Tokai University Foreign Language Education Center Journal. Vol. 13. Oct. 1993. (pp. 141 - 146).

Learning strategies and language outcomes

Tim Newfields

- Abstract -

This paper describes four strategies which impact language learning. The value of learning schedules is first described. Next, the use of semantic networks and word maps is highlighted. After this, the value of self-talk and imagery is exemplified. Finally, the need for teachers to help students become more aware of their preferred learning strategies is underscored.

Keywords: learning strategies, language learning, learner development

What kind of learner are you? Most people are probably unsure how to answer this question. However, knowing the sort of learner you are might make it easier to learn more effectively. A study by O'Malley and Chamot (1990: 46) cites fifteen behaviors which influence language learning outcomes. These appear in Table 1.

Table 1. Learner strategies identified by O'Malley and Charmot (1990, p. 46.)

Metacognitive Strategies

Cognitive Strategies

Social/Affective Strategies

This paper describes how four of the behaviors identified above pertain to my own experience as a JSL learner. The article will conclude by mentioning some possible teaching implications.


Planning has two levels: working with long term objectives and short term behaviours. Planning is closely related to goal setting. Teachers should help learners consider their goals and make sure they have enough time for their desired tasks. It is also important to monitor how one performs specific activities to promote learning. For most foreign language learners, success with a new language is not something that just happens. Many – if not most – successful learners arrange their lifestyles or schedules so that they have extensive exposure to the target language and regular opportunities to practise it. To do this, each learner must consider his or her long term objectives, then the means to bring them to fruition.
Matsuka (1990) recommends that learners establish explicit goals by making a contract with themselves. Basically, a self-authored contract is nothing more than a way of clarifying ones goals and considering the steps necessary to attain them. Such contracts are not commands, but guidelines to help one evaluate short-term behaviors in terms of long term objectives. A copy of a sample learning contract I made appears in Illustration 1.

As a Japanese Learner:
Second Language Learning Goals for 1993

Nihongo wo jotatsu saseru tami ni, kaki no koto wo mamarimasu.
			1. Mainichi, sukunaku tomo Nihongo no mittsu kiji wo yomu koto. 2. Maishuu, sukunaku tomo 1-tuu no Nihongo no tegami wo kaku koto,
			3. Maitsuki, sukunaku tomo 1-ken no Nihongo no kiji wo kaku koto, 4. Maitoshi, Nihongo Noryouku Shiken wo torai suru koto.

Illustration 1. A sample learner contract for a student of Japanese.

Learning goals should be formulated in their target language when possible. I wrote the previous goals in December 1992, had a native writer offer revisions, then rewrote them. Since the previous goals were formulated by me rather than decreed by a teacher, I felt committed to achieving them. In most university classes students operate under a series of concise rules about attendance and participation. Goal sheets may work for students who are motivated to learn a new language, but what about unmotivated students? It seems that self-authored goal sheets may have marginal value unless there is a sense of genuine committment. Successful teachers are skilled at convincing learners that learning should not be to please a teacher or obtain a grade - but for their own futures.
The specificity of the previous contracts is important: they contain plans to accomplish a number of specific tasks in a given time frame. Vague goals such as "I promise to study harder" are of little value. As Mager (1984) points out, learning goals should be clear, concise, and linked to measurable behaviors.
I have included two contracts here because I believe learning is very closely related to teaching. Remembering that I am a language learner sometimes helps me operate better as a teacher. Admittedly, many of the strategies I use in learning Japanese may not work in college EFL classes.
Learning contracts can be used in a variety of ways. Matsuka (1992) recommends that teachers begin their school year by helping students clarify their learning goals. She further recommends that students be evaluated in part on the extent that they have fulfilled their contracts.


Lyons (1977) suggests that learners organize words into semantic networks. Students attempting to master one word may find learning how it relates to others beneficial. Often I will study families of words, or what Coseriu and Geckler (1972, pp. 103-171) describe as "classemes." For instance, I learned the term rakuten-shugi-sha (optimist) at the same time as ensei-shugi-sha (pessimist). The task of learning two separate items was reduced. Cognitively, I learned a single concept consisting of two words.
If we organize words in a meaningful way it is often easier to remember them. A way of organizing words advocated by Collins and Quillian (1969) is semantic mapping, a process of graphically representing related terms.
Semantic mapping has many classroom applications. Sometimes I will draw a simple map such as the one in Illustration 2 to illustrate the difference between related terms. Recently, for example, a student asked me about the difference between "pig" and "hog." Rather than explain the difference of these terms without any visual cues, I drew a diagram which is seen in Illustration 2, then asked the student to elicit sentences using both terms. Semantic maps can offer students a conceptual frames to understand new words.

Illustration 2. A semantic comparison of buta with two related English terms.
Adapted from Hajima & Kudhira (1984:129)

Many persons find it easier to visualize the difference between two terms before attempting to use them. There are certainly times when one picture is worth a thousand words
Another option is to have students draw their own maps and get feedback from peers. As they work out the semantic boundaries of different terms, they will likely revise their hypotheses. Dixon and Nessel (1992: 16-17) suggest this is effective because students have a chance to formulate their own hypotheses, test them for validity, and revise them as necessary.


Junge (1992) underscores the significance of learner attitudes by affirming, "Learning a foreign language while believing it is difficult is like driving a car with your foot on the brake." In the same vein, Dansereau (1978, pp. 1-29) suggests that affective strategies, or what he calls "self-talk," have a substantial effect on learning performance. Rather than cherishing non-productive attitudes about my abilities, I have tried to channel my energy into considering the many things I can do.
How is this relevant to our classes? Although "self-talk" is something students must do for themselves, teachers can be more aware of the way they talk to those they are teaching. The reason is that the students do, at least to a degree, shadow the many of the words of their teachers and respond to their expectations.
Let's consider a specific example of this. When I was teaching some college students how to make polite invitations last year, I believed it was difficult and told them, "This is hard." Few students mastered what I was attempting to present. Now I am handling such situations differently. Though I recognize English is often complex, seemingly difficult tasks can be broken down into simple components. Murphey adds, "A teacher's job is to inspire students to develop productive beliefs and help them to achieve things that they might think initially that they are incapable of doing." If we believe that our students can achieve a lot and that learning is simpler, and show this in our attitudes, language, and actions, students will achieve more. Murphey (1993) further describes the value of useful myths and states, "Sometimes what we believe as language learners and what we believe as teachers is different. A teacher's job is to inspire students and help them to achieve things that they might think they are incapable of doing." If we believe our students can achieve a lot and that learning is simple, they will achieve more than if we think learning is difficult and that they can't achieve much. In short, teachers need to examine their beliefs and expectations about what is possible in the classroom. Recently, I have become more aware of the sort of language I use with students. I am now eliminating the word "difficult" from my vocabulary. I am starting to believe that any task, if broken down into small steps, and approached with the right attitde, can be made easy.


Paivio (1979), Lesgold (1975), and Stevick (1986) have highlighted the importance of imagery in vocabulary acquisition. An intriguing point I have noticed as a Japanese language student is that the words I tend to forget are not always those which occur least frequently - usually they are ones without vivid visual, auditory, or kinesthetic associations. As a case in point, I remember the word H蒅 by visualizing its kanji. Both characters comprishing this word tell a story. The character H seems to suggest climbing up a mountain road, and seem to suggest having wool fibers above ones eyes. Together, the denote a sense of grappling, grasping, and struggle – which is the basic nuance of this word.
Stevick suggests that "images" can be stored in auditory, or tactile, or visual forms. Some words we "see": other others we "feel"; still others we hear. In the 1950's memory was viewed as primarily as a process of habit formation and reinforcement. Our understanding today is richer.
What does this mean for our classes? One application for us as teachers is that we can help students better understand how they remember things. Most students are not aware of how their memory works or the strategies they use to remember items.
Wenden (1991, p. 37) suggests students vary in their visual, auditory, kinesthetic, and tactile learning preferences. For students with primarily visual learning preferences, teachers can use more words which elicit visual responses and make better use of graphic materials. For those who rely primarily on auditory cues, we can provide extensive aural input and offer ample opportunities to hear language at natural speed. For those with kinesthetic and tactile preferences, we can incorporate activities featuring movement and link language to action sequences. Teachers need to apply a range of strategies to satisfy a variety of students.


This paper has highlighted four strategies which impact language learning. Rather than offer a comprehensive discussion of language learning, I have provided a glimpse of how some of the strategies mentioned by O'Malley and Charmot relate to my experience as an English teacher and student of Japanese. In the final section of this paper I have suggested a primary role of teachers is to help students become more aware of their own preferred learning strategies. Pendergast (1991) comments, "The most difficult thing about learning a foreign language is not learning the language itself. It is learning to understand what is necessary in order to learn."


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Dansereau, D. (1978). The development of a learning strategies curriculum. In H. F. O'Neil, (Ed.) Learning Strategies. pp. 1-29. New York: Academic Press. pp1-29.

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Paivio, A. (1971). Imagery and verbal processes. New York: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Inc.

Pendergast, T. (June 1991). Principles of self access pair learning. Presentation at Shizuoka JALT.

Stevick, E. W. (1986). Images and options in the language classroom. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Wenden, A. (1991). Learner strategies for learner autonomy. New York: Prentice Hall.

Chronological Index Subject Index Title Index
Copyright (c) 1993 by Tim Newfields