Vol. 7. No. 2 A-1 September 2003
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Adapting Classroom-based Strategy Instruction to a Distance Learning Context

Vee Harris
Goldsmiths College, University of London


The role of language learning strategy instruction (SI) in promoting learner autonomy is widely recognised (Wenden, 1991; Little, 1994; Cohen, 1998) and a consensus is emerging over how best to implement it. However, apart from studies by White (1995, 1999) and Hurd et al. (2001), the majority of research is located within a classroom learning situation. This paper explores dilemmas posed in the design of SI for adults learning a range of languages in a distance learning context. Recent approaches to SI are reviewed and attempts to resolve the issues described. It appears that the absence of language-specific tasks in which to contextualise the SI is less problematic than the absence of teacher mediation to scaffold Learner Self Management. [-1-]


An increasingly deregulated global economy with its need for a flexible labour market has led to greater emphasis on "facilitating access to life long learning" (Council of the European Union, 2001, p.11). This factor combined with the forthcoming expansion of the European Union to include ten new nations is likely to mean a growth in demand for language learning opportunities amongst adults no longer in full-time education. Because adult learners may have to fit their language learning into existing work commitments, distance learning may be an attractive option. The INSTAL project (Individualising Strategies for Adult Learners in Language and ICT-Learning) was established in 2000, under the European Commission's Grundvig Programme for Adult Education. It brings together twenty three researchers and teachers from across the EU in a series of regular meetings in various EU locations (a full list of participants is provided at the end of the paper). The aim is to explore how to support adult learners at diverse levels of competence, tackling a range of different languages, and whose access to computer technology and the most recent textbooks might be limited. It sets out to complement any resources the learners have to hand by designing a handbook that enables them to exploit those resources more effectively. A CDROM is also being developed alongside the handbook. Considerations as to what is most appropriately delivered through the handbook and what through a CDROM will be the subject of another paper.

Of all the self-instructed modes of learning, distance learning requires the greatest degree of autonomy. As Hurd et al. (2001, p. 344) point out: "In order to successfully complete a distance learning programme, learners have to maintain their motivation while working alone and develop a series of strategies that will enable them to work individually."

The strategies referred to have been the subject of considerable investigation over the last two decades. Stemming from the research into the "Good Language Learner" (Stern, 1975; Naiman, Fröhlich, et al., 1978), they have been described as the "specific actions taken by the learner to make learning easier, faster, more enjoyable, more self-directed" (Oxford, 1990, p. 8). However, White (1995) warns against assuming that the distance learning context per se will give rise to autonomy. The reasons underlying the learners' choice of mode of study (work commitments, geographical location) do not necessarily predispose them to taking charge of their own learning. Recent studies (summarised in McDonough, 1999) indicate the value of teaching learners the strategies they need. A number of SI materials have been developed for classroom use and some textbooks now integrate SI into their courses (see Cohen, 1998). The challenge facing the INSTAL project has been to adapt existing models of SI to the context of adults in a distance learning context and with access to very different types of support. These constraints pose three central dilemmas. [-2-]

First, the materials have to be "free standing," since the aim of the project is to enable learners of any language to exploit whatever resources they have available. Whilst recognising that English may be the language that the majority of learners are studying, it is important to acknowledge the needs of other learners who may, for a range of political, social or vocational reasons, be learning languages other than English. Yet there is increasing evidence to suggest that SI is more effective if it is contextualised, so that learners: "develop their learning strategy repertoire while learning the target language at the same time" (Cohen, 1998, p. 80). Hurd et al. (2001) describe the dilemma of developing an autonomous approach to language learning within an Open University course in which the amount, rate and content of the programme is determined by the course writer. They were able to turn this potential problem into an advantage by presenting specific strategies at specific times to address the particular difficulties a task might raise, so that the SI did not occur in a vacuum. The constraints on the INSTAL project are diametrically opposite. The advantage is that there is no predetermined course format or content. The difficulty is that there are no concrete language tasks in which to embed the SI.

Second, it cannot be assumed that the distance learners have any support from a teacher. Some may be attending evening courses but for others financial or family commitments may make it impossible. Yet, as Cohen (1998) indicates, teachers have a number of key roles to play in SI. They would normally, for example, tailor the selection of strategies to be taught according to the learner's needs. The INSTAL materials, however, have to be directed towards learners at different levels of competence.

The presence of a teacher is also desirable since, as Ellis and Sinclair (1989, p. 8) point out:

Many adults returning to the classroom to learn a foreign language have come from a past learning experience which concentrated on studying grammar and structures and provided few opportunities to use the language as a means of communication. Consequently these learners may find it difficult to come to terms with more learner-centred and communicative approaches.

Recent studies of learning strategies emphasise the importance of enabling learners to understand and then manage not only their repertoire of strategies but also their learning patterns, attitudes and feelings (Wenden, 1995; Butler, 1997; Rubin, 2001). Finding alternative ways of providing the necessary mediation has been a further consideration for the INSTAL project. [-3-]

Finally the adult distance learners may or may not have opportunities to collaborate with other learners not only to practise the language but also to "share" each other's strategies. Developing tasks to provide such opportunities "at a distance" has been problematic.

This paper reviews classroom models of SI, highlighting the particular difficulties of adapting them to the distance learning context in relation to:

  1. the selection and presentation of strategies for learners at all levels of competence;
  2. the contextualisation of SI, without the use of language specific resources;
  3. the integration of strategies designed to enhance Learner Self Management (LSM); and
  4. the provision of peer supported "practice" activities.

It goes on to present the INSTAL project's attempts to resolve the dilemmas posed. The aim is not to offer solutions. Indeed many of the issues raised have been a source of lively debate. Rather it seeks to offer tentative suggestions and to indicate areas for further investigation.

The paper begins by considering the role of strategies in developing learner autonomy with a view to identifying those that are particularly important in the distance learning context.

Autonomy, Learning Strategies and Learner Self Management

The last twenty years have seen growing interest in the notion of learner autonomy. The ideas and beliefs underpinning this development as well as the historical events shaping it have been summarised by Gremmo and Riley (1995). Alongside these developments, there has been increasing awareness that "it is essential to the development of autonomy that learners become aware of themselves as learners--aware, for example, of the learning techniques they instinctively favour and capable of judging how effective those techniques are" (Little, 1994, p. 86).

Studies of the "techniques" or strategies used by proficient language learners (reviewed in Skehan, 1989) suggest that they have a wider range of strategies and employ them more frequently than their less successful peers. They have also revealed the key role played by metacognitive strategies (O'Malley & Chamot, 1990). In categorising strategies, a common distinction is made between direct processing of the language--cognition--and thinking about these processes--metacognition. In terms of learning strategies, cognition can include a wide range of language processes from techniques for memorising vocabulary to those used to infer meaning from texts. Metacognition, on the other hand, is concerned with guiding the learning process itself and so includes strategies for planning, monitoring and evaluating both language use and language learning; key elements in developing autonomy. [-4-]

Of particular relevance for the INSTAL project is White's (1995) investigation comparing the strategies used by distance learners to those of classroom language learners. This shows a wider and increased use of metacognitive strategies by distance learners, particularly self management, monitoring and evaluation. She concludes that these are activated by the need to compensate for the absence of a teacher, who normally selects materials at the appropriate level, guides the pace of work and provides learners with immediate feedback on their progress. Rubin (2001) also notes the critical role that LSM plays in facilitating use of self-access centres and of new technologies such as distance learning and the world wide web. Her synthesis of recent studies reveals an elaborate picture of the role of metacognition. Drawing on Wenden (1995) and Butler (1997), she proposes an interaction model, showing the complex dynamic processes between the task to be tackled, the procedures for LSM, and LSM knowledge and beliefs. LSM procedures cover the metacognitive strategies of "planning, monitoring, evaluating, problem-solving and implementing." LSM knowledge covers the learner's strategic knowledge, background knowledge and self-knowledge. The latter is particularly important for adult learners since it involves reflecting on the assumptions they bring to the language learning process. They may, for example, be resistant to a different methodology than the one they experienced in school or ascribe any problems they face to their age or lack of aptitude (Wenden, 1999). In the classroom situation, teachers are able to discuss and explain the rationale underlying new methodologies or shifts in the teacher-learner role. They are also able to help learners develop the related "affective strategies"; for example using positive self talk or relaxation techniques to control panic or frustration when faced with a difficult learning task. White found that distance learners made greater use of these strategies than classroom learners. Noting however that they made less use of "social" strategies (pooling ideas with peers or asking for clarification), she concludes that distance learners have to compensate for the lack of peer support by a greater focus on managing their own feelings. It appears then that the exact approaches the distance learners most need by virtue of the learning context are precisely those most difficult to develop in the absence of a teacher.

The need both to exploit any advantages of the distance learning context and to try to overcome its limitations has been a key challenge for the INSTAL project. This has been the dilemma not only in relation to fostering the strategies that the learners most need but also in relation to the model of SI to be presented.

Learning strategy instruction; principles and problems

Contextualising SI

A major outcome of the research into the strategies used by successful language learners was the conclusion that learners should be taught not only the language but also the learning strategies they need. As Rubin (1990, p. 282) points out: [-5-] "Often poor learners don't have a clue as to how good learners arrive at their answers and feel they can never perform as good learners do. By revealing the process, this myth can be exposed."

O'Malley and Chamot (1990) present a number of debates within SI. Should it simply be embedded in the materials or made explicit? Should it be a separate course or integrated into the usual language lessons? The nature of the INSTAL project has limited the choices available. Given the handbook has to cater for a range of languages, it has to be "'free standing." This has two implications, the first easier to resolve than the second. The fact that the SI cannot be embedded within materials but has to be explicitly presented is not problematic, given the importance discussed earlier of learners' deliberately taking control of their own learning. Of more concern is the issue of it being a separate course. Wenden's "Guidelines for strategy training" (1991, p.107) advocate integrated SI, explaining that "when training is contextualised in this way, the relevance of the strategy is emphasized." How can the INSTAL handbook make the necessary links between the SI and any language learning course that the distance learners are following, when the tasks have to be non-language specific? The need for such tasks is all the more apparent if the sequence of steps advocated for SI is considered.

The sequence of SI steps

O'Malley and Chamot (1990) compare the instructional frameworks used in L1 learning contexts with those in L2 contexts. As a result, they identify:

[A] basic structure in which the teacher first identifies or shows students how to identify their current learning strategies, explains the rationale and application for using additional learning strategies, provides opportunities and materials for practice, and evaluates or assists students to evaluate their degree of success with the new learning strategies. (p. 157)

They go on to describe how this sequence of steps, moving from teacher support to learner independence, is similar to that of Ellis and Sinclair's "Learning to learn English" (1989). These instructional materials, like those of the INSTAL project, do not attempt to teach the language; rather they simply focus on explicit SI. Unlike the project, however, there is an accompanying teachers' book and the context is clearly classroom-based, with learners being invited to compare their attitudes and strategies to others in the group. Part 1 invites the learners to reflect on their aims and their learning style and provides practical advice on organisational skills. Part 2 is grouped into separate chapters for different skill areas such as grammar, writing and extending vocabulary. O'Malley and Chamot (1990) note that the strategies are not presented according to their own taxonomy headings of metacognitive, cognitive, social and affective strategies. They conclude that the optimum way of grouping strategies to minimise potential learner confusion is an aspect of SI that awaits investigation. In the absence of a teacher to tackle learners' misunderstandings, simplicity has to be a key consideration for the INSTAL handbook. [-6-]

In subsequent years, Chamot and O'Malley's model of SI has been elaborated both in the USA and in the UK. Table 1 compares the stages of their model with Oxford's (1990) study and that presented in Chamot, Barnhardt et al.'s (1999) handbook. Whilst much of the SI research has been carried out with adult learners of English, Grenfell and Harris (1999) and Macaro (2001) have adapted the model to the teaching of French or Spanish to secondary school pupils (11-18 years). As is apparent from Table 1, the broad stages of the SI they advocate are similar to those developed in the USA.

Table 1 A comparison of SI steps
  O'Malley and Chamot (1990) Oxford (1990) Chamot, Barnhardt et al. (1999) Grenfell and Harris (1999)
1. Students identify their current learning strategies Learners do a task without any strategy training Preparation Awareness raising. Learners do a task "cold"
  They discuss how they did it and the teacher asks them to reflect on how their strategies may have facilitated their learning   They brainstorm the strategies used. Class shares strategies that work for them
2. Teacher explains additional strategies Teacher demonstrates other helpful strategies, stressing the potential benefits Presentation Modelling. Teacher demonstrates new strategies, emphasises their value and draws up a checklist of strategies for subsequent use
3. Teacher provides opportunities for practice Learners are provided with opportunities to practise the new strategies Practice General practice Learners are given a range of tasks to deploy new strategies
  Learners are shown how the strategies can be transferred to other tasks Expansion  
  Learners are provided with further tasks and asked to make choices about which strategies they will use   Action planning Learners are guided to select strategies that will help them address their particular difficulties Further practice and fading out of reminders to use strategies
4 Teacher assists learners in evaluating their success with the new strategies Teacher helps learners to understand the success of their strategy use and assess their progress towards more self-directed learning Evaluation Evaluation Teacher guides learners to evaluate progress and strategy use and to set selves new goals.

The additional "practice" steps built into Oxford's and Grenfell and Harris's model highlight their importance in facilitating internalisation of the strategies to the point that they can be automatically applied. As Rubin warns (1990, p. 284), "[S]trategy learning requires continual and extensive training if it is to become part of a student's tool kit." At the same time, the practice phase presents particular problems for the distance learning context. Following Vygotskian thinking, Donato and McCormick (1994) and Lehtonen (2000) argue that interactive discussion between peers plays a vital role as an arena for metacognitive discussion and for "sharing" strategies. Drawing on such studies, Harris et al. (2001, p. 118), in a previous European funded project which explored SI in a range of classrooms, stress the value of pair and group work during the practice phase since:

Creating opportunities for distance learners to work with others as well as avoiding confusion in terminology (a difficulty noted in Cohen, Weaver and Li's 1998 study) have been important considerations in the INSTAL project.

Selection and presentation of the strategies

A further issue has been how to select and organise the presentation of the strategies. Like Ellis and Sinclair (1989), Harris et al. (2001) present the SI under skill areas, with the sequence of steps followed through for each skill over a period of time. In contrast, Chamot, Barnhardt et al. (1999) adopt a more holistic approach. Instead of skill areas as the teaching focus, the key organising principle is centred on the learners' internal mental processes as they tackle a task. Their Metacognitive Model of Strategic Learning highlights the strategies of "plan, monitor, problem-solve, and evaluate," against which the cognitive strategies are mapped. This allows both teachers and learners to establish links between specific cognitive strategies and the overarching metacognitive ones; for example (p.15):

Strategy Definition Other possible terms Metacognitive processes
Selectively attend Focus on key words, phrases and ideas Scan, find specific information Planning Monitoring

They suggest (p. 41) that teachers: "start with strategies that have the widest applications in the class" and adapt them to the skill area and learning content. Whilst they still work through the sequence of "preparation, presentation, practice, evaluation" with the new cognitive strategies, the focus is on the common metacognitive strategies. Such an approach reflects the growing awareness of the importance of LSM and is likely to facilitate transfer. However in the distance learning context, where no teacher is present to establish the links, it may be more difficult for learners to be aware of all the possible strategies that they could employ when faced with planning or evaluating a task. Indeed Cohen, in discussing various models of SI (1998, p. 73), suggests that the metacognitive model is particularly useful once students have already had practice in applying a range of strategies in a variety of contexts.

The difficulty of reaching decisions about the organising principle is exacerbated by the lack of research evidence. McDonough (1999) reviews the studies into the impact of L2 strategy instruction within different skill areas. He argues that initially these may have yielded conflicting or unconvincing evidence, due to factors such as inadequate practice to operationalise the strategies, the teachers' lack of expertise or the nature of the research methods used. He goes on to indicate that recent studies have been more promising, citing Thompson and Rubin's (1996) study of American university students learning Russian, and Cohen et al.'s (1998) study. Nevertheless his review does not take into account the particular needs of distance learners. So the question of the optimum organising principle for grouping strategies for the intended learners in the INSTAL project remains unresolved, particularly as the handbook is directed at learners with a range of levels of competence. This in turn raises the issue of progression.


Apart from Chesterfield and Chesterfield's 1985 study, the question of what strategies to teach when appears to have been somewhat under-researched. A progression is implicit in Chamot et al.'s (1999, p. 41) advice to teachers to "'start with the simplest strategies (such as imagery/ visualising) and build to more complex ones (such as summarizing or organisational planning)." They go on to illustrate how, depending on the level of the learners' vocabulary and structural knowledge, some strategies are more appropriate for beginners and some for more advanced learners. Harris et al. (2001) indicate a further consideration for teachers embarking for the first time on SI; namely that any decision is not only dependent on "what is easy to learn" but also "what is easy to teach." For example, it is easier to model and practise memorisation or reading strategies, where there are no time constraints on the mental processing involved, than to model listening or speaking strategies. They go on to argue however that this does not mean teaching memorisation strategies first and gradually working through to the "harder" skill areas. Instead, "we probably need to tackle it as a spiral, teaching perhaps basic reading strategies early on but then introducing more complex ones when pupils are ready for it" (p.144). Since the INSTAL handbook is directed at all levels of learner, this proposal clearly is not feasible. Nevertheless some way of resolving the issue of progression has had to be found. [-9-]

The role of the teacher

Further problems emerge from the heightened need for LSM noted in White's (1995) study. These become all the more transparent if an attempt is made, as in Table 2, to broadly match Cohen's discussion of the different roles of the teacher during SI (1998) against the sequence of steps outlined in Table 1.

Table 2 SI steps and role of the teacher
  Grenfell and Harris (1999) Cohen (1998)
1. Awareness raising Teacher as diagnostician; makes the learner more aware of current learning strategies, heightens awareness of how they learn best.
  Teacher as language learner (a); puts self in role of learner in order to better understand learners' problems and needs.
2. Modelling Teacher as language learner (b); shares experience of being an "expert language learner," externalizes thinking process to show how a strategy works.
3. General practice Teacher as learner trainer; trains learners in the use of strategies.
Action planning Teacher as co-ordinator; oversees individual's study programme, areas causing problems.
Further practice and fading out the reminders  
4. Evaluation Teacher as coach; provides guidance on an on-going basis eg conferencing about aspects of oral or written work, responding to comments in learners' diaries.

Finding ways of resolving the dilemmas posed by the absence both of teacher and of peer support and deciding on the organising principle for selecting and presenting the strategies have been key challenges for the INSTAL project.

Developing Distance Learning materials; the INSTAL handbook

Part 1 and Part 2 of the handbook

Although the first two parts of the handbook will be the focus of another paper, a brief summary may be useful here, since they are designed to take account of the growing evidence of the importance of LSM and to lay the ground work for the specific SI in the third part. [-10-]

Part 1, entitled "What kind of learner am I?," aims to enhance the various complex dimensions of motivation by bringing learners to a greater understanding of their own personal goals and their attitudes to the learning process. The general role of motivation in language learning has long been the source of considerable debate (see Dörnyei, 1998). Specifically in relation to SI, Wharton (2000) summarises studies showing that highly motivated students generally employ strategies more frequently and more effectively than less motivated students.

Part 1 is in the form of a number of questionnaires: "The why of learning; motivation," "The what of learning; objectives" and "'Previous learning and language learning experience." In the absence of a "teacher as diagnostician," it was hoped to heighten learners' awareness by presenting the initial questionnaires not as open questions but as a series of statements to tick. So under "Previous learning experiences," they are invited to think of two skills they have successfully acquired and to identify how they did it. Options include:

Some form of "teacher" feedback on the learners' answers is provided in the next questionnaire on "Common beliefs about language learning," since it was felt to be essential to address the assumptions that adult learners may bring to their studies. After each deliberately "controversial" statement (for example: "If mistakes are not corrected immediately, you will never learn the language properly"), there is a brief statement summarising the research evidence in simple accessible language. The final questionnaire invites learners to identify their preferred learning style and provides them with possible ways of capitalising on it. For example, suggestions in the list for visual learners includes: "Underline important items I want to learn," and for auditory learners: "Mentally hear the words in my head, when reading silently." The intention is to help them to "come to terms with their own strengths and weaknesses, to learn a language efficiently in ways which are compatible with their personalities" (Gremmo & Riley, 1995, p.158). However, Part 1 of the handbook concludes by advising learners to be ready to adapt their strategy use according to the objectives they had identified in one of the questionnaires. This was considered particularly important for adult learners, since as Oxford (1990, p. 207) warns:

If learners are brought up all their lives to prefer particular learning strategies, like analyzing grammar or memorizing word lists, they may not be highly motivated to drop these preferences and instantly learn a whole new set of strategies. Or they might become confused. You need to be sensitive to learners' original strategy preferences and the motivation that propels these preferences. Being sensitive to the issue doesn't mean, however, that you should avoid introducing new strategies! It means that you need to phase in very new strategies gently and gradually, without whisking away students' "security blankets" no matter how dysfunctional you might consider those old strategies to be. [-11-]

Part 2 of the handbook recognises other affective dimensions of language learning that may be particularly significant in the distance learning context. The first section provides tips on how to "deal with stress," to "improve concentration" and to maximise learning opportunities like listening to tapes on the way to work. The next section discusses the vital role of "Time Management" in achieving objectives. Small icons of the sun are inserted throughout with reminders of the importance of controlling panic and rewarding yourself. The final section deals with practical organisational skills also covered by Ellis and Sinclair (1989), such as a range of ways of taking and filing notes.

It would have been possible to end Part 2 with an invitation to complete Oxford's SILL questionnaire (1990), providing a bridge between the first two parts of the handbook and the final part. However, it was decided that the most appropriate location for this would be the CD-ROM.

Part 3 of the handbook

Selecting and organising the strategies

There were two key considerations to be born in mind when deciding how to organise Part 3. First, the INSTAL handbook was likely to be the distance learners' first exposure to SI and, without a teacher to mediate it, had to be presented in as clear and accessible way as possible, so that they did not feel overwhelmed from the start. Second, if they were to develop as autonomous, self-directing learners, they should have the opportunity to select the route through the handbook that most met the objectives that they had identified in Part 1. It was therefore finally decided to use the skill areas as the organising principle, subdividing Part 3 into chapters on speaking, reading and so on. Thus according to their objectives ('keep up a conversation on holiday," "read texts that I need for work"), they could immediately refer to the relevant chapters. To compensate for the limitations of the skill focus, it was agreed to try to incorporate as many dimensions of LSM as possible into each chapter.

The selection of the specific strategies to be taught had to take into account other constraints imposed by the distance learning context. For example, within a classroom situation, the "teacher as diagnostician" caters for particular learner characteristics such as learning style, cultural background, age, gender, motivation levels and goals. S/he is thus able to tailor the selection to the level and needs of the learners, often giving them a checklist of the most appropriate strategies during the Presentation or Modelling stage. In discussing how to cater for learners at a range of levels, one option explored by the project team was to include a large number of strategies, using small icons to indicate on the checklist "easier" and "more complex" strategies. However, since the handbook had to be of a manageable length and an extensive list would necessitate too many illustrations to "model" the strategies, this was not felt to be feasible. Since only a limited number of strategies could be presented, it was decided to focus on those likely to be most accessible for the beginner to intermediate range. Ellis and Sinclair (1989) found that SI is most effective at lower-intermediate level and conclude that advanced learners are probably already aware of which learning strategies work well for them. [-12-]

Although the number of strategies had to be restricted, enough had to be included to challenge the learners to develop their repertoire. The memorisation strategies selected for the checklist should, for example, include a range from the more passive mechanical strategies likely to be acquired early, to more active strategies involving a greater depth of processing. As a successful learner in White's study (1995, p. 216) notes: "mindlessly reading or copying" does little to promote effective learning. Since no study could be found directly relating individual memorisation strategies to the depth of processing involved, broad categorisation had to be accomplished by reference to Hulstijn and Laufer's study (2001). Thus the strategies moved from "I write down the words several times" to "I group words according to class (nouns, adjectives, verbs)." The strategies were drawn from a combination of sources including Oxford (1990), Purdie and Oliver (1999), Grenfell and Harris (1999). It is only in the final step of the SI (described in the next section under Step 4--Reflect) that some attempt is made to specifically direct learners to strategies at their level. Further studies are needed to establish the optimum number of new strategies that can be presented in a distance learning context and how to indicate in the early steps of the SI those that the learner is ready for.

A further consideration, given the absence of a teacher to offer an explanation, was the need to express the strategies in as clear and "user-friendly" style as possible, whilst avoiding a patronising tone. The transparency of the language used was especially important as the handbook would be translated into the other languages of the project participants. The case studies reported in the previous project (Harris et al., 2001) proved useful in arriving at suitable definitions. Those strategies that were particularly complex to understand were illustrated in the Modelling step; for example the speaking chapter provides a list of "stalling devices" in the L1.

Integrating LSM into the sequence of SI steps

Each skill area follows the basic sequence of SI presented in table 1. Initially all the stages in the Oxford model were included, so that learners would have opportunities to practise all the strategies before selecting those most appropriate to their needs and finally undertaking further practice in them, with the scaffolding gradually withdrawn. After some discussion, the constraints of producing a manageable handbook again proved a decisive factor and the stages were reduced to four. These are described below indicating approaches to problems such as the integration of LSM. [-13-]

Step 1: Explore broadly corresponds to the Preparation or Awareness raising step. According to the skill, it starts with a brief section inviting learners to reflect on their prior experiences of reading or speaking the language. Some attempt to acknowledge the affective dimension is made through questions like: "What do I do when I am in a conversation and simply don't know the words or expressions for what I want to say? Do I feel tongue-tied and embarrassed or do I manage to find a way of getting my message across somehow?" To help focus on and contextualise their existing patterns of strategy use, they then are invited to do a task like listening to a tape that accompanies their textbook or reading a text from a magazine. It was felt that although the handbook was not language specific, learners could reasonably be directed to any resources they had to hand. They are specifically advised to choose something just above their level, since as Chamot et al. (1999, p. 99) warn: "If the task is too easy, students will not need strategies to succeed; they may therefore see strategies as a waste of time. However, if the task is too difficult students may not be able to succeed even when they do use appropriate strategies."

Whilst the absence of a teacher already raises problems in relation to appropriate listening and reading tasks (how do learners decide on the level of difficulty of a task? If it is too hard, how can they be directed to something simpler?), there are additional dilemmas in directing them to appropriate speaking tasks. Not only have learners to be provided with a range of simple and more challenging tasks from which to choose, the context in which they perform the task may be highly artificial, since there is no guaranteed conversation partner in a distance learning context. The only solution possible seemed to be to present them with a choice of scenarios from the simple ('arrange a time to meet') to the more complex ("complain about a hotel booking") from which to select. They are told that they should not write anything down but should "think on their feet" and set an egg timer giving them one minute to convey the message. Questions designed to provoke some reflection on the task they have just performed ("how do you feel about having to say something under pressure of time?") lead them onto the next activity.

Here they are presented with a checklist of strategies and asked to tick those they have just used. In the case of reading, listening and writing, some attempt is made to implicitly incorporate aspects of "planning, monitoring and evaluating" since the strategies are grouped under the headings of "before," "while" and "after," as in the extracts from the writing checklist in Table 3. On reflection, a better solution in terms of LSM might be to explicitly direct learners' attention to the metacognitive strategies underlying the headings and to encourage them to make the links across the skill areas.

Table 3 Extracts from writing strategy checklist
Before writing
I think about relevant words or phrases to do with this topic that I have learned already
In order to organise my thoughts, I list key ideas in a spidergram
While writing
I re-read what I have written in order to get a sense of the "flow'
If I do not know a word or phrase that I need, I:
  • look it up
  • think of an easier way of saying it
After writing
How did I begin? Is the beginning likely to awaken the reader's interest?
Do the words "look right'? Check spellings in a dictionary

Step 2: Read and Think corresponds to the Modelling stage. It first offers learners some brief general advice related to the strategies. This may, as in the reading chapter, expand learners'strategic knowledge by explaining key strategies in simple terms. In the speaking and writing chapters, learners' self knowledge, particularly motivation, is targeted by acknowledging the frustration of being a competent, articulate adult in L1 but being forced by a limited L2 repertoire to restrict yourself to simple statements. Where particularly significant to the skill area, an attempt is made to tackle learners' beliefs, such as explaining in the memorisation section that it is not necessarily the case that memory deteriorates with age. Where appropriate, some of the more complex strategies are also modelled in this step. In step one of the memorisation chapter for example, learners have a choice of learning ten words from their textbook or ten words in Finnish. The Finnish words are returned to in step two to provide concrete examples of strategies like "word association."

Step 3: Practise. As its name suggests, learners are offered a range of possible tasks to help them deploy and transfer the strategies. In the case of reading, listening and memorisation, the strategies are again contextualised through references to textbook resources. For the speaking and writing skills, they are presented with new tasks that help them focus on particular strategies. In the speaking chapter, to practise circumlocution, they select a photo to describe and identify the words they do not know and how they will get round them. They then set the egg timer again.

In the concern to provide some opportunities for peer support, the tasks are divided into those to be carried out alone and those for learners who may have a colleague or friend at hand. In the reading chapter, they can select a text that both are interested in and "think aloud" how they are making sense of it. Tasks to exploit the potential of computer technology are also included. As Twining points out in relation to distance learning (2001, p.107), computer technology: "helps to reduce the isolation of the learners by providing them with an additional means of communicating with their peers and tutor." Whilst interaction with a teacher could not be built into the INSTAL project, learners could send a friend or colleague an Internet text they had enjoyed reading and devise some note-taking headings that could help them. It was hoped that such activities might enable learners to transfer strategies from one task to another, including tasks they had independently devised for themselves.

Step 4: Reflect. The final step of Evaluation was considered particularly important for developing LSM. At the same time, it was particularly difficult. On the one hand, it could be assumed that distance learning lends itself well to diary writing since it is carried out by the individual. Diaries are a valuable tool in LSM since they enable learners to become more aware of their personal styles and feelings, their approaches to tasks and the particular difficulties they experience. Reviewing diary entries over time also encourages learners to spot patterns or progress and establish new goals. On the other hand, like all SI, it needs to be scaffolded and it is here that the "teacher as coordinator" and "teacher as coach" play a particularly crucial role. In the case studies described in Harris et al. (2001), it was noted that a range of different types of "diary guidelines" used in Portugal and the UK were largely unsuccessful. When asked to identify which strategies they would try next and why, learners' answers ranged from"It looks fun and interesting" to"I do not know." Whilst interest is a legitimate reason for experimenting with a strategy, it may fail to help the learner overcome their particular difficulties. Conversely the fact that a strategy "takes too much time or too much effort" (Chamot, 1993, p. 315) should not be allowed to obscure the fact that in the long term it could be very valuable, entailing a deeper level of processing than some of the more mechanical strategies. It could be argued that the disappointing diary entries reflect the fact that the SI was being delivered by student teachers, rather than teachers who were not only experienced but also knowledgeable about SI. However, this only serves to highlight the indispensable role of the teacher. Rubin (personal correspondence) suggests how over a period of time the teacher can scaffold diary writing, offering just the right amount of support at the right time. In the absence of such a teacher, it was decided to provide learners with tightly structured guidelines. [-15-]

Step 4 therefore begins with an invitation to reflect on the strategies used during the tasks attempted in the "Practise" step. It goes on to make the link between the learner's possible difficulties and the most useful strategies to try next. Depending on the skill area, this may relate to the learner's learning style- for example; the guidance in the reading chapter suggests:

My difficultyTry
I panic the minute I see all those words that I do not understandlooking first for the words you do know and for cognates
I try to translate each word and then give up because I have to look up everything in the dictionary reading the whole passage through first. Use your common sense to get a general idea of what it might be about
I read the whole passage and make a guess about what it is about but often I am wrong reading it again. Look up key words that you do not know. Then be prepared to change your mind about what it is about

In the case of memorisation strategies, it seeks to encompass possible difficulties with particular words:

I find it difficult to rememberTry
the meaning
  • thinking of a similar word in your mother tongue
  • making pairs with words having opposite meanings
  • grouping words according to the topic
the pronunciation
  • putting the words to a tune
  • repeating over and over
  • recording them on a tape and listening to it
the spelling
  • writing the words out several times
  • writing the word out backwards
  • making the word into a picture

Whilst this begins to enable learners to reflect on the problems they have with a particular task or vocabulary item, it does not enable them to move on to more autonomous reflections. How do they usually deal with such problems? How well do their own solutions work? Vandergrift (1997, p. 406) indicates how evaluation of listening strategies can be integrated into the usual classroom activities:

Students should be encouraged to share individual routes to success eg how someone guessed (inference) the meaning of a certain word or how someone modified a particular strategy. Focussing on the process as well as the product of listening can help students to reflect on their learning and can encourage them to consciously adjust their strategies. [-16-]

The extent to which this is possible without teacher feedback or peer support bears investigation. The comments of one of the more reluctant distance learners in White's study (1999, p. 453) indicate their dependency on the teacher: "I can't do any more till I'm sure I got this right." However, some attempt to help the distance learners evaluate their strategy use had to be provided in the handbook. They are therefore invited to use "their" new strategies to complete a similar task to the one they undertook to raise their awareness in step one. They are asked to note any progress made, not just in terms of performance (whether they understood the text better, remembered more words and so on) but also in time taken, ease and enjoyment. They are encouraged to set themselves new goals and strategies to try out. In the case of reading, for example, they could tackle a different type of reading text or try a more complex strategy like "looking for grammatical clues."

Rubin (personal correspondence) suggests two other possibilities to overcome some of the difficulties of integrating LSM into the sequence of SI steps. First, in the awareness raising step, learners could be invited to establish the evaluation criteria for themselves. To become truly autonomous, learners should not have to depend on the teacher's guidance but be able to assess for themselves what would constitute progress for them and how they could measure it. This may be particularly important in the distance learning context, where feedback from the teacher may be intermittent or not provided at all. Second, the diary writing could be scaffolded "from a distance" by giving learners examples of "typical entries," perhaps with "typical" teacher feedback written on them. These possibilities offer a valuable avenue for future studies.


This paper has described some of the dilemmas faced in designing a handbook for SI aimed at adult distance learners in a range of countries, at different levels of competence, learning a variety of languages and bringing their own assumptions about the language learning process. In comparing classroom-based SI findings to the distance learning situation, it highlights the need for further studies into key issues provoked by the absence of a teacher:

At the outset of the project, it appeared that the major dilemma would be how to contextualise the SI. The INSTAL project suggests some possibilities for doing so in relation to reading and listening tasks, although it proves harder for speaking. The most taxing issue to emerge however is fostering LSM, although it must be recognised that practical considerations such as the length of the handbook reduced the possible scope to integrate it more fully. Ironically, whilst the ultimate aim of LSM is to enable the learner to function independently, it may be just this aspect of SI where initial support and scaffolding from the teacher is most indispensable. [-17-]

Coordinators of the INSTAL project: Renate Neuburg and Ilse Schindler (Austria)

Participants in the INSTAL project: Gerhard Scheidl and Mümtaz Karakurt (Austria); Vee Harris and Barry Jones (England); Tauno Kekäle (Finland); Ildiko Palos (Hungary); Hafdis Ingvarsdottir (Iceland); Maria Teresa Calzetti and Raffaella Cammarano (Italy); Guna Martinsone (Latvia); Asta Dirgeliene, Nemira Macianskiene, Romualda Marcinkoniene, Jurate Poskaite, Ilona Rinkeviciene, Asta Seliukaite, Jurate Zdanyte, Vaiva Zuzeviciute (Lithuania); Bogna Ferensztajn (Poland); Alberto Gaspar (Portugal; Tomeu Quetgles (Spain).


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About the Author

Vee Harris taught in inner-city high schools before working at Goldsmiths College, University of London, where she jointly runs the Modern Languages teacher training course. She has written a number of books on strategy instruction, drawing on her work with teachers to explore the practical as well as the theoretical issues.

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