Teaching learning strategies to ELLs: What, why, when, how
Tuesday, November 18, 2014
"Learning how to learn" is one of many goals educators have for their students. In fact, in a world where we cannot predict the jobs and work of the future, the act of learning, unlearning old ways of doing things and relearning new ways, is a 21st-century skill that is gaining increasing importance. The constantly changing landscape of technological advances in the workforce causes us to adapt ways of doing things on a seemingly daily basis.
Learning strategies — those strategies an individual uses to help them learn, retain and retrieve information — have commonly been taught explicitly to students in classrooms over the past decade, and surely were present long before that. The term strategies is often used to describe instructional strategies, but to be clear, we will refer to "learning strategies" as those strategies that students use, and "techniques" as instructional activities the teacher uses to teach.
In the field of teaching reading, there has been much discussion about teaching specific strategies to students to help them become more efficient and effective readers. The emphasis on this practice is not unwarranted; many researchers have pointed out the benefits of teaching students strategies (August & Shanahan, 2010; Pressley, 2000; Dole, Duffy, Roehler and Pearson, 1991; Snow, Griffin and Burns, 2005; Vogt and Nagano, 2003).
Other researchers have have shown the benefit of teaching learning strategies to English learners (Chamot, 2009; Dymock and Nicholson, 2010; National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, 2000; Vogt, Echevarria and Short, 2010).
Two widely known and implemented models for teaching English learners — The Sheltered Instruction Observation Protocol (SIOP) Model and Cognitive Academic Language Learning Approach (CALLA) — explicitly include the teaching of learning strategies to English learners.
Each model describes the rationale and importance of teaching learning strategies to students, and describes ways to incorporate the teaching of, and student practice of, learning strategies. The ideas in this article come primarily from these two models.
Previously people have focused so much on teaching and identifying strategies that they may have inadvertently taken students away from the text or from comprehension and independent use of the strategy itself (McKeown, Beck and Blake, 2009).
The purpose of teaching learning strategies, of course, is to give students the tools they need to be independent, effective, efficient and strategic learners. This requires teaching students what the strategy is, when and why it is used, and the opportunity to learn to practice the strategy independently. Teachers should use the gradual release of responsibility model to effectively build independence in using the strategy itself.
Types of Learning Strategies
There are several types of learning strategies, briefly described here. Following each type, a few sample ideas for teaching the type of learning strategy are listed. This is by no means an exhaustive list. In fact there are many, many learning strategies that fit under each category, and it can be argued that some of the strategies fit within more than one category.
The intent is to remind you of strategies you are likely already using yourself as a proficient learner as well as strategies you may already be teaching to students, and to spark ideas that will help you more deeply teach learning strategies, especially to English learners.
Most teachers are familiar with the term metacognition, and would describe it as "thinking about thinking." When we use metacognitive strategies, we anticipate or plan for a task, consider the success of the implementation, and evaluate the success of the plan afterward. Metacognitive processes include planning, monitoring, problem solving, and evaluating, among other things.
Advance organization — Preview, skim, get the gist. In this strategy, learners consider the task at hand and look at the text or materials they will be using. By doing a "book walk" or other previewing activity, students see how the text will help them answer specific questions, how it relates to the topic at hand, etc. Just as having a meaningful objective helps students to know what to look for, advance organization can help them begin to understand how the materials relate to the task at hand and plan for their learning.
Selective attention — Read selectively, find specific information needed for the task. Textbooks and other materials students use to learn the concepts and skills presented in class often contain much more information than is needed at the time. Teaching students to look for and find just the information needed for the task at hand helps them to build efficiency, avoid confusion and save time.
Monitor comprehension — Determine when we are understanding what is being read or listened to, and when comprehension has broken down. Some students read the words of a text and continue reading even when they do not understand what the words say. Good readers and listeners monitor their comprehension, and take action when comprehension breaks down. While reading, listening, speaking or writing, students can ask themselves questions to determine if they comprehend or if they are being comprehensible. "Does this make sense?" and "Am I making sense?" can help students monitor their own comprehension. When producing language, feedback from others is paramount and will help us determine if we are getting our message across appropriately.
Cognition is the process of learning, knowing and understanding something. Cognitive strategies involve manipulating the learning material in some way, and include rehearsal, organization and elaboration. Often when people think of learning strategies they think of cognitive strategies, as these are tangible and visible strategies that students use to help themselves learn.
Sorting — Classification and grouping of words or pictures (vocabulary and concepts). Sorts can be used in a variety of contexts and in a variety of ways. For example, students can be given an assortment of pictures that relate to the content in some way. With a partner or in small groups, students sort the pictures in a way that makes sense to them. This open sort provides critical thinking skills and can yield some interesting discussions. Alternatively, students can sort and group words related to the content. If desired, the teacher can provide criteria for the sort, making it into a closed sort.
Note-taking and summarizing — Using graphic organizers, taking notes in a variety of formats and sketching. Teaching students to effectively take notes will help them in a variety of contexts. At first, share with students what they should write down and why. Begin to release the responsibility to students by having them tell you, perhaps after discussing it in small groups, what should be written and why. At first, students may want to copy entire sentences or passages. Through effective modeling and guided practice, teachers can explicitly teach students to take effective notes that can be used later for writing, studying, or other purposes. Graphic organizers can and should be used to help students with note taking and organizing their ideas. As with other learning strategies, it is helpful to teach students which graphic organizers can be used for various purposes. Students can then choose which graphic organizers they will use in differing situations.
Elaboration of prior knowledge — Make personal associations, analogies. Linking students’ prior knowledge and experiences to the content and skills being studied is especially beneficial for English learners. By having students make these connections and elaborating on how they help deepen their knowledge of the content being studied, we can teach them how the information that already exists in their minds benefits their learning.
Social/affective strategies include interaction with others and practice in group settings. This allows students to obtain feedback from peers, get clarification in terms that make sense to them, and often lowers the affective filter as students feel more comfortable and at ease working with peers.
Asking questions for clarification — English learners in particular, but all students in general, can benefit from learning to ask clarifying questions. Students can be given question stems that help them brainstorm questions that would help them to clarify the meaning of text, during a listening exercise, or during peer editing, for example. Students can be taught to ask clarifying questions of the teacher as well as of each other when working in pairs or small group settings.
Self-talk — Reduce anxiety by thinking positively. Many students who struggle in school engage in negative self-talk. They say things to themselves such as "This is too hard," "I can’t get this," and "Why bother even trying?" As we help students experience small successes, the self-talk tape in their brains begins to shift to more positive messages: "I can do this," "This is similar to another thing I have done," "It's OK if I don't understand it all." We can be explicit with students about how positive self-talk can help us as learners to be resilient and persevere.
Language Learning Strategies
Language learning strategies are those that help increase progress in speaking and comprehending a new language. These strategies are especially beneficial for English learners for obvious reasons, but other students can benefit from them as well, especially as they relate to learning new vocabulary and academic language.
Analyze words — Prefix, root, suffix. Teach students that specific prefixes and suffixes can lend clues to a word’s meaning, as can the root of the word. Teaching these skills in context can help students learn about word families and how words relate to each other. While there are many prefixes, suffixes and roots in the English language, some are more common than others and provide students with beneficial word attack skills.
Use cognates — Cognates are words that are similar or the same in more than one language. Speakers of Latin based languages are at a distinct advantage as many academic terms in English are Latin based. Students should be aware that false cognates exist, where it would appear that the two words are related, but actually have very different meanings.
Consider the following scenario that illustrates, in a simple way, the use of a variety of learning strategies. A group has decided to take a course in astrophysics. While some of the readers may have deep knowledge or background knowledge on the topic, it is likely that many do not.
Because we are an educated group of individuals, we attend the class, listen attentively, take notes and actively participate in the classroom activities. At the conclusion of the class, the professor assigns several pages of reading as homework.
As diligent students, we make our best attempt at completing the assignment. As I am reading, I realize at some point that, although my eyes are moving across the page, and I am reading the words, I am not thinking about the content. Instead my mind is wandering, and I am thinking about work tomorrow, plans for the weekend and other topics.
Realizing my comprehension has broken down (metacognitive strategy — monitoring my thinking), I take action to rectify the situation. I go back in the text and look for the place where I mentally left off. Given that the text is complex, I decide to look ahead to the questions at the end of the chapter to help me focus on the topic. I also look through the bolded section, the photographs and charts presented and other text features.
I then begin rereading, highlighting along the way and writing a quick summary in the margins of the text after reading each section. (cognitive strategies — mentally or physically manipulating the material).
Even after taking steps to clarify my understanding, I realize that I do not fully comprehend the text and how it relates to the class activities. Given this, I call several other members of the class and plan to meet for coffee to discuss the course and the reading (social affective).
Teaching Students Learning Strategies
Ideally, strategies should be taught to students as the need for them arises. Certain strategies can be taught as particular concepts or class activities come up, and students can be made aware of the strategy. Whenever strategies are taught, be sure to teach students how, when and why we use the particular strategies. Learning strategies should be applied in different contexts, with different tasks and in various content areas.
This will provide variety and practice with learning strategies so that students do not get the impression that they can only be used at certain times and with certain topics. Because strategies transfer from one language to another, if students have learned strategies previously, they will be able to apply them in second language contexts. This may need to be made explicit as students may not realize that learning strategies apply to any language.
While teaching learning strategies will not solve all of the issues in education, it is a step in the direction of helping students to become more efficient, effective and strategic learners, and that is a goal worthy of pursuit.
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