LANGUAGE LEARNING STYLES AND STRATEGIES: AN OVERVIEW

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Learning Styles & Strategies/Oxford, GALA 2003Page1LANGUAGE LEARNING STYLES AND STRATEGIES:AN OVERVIEWRebecca L. Oxford, gies,”the author synthesizes researchfrom various parts of the world on two key variables affecting language learning: styles, i.e.,the general approaches to learning a language; and strategies, the specific behaviors g.Thesefactorsinfluencethestudent’sability to learn in a particular instructional framework.IntroductionLanguage learning styles and strategies are among the main factors that help determinehow –and how well –our students learn a second or foreign language. A second language is alanguage studied in a setting where that language is the main vehicle of everydaycommunication and where abundant input exists in that language. A foreign language is alanguage studied in an environment where it is not the primary vehicle for daily interaction andwhere input in that language is restricted. Following thetraditioninourfield,theterm“L2”isused in this chapter to refer to either a second or a foreign language.The readers of this book will be primarily in the field of English as a second or foreignlanguage (ESL or EFL), and most of the studies in this chapter were conducted in ESL or EFL1

Learning Styles & Strategies/Oxford, GALA 2003Page2settings. However, some of the studies cited here focused on native English speakers learningFrench, German, Japanese, and other languages foreign to them. Information about languagelearning styles and stlanguageis.Learning styles are the general approaches –for example, global or analytic, auditory orvisual –that students use in acquiring a new language or in learning any other subject. Thesestyles rningstyleisthebiologically and developmentally imposed set of characteristics that make the same ”(Dunn&Griggs,1988,p.3).This chapterexplores the following aspects of learning style: sensory preferences, personality types, desireddegree of generality, and biological differences.Learning strategies are niques-such as seeking out conversation partners, or giving oneself encouragement to tackle a difficultlanguage task -- used by students to enhance their own learning”(Scarcella&Oxford,1992,p.63). When the learner consciously chooses strategies that fit his or her learning style and the L2task at hand, these strategies become a useful toolkit for active, conscious, and purposeful selfregulation of learning. Learning strategies can be classified into six groups: cognitive,metacognitive, memory-related, compensatory, affective, and social. Each of these is discussedlater in this chapter.Because this chapter contributes to an instructional methodology book, it is importantto emphasize that learning styles and strategies of individual students can work together with –or conflict with –a given instructional methodology. If there is harmony between (a) thestudent (in terms of style and strategy preferences) and (b) the combination of instructional2

Learning Styles & Strategies/Oxford, GALA 2003Page3methodology and materials, then the student is likely to perform well, feel confident, andexperience low anxiety. If clashes occur between (a) and (b), the student often performs poorly,feels unconfident, and experiences significant anxiety. Sometimes such clashes lead to seriousbreakdowns in teacher-student interaction. These conflicts may also lead to the gmethodology,theteacher,andthesubjectmatter.Now we move to the detailed discussion of learning styles.Learning StylesEhrman and Oxford (1990) cited 9 major style dimensions relevant to L2 learning,although many more style aspects might also prove to be influential. This chapter discussesfour dimensions of learning style that are likely to be among those most strongly associatedwith L2 learning: sensory preferences, personality types, desired degree of generality, andbiological differences.Learning styles are not dichotomous (black or white, present or absent). Learning stylesgenerally operate on a continuum or on multiple, intersecting continua. For example, a personmight be more extraverted than introverted, or more closure-oriented than open, or equallyvisual and auditory but with lesser kinesthetic and tactile involvement. Few if any people couldbe classified as having all or nothing in any of these categories (Ehrman, 1996).Sensory PreferencesSensory preferences can be broken down into four main areas: visual, auditory,kinesthetic (movement-oriented), and tactile (touch-oriented). Sensory preferences refer to thephysical, perceptual learning channels with which the student is the most comfortable. Visualstudents like to read and obtain a great deal from visual stimulation. For them, lectures,3

Learning Styles & Strategies/Oxford, GALA 2003Page4conversations, and oral directions without any visual backup can be very confusing. In contrast,auditory students are comfortable without visual input and therefore enjoy and profit fromunembellished lectures, conversations, and oral directions. They are excited by classroominteractions in role-plays and similar activities. They sometimes, however, have difficulty withwritten work. Kinesthetic and tactile students like lots of movement and enjoy working withtangible objects, collages, and flashcards. Sitting at a desk for very long is not for them; theyprefer to have frequent breaks and move around the room.Reid (1987) demonstrated that ESL students varied significantly in their sensorypreferences, with people from certain cultures differentially favoring the three differentmodalities for learning. Students from Asian cultures, for instance, were often highly ncludingReid’s,foundthatHispaniclearners were frequently auditory. Reid discovered that Japanese are very nonauditory. ESLstudents from a variety of cultures were tactile and kinesthetic in their sensory preferences.See also Reid (1995) and Oxford and Anderson (1995).Personality TypesAnother style aspect that is important for L2 education is that of personality type, whichconsists of four strands: extraverted vs. introverted; intuitive-random vs. sensing-sequential;thinking vs. feeling; and closure-oriented/judging vs. open/perceiving. Personality type (oftencalled psychological type) is a construct based on the work of psychologist Carl Jung. Ehrmanand Oxford (1989, 1990) found a number of significant relationships between personality typeand L2 proficiency in native-English-speaking learners of foreign languages. For more onpersonality type in language learning, see Ehrman (1996) and Oxford (1996b).4

Learning Styles & Strategies/Oxford, GALA 2003Page5Extraverted vs. Introverted. By definition, extraverts gain their greatest energy from theexternal world. They want interaction with people and have many friendships, some deep andsome not. In contrast, introverts derive their energy from the internal world, seeking solitudeand tending to have just a few friendships, which are often very deep. Extraverts and introvertscan learn to work together with the help of the teacher. Enforcing time limits in the ablelevel.Rotatingthepersonincharge of leading L2 discussions gives introverts the opportunity to participate equally withextraverts.Intuitive-Random vs. Sensing-Sequential. Intuitive-random students think in abstract,futuristic, large-scale, and nonsequential ways. They like to create theories and newpossibilities, often have sudden insights, and prefer to guide their own learning. In contrast,sensing-sequential learners are grounded in the here and now. They like facts rather thantheories, want guidance and specific instruction from the teacher, and look for consistency. Thekey to teaching both intuitive-random and sensing-sequential learners is to offer variety andchoice: sometimes a highly organized structure for sensing-sequential learners and at othertimes multiple options and enrichment activities for intuitive-random students.Thinking vs. Feeling. Thinking learners are oriented toward the stark truth, even if competentanddonottendtoofferpraise easily –even though they might secretly desire to be praised themselves. Sometimesthey seem detached. In comparison, feeling learners value other people in very personal ways.They show empathy and compassion through words, not just behaviors, and say whatever isneeded to smooth over difficult situations. Though they often wear their hearts on their sleeves,they want to be respected for personal contributions and hard work. L2 teachers can help5

Learning Styles & Strategies/Oxford, GALA 2003Page6thinking learners show greater overt compassion to their feeling classmates and can suggestthat feeling learners might tone down their emotional expression while working with thinkinglearners.Closure-oriented/Judging vs. Open/Perceiving. Closure-oriented students want to reachjudgments or completion quickly and want clarity as soon as possible. These students areserious, hardworking learners who like to be given written information and enjoy specific taskswith deadlines. Sometimes their desire for closure hampers the development of fluency(Ehrman & Oxford, 1989). In contrast, open learners want to stay available for usly, treating it like a game to be enjoyed rather than a set of tasks to be completed. Openlearners dislike deadlines; they want to have a good time and seem to soak up L2 informationby osmosis rather than hard effort. Open learners sometimes do better than closure-orientedlearners in developing fluency (Ehrman & Oxford, 1989), but they are at a disadvantage in atraditional classroom setting. Closure-oriented and open learners provide a good balance foreach other in the L2 classroom. The former are the task-driven learners, and the latter knowhow to have fun. Skilled L2 teachers sometimes consciously create cooperative groups thatinclude both types of learners, since these learners can benefit from collaboration with eachother.Desired Degree of GeneralityThis strand contrasts the learner who focuses on the main idea or big picture with thelearner who concentrates on details. Global or holistic students like socially interactive,communicative events in which they can emphasize the main idea and avoid analysis ofgrammatical minutiae. They are comfortable even when not having all the information, andthey feel free to guess from the context. Analytic students tend to concentrate on grammaticaldetails and often avoid more free-flowing communicative activities. Because of their concern6

Learning Styles & Strategies/Oxford, GALA 2003Page7for precision, analytic learners typically do not take the risks necessary for guessing from thecontext unless they are fairly sure of the accuracy of their guesses. The global student and theanalytic student have much to learn from each other. A balance between generality andspecificity is very useful for L2 learning.Biological DifferencesDifferences in L2 learning style can also be related to biological factors, such asbiorhythms, sustenance, and location. Biorhythms reveal the times of day when students feelgood and perform their best. Some L2 learners are morning people, while others do not want tostart learning until the afternoon, and still others are creatures oftheevening,happily“pullingan all-nighter”whennecessary.Sustenance refers to the need for food or drink while learning.Quite a number of L2 learners do not feel comfortable learning without a candy bar, a cup ofcoffee, or a soda in hand, but others are distracted from study by food and drink. Locationinvolves the nature of the environment: temperature, lighting, sound, and even the firmness ofthe chairs. L2 students differ widely with regard to these environmental factors. The biologicalaspects of L2 learning style are often forgotten, but vigilant teachers can often makeaccommodations and compromises when needed.Beyond the Stylistic Comfort ZoneL2 learners clearly need to make the most of their style preferences. However,occasionally they must also extend themselves beyond their style preferences. By providing awide range of classroom activities that cater to different learning styles, teachers can help L2students develop beyond the comfort zone dictated by their natural style preferences. The keyis systematically offering a great variety of activities within a learner-centered, communicativeapproach.7

Learning Styles & Strategies/Oxford, GALA 2003Page8Assessing L2 Learning StyleBy far the most common type of assessment tool for L2 learning styles is the writtensurvey. In surveys, students answer questions that reveal their particular style preferences.Style surveys vary in reliability and validity, but in the last few decades they have provideddata from which teachers and students have begun to understand L2 styles. See Reid (1995) forexamples of such surveys.We have touched upon a number of important dimensions of L2 learning style. Now weare ready to turn to learning strategies, which are related to learning styles but are far morespecific.Learning StrategiesAs seen earlier, L2 learning strategies are specific behaviors or thought processes thatstudents use to enhance their own L2 learning. The word strategy comes from the ancientGreek word strategia, which means steps or actions taken for the purpose of winning a war.The warlike meaning of strategia has fortunately fallen away, but the control and goaldire