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We need to talk about learning strategies

Since the pandemic started, it is safe to say that students have been forced to become more independent overall. Learning from home is often synonymous with spending less time with the teacher, doing more assignments autonomously and finding some answers by ourselves through force of circumstance. However, what strategies have learners been using? Are they familiar with the most effective ones? How can teachers help them?

First and foremost, understanding what learning strategies are and how they can be applied to the four language skills is paramount. According to Rebecca L. Oxford (1990), learning strategies are “specific actions taken by the learner to make learning easier, faster, more enjoyable, more self-directed, more effective, and more transferrable to new situations” (p. 8). The author also classifies these steps into two groups: direct strategies deal with the target language directly while indirect strategies help students manage their own learning. As the name suggests, indirect strategies don’t usually involve the additional language directly.

The meaning of these two categories might be clearer if we focus on their subgroups for a moment. Direct strategies can be sorted into memory, cognitive and compensation strategies; indirect strategies include metacognitive, affective and social strategies. To illustrate each one, I would like to describe some of my own experiences as a learner and teacher in different contexts.

While studying German a long time ago, I recognized through contrastive analysis that the word Milch was quite similar to the English word milk. Even though this cognitive strategy may cause problems if overused, it was valuable to me at the time. In college, however, I often struggled with the amount of reading I had to do on a daily basis and this caused a lot of anxiety. If I had used some affective strategies, such as deep breathing or progressive relaxation, the whole learning experience would have been much more pleasant.

As a teacher, my adult and teenage learners have often enjoyed describing words to classmates who, sitting with their backs to the board, had to guess what they were. This activity is quite relevant since using circumlocution, a compensation strategy, can help students overcome limitations in terms of lexis. In addition, it also encourages learners to cooperate with their peers – a social strategy – so that they achieve a common goal: helping a classmate guess all the words on the board.

The next strategy may still be considered little more than a gimmick by some, but it proved to be quite useful while I was preparing for Delta – Module 1. For instance, associating anaphoric reference with the Portuguese word antes helps me remember that the former occurs when a word or phrase refers to something mentioned earlier in a text. This memory strategy was not the only one I employed in my studies: organizing my schedule, a metacognitive strategy, so that I could spend between three and four hours a week preparing for the exam was crucial as well.

As you can see, taking steps to enhance your performance while learning another language or a different skill can have a significant effect on the learning process. Failing to use some strategies, or adopting less effective ones, may result in less motivation and satisfaction. It is no wonder, then, that raising awareness of learning strategies in the classroom can help our students come closer to achieving their goals.


OXFORD, R. L. (1990) Language Learning Strategies – What Every Teacher Should Know. Boston: Heinle & Heinle Publishers.

About author

Lygia Leite has a degree in Social Sciences (USP) and is a CELTA, ICELT and DELTA - Module 1 holder. She’s been working as an ELT professional for over 10 years and has acted as a teacher in a range of contexts and as a teacher trainer. She is now an academic consultant at Troika.
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