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Many ESL/EFL teachers wonder some learners learn faster than other learners. They also wonder why classroom tasks are much easier for some students than for others. One of the reasons is related to the strategies ESL/EFL learners employ to accomplish their needs or the tasks assigned. Theory has shown (Cohen, 2003: Oxford, 1990) that strategy use favors effectiveness in language learning. In addition ,research ( O'Mally& Chamot,1995,p.81; Cohen,1998,p.69) has proved that language learners need instruction in 'how' to use strategies efficiently as way to improve language learning and performance. That is, the more aware learners are on the strategies they employ, the more effective and skillful the learners will be. With this in and mind, this action research, is supposed to answer whether less effective learners at elementary level can have more opportunities to become effective learners if they have the means of focusing their memory and cognitive strategies to specific tasks especially reading comprehension?. The subjects are all elementary learners learning English in an language institute in Rasht, Iran. All of the students were asked to answer Rebecca Oxford's Strategy inventory for language learners in order to find what strategy they employ most and least. At the same time oral interview was used as well as class observation.
Review of the Literature
Research of foreign language learning strategies began back in the nineteen seventies (Rubin, 1975; Savignon, 1972; Stern, 1975), while during the eighties and the nineties, learning strategies posed one of the most intriguing areas of study in foreign language learning (MacIntyre, 1994). The main research issues addressed by the researchers dealing with language learning strategies are related to the role of strategies in language acquisition, the connection of strategies to other individual traits of learners, such as learning style, attitude towards learning, motivation, foreign language anxiety and other factors, and to the impact of strategy instruction. Various definitions of the learning strategies notion derive from the literature and the term itself has not been uniformly defined. In early works we can find a wide range of terms defining learning strategies, such as techniques, tactics, conscious plans, study skills, functional skills, cognitive abilities, while Oxford (1990) expands the array of terms by specifying the terms such as opinion-forming skills, reasoning skills, and the skill of "learning how to learn." Stern (1986) points out the difference between learning strategies as general features of learning approach and techniques as specific procedures. The dichotomy between strategies and techniques does not realistically exist today, while techniques as specific processes are considered to be individual learning strategies. Learning strategies tend to be mental processes over which students have conscious control and which they can choose to use when performing tasks (O'Malley and Chamot 1990; Chamot, 1996 in Gimeno, 2002). Chamot (1987, in Gimeno, 2002) states that learning strategies are techniques, approaches or deliberate actions that students take in order to facilitate learning, recall of both linguistic and content area information. Wenden (1991) pointed out the importance and role of metacognition in foreign languages learning, making a difference between metacognitive knowledge, i.e. What learners know about learning a foreign language, and the metacognitive strategies, as a way in which learners plan and regulate their own knowledge. The same author believes that strategies are mental steps or operations that learners use to learn a new language and to regulate their efforts to do so. Weinstein and Mayer (in O'Malley and Chamot, 1990) see strategies as behaviors or thoughts that a learner engages in during learning that are intended to influence the learners 'encoding process. Oxford (1990) defines strategies as behaviors or specific actions taken by the learner to make learning easier, faster, more enjoyable, more self- directed, more efficient, and more transferable to new situations. Ellis (1995), however, states that strategies are related to some kind of mental activity or behavior that can occur in a particular phase of the learning and communication process. Cohen (1998) emphasizes that these are operations selected by the learner part consciously in order to enhance learning or use of an L2, through storage, recall and application of information about that language.
Early studies of learning strategies are associated with the strategies used by good foreign language learners. Good language learners have a wide repertoire of learning strategies and use a series of strategies, rather than a single one, when engaged in a learning task. One fact is obvious - good language learners use a larger number of strategies in the process of foreign language learning, unlike not so successful learners (Rubin, 1975, Bialystok, 1979, in Gimeno, 2002; O'Malley and Chamot, 1990; McDonough, 1999 and Skehan, 1989 in Harris and Grenfell, 2004).Their purpose is to help less successful learners to master strategies used by good learners (Hosenfeld, 1979, Bialystok, 1984, Faerch and Kasper, 1983, Oxford, 1989,in Gimeno, 2002). In this context it is necessary to emphasize the importance of learning strategy instruction (Oxford and Nyikos, 1989, in Gimeno, 2002). The importance of explicit strategy instruction is also highlighted by many researchers. Wenden (1998) believes that strategy training will be much more effective if learners are informed about the value and purpose, and a possible transfer to non- linguistic tasks. A similar attitude is expressed by Oxford (1990), Cohen (1998),O'Malley and Chamot (1990) who stated that explicit strategy instruction involves the raising of students' awareness of the strategies they use, modeling of strategic thinking, naming of individual strategies, practice and student self-evaluation. The aim of explicit strategy instruction and the development of individualized strategy systems refers to the help provided to learners in raising their awareness of the strategies they already use and to the encouragement to develop a set of new, adequate and effective strategies within a particular language context. Another objective of strategy instruction is to encourage leaner's autonomy and self-direction, to enable learners to choose their own strategies in a spontaneous way, without constant teacher's intervention. Learners should be able to oversee and evaluate the effectiveness of strategy use and to develop problem-solving skills. The teacher can teach strategies and practice them, but each learner is individually responsible for the selection and implementation of an adequate strategy. A learner will select a strategy that suits him/her best and the focus is on how to learn and not what you learn. Oxford (1990) believes that the main purpose of strategic training is to make language learning effective, to foster team spirit among learners and teachers, to learning to learn language and how to practice strategies that raise self-confidence.
There is a significant link between the use of various learning strategies applied by foreign language learners and their learning achievement (Chamot and Kupper, 1989). Good language learners use a large number of effective learning strategies, unlike the less successful learners (Hosenfeld, 1977). Good learners are also able to select and combine strategies that are appropriate to the task at hand (Vann and Abraham, 1990). It is evident that successful learners combine certain cognitive strategies (translation, analysis, noting) with specific meta cognitive strategies (self-evaluation, planning and organizing) (Oxford and Crookall, 1989).Less successful learners use fewer strategies, as opposed to successful learners, and their strategies are limited by the type of strategy to a large extent (Nyikos, 1987, in Gimeno, 2002). Often, less successful learners are not aware of the strategies they
use (Nyikos, 1987, in Gimeno, 2002). If a less successful learner is aware of his/heruse of strategies, he/she can combine them and use them in a successful way (Lavineand Oxford, 1990). Stern (1975) conducted a very interesting study of good foreign language learners and identified learning strategies used by good learners. For good learners, according to Stern (1975), personal learning style, i.e. encouragement of positive learning strategies is of great importance, as well as an active approach to the learning task, a tolerant approach to the target language, and empathy with the speaker. Stern (1975) also mentioned the importance of the technical know-how of how to tackle a language, the importance of experimentation and planning strategies in an attempt to develop the target language into an ordered system, and the willingness to constantly revise that system.
Characteristics of learning strategies
Oxford (1990) lists the basic features of learning strategies emphasizing that strategies are oriented towards the development of communication competence in a foreign language and include interaction between learners. Oxford (1990) lists 12basic features of a foreign language learning strategy:
1. Strategies contribute to the main goal - communicative competence;
2. Strategies allow learners to become more self-directed and to develop autonomous learning and take responsibility for their own learning; they affect the process of learning, the learner's success or failure in learning;
3. Strategies expand the role of foreign language teachers in a way that the traditional role of the teacher in the educational process changes and the teacher
assumes the role of person facilitating the learning, helping, advising, diagnosing,
coordinating learning, and participating in communication;
4. Strategies are problem-oriented;
5. Strategies are specific actions taken by the learner;
6. in addition to the cognitive, strategies involve many other aspects of
learning, such as metacognitive, affective and social aspects;
7. Support learning, both directly and indirectly;
8. Strategies are not always observable, they can be concealed;
9. Strategies are often conscious;
10. Strategies can be taught;
11. Strategies are flexible;
12. Strategies can be influenced by a variety of factors.
The Study : a brief Review
The subject were 12 elementary female learners whose ages ranges from10 to 12 at an language institute in Rasht, Iran, where I teach as a teacher. The class is held twice a week in 75 minutes. The research method is both observational and non-observational in that the data were gathered by using in-class observations ,and oral interview. As the questions language was beyond student's level of proficiency, it was translated to Farsi. The data were gathered especially with the focus on cognitive strategies and memory strategies. Oxford(1990) has highlighted that in direct and integrated instruction, the teacher explains to the learners the value ,importance and purpose for strategy use to raise awareness in the application of these strategies , to make them identify specific strategies for specific tasks, and to provide opportunities for reflection, practice, and self-evaluation.
''Through this direct and integrated approach to strategy instruction learners become reactive learners as they increase their awareness ,practice, use, and monitoring of the language learning strategies they are using while learning a foreign or second language.''( Wenden& Rubin,1987,11). Having had an interview with the students, I was able to train cognitive and memory strategies to my students. Then during the practice phase of the study I gave my students a reading comprehension passage from '' Steps to Understanding'' L.A. Hill(1980) to find out how effective strategy training was.
First, in the interview, most students did not know strategy will be useful in their learning and performance. Since it was also something new for them, it encouraged and motivated them to know more about the strategies. The results remind us of this saying ''different strokes for different folks'' .It means that the result made them aware of their personal styles facing or doing different tasks.
Strategy Training Class
During the semester all students participated in a ten minute strategy training program two times a week. They were trained on the use of strategies especially cognitive and memory strategies. Students were given reading tasks in order to practice strategies that meet their classroom needs.
Effects on the Learners' Performance
The effect of strategy training was seen both in students' grade in reading comprehension test as well in their classroom performance. They showed more self-confidence individually while working in groups .There was a kind of competition so that each student wanted to finish the task earlier than her classmates. More over some students were willing to share their experience i.e. favorite strategies with their classmates.
Strategy training not only create the foundation for creating learner -centered environment that is ready for strategy instruction but it also allows learners to transfer the application of the strategy from a familiar context to an unfamiliar one effectively.
This study though done in a limited classroom environment support some of the principles suggested by Rebecca oxford(1999): considering student's attitudes, beliefs and needs; integrating strategy training with regular classes ;addressing affective issues ; incorporating and transferring strategy use to future language tasks. It is also in line with oxford's claim that strategy is teachable. The optimal goal of teaching i.e. effective learners would be achieved. It also provides a meaningful way to focus the teaching efforts in facilitating the acquisition of a foreign language.