Chapter 2: Defining and Organizing Language Learning Strategies

In this chapter we will introduce you to 20 learning strategies that you can teach to your students to improve their learning of the foreign language.

As we emphasized in the preceding chapter, extensive research into learning strategies reveals the importance and relevance of this instruction for language students. However, as experienced teachers we know that incorporating a new approach into our instruction is not an easy task. This chapter focuses on preparing both teachers and students for learning strategies instruction. We begin by answering some of the most commonly asked questions about learning strategies. We also share the techniques and explain the importance of establishing a learner-centered environment in the classroom before beginning strategies instruction.

I. Answers to Some of the Most Common Questions about Learning Strategies Instruction

At this point, you may be thinking, "Twenty learning strategies? How do I find the time to teach 20 learning strategies in my already full schedule of teaching language skills?" And even more importantly, you may be thinking about your students: "How receptive will they be to learning strategies? How do I prepare them for learning strategies instruction?" Explicit strategies instruction may entail not only a new experience for you and your students, but also new roles in the learning process. The purpose of this section is to respond to these important questions and provide suggestions for getting started with learning strategies instruction.

What are Learning Strategies?

Learning strategies are the thoughts and/or actions that students use to complete learning tasks. We all know that good teachers use numerous teaching strategies to help students learn. We use visuals to introduce new ideas, we direct students' attention to important elements, and we activate students' background knowledge before introducing a new concept.

Learning strategies, however, are the tools that students themselves can employ independently to complete a language task. For instance, a student who needs to learn a list of vocabulary words might draw a picture to remember each word.

It is important to distinguish between teaching strategies and learning strategies. Think about yourself in two different roles - as a language teacher and as a language student. Look at Table 1 below for examples of strategies you might use as a teacher and those you might use as a student.




Background Knowledge

Activate your studentsí prior knowledge in order to build new material on what they already know.

Think about what you already know about a topic to help you learn more about it.


Through discussion, link new material to your studentsí experiences and feelings using guiding questions or other activities.

Link new material to your personal experiences and feelings.


Have your students read a text, then summarize it to aid comprehension.

After you read a text, stop a moment and summarize the meaning to help your comprehension

Use Imagery

Create a meaningful context for your students by accompanying new information with figures, illustrations, and photographs.

Associate new information with a mental or printed image to help you learn it.

Learning strategies take different forms. Strategies like Make Inferences, in which students derive meaning from context, are mental processes that are difficult to observe. Other strategies like Use Graphic Organizers/Take Notes can be easily observed and measured. What is important for the purpose of this guide is that strategies can be learned.

What is Learning Strategies Instruction?

Students who analyze and reflect on their learning are more effective learners; that is, they are more able to acquire, retain, and apply new information and skills. Yet students often use learning strategies in a sporadic manner, applying them inappropriately or overusing the limited number they know.

Learning strategies instruction is one means of improving students' acquisition of a foreign language. It gives them an explicit vocabulary to use in talking about their learning experiences so that they can build a repertoire of strategies. Students do not just acquire new strategies; they discover how and when to apply them. Their ability to use strategies effectively and to match them appropriately with tasks has broad implications for learning both content and language.

The goal of learning strategies instruction is for students to become independent learners with the ability to use strategies aptly in a variety of contexts. In the beginning, however, learning when and in what contexts to use particular strategies or groups of strategies requires direction and guidance from the teacher.

How Do We Name and Organize Language Learning Strategies for Instruction?

There are a number of different names and classification systems for learning strategies (for a very good review see Hsiao & Oxford, 2002). There are few "rights" and "wrongs" in learning strategies taxonomies, but specific ways of organizing the strategies can be useful for different teaching situations. Here, we have provided you a with list of 20 commonly used and effective language learning strategies grouped in a way that we think will help you seamlessly integrate strategies instruction into your FL classroom teaching. Students can use these strategies to master the 5 Cs: Communication, Cultures, Connections, Comparisons, and Communities. They will improve their skills in reading, writing, speaking, listening, mastering grammatical features, vocabulary, and learning content. In other words, the strategies are relevant to the foreign language teacher's emphasis on the 5 Cs and facilitate the integration of content and language objectives.

We have divided the 20 strategies into two categories: "Metacognitive" and "Task-Based." The Metacognitive Strategies can be used for almost any task and are based on reflecting on one's own thinking while the Task-Based Learning Strategies are more determined by the specific nature of the task and the resources of the student.

II. Metacognitive Learning Strategies

Metacognitive learning strategies are general learning strategies. Reflecting upon your own thinking and learning is metacognitive thinking. Once students begin to think about their own learning, they can then begin to notice how they learn, how others learn, and how they might adjust how they learn to learn more efficiently. We list four general metacognitive strategies:

These metacognitive strategies follow the sequential order of the process a learner generally goes through in accomplishing any task. What do I do before I start? (Organize/Plan) What do I do while I am working on the task? (Manage) How do I make sure I am doing the task correctly? (Monitor) What do I do after I have finished the task ? (Evaluate) It is important to remember, however, that learners are not as linear as our models suggest. In reality, we go back and forth: planning, then monitoring, then planning again, managing, organizing, etc.

III. Task-Based Learning Strategies

The "Task-Based Learning Strategies" focus on how students can use their own resources to learn most effectively. There are 16 task-based strategies in the list. We have divided them into four categories that are grouped by the kinds of resources students already have, or can get, to help them complete specific tasks. By focusing students' attention on their resources, we emphasize their ability to take responsibility for their own learning.

Within each of these four groups, you will find specific strategies that are examples of what the students can do with these resources to help them learn. For example, in the group "Use What You Know" we include Use Background Knowledge, Make Inferences, Make Predictions, and Transfer/Use Cognates.

The model in Figure 1, Applying Language Learning Strategies, illustrates the relationship between the Metacognitive and the Task-Based Learning Strategies. This image embodies the learner-centered nature of strategy instruction. Oliver, our student, is at the core, and has a language learning task to complete. He decides to use a strategic, problem-solving approach. He recognizes that problem-solving involves various stages, planning, monitoring, managing and evaluating. However, these stages are exhibited as a circle because Oliver may visit and revisit each of these phases throughout the task. During each phase, he is equipped with a variety of specific learning strategies that he can use (either alone or in tandem) to help him complete the task. The strategies have been categorized according to learner-friendly sections, (What You Know, Your Imagination, Organizational Skills, Variety of Resources), to help clarify how to use the learning techniques effectively.

Looking through the list of strategies, you might think that people use learning strategies one at a time and that learning strategies are clearly delimited in function and in use. Reality, of course, is never that simple. Many learning tasks are accomplished using a number of different learning strategies, sometimes simultaneously and sometimes in sequence. However, teaching learning strategies one-by-one, giving each one a name and a definition, and using examples, gives you a way to talk to your students about thinking and learning. It gives the students a way to talk to themselves about their own thinking. You develop a common vocabulary that will then allow you and your students to talk about how to choose and integrate strategies for different kinds of language learning tasks.

Below you will find the "Learning Strategies List for Students" that you can share with your students. This list outlines the language learning strategies discussed above; it provides names for the strategies, descriptions of strategies, a picture of a key concept related to the meaning of each learning strategy, and a keyword that might be used with students to help them remember the strategy. You will probably want to teach the names of the strategies in the target language. Learning Strategies Lists in Arabic, Chinese, French, German, Greek, Hebrew, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish, and Swedish follow the English language version.

Strategy Description
Organize / Plan calendar
  • Plan the task or content sequence. 
  • Set goals.
  • Plan how to accomplish the task.
Manage Your Own Learning pace yourself
Pace Yourself
  • Determine how you learn best.
  • Arrange conditions that help you learn.
  • Seek opportunities for practice.
  • Focus your attention on the task.
Monitor check
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 I did it!
I did it!
After completing a task:
  • Assess how well you have accomplished the learning task.
  • Assess how well you have applied the strategies.
  • Decide how effective the strategies were in helping you accomplish the task.
Strategy Description
Use Background Knowledge I know
I know.
  • Think about and use what you already know to help you do the task.
  •  Make associations.
Make Inferences Use Clues
Use Clues
  • Use context and what you know to figure out meaning.
  • Read and listen between the lines.
Make Predictions Crystal Ball
Crystal Ball
  • Anticipate information to come.
  • Make logical guesses about what will happen.
Personalize Me
  • Relate new concepts to your own life, that is, to your experiences, knowledge, beliefs and feelings.
Transfer / Use Cognates  telephone
  • Apply your linguistic knowledge of other languages (including your native language) to the target language.
  • Recognize cognates.
Substitute / Paraphrase Spare Tire
Spare Tire
  • Think of a similar word or descriptive phrase for words you do not know in the target language.
Strategy Description
Use Imagery Mirror, Mirror
Mirror, Mirror
  • Use or create an image to understand and/or represent information.
Use Real Objects / Role Play Lights, Camera, Action!
Lights, Camera, Action!
  • Act out and/or imagine yourself in different roles in the target language.
  • Manipulate real objects as you use the target language.
Strategy Description
Find/Apply Patterns Pattern
  • Apply a rule.
  • Make a rule.
  • Sound out and apply letter/sound rules.
Group/Classify Sort Suits
Sort Suits 
  • Relate or categorize words or ideas according to attributes.
Use Graphic Organizers/Take Notes Notepad
  • Use or create visual representations (such as Venn diagrams, time lines, and charts) of important relationships between concepts.
  • Write down important words and ideas.
Main Idea
  • Create a mental, oral, or written summary of information
Use Selective Attention lookforit
Look for It 
  • Focus on specific information, structures, key words, phrases, or ideas.
Strategy Description
Access Information Sources Read all about it!
Read all about it!
  • Use the dictionary, the internet, and other reference materials.
  • Seek out and use sources of information.
  • Follow a model
  • Ask questions
  • Work with others to complete tasks, build confidence, and give and receive feedback.
Talk Yourself Through It (SelfTalk) I can do it
I can do it!
  • Use your inner resources. Reduce your anxiety by reminding yourself of your progress, the resources you have available, and your goals.



The chart of "Learning Strategies for Elementary Immersion Students" gave you an outline of language learning strategies for children. Now you have a general idea of what learning strategies are in general and how they are organized. It is still difficult, however, to imagine how learning strategies fit into the context of teaching content in a language immersion program.

On the next few pages, you will find more detailed descriptions of each strategy. They include a definition of the purpose of each strategy, a more in-depth description of the contexts in which they can be used, and an example of how an elementary immersion student might use the learning strategy to complete an academic task.

These descriptions will be particularly useful as you prepare to teach your students how to use a specific learning strategy, or when you seek strategies to help them with a particular task.



Purpose: Students make a plan of what they need to do and organize their thoughts and activities in order to tackle a complex task step-by-step. This preparation helps them complete more intricate tasks than would otherwise be possible.
Context: Organize/Plan is helpful before starting any large task that can be broken down into smaller parts to make it more manageable. It is an especially important strategy for target language writing tasks.
Example: A student wants to write a thank you letter to his teacher for tutoring him after school. He has lots of ideas about what to write, but he is not sure how to put them in order. He jots the ideas down on some index cards and organizes them (trying out different orders, eliminating less important ideas, etc.) before copying them onto clean paper.


Purpose: This strategy is central to problem solving. Students reflect on their own learning styles and strategies. They regulate their own learning conditions to maximize achieving their goals. Students determine how they learn best, they arrange conditions to help themselves learn, they focus attention on the task, and they seek opportunities for practice in the target language. Manage also refers to the self-regulation of feelings and motivation. Independent learners must have a sense of how to manage their own learning.
Context: Manage Your Own Learning is an important part of problem solving on any task.
Example: A Grade Six immersion French student is writing a science report for homework on the effects of pollution in the U.S. She decides that she will do her paper in her room where it is quiet because otherwise she could be distracted. She is not very interested in the topic, but her goal is to do well in science this year, so she motivates herself to do the task by reminding herself that she has done well so far, and that this topic is really very important. She does her research on the Web, and makes sure to do a search in French as well as English so that she will have exposure to the vocabulary and concepts she needs to write her paper in the target language. After working hard on the paper and doing a good job, she rewards herself with a break to call friends.


Purpose: Students question whether an idea makes sense in order to check the clarity of their understanding or expression in the target language. Students are aware of how well a task is progressing and notice when comprehension breaks down.
Context: Monitor is important for any task.
Example: If a student asks how to divide three in half and the teacher tells her, "Yes, you may get a drink from the water fountain," the student who is monitoring would realize that her question did not communicate her intended meaning!


Purpose: Judging for themselves how well they learned material or performed on a task helps students identify their strengths and weaknesses so they can do even better the next time. Assessing how well a strategy works for them helps students decide which strategies they prefer to use on particular tasks.
Context: Evaluate can help students after completing a task.
Example: A student who finds writing in the target language difficult thinks about what makes it hard for her. She knows she is good at communication but makes a lot of mistakes in grammar. She decides to pay more attention to grammar in the future. In art class, a student uses Use Selective Attention to listen closely to directions while the teacher explains how to make a paper boat. She tries to do it herself but does not succeed. She decides to look at the teacher's book which has illustrations of the process. She tells her teacher that Access Information Sources worked better for her on this task than Use Selective Attention.


Purpose: Students reflect on what they already know about a task or topic so that it is easier to learn and understand new information. The strategy helps them see the connection between what they know and what they are learning.
Context: Students can Use Background Knowledge whenever they know anything related to a task or topic.
Example: When beginning a Health lesson about public safety, students can tell each other what they already know about protecting themselves from strangers. They can describe how they recognize police officers and what they have been taught to do if they get lost.


Purpose: Using context clues, students manage to decipher new vocabulary or figure out the meaning of a text or speech. They make guesses based on pictures, headlines, surrounding text, gestures and body language, or other information related to the task.
Context: Guess! Thats right: its a problem solving technique that works at any stage of the learning process and is useful in numerous contexts.
Example: To find the word for clean in German, a student reads the back of his classroom soap bottle instead of looking it up in the dictionary. He figures it will probably be on the "How to use this product" part of the label. Knowing it can be a verb, he finds clean easily. The time-honored traditions of "figuring it out from context" and "making educated guesses" are both examples of Make Inferences.

Purpose: Students figure out what they can expect in a task based on their background knowledge and information about the task at hand. They prepare for the rest of the task and direct their efforts to completing it based on their predictions.
Context: Make Predictions can be used whenever students have enough relevant background knowledge to be able to make reasonable predictions about the task. As they learn new information, they may refine or modify previous predictions.
Example: A student chooses a book to read during silent reading time. The cover of the book shows a picture of a barn and some animals. Based on this picture, the student predicts that the story will take place on a farm.


Purpose: Students relate information to their feelings, opinions or personal experiences in order to remember and understand it better. They may associate it with someone or something in their personal lives.
Context: This strategy is useful whenever a word or idea represents something personally important to students.
Example: A student's parents to take her to an Italian restaurant for dinner. Later, when she is learning vocabulary items in Italian, she remembers many of the words from the menu at the restaurant.


Purpose: By recognizing similarities between words or grammar in the target language and their native language, students can easily and quickly increase their vocabulary and construct sentences.
Context: Transfer / Cognates can be used when words look or sound similar in the two languages or when knowledge of a language system, such as grammar, can aid in the understanding of the new language.
Example: A student reading a worksheet encounters the Spanish word telfono for the first time. She recognizes that it looks like the English word telephone and thinks it probably means that same thing. In context, it makes sense. The two words sound alike, too. She decides telfono and telephone are probably cognates.


Purpose: Rather than stopping at a dead end, students find different ways to say the same thoughts. Beginners may use simple words or structures instead of more complex ones the do not know yet. More advanced learners may replace a term with its description or by explaining it in the target language.
Context: Substitute/Paraphrase helps at those otherwise awkward moments when students realize they do not know how to say exactly what they would like to say. It can also prove useful when writing as an alternative to constant reference to the dictionary.
Example: A student cannot think of the word la dinde (turkey) while he is speaking, so he says in French, "the big bird that Americans eat."


Purpose: Students use or create an image that helps them remember information. It can be as simple as a pencil drawing, or as complex as a "mental movie." An image also helps students recall vocabulary without translating from their native language. Complex images can help students check their comprehension; if there are inconsistencies, then they may need to review the information.
Context: Use Imagery is well suited to any task that involves vivid images or where it is useful to put abstract ideas in concrete form.
Example: To remember idiomatic expressions, students create funny pictures that illustrate them.


Purpose: By acting out a concept with props or role-playing with a partner, students can get a better feel for the situational uses of language. Associating words and expressions with an object, a context and an experience helps students recall them - what is more, they have fun!
Context: This strategy can be used with concrete concepts or with abstract concepts to make them more concrete. It can evoke daily situations and show the practical side of language learning.
Example 1: A student has been studying environmental conservation at school and notices that his parents recycle many items, including plastic containers. He explains to his teacher how to decide what to recycle by showing her some sample containers that can be recycled.
Example 2: Example 2: After learning food and restaurant vocabulary, students take turns playing the parts of customer and waiter at a restaurant in the target culture.

TASK-BASED STRATEGIES: Use Your Organizational Skills

Purpose: Students either use a rule they already know or create a new rule that helps them learn new information.
Context: Find/Apply Patterns is useful in situations where students can generalize about a language structure, procedure or concept.
Example: A student who knows how to conjugate the verb mettre in French wants to conjugate permettre. Since these verbs have the same ending, she decides that they conjugate the same way.


Purpose: Grouping or classifying items according to their attributes helps students organize their thoughts and/or remember the items.
Context: Group / Classify applies any time that a number of items share the same attributes and can be put into meaningful groups. It can serve to organize students' thoughts as they begin a writing or speaking task.
Example: A student has a hard time remembering the names of furniture in Spanish, so she groups them according to where each item belongs in a house.


Purpose: By writing down important words, students can remember key concepts and note their own ideas about information in a lesson alongside its new information.
Context: Use Graphic Organizers/Take Notes is especially useful on tasks that involve listening since, without notes, students would not be able to keep a record of what they hear. It can also help students while they read and before they write.
Example 1: After watching a video on the history of Germany, students take time to draw a timeline listing all the events they can remember, including pictures, people, places, and dates they associate with the events.
Example 2: An astronomer from Argentina comes to talk to a class about constellations in the Southern Hemisphere. She describes what types of stars make up the constellations and tells Argentine folktales about them. Students take notes while she speaks so that they can remember the important points after her presentation.


Purpose: Making a mental, oral or written summary guarantees that students understand the gist of a task. It not only helps them judge how well they have understood and completed the task, but also helps them learn more from it.
Context: Summarize is helpful periodically throughout a task or upon its completion.
Example: When a student listens to a song in the target language, she pauses her CD before each chorus so she can think about and summarize in her head the main point of the stanza she just heard.


Purpose: Concentrating on specific aspects of language or content makes it easier for students to find the information that is important to complete their task. They may concentrate on information they already know in order to understand or communicate better, or they may concentrate on key information such as times or dates.
Context: Use Selective Attention proves particularly useful when the task requires students to sift through large quantities of information. It can also help when students need to give or acquire precise details to complete a task.
Example: It is a classic technique for students to underline words they do not know in a text so they can look them up or ask the teacher about them later. For a new twist on this technique, students can underline sentences in challenging documents that they are sure they understand.

TASK-BASED STRATEGIES: Use a Variety of Resources

Purpose: Using reference materials such as dictionaries, textbooks, periodicals and the Internet, students can solve complex problems and complete difficult tasks independently. Students can look up words or expressions they do not know, as well as find target language cultural information.
Context: Access Information Sources is especially handy when crucial information does not make sense to the student. However, it can be helpful any time students encounter questions, large or small, whose answers are found in reference materials.
Example: A fifth grade student in a Spanish immersion school loves popular music and wants to learn more about popular music in Latin America. He listens to music broadcasts on Latino radio stations in the U.S., looks up information on the Web, and, in a letter to his Mexican pen pal, asks about what music is popular with young students in Mexico.


Purpose: Working together, students gain confidence, share their strengths and complete tasks more easily. Most students enjoy the chance to work with a partner or in a group and friendly competition between groups often brings out top-notch work.
Context: Cooperate can be used while students work on a specific task or during part of a larger task where students work separately. It can allow students to give each other feedback on their individual work and complete new tasks together.
Example: Two students decide to work together to create a poster with zoo animals. They make a joint list and decide which ones to include. They then agree on the materials to use and collaborate on the artwork. They take turns drawing the animals and writing the names.


Purpose: Students tell themselves they are doing a good job and that they are capable of completing a task. This self-encouragement helps keep them motivated even when facing obstacles. While they work, students may explain to themselves, silently or out loud, exactly what steps they are taking to achieve their goals.
Context: This strategy can help throughout any tricky or daunting task. It is especially useful on tasks that can be divided into parts tackled one at a time.
Example: When reading an entire book in the target language for the first time, students can reassure themselves that they are good readers. Though a bit intimidated, they may tell themselves, "It's just like reading three short stories in a row," or, simply, "I know I can do it!"