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Teaching Learner Strategies for Vocabulary Acquisition
by Darron Board

I am currently teaching a group of advanced students who, although are officially enrolled in a CPE class, in fact come from a variety of backgrounds. Three learners have passed CAE, two in summer with grade C and one 2 years ago, with grade A. Two learners have FCE (grade C, some years ago) and the final learner has no official qualifications in EFL. This causes some problems for me as a teacher as I am supposed to be preparing them for what is an advanced level examination. Since half the learners have not even taken any examination above FCE, I have noticed that they are struggling to keep up with the workload required for this level. Even the three learners that have passed CAE do not seem to be taking in sufficient language to succeed at this level. One area I feel that is weak is that of vocabulary learning. We cover a lot of vocabulary and very intensively, given that they attend class once a week for three hours. However, I do not see very much evidence of the learners actually learning the new language. I think that since many of them have not had a "reason" to learn vocabulary (e.g. an examination) they may need help in the best ways to record, learn and practice new vocabulary. I have decided to look closely at the area of strategy instruction with reference to vocabulary teaching.

Why use Strategy Instruction?
The whole nature of learning strategies has been given some debate in the academic circles of EFL. Faerch and Kaspar (1980) differentiate between processes and strategies when referring to learning strategies. Whereas processes involved in learning are invisible and as such are difficult to evaluate and train, the strategies that activate them are more visible and more susceptible to teaching and training. To promote the development of LS in learners is not a question of teaching them new content, but rather of training them in the acquisition of a skill which, once learnt, can be transferred to other situations, facilitating in this way the learning process. It is in effect, a question of learning to learn. Learning is no longer restricted to the acquisition of content (declarative knowledge) but to the acquisition of skills (procedural knowledge) with which to learn this content. (Anderson 1990).

How can learning strategies affect classroom teaching? Oxford and Leaver (1996) highlight the importance of realising that strategy instruction does not necessarily mean teaching all students to use exactly the same learning strategies. Doing this would,
"defeat the purpose of strategy instruction, which is to help learners become more active, more autonomous, more self-directed, and more discerning of what strategies are best for them as individuals" (1996:228)
Rather, for Oxford and Leaver, strategy instruction,
"involves helping students know more about themselves, so they can try out, test and become expert in using the strategies that help them the most… Strategy instruction is a highly creative, multi-level process for teaching students to optimise their learning strategies for themselves as individuals" (1996:228)
Therefore, in principle, strategy instruction is about helping students to develop their own strategy use, so as to make them more effective learners. Current thinking in the field of learning strategies has moved away from the idea that strategy instruction should take the strategies used by good language learners, based on the work of "earlier" researchers such as Naiman (1978) and Rubin (1975), and try to get weaker students to adopt these. Nyikos observes that
"less successful students often are already using several strategies well-suited to their own learning style, but may apply them haphazardly" (1991:32)
The general feeling, therefore, is that a weaker student will not become automatically a "better" learner by copying someone else's strategy use. In my situation, I cannot simply tell one learner to use the strategies used by a more experienced learner.
The idea of learning to learn is intimately connected to a social constructivist approach to education and learning and this is a conception of education that has gained ground since the 1950s. This set the socio-political stage for the learning to learn movement. More specifically, strategy instruction is seen as a means of enhancing learners' procedural knowledge, which leads to more successful learning:

"Strategy instruction is one way to work towards enhancing your procedural knowledge. Since many adults are "language phobic" or inexperienced with language learning, they need to gain more procedural knowledge to deflect negative affective influences and to begin to experience some success" (Rubin 1996:151)

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