a number of fronts, beginning with the basic question of the very nature of strategies themselves.

2. Definition: What are strategies?

Rubin (1975) defined learning strategies as “the techniques or devices which a learner may use to acquire knowledge” (p. 43). Over the next decade, however, this very broad and general definition was interpreted in various and sometimes conflicting ways (e.g., Stern, 1975; Hosenfeld, 1976; Naiman, Frohlich, Stern, & Todesco, 1978; Cohen & Aphek, 1980; Bialystok, 1981) until by 1985, O’Malley, Chamot, Stewner-Manzanares, Kupper, and Russo (1985) were lamenting the lack of consensus regarding a definition which, they felt, was causing “considerable confusion” (p. 22) and impeding progress with research.

In the face of controversies raging at the time, by 2006 Macaro had abandoned the attempt to achieve a decisive definition and opted for listing defining characteristics instead. Gu (2012) adopted a similar position when he examined strategies in terms of prototypes. Griffiths (2008, 2013), however, argued, as O’Malley et al. (1985) had done more than 20 years before, that definition is necessary for meaningful research. From an extensive review of the literature she distilled a definition of language learning strategies which consists of a number of essential elements:

1. They are active. They are what learners do (Rubin, 1975). For this reason, they are typically expressed as verbs (usually the gerund, e.g., asking for help, or first person present tense, e.g., I look for opportunities). This helps to distinguish strategies from styles, with which they are often confused. Styles are a learner’s preferred ways of learning, typically expressed as adjectives (e.g., auditory, visual, etc.).

2. The “consciousness” dimension remains problematic, in as far as it is used by different people at various times to mean different things, and it is, therefore, in itself, almost impossible to define. Even in a medical environment with specialist equipment, it can be difficult to determine if someone is conscious or not.

3. Strategies are chosen (e.g., Bialystok, 1981; Cohen, 2011). Clearly, actions which are dictated by others (e.g., the teacher) are not strategic, and are unlikely to be used beyond the immediate task. Conversely, good learners have a repertoire of strategies from which they can select the most useful ones to suit the current need.

4. Strategies are goal-oriented (e.g., Macaro, 2006; Oxford, 2011). Actions chosen at random for no particular purpose cannot be considered strategies.

5. The use of the term regulating in Griffiths’s (2008) definition also requires further explanation. Regulation is commonly used more or less synonymously with other terms such as management, control and the like. In other words, regulatory strategies might be considered what others (e.g., Anderson, 2008; O’Malley et al., 1985) call metacognitive, or what Oxford (2011) terms metastrategies. But not all strategies are “meta.”

6. Language learning strategies are, exactly as the term suggests, for learning language. There are other kinds of strategies, of course, such as communication strategies or teaching strategies, and the different kinds of strategies may become intertwined and difficult to distinguish.

In view of the above, let us suggest an updated definition: Language learning strategies are actions chosen (either deliberately or automatically) for the purpose of learning or regulating the learning of language.

3. Relationship of strategies to successful learning

As Porte (1988) and Vann and Abraham (1990) noted, although their unsuccessful language learners were very active strategy users, they appeared to be unable to choose strategies appropriate for the task at hand; in other words, they were unable to orchestrate their strategy repertoires effectively. Anderson (2008) discusses the importance of strategy orchestration, pointing out that strategies are not an isolated phenomenon: They are interdependent, and it is important that learners are able to integrate their strategies so that they work well together if they are to achieve positive outcomes.

3.1. Individual learner differences

Strategy use is often believed to be associated with learning style, defined by Reid (1995) as “an individual’s natural, habitual and preferred way(s) of absorbing, processing and retaining new information and skills” (p. viii). In turn, learning style may be influenced by personality, a broader concept defined as “those aspects of an individual’s behaviour, attitudes, beliefs, thought, actions and feelings which are seen as typical and distinctive of that person” (Richards & Schmidt, 2010, p. 431).

3.2. The learning target/goal

Goal orientation—or, as Rubin (1975, p. 48) calls it, “the task”—is another variable that good language learners must deal with in order to achieve success. Strategies will vary, for instance, according to whether students are aiming to develop skills, vocabulary, grammar, pronunciation or pragmatic competence. Students studying General English may need to adopt different strategies if their goal changes to passing an international exam.

3.3. The learning context/situation

The study abroad context is another which may well require adjustments to familiar patterns of thinking and behaviour (e.g., Irie & Ryan, 2015). Others who have examined the role of context in language learning and strategy deployment include Ryan (2006), who considered the effects of the global context on language learning; Takeuchi, Griffiths, and Coyle (2007), who examined the effect of individual, group and contextual differences on strategy choice; Gao (2010), who compared the role of agency and context in relation to strategy use; and Griffiths et al. (2014), who took a narrative view of strategy use in East Asian contexts.

4. Method

4.1. Participants and setting

In order to investigate this question, 16 successful learners were identified. The participants were deliberately chosen to be from different places (Participant 1 = Brazil, 2 = China, 3 = the Czech Republic, 4 = Finland, 5 = Greece, 6 = India, 7 = Iran, 8 = Japan, 9 = Kazakhstan, 10 = Kenya, 11 = South Korea, 12 = Kyrgyzstan, 13 = Pakistan, 14 = Poland, 15 = Russia, 16 = Turkey.) in order to minimize the possibility of cultural bias. Furthermore, half of them were male and half female in order to minimize the potential for gender bias.

The participants were all either teaching English or teaching in English at tertiary level, a position which, by its nature, requires a reasonably high level of English. In addition, they were all personally known to the first author (an experienced examiner of international exams), who is able to confirm that they were all productively competent, that is, they were all capable of speaking and writing with high levels of fluency, accuracy and appropriacy.

4.2. Data collection

In order to investigate the research question, a questionnaire was constructed including items on strategy quantity, frequency and orchestration, plus the way strategies were chosen according to individual characteristics, learning goal and learning situation (see Appendix A). Participants were asked to rate each item according to how strongly they agreed from 1 (strongly disagree) to 5 (strongly agree), and there was also space allowed for comments. Since the participants were widely scattered geographically, delivering the questionnaires in person was simply not practical; they were sent out by email and returned at the participants’ convenience.

4.3. Data analysis

The data obtained from the questionnaires was entered into SPSS and a ratings total for each participant was calculated. Since Likert-scale data is nonparametric, the ratings were analysed for medians and sums. Additionally, as strategy use is often thought to vary according to gender, and the gender balance of the sample was exactly 50/50, differences were also calculated for gender using a nonparametric test of differences (Mann-Whitney U).

The numerical data was then used as a background to a further qualitative analysis of the responses of Participant 16, who scored Band 9 IELTS (the only participant to have such a standardized measure of proficiency). His extensive comments were examined for the richer insights they might provide into the strategies used by successful learners.

5. Results

5.1. Questionnaire results

The total ratings for each item indicate that the participants were most strongly in agreement that they used strategies frequently, and that they chose their strategies to suit their goals (for both, sum = 66, median = 4). They were least in agreement about the choice of strategies so that they worked well together (orchestration: sum = 49, median = 3). These results are set out in Table 1 in Appendix B.

The differences between male and female levels of agreement were not significant except for Item 2 (“I used strategies frequently”), with the females more strongly agreeing that they used strategies frequently than the males (Males = 30, Females = 36, Mann-Whitney U: p < .05). Actually, more frequent use of strategies by females is commonly reported in the strategy literature though it is not always significant, as in the case of this study.

5.2. Qualitative results

In order to further explore individual strategy use, we can examine the comments contributed by Participant 16, whose total rating over all 6 items was 29 out of 30, a rating only equalled by Participant 12, a multilingual teacher from Kyrgyzstan, fluent in her own language plus Russian, Turkish and English. In other words, both of these participants were very successful language learners. However, it is only Participant 16 for whom we have a standardized exam score, so we will confine our further exploration to the extensive comments that he made in addition to the questionnaire ratings. These responses are as he wrote them, though occasionally abbreviated in order to keep within the prescribed word limit.

5.2.1. Item 1: “I used many strategies: Which strategies did you use?”

It all depended on the skill/area. For phonology, I wrote down the pronunciation of every word I learned in IPA. For vocabulary, I kept a notebook where I wrote new words and their forms (as in manner-ism-s). I used writing as a strategy for syntax as well. I had notebooks for new sentence structures, which I tried to use in my essays. The meaning component of learning had a life of its own. I would buy thesauri and dictionaries that explained nuances of meaning.

5.2.2. Item 2: “I used strategies frequently”

Indeed, I did. Every time I needed to learn something, I had to make it meaningful for me, a common ‘superstrategy’ but the strategies were a form of writing, repeating, and memorizing. I think the strategies were something like:
1. Identify a problem (phrasal verbs, for example).
2. Find a book that addresses the topic.
3. Devour the book.
4. Try to identify what you’ve learned.
5. Try to remember them when you do writing or speaking.
6. If you cannot remember, go back to the book or refer to a dictionary.

5.2.3. Item 3: “I chose my strategies so that they worked well together”

I’d started putting a dot next to every entry in the dictionary that I looked up. When I saw – after several years – that some entries had a dozen dots next to them, I felt that I had to ‘quarantine’ such words that refused to sink in. I started to pay more attention to the way they were used in actual sentences.

5.2.4. Item 4: “I chose strategies to suit my individual characteristics: Which characteristics?” Style/personality

When you want to be better than others, a desire I believe to be an essential part of personality, you have to know what others do (in this case, their strategies) but also do something extra, or at least personalize it in some way. So it is a kind of competition between me and others, although they may never know about it. But sometimes I transform it into a game. For example, years ago when I started working at a language school where there were more than 70 teachers with quite a few of whom I got along well, I would play vocabulary games with my colleagues, asking the meaning or pronunciation or usage of a word. Gender

I never felt a strategy could be feminine or masculine, though I heard others imply (or express) they might be. Speaking in front of a mirror is an example. When I talk about it in front of a group of learners, especially some males find it abominable and laugh it aside. Or keeping extremely neat notebooks may seem girlish, but I don’t care. I’m proud of every effort I spend. Age

Age might still have a say in the type of strategies I use. After thirty-five, I’d rather listen than read and speak rather than write. It might have something to do with my deteriorating sight or boredom with the written word. So lectures and documentaries on YouTube turned into a pastime, dethroning the supremacy of vocabulary notebooks. Now I believe I have an arsenal of strategies that can target a variety of needs. Beliefs

If you want to conquer a language, first you need a map of the enemy territory (OK, this is a terrible analogy. I have to say there is no hostility in this battle). You also need to know the correct inventory of your weapons (i.e. strategies), the number and ability of soldiers (i.e. your competence in the form of language skills), what to do during your march into the foreign territory along with means of communication (i.e. measuring your advancement). And each requires a strategy. Autonomy

I certainly needed a human teacher (in contrast to a computer program), but there had to be a roundabout route because such teachers are not available at every corner or when you happen to find them they are usually too busy to offer a helping hand. Then I found what I was looking for in several language exams that directly tested paraphrasing, though in a more rudimentary and controlled way. Now I had a way of assessing my performance by some external, objective measure. Affect

I’ve had to take classes from all kinds of professors in my undergraduate and graduate studies. I always felt my knowledge of the language would empower me against all teachers, especially mean ones. The same was true about my feeling of rivalry with friends, although I always looked the most uncompetitive person. What they knew, I had to know, but I also had to know something extra. Aptitude

I don’t believe I have an aptitude for languages: I simply believe in the power of brute force, that is putting in as much time as possible. Someone more talented would be much better than what I am now. An individual factor might be an internal drive to be better than all others, maybe a log to hold onto in the gushing waters of life. Motivation

I feel bad when I do not know what others do. When a friend knows a word I don’t, I get nervous. This motivates me to avoid such disappointment.

5.2.5. Item 5: “I chose strategies to suit my learning goal: What was your goal?”
I developed an appetite for reading. I chose a novelist (Jeffrey Archer, for example) and read all his books (at least all I could find). For listening I remember times when I would sit by the radiator, earphones on, listening to BBC or VOA with a shortwave radio, when my friends in the dorm went to sleep.

5.2.6. Item 6: “I chose strategies to suit my learning situation: What was your learning situation?”

The learning context is also inevitably affected by the culture in which it is situated. The effects of culture as a whole on language learning strategies are hard to measure, yet subcultures like those between peers and colleagues or within institutions seem to play a part.

6. Discussion

This study has produced some useful findings, but it has looked at just a small sample scattered around the world, and is therefore very limited in terms of numbers, both overall (N = 16) and in terms of having just one participant from each location. Both greater breadth and greater depth are required. In terms of obtaining a broader picture, a useful way to follow up this study, in line with recent calls for greater contextual sensitivity, would be to use the survey with larger numbers in just one location, thereby providing a more detailed examination of the individual contexts. When this has been done in a number of different places, a metaanalysis could be undertaken to investigate the generalizability of findings across various contexts. As for greater depth, more qualitative investigation of the type presented in this paper may provide us with deeper understandings of the strategy use of real individuals in actual contexts.

7. Conclusion

The challenge for today is to continue with efforts to achieve consensus on important issues such as, especially, definition, but also underlying theory, strategy assessment and data analysis with which this article has had no space to deal. We also need to continue with attempts to find ways to help students “improve their performance” (p. 41), as Joan Rubin put it 40 years ago. In order to do this, we need to find ways to investigate how learners with a complicated mixture of individual characteristics, from a wide variety of situations and aiming at diverse learning targets can effectively utilize language learning strategies in order to maximize their chances of success.

Of course, no single study can investigate all of these variables at once, and in the interest of feasibility, the research task may well need to be broken down into manageable chunks. Nevertheless, it is important to remember that any one result, however interesting, will only be one piece of the overall picture. Language learning is an extremely complex undertaking, and learners are multifaceted; it is therefore important when interpreting insights from research that they are viewed holistically and that all relevant individual, contextual and target variables are taken into account.


Carol Griffiths & Gökhan Cansiz. (2015). Language learning strategies: an holistic view. Studies in Second Language Learning and Teaching, 5 (3), 473-493.

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