The Reading Matrix
Vol. 1, No. 1, April 2001

Strategies in Learning and Using a Second Language
Andrew D. Cohen (1998)
New York: Addison-Wesley Longman
Pp. iii + 295
ISBN 7-5600-1945-5 (paper)
U.S. $26
Reviewed by Ronald Gray
Beijing Language and Culture University, Beijing China

One of the fastest growing areas in second language acquisition research is the study of learner strategies. One big reason why learner strategies studies have been so popular is that it is felt by some people that the topic has large and important implications for syllabus design and language teaching. Unfortunately, the field has so far failed to adequately live up to it's initial promise. Essentially this is because of three major problem areas. The first involves the issue of defining terms, there still exists a great deal of disagreement over how precisely to define both what a language learning strategy is and what categories these strategies take. Second, is over the old problem of what methods to use for examining strategies, that is, how does one go about classifying, analyzing, and identifying language learning strategies which are usually mentalistic and rarely behavioral?

The final problem concerns the area of the explicit teaching of strategies, and concerns questions like: Which strategies are to be taught? How are they to be taught - separately or as part of a regular classroom lesson? What about individual differences? In addition, there is the problem of learner training study results. They have been mixed and generally disappointing because the results were limited in generality and frequently marginal in gains.

Andrew Cohen of the University of Minnesota is acutely aware of these problems and his book Strategies in Learning and Using a Second Language is an attempt to deal with them. In this book, Cohen advances three core theses designed to directly address the problems mentioned above:

(1). "While the terminological issues are in no way settled, there does appear to be a greater movement towards consensus. The growing demand for strategy taxonomies to use in teacher and learner seminars has put a premium on generating strategy lists that are comprehensive, comprehensible, and functional" (p. 21). He defines language use strategies in chapter one "as those processes which are consciously selected by learners and which may result in action taken to enhance the learning or use of a second or foreign language, through the storage, retention, recall, and application of information about that language" (p. 4). Cohen believes these strategies to be conscious, linked to learning styles, and grants that many of the distinctions (metacognitive, cognitive, affective or social) that have drawn are not so distinct and consistent.

(2). Cohen argues in chapter two that there are generally six reliable and valid methods which are capable of adequately examining strategies: interviews, written questionnaires, observation, verbal reports (self-report, self-observation, and self-revelation), diaries and dialog journals, recollective studies, and computer tracking. He readily concedes the weaknesses of each strategy assessment method but concludes that if they are used judiciously that "In essence, considering a panoply of assessment measures and possibly adopting more than one in any given strategy study would allow for greater rigor than if only one approach is used....In order to conduct research on strategies, there is an ever-increasing need to use a multi-method approach. Each approach to measurement and description complements the other" (pp. 61, 152).

(3). Cohen also believes that certain learner strategies can be successfully taught. Chapter five, which is the central experimental support for this third thesis and the two others, consists of a detailed research report describing an experiment on "The impact of strategies- based instruction on speaking a foreign language" (p. 106) that was conducted at the University of Michigan involving 55 intermediate language learners of French and Norwegian. One group was a control and the other was the recipient of strategy-based instruction, "explicit classroom instruction directed at learners regarding their language learning and language use strategies, and provided alongside instruction in the foreign language itself" (p. 18-19).

This experiment purported to be unique because the checklists that the students used before, during, and after each task contained strategies that were designed especially for the given task (in contrast to previous learner strategy research which described strategy use in general terms but which was not connected to explicit tasks).

According to Cohen, the study results were positive. "The experimental group outperformed the comparison on the third task, city description, in the post- test...The experimental group students were rated as higher on the vocabulary scale for the self-description task...An increase in the use of certain strategies, included on the strategy checklists were linked to an improvement in task performance for the experimental group" (p. 143).

His conclusion is that the study suggests that "explicitly describing, discussing and reinforcing strategies in the classroom can have a direct payoff on student outcomes" (p. 151). All in all, Cohen in this book makes a good initial case for learner training. The book is detailed, generally clear for such a complicated topic and well researched. But the emphasis should be on initial. One thing that is very apparent throughout this book is that the area of learner strategies is still very much in the early stage of development, in spite of all the research that has been done on it.

In terms of the three overall problem areas in learner strategies research that were mentioned at the beginning of this review, while Cohen may be correct that a general consensus is being formed about what precisely constitutes a learning strategy and the kinds of strategy taxonomie., Nevertheless, it is slow in coming; the differing criteria used to classify language learning strategy in much of the literature on language learning strategies still continues to be fraught with conceptual inconsistencies and mismatches which in turn have has a direct influence on the way research is performed. Obviously if defining terms and taxonomies are imprecise and ill defined, the experimental results will greatly suffer.

In regard to the second problem area, methods, they have been clearly improving, thanks to people like Cohen , an awareness of the limitations and advantages of specific methods become more common, and as Cohen noted, the necessity of using a variety of methods together is becoming more accepted. (And his experiment nicely shows how to go about doing this). However, a great deal of more research needs to be done on learner training, results are still not that impressive and even Cohen's results were mostly mixed and generally not as strong as predicted. Specifically, there is a strong need for rigorous longitudinal studies detailing how learners develop strategies over time, careful comparative studies on how EFL students use strategies, the field also requires much greater use of multivariant analysis, and thorough studies on the role of individual differences and personal strategy preferences. While clearly many problems persist in the field of language strategies, this book is a good start on trying to resolve them.


































Ronald Gray teaches EFL at Beijing Language and Culture University in Beijing, China. He has also taught in South Korea, Japan and Saudi Arabia. He has lived and worked in Asia for over 12 years. His main area of interest is the topic of social factors and second language acquistion theory.