Learning and communicative strategies
Communicative strategies are systematic techniques employed by a speaker to express his meaning when faced with some difficulty and the difficulty here refers to the speaker’s inadequate command of the language used in the interaction (Faerch & Kasper, 1983:16). On the other hand, the term learning strategies has been defined as “the higher-order skills which control and regulate the more task-specific or more practical skills” (Nisbet & Shucksmith,1986:26). Based on the previously mentioned definitions, it could be said that learning and communicative strategies refer to language learning behaviors that contribute directly or indirectly to learning. I am not very concerned here with the definition of the two terms as much as I am concerned with the fact that most if not all non-native speakers and second-language learners use these strategies throughout their second/foreign language learning journey. They tend to use them to compensate for their lack of sufficient language knowledge and to get themselves out of troubles when interacting in the target second/foreign language. These are only some of the short term benefits of using learning and communicative strategies. In fact, the successful use of these strategies can promote longer term language development.
In the first part of this paper, I will provide examples on some of the commonly used strategies and at the same time, I will focus on the ways in which these strategies promote the language learning process and the development of the learner’s speaking skill. I will also highlight the short and long tem benefits of using both learning and communicative strategies in learning and developing speaking skill. In the second part of the paper, I will show how the knowledge of learning and communicative strategies has influenced me to change my old style of teaching the speaking, and how it has encouraged me to adopt a set of new methods of teaching that make utmost use of these strategies. Finally, I will give examples on some of the speaking activities that are based, in some ways, on these strategies, and are designed to promote and develop the learner’s speaking skill.
Teaching writing skill has been given the priority over teaching speaking skill in almost all educational syllabus and plans and the case in my country, Oman, is no exception. Writing skill has been considered the most important especially in the area of second/foreign language teaching. On the other hand, speaking skill has neither been given sufficient focus in our teaching syllabi nor has it been represented fairly in our classrooms as opposed to the other skills. In my context, most people in general and educationalists in particular, seem to have taken this skill for granted; maybe because they think it is an easy one and that almost everyone can speak. Speaking is, however, a skill which deserves much more attention in both first and second language. I have chosen to write about this skill because I know very well how important it is as a means of communication especially, for second/foreign language learners. Throughout my teaching of English as a foreign language, I noticed that speaking was the area of weakness for the majority of my students. On the part of teachers, not so much time was devoted to teach this skill, and on the part of the curriculum designers, not so much effort was exerted to promote the development of this skill. Consequently, speaking was regarded by the students as an obstacle in the way of learning English rather than as an important skill. In the following sections, I will attempt to show how this problem can be addressed by the use of some strategies.
1/ Examples on some learning and communicative strategies used by ESL and EFL students
So many studies and research have been conducted in both areas learning strategies and communicative strategies, and many researchers and linguists have been involved. Consequently, different definitions and classifications of strategies have been stated. However here, I will focus on the classification of communicative strategies suggested by Faerch and Kasper (1983), and on the classification of learning strategies suggested by Wenden and Rubin (1987). I will also show how each set of strategies are used by ESL and EFL learners. I have chosen the previous classifications because they confirm with the knowledge of strategies I acquired throughout my teaching experience.
Faerch and Kasper suggest that communicative strategies are classified into two categories each of which is classified or comprised of other subcategories. The first category is avoidance behavior and this consists of formal reduction and functional reduction strategies. Formal reduction strategies could be phonological, morphological, syntactic and lexical strategies. Learners tend to use formal reduction strategies either to avoid making errors and/or they want to increase their fluency (Faerch& Kasper 1983: 40). On the other hand, functional reduction strategies include reduction of speech act and reduction of propositional context and these two are used by learners to reduce their communicative goals in order to avoid problems in interactions (ibid: 43). Achievement strategies are also called compensatory strategies and they consist of code switching, inter/intralingual, cooperative and non-linguistic strategies. These strategies are used by learners to expand their communicative resources in interactions (ibid:45). The following figure has been designed based on what was mentioned above:
Wenden and Rubin classified learning strategies into cognitive strategies and metacognitive strategies. Cognitive strategies are used by learners when they deal with steps, operations, or problem-solving that require direct analysis, transformation, or synthesis of learning materials (Wenden & Rubin,1987:23) and these strategies include clarification/verification, guessing/inductive inferencing, deductive reasoning, practice, memorizing and monitoring. On the other hand, metacognitive strategies are used when the learner deals with knowledge about cognitive process and regulation of cognition. These strategies consist of choosing, prioritizing, self-management, advance preparation, advance organization, directed attention, selected attention and delayed production. The following figure has been designed based on the information mentioned above:
2/ The short term benefits of training learners on the use of learning and communicative Strategies
Research and theory in second language learning strongly suggest that good language learners use a variety of strategies to assist them in gaining command over new language skills. In her study of five Chicano students who were learning English, Wong-Fillmore as quoted in Wenden & Rubin, (1987:27), identified some learning strategies used by successful language learners. Wong-Fillmore found that by using a few well chosen strategies, learners could continue to participate in speaking activities (ibid: 21). Moreover, O’Malley (1983), reports on an experiment in which students received training on the use of learning strategies with three language tasks; vocabulary, listening skill and speaking. His major conclusion was that strategy training was effective for listening and speaking, but not for vocabulary.
One of the major short term benefits of the use of learning strategies is the fact that they help learners to compensate for their lack of adequate language knowledge. Bygate (1987), states that the use of these strategies can bridge the gab between knowledge of the rules and the students’ ability to express their own meaning. In other words, these strategies help learners to practice using acceptable language with reasonable fluency and reasonable ability to convey meanings and express opinions. On that basis, it could be inferred that training learners on using these strategies would help them a lot in their language learning. Language learners will not be hesitant or afraid of being involved in an interaction where they do not have sufficient language knowledge for it. Bygate adds that being trained to use learning strategies helps the learner to succeed in autonomous interaction. According to this, using such strategies in learning represents a transitional process where control of learning is moved from teacher to learners, leaving the learner with responsibility for his own thinking and learning. In addition, Wenden& Rubin (1987), mention that learning strategies help learners to better utilize the experience they bring to their language class. As a result, learners grow appreciation of their power ability and become critically reflective of the conceptual context of their learning.
The efficiency of communicative strategies training in learning languages has been proved in so many occasions. For instance, Spilka (as cited in Faerch & Kasper 1983:10), points that some trained French learners tend to use specific phrases in order to avoid liaison in French; to avoid French partitive en, the learners may produce the specified form J’ai trios pommes, rather than J’en ai trios. So, the French learners are making use of the avoidance strategy which is one of the communicative strategies. In another occasion, Kasper (1983:43), gave some examples of how trained German learners of English reduce their IL performance with respect to politeness making. Moreover, Faerch (1983:43), gave other examples of speech act reduction, in which learners in conversation with native speakers often do not use initiating acts (reduction strategy). Based on all that has been mentioned, we could say that strategies be they learning or communicative ones, are important for language learning for they are tools for active, self-directed involvement, which is essential for developing communicative competence. I shall now move to discuss the long term benefits of the use of learning strategies.
3/ The long term benefits of training language learners on the use of learning and communicative strategies
As we have seen previously, there are so many short benefits for training learners on using learning and communicative strategies. Likewise, there are other long term benefits for strategy training as well. Faerch and Kasper (1986:189), report the findings of a study where an attempt was made to train learners to use interaction strategies (some of the communicative strategies). They were Danish learners of English and the training for strategy use lasted for three months. The findings were that:
a) Middle proficiency level learners made considerable progress in using interaction strategies.
b) Low and high proficiency learners made less progress.
g) The general attitude in the class towards errors and towards risk-taking had changed. More learners accepted the need to make an attempt even if they did not get the right answer.
Based on the findings of this study, we could say that training learners to use communicative strategies raises their confidence and encourages them to participate in different communicative interactions even when they don’t have enough language for it (e.g. when they don’t have the answer for a question). In another study, Knowles (1975), finds that training learners to use these strategies helps them to develop the attitude that language is a lifelong process and to acquire the skills of self-directed learning. Most importantly, he points out that communicative strategies help learners to be equipped with the skills necessary to continue learning on their own when they leave formal education experience.
Many other studies have been carried out by different researchers and the long term benefits of communicative and learning strategies training have been proved. For instance, O’Malley and Chamot (1990) looked at learning strategies used both by ESL and EFL students and they found that training students to use these strategies helped them become more aware of the whole process of learning a second language. Based on the findings of one of their studies, Wenden & Rubin (1987), state that training learners to use learning strategies helps learners to better utilize the experience they bring to their language class and help them as well, to become critically reflective of the conceptual context of their learning.
1/ The influence of learning strategies on my teaching style of speaking
I have previously mentioned that speaking is an undervalued skill in Oman. All focus and emphasis are placed on the other skills as if the speaking skill does not exist or as if acquiring it has been taken for granted. Out of my own experience as an English teacher, I have noticed that the Omani students’ biggest difficulty when learning English falls in the area of speaking. As teachers, we have not been working so much on this skill due to the fact that there are no formal speaking tests in the whole low-intermediate, intermediate and high-intermediate levels of teaching English in most of the academic institutions in Oman in general and in the Language Centre at Sultan Qaboos University (SQU) in particular. We were basically preparing our students to be able to pass the final test which normally contained listening, reading and writing only. Personally, I used to rely on specific activities in my speaking classes and these activities were not always suitable for my students’ levels of English. However, since it was “the speaking skill”, I did not bother to search for more activities or even try to design a simple syllabus for teaching it.
Having read about learning and communicative strategies and having known about their crucial role in promoting and developing the learning process in general and the verbal interaction skills in particular, I have decided to adopt a new teaching approach that makes full use of these strategies. I have realized that the new teaching capacities should include identifying students’ learning and communicative strategies, conducting training on these strategies, and helping learners become more independent. That is because when students take more responsibility in the speaking activities, more learning occurs, and both teachers and learners feel more successful and satisfied. Teachers including me, (especially when teaching speaking) should attempt to discover what strategies their students are already using by interviewing them or questioning them about the strategies employed for specific language learning tasks (Wenden & Rubing, 1987). And then, they could direct them to utilise learning and communicative strategies for a variety of speaking activities. Metacognitive strategies such as self-management and self-monitoring can be practised in communicative situations in which the learner wishes to gain the maximum amount of comprehensible speech from others (ibid). Moreover, teachers can provide students with practice in useful strategies for the negotiation of conversational encounter outside of class. They can also suggest alternative strategies for organising and storing information and they can encourage students to consider which strategies work best for them. O’Malley and Chamot (as quoted in Macdonough,1995:122) summarise what has been previously mentioned by stating that the Cognitive Academic Learning Language Approach consists of five phases:
1/ Preparation: develop student awareness of different strategies.
2/ Presentation: develop student knowledge about strategies.
3/ Practice: develop student skills in using strategies for academic learning.
4/ Evaluation: develop student ability to evaluate their own strategy use.
5/ Expansion: develop transfer of strategies to new tasks.
According to these phases, teachers should go through several steps while teaching speaking tasks in order to make sure that students would get benefits from them and would develop their speaking skill. We should base our explanation of the tasks as well as our instructions on the students’ communicative and learning strategies, and we should try focus our activities on developing these strategies. Furthermore, we could provide students with various activities that would enable them to use their strategies in new speaking tasks and to evaluate their use of these strategies.
Macaro (2001:176) gave another way of training students on using and developing their strategies. The following figure shows the sequence of steps that are to be followed by teachers in order to best utilise their students’ learning and communicative strategies while teaching English skills in general and speaking in particular.
Another important aspect every teacher should take into account is materials and syllabus design. In Oman, both syllabus and curriculum design are prescribed by the Ministry of Education (for schools), or the Ministry of Higher Education for some colleges and universities. Teachers have an almost passive role in that process. On the other hand, researchers and educational inspectors play the major role and impose their ideas and opinions which are not always in favor of the learning process, learning situations and students. Teachers are not allowed to innovate or create additional materials and they are severely penalized if they deviate from the prescribed curriculum. It is really a hard task for the teacher to change or at least modify this traditional curriculum but is not impossible. Teachers should attempt to change such curriculum gradually and they should have their role in the curriculum design task. They should be creative, eclectic and adaptive in terms of producing educational materials. Educational authorities on the other hand, should take into consideration that aspects of learning and communicative strategies are to be incorporated in each and every syllabus or curriculum. Finally, it really makes a great difference in teaching and learning if teachers bear in mind the fundamental knowledge of learning and communicative strategies while teaching.
2/New teaching approach and examples on some speaking activities
In Oman, most if not all the teaching approaches adopted by teachers seem to be teacher oriented. Teachers are doing all the work; they teach, explain, ask, provide answers and help students. The students’ role is passive in one way or another; they are being spoon-fed throughout the academic year without being asked to contribute to their studying activities or even being taught how to do it. Being a teacher in that country, my teaching style was influenced to a great extent with the teaching methods used there. For instance, in my speaking class, I used to do all the talk, control activities, come up with ideas, and choose the suitable speaking tasks. I did not use to allow students to express their ideas and if I did, it would be to a very limited extent. Even when my students were giving a presentation or performing a dialogue, I used to interfere either by giving my own opinion or by correcting them every now and then. It is only now after knowing about learning and communicative strategies that I have realised the pressing need for some teaching strategies especially in the area of speaking. I have realised also that it is the turn of the students to do most of the talking in the speaking class, while the teacher’s main function is to provide them with maximum amount of meaningful practice. In this section, I will attempt to give some examples on speaking activities and show how they are best taught taking into account the students’ learning and communicative strategies.
a/ Dialogue and negotiation
Dialogue and negotiation present the language as directly in the contexts in which they are most commonly used, and permit the learners to practise it in the same way, thus establishing a firm link between language and situation (Byme, I976:2 I). My teaching of dialogue was a kind of memorisation task; I used to type the dialogues or negotiation task and give copies to the students. All that they had to do was to read them, memorise them and present them in front of the class. Taking the students’ learning and communicative strategies into account, I should do some pre‑speaking activities and prepare the learners in terms of vocabulary items and tenses that are going to be used throughout the dialogue/negotiation. This will direct their attention to the task and will help them operate their planning strategies so that they are ready to some extent to tackle the task. During the task, I would interfere where possible to provide the learners with suggestions and to give some alternatives. I would not focus so much on correcting their mistakes since I am concerned in the first place with developing their communicative abilities. I would rather compliment and praise the good performance in order to create a stimulus and motivation for the rest of the learners to improve their work. I guess this way would work well with my students since they are very afraid of making mistakes and they are easily motivated by praise, compliments and marks.
b/ Imaginary situation
I did not really make use of this task although it is very important in developing the students’ ability to be involved in problem‑solving tasks, to improvise, guess and brain storm. I was not really aware of it and of its role in promoting speaking skill. However now, after realising the importance of this task, I would try to prepare and design some imaginative tasks that are culturally appropriate and related to the learners’ day to day life. For instance, I might ask them to imagine that there is a specific problem in their village (e.g. water is getting salty due to overuse) that needs to be solved and then, will ask them to come up with solutions and to try to talk about their own solutions in front of the class. Since the topic represents a very serious problem due to the scarcity of water sources in Oman, most of the students will be involved and will participate in the discussion. I might ask them to discuss it together in groups or I might ask individual students to talk about and justify their opinions. Of course, there are so many other exciting and relevant tasks (to the students’ daily life activities) that could be made use of in order to hook the students’ attention, sustain their interest in the subject and appeal to their needs and desires.
c/ Role‑play and Narration
I taught this task before and I noticed that students liked very much especially when it is incorporated in a narrative task. I used to give my students a story and ask them to play the roles of the different characters; it was really very simple and fun. Actually, it was another way to train them to memorise some language phrases. If I am to do this task now, I would ask the students to compose their own story (in an attempt to focus on past tense for example), and then to act it out in front of their colleagues. I strongly think that this task would work very well with most of the students even the weak ones because they would be working in groups and they will have the chance to choose the role that they really like and that suits their linguistic ability. While performing this task, the learners will be practising speaking, prioritising and choosing their role, and memorising some language chunks. In other words, they will be practising the language and developing their learning and communicative skills.
The research evidence that has been mentioned throughout this paper proves to some extent the short and long term benefits of using strategies in learning second/foreign language. It also suggests that some learners are using more strategies more effectively than others. For this reason, teachers and researchers should work closely together to discover the role of motivation in learner strategy use (Macaro, 2001). It has also been shown that strategy training is effective in promoting a great predisposition towards language learning and a framework which enables the learner to take more responsibility for their learning in the immediate, medium and long term. In this regard, policy‑makers should be closely involved in supporting teachers’ effort by facilitating local and national programs of strategy training. They should not set up learning frameworks (curriculum, syllabus) which place obstacles in the way of teachers to adapt their teaching to the strategy-related needs of their learners. They should rather allow teachers some freedom so that they can be creative in terms of designing tasks and activities that would appeal to their students because teachers are the ones who are in direct contact with the students and therefore, they should be the ones who know exactly what their students need. On the hand, teachers should bear in mind that the strategies which plan and evaluate learning and the strategies assumed by the learners who go out and make contact with language outside the classroom are the ones that teachers should increasingly tum their attention to (ibid).
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