Learning Strategy Instruction in the English Classroom

Anna Uhl Chamot, George Washington University

How can English teachers accelerate the language learning of their students? One way is to teach students how to learn more effectively and efficiently. Learning strategies are "procedures or techniques that learners can use to facilitate a learning task" (Chamot, Barnhardt, El-Dinary, & Robbins, 1999, p. 2). Learning strategies instruction can help students of English become better learners. In addition, skill in using learning strategies assists students in becoming independent, confident learners. Finally, students become more motivated as they begin to understand the relationship between their use of strategies and success in learning English.

Students need to develop an awareness of the learning processes and strategies that lead to success. This awareness of one's own thinking processes is termed metacognition or metacognitive awareness. Students who reflect on their own thinking are more likely to engage in metacognitive processes such as planning how to proceed with a learning task, monitoring their own performance on an ongoing basis, finding solutions to problems encountered, and evaluating themselves upon task completion. These metacognitive activities may be difficult for students accustomed to having a teacher who solves all their learning problems and is the sole judge of their progress. Teachers need to encourage students to rely more on themselves and less on the teacher.

Because learning strategies are mental processes with few observable manifestations, teachers need to find ways to make the strategies as concrete as possible. For example, strategies such as applying one`s prior knowledge or making inferences during reading cannot be observed, and students may encounter some difficulty in understanding and using these types of strategies. The following suggestions can assist teachers in planning to make strategies instruction more concrete:

  1. Give each strategy a name and refer to it consistently by the name selected. Table 1 provides a list of strategy names and definitions.
  2. Explain the purpose of the strategy and when to use it.
  3. List strategies with definitions on a poster or write strategies on laminated cards that can be posted on the class bulletin board. Refer to the posted strategies when they are taught and practiced.
  4. Prepare student materials that include the name of the strategy to be practiced and a brief explanation of how to use the strategy.

The instructional sequence developed for the Cognitive Academic Language Learning Approach (CALLA) (Chamot & O`Malley, 1994) has provided a useful framework for language learning strategies teaching (see Chamot et al., 1999). The sequence provides a five-phase recursive cycle for introducing, teaching, practicing, evaluating, and applying learning strategies. In this approach, highly explicit instruction in applying strategies to learning tasks is gradually faded so that students can begin to assume greater responsibility in selecting and applying appropriate learning strategies. The cycle repeats as new strategies or new applications are added to students� strategic repertoires. The five phases of the CALLA instructional sequence are as follows (see also Chamot & O`Malley, 1994; Chamot et al., 1999):

Preparation. The purpose of this phase is to help students identify the strategies they are already using and to develop their metacognitive awareness of the relationship between their own mental processes and effective learning. By identifying students` prior knowledge about and current use of learning strategies, teachers can diagnose the needs of their students for learning strategies instruction. Activities in the Preparation stage can include class discussions about strategies used for recent learning tasks, group or individual interviews about strategies used for particular tasks, think aloud sessions in which students describe their thought processes while they work on a task, questionnaires or checklists about strategies used, and diary entries about individual approaches to language learning.

Presentation. This phase focuses on explaining and modeling the learning strategy or strategies. The teacher communicates to students information about the characteristics, usefulness, and applications of the strategy to be taught. Perhaps the most powerful way in which to accomplish this purpose is for the teacher to model his or her own personal use of the strategy. For example, the teacher might think aloud while reading a text displayed on the overhead projector. Strategies the teacher might demonstrate while reading could include making predictions based on the title, using illustrations to recall prior knowledge of the topic, selectively attending to headings and bold-faced text, monitoring comprehension and making decisions about how unfamiliar words, structures, or ideas should be treated, and, finally, evaluating how successful he or she has been in learning from the text. The teacher can then ask students to recall the strategies they observed, and the teacher can further describe the strategies, provide a specific name for each strategy, and explain when the strategy can be used most effectively. This modeling helps students visualize themselves working successfully on a similar task.

Practice. In this phase, students have the opportunity of practicing the learning strategy with an authentic learning task. The practice will frequently take place during collaborative work with classmates. For example, a group of students might read a story, then describe the images the story evoked in each, discuss unfamiliar words encountered and infer meanings through context cues, and take turns summarizing the main points of the story. Strategies can be practiced with any language or content task, and can involve any combination of language modalities.

Evaluation. The main purpose of this phase is to provide students with opportunities to evaluate their own success in using learning strategies, thus developing their metacognitive awareness of their own learning processes. Activities that develop students' self-evaluation insights include debriefing discussions after strategies practice, learning logs in which students record the results of their learning strategies applications, checklists of strategies used, and open-ended questionnaires in which students can express their opinions about the usefulness of particular strategies.

Expansion. In this phase students make personal decisions about the strategies that they find most effective, apply these strategies to new contexts in other classes as well as in the English class, and devise their own individual combinations and interpretations of learning strategies. By this stage, the goal of learning strategies instruction has been achieved, for students have become independently strategic and are able to reflect on and regulate their own learning. (For additional suggestions and examples of learning strategy activities, see Chamot et al., 1999.)

A feature of the CALLA instructional sequence is that the needs and thoughts of students are central to all instruction. The sequence guides students towards increasing levels of independence, fostering attitudes of academic self-efficacy.



Learning strategies for Foreign Language Students


Organizational Planning: Setting a learning goal; planning how to carry out a project, write a story, or solve a problem.

Predicting: Using parts of a text (such as illustrations, titles, headings, organization) or a real life situation and your own background knowledge to anticipate what is likely to occur next.

Self-management: Seeking or arranging the conditions that help you learn.

Activating Prior Knowledge: Using your background knowledge to understand and learn something new, brainstorming relevant words and ideas, making associations and analogies; writing or telling what you know.

Monitoring: Being aware of how well a task is going, how well you are understanding while listening or reading, or how well you are expressing your ideas when speaking or writing.

Selective Attention: Focusing on specific aspects of a task, such as locating patterns in a story, identifying key words or ideas, listening to or scanning a text for particular information, or observing relevant items or phenomena.

Using and Making Rules: Applying a rule (phonetic, grammatical, linguistic, mathematical, scientific, or other) to understand a text or complete a task; figuring out rules or patterns from examples.

Note-taking: Writing down key information in verbal, graphic, or numerical form, often as concept maps, spider maps, T-lists, time lines, or other types of graphic organizers.

Imagery: Using mental or real pictures or other visual cues to understand or remember information, or to solve a problem.

Cooperation: Working with classmates to complete a task or project, demonstrate a process or product, share knowledge, solve problems, give and receive feedback, and develop social skills.

Making Inferences: Using the context of an oral or written text and your own background knowledge to guess at meanings of unfamiliar words or ideas.

Substitution: Using a synonym, paraphrase, or circumlocution when you want to express an idea and do not know the exact word(s) you need.

Using Resources: Using reference materials (books, dictionaries, encyclopedias, videos, exhibitions, performances, computer programs and databases, the Internet, and so forth) to find information or complete a task.

Classification: Grouping words, concepts, physical objects, numbers, or quantities according to their attributes; constructing graphic organizers to show a classification.

Questioning for Clarification: Negotiating meaning by asking for clarification, explanation, confirmation, rephrasing, or examples. Summarizing: Making a mental, oral, or written summary of something you listened to or read; retelling a story or other text in your own words.

Self-assessment: Completing a task, then judging how well you did, whether you reached your goal, and how effective your learning strategies or problem-solving procedures were.

Adapted from: Chamot, A. U. (1996). Accelerating achievement with learning strategies. Glenview, IL: Scott Foresman Addison Wesley.


Ongoing monitoring of students' use of both instructed and individually developed strategies is essential if teachers are to scaffold their instruction successfully. In scaffolded instruction, teachers begin with explicit instruction and gradually reduce prompts and cues to students. In this way students begin to assume responsibility for and regulation of their own learning. Individual students may need greater or lesser amounts of explicit strategies instruction, depending on the degree to which they have developed strategies independently of instruction. This is why teachers need to assess their students' ability to use the strategies independently and transfer them to new tasks. When students are able to use instructed strategies without prompting, they need to explore new strategies, new applications, and new opportunities for self-regulated learning. The quest for self-regulated learning is, in common with all forms of self-knowledge, a life-long endeavor, and even high achieving adults can continue to develop their repertoire of effective learning strategies.




Chamot, A. U., Barnhardt, S., El-Dinary, P. B., & Robbins, J. (1999). The learning strategies handbook. White Plains, NY: Addison Wesley Longman.

Chamot, A. U., & O`Malley, J. M. (1994). The CALLA handbook: Implementing the cognitive academic language learning approach. White Plains, NY: Addison Wesley Longman.