ERIC Identifier: ED317087
Publication Date: 1989-12-00
Author: Oxford, Rebecca
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on
Languages and Linguistics Washington DC.
The Role of Styles and Strategies in Second Language Learning.
Consider the very different behaviors or strategies that individual students
use to learn a new language. Shy, introverted, analytically-oriented Marianne
learns Spanish through grammar drills and sentence analysis. Uncomfortable with
spontaneous speech in Spanish, she rehearses as much as she can in private. In
contrast, sociable, extroverted, globally-oriented Jose from Mexico avoids
grammar drills but seeks out social conversation in English, his new language;
he is content to get the general meaning without knowing every word.
When intuitive Bill studies Russian, he constantly tries to build a mental
model or big picture of the language. He avoids step-by-step language learning.
Noriko, attuned more to the senses (movement, sound, sight, and touch) than to
intuition, looks for English texts that proceed one step at a time. She uses
flashcards, and with her classmates, she initiates "total physical response"
exercises that involve all the senses.
Serious Sarah outlines every French lesson, plans her study sessions, does
all the exercises in her textbook religiously, and is not happy unless she is on
time or ahead of schedule. Playful Michael tells jokes in German and has fun
with the language, but has trouble organizing his work, coming to closure, and
submitting his assignments on time.
These learners are using different kinds of language learning strategies, or
specific actions and behaviors to help them learn. Their strategies differ
greatly, at least in part because their general learning styles (overall
approaches to learning and the environment) are so varied. Recent research
(Ehrman & Oxford, 1988, 1989; Oxford & Ehrman, 1988) suggests that
learning style has a significant influence on students' choice of learning
strategies, and that both styles and strategies affect learning outcomes.
This Digest briefly summarizes existing research on learning styles and
strategies in foreign and second language learning. Readers are urged to go
further by consulting the references provided at the end of the Digest.
WHAT IS MEANT BY LEARNING STYLE?
The term learning style is
used to encompass four aspects of the person: cognitive style, i.e., preferred
or habitual patterns of mental functioning; patterns of attitudes and interests
that affect what an individual will pay most attention to in a learning
situation; a tendency to seek situations compatible with one's own learning
patterns; and a tendency to use certain learning strategies and avoid others
(Lawrence, 1984). Learning style is inherent and pervasive (Willing, 1988) and
is a blend of cognitive, affective, and behavioral elements (Oxford &
Ehrman, 1988). At least twenty dimensions of learning style have been identified
(Parry, 1984; Shipman & Shipman, 1985).
"Field independence vs. dependence." One of the most widely researched
dimensions of learning style is field independence vs. dependence. Field
independent learners easily separate key details from a complex or confusing
background, while their field dependent peers have trouble doing this. Field
independent learners show significant advantages over field dependent learners
in analytical tasks (Hansen & Stansfield, 1981; Chapelle & Roberts,
"Analytic vs. global processing" seems to be closely allied with field
independence vs. dependence, and indeed may be a more fundamental and more
explanatory dimension of learning style. However, little foreign or second
language learning research exists concerning the analytic-global dimension
except in the context of brain hemisphericity. The left hemisphere of the brain
deals with language through analysis and abstraction, while the right hemisphere
recognizes language as more global auditory or visual patterns (Willing, 1988).
Leaver (1986) speculates that right-brain learners--those who prefer the kinds
of processing done by the right side of the brain--are more facile at learning
intonation and rhythms of the target language, whereas left-brain learners deal
more easily with analytic aspects of target language grammar.
"Cooperation vs. competition" has been only lightly studied as a dimension of
style in the language learning field. Reid (1987) found that in the language
classroom, learners rarely report using cooperative behaviors (behaviors that
one would infer to reflect a cooperative style); however, this finding might
well be related to instructional methodologies that often preclude cooperation
and foster competition. In studies where students were taught specifically to be
cooperative, results revealed vast improvement in language skills as well as
increased self-esteem, motivation, altruism, and positive attitudes toward
others (Gunderson & Johnson, 1980; Sharan et al., 1985; Jacob & Mattson,
"Tolerance for ambiguity" is another style dimension of language learning.
Learning a language can be a difficult and at times ambiguous endeavor, and
students who can more readily tolerate ambiguity often show the best language
learning performance (see Chapelle & Roberts; 1986, Naiman, Frohlich &
The Myers-Briggs Type indicator (Myers & McCaulley, 1985) contributes
four more dimensions to learning style: extraversion vs. introversion, sensing
vs. intuition, thinking vs. feeling, and judging vs. perceiving (the last
dimension referring to the immediateness of the need for closure). Several of
these dimensions appear to significantly influence how students choose to learn
languages, according to recent research (Ehrman & Oxford, 1988, 1989; Oxford
& Ehrman, 1988).
Other important style aspects that may relate to language learning
performance are leveling-sharpening of detail, reflectivity-impulsivity, and
constricted-flexible thinking (Parry, 1984). Additional research needs to be
conducted on all style dimensions in order for teachers to understand more about
the basic stylistic preferences of their students.
WHAT ARE LEARNING STRATEGIES?
Language learning strategies
are the often-conscious steps or behaviors used by language learners to enhance
the acquisition, storage, retention, recall, and use of new information (Rigney,
1978; Oxford, 1990). Strategies can be assessed in a variety of ways, such as
diaries, think-aloud procedures, observations, and surveys. Research both
outside the language field (e.g., Brown, Bransford, Ferrara, & Campione,
1983) and investigations with language learners (see reviews by Skehan, 1989;
Oxford 1989; Oxford & Crookall, 1989) frequently show that the most
successful learners tend to use learning strategies that are appropriate to the
material, to the task, and to their own goals, needs, and stage of learning.
More proficient learners appear to use a wider range of strategies in a greater
number of situations than do less proficient learners, but the relationship
between strategy use and proficiency is complex. Research indicates that
language learners at all levels use strategies (Chamot & Kupper, 1989), but
that some or most learners are not fully aware of the strategies they use or the
strategies that might be most beneficial to employ.
Many different strategies can be used by language learners: metacognitive
techniques for organizing, focusing, and evaluating one's own learning;
affective strategies for handling emotions or attitudes; social strategies for
cooperating with others in the learning process; cognitive strategies for
linking new information with existing schemata and for analyzing and classifying
it; memory strategies for entering new information into memory storage and for
retrieving it when needed; and compensation strategies (such as guessing or
using gestures) to overcome deficiencies and gaps in one's current language
knowledge (see Oxford, 1990).
Language learning strategy research has suffered from an overemphasis on
metacognitive and cognitive strategies, which are admittedly very important, at
the expense of other strategy types that are also very useful.
Some preliminary research suggests the existence of sex differences in
strategy use (see review by Oxford, Nyikos, & Ehrman, 1988). Choice of
language strategies also relates strongly to ethnicity, language learning
purpose, the nature of the task, and other factors (see Politzer, 1983; Politzer
& McGroarty, 1985; Oxford, 1989). As noted earlier, one of these related
factors is, no doubt, learning style.
Important effects of training in the use of language learning strategies have
been discovered by a number of researchers (see Atkinson, 1985; Bejarano, 1987;
Chamot & Kupper, 1989; Cohen & Hosenfeld, 1981; Oxford, Crookall,
Lavine, Cohen, Nyikos & Sutter, forthcoming). It is clear that students can
be taught to use better strategies, and research suggests that better strategies
improve language performance. Just how language learning strategies should be
taught is open to question, but so far it has been confirmed that strategy
training is generally more effective when woven into regular classroom
activities than when presented as a separate strategy course.
Language learning styles and strategies appear to be among the most important
variables influencing performance in a second language. Much more investigation
is necessary to determine the precise role of styles and strategies, but even at
this stage in our understanding we can state that teachers need to become more
aware of both learning styles and learning strategies through appropriate
teacher training. Teachers can help their students by designing instruction that
meets the needs of individuals with different stylistic preferences and by
teaching students how to improve their learning strategies.
Atkinson, R.C. (1985). Mnemotechnics in
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Bejarano, Y. (1987). A cooperative small-group methodology in the language classroom. "TESOL Quarterly," 2, pp483-504.
Brown, A.L., Bransford, J.D., Ferrara, R. & Campione, J.C. (1983). Learning, remembering, and understanding. In J.N. Flavell & E. M. Markham (Eds.), "Carmichael's manual of child psychology, v1." New York, NY: Wiley.
Chamot, A.U. & Kupper, L. (1989). Learning strategies in foreign language instruction. "Foreign Language Annals," 22, pp13-24.
Chapelle, C. & Roberts, C. (1986). Ambiguity tolerance and field independence as predictors in English as a second language. "Language Learning," 36(1) pp27-45.
Cohen, A.D. & Hosenfeld, C. (1981). Some uses of mentalistic data in second language acquisition. "Language Learning," 31, pp285-313.
Ehrman, M. & Oxford, R. (1988). "Ants and grasshoppers, badgers and butterflies: Qualitative and quantitative exploration of adult language learning styles and strategies." Paper presented at the Symposium on Research Perspectives on Adult Language Learning and Acquisition, Ohio State University, Columbus, OH.
Ehrman, M. & Oxford, R. (1989). Effects of sex differences, career choice, and psychological type on adults' language learning strategies. "Modern Language Journal," 73, pp1-13.
Gunderson, B. & Johnson, D. (1980). Building positive attitudes by using cooperative learning groups. "Foreign Language Annals," 13, pp39-43.
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Jacob, E. & Mattson, B. (1987). "Using cooperative learning with language minority students: A report from the field." Washington, DC: Center for Language Education and Research. Center for Applied Linguistics.
Lawrence, G. (1984). A synthesis of learning style research involving the MBTI. "Journal of Psychological Type," 8, pp2-15.
Leaver, B.L. (1986). Hemispherity of the brain and foreign language teaching. "Folia Slavica," 8, pp76-90.
Myers, I. & McCaulley, M. (1985). "Manual: A guide to the development and use of the Myers-Briggs type indicator." Palo Alto, CA: Consulting Psychologists Press.
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