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Revista signos

versión On-line ISSN 0718-0934

Rev. signos v.34 n.49-50 Valparaíso  2001 

Revista Signos 34(49-50), 101-111


Can Foreign Language Learning Strategies Turn Into Crutches?:

A Pilot Study on the Use of Strategies by Successful and Unsuccessful Language Learners


Tammy Gregersen

Ricardo Vera Martínez

Pamela Pino Rojas

Leyla Espinoza Alvarado

Universidad de Atacama



Los aprendices exitosos de una lengua extranjera se caracterizan por saber cómo usar las estrategias de aprendizaje de manera efectiva, incluyendo la habilidad de ajustarlas a medida que aumenta su dominio lingüístico. Este estudio formula la pregunta de si las estrategias de aprendizaje de una lengua usadas en forma eficiente en los niveles iniciales pueden llegar a convertirse en estorbos en los niveles superiores de dominio lingüístico. Con este objetivo, se les aplicó el Inventario de Estrategias para el Aprendizaje de Lenguas (SILL) a seis alumnos principiantes y seis avanzados (tres estimados exitosos y tres no exitosos, de cada nivel), con el objetivo de medir su uso de las estrategias de aprendizaje de una lengua extranjera. Comparando los niveles de dominio lingüístico y la variable de si el participante era exitoso o no, se reunió evidencia tentativa que sugiere que las estrategias de aprendizaje que una vez fueron efectivas en los niveles inferiores de dominio en una lengua extranjera pueden llegar a convertirse en obstáculos en los niveles superiores.


Successful foreign language learners are characterized by knowing how to use language learning strategies effectively, including the ability to change them as their language proficiency increases. This pilot study asks the question as to whether language learning strategies that were used effectively at the beginning levels of language acquisition can convert into crutches at higher levels. To this end, six beginning students and six advanced students (three successful and three unsuccessful at each level) took the Strategy Inventory for Language Learning to measure their foreign language learning strategy use. By comparing the levels of proficiency and the variable of whether the participant was successful or unsuccessful, preliminary evidence was gathered that suggests that language learning strategies that were once effective at lower levels of proficiency can become stumbling blocks at higher levels.



The results of several "good language learner" studies suggest that successful foreign language (FL) learners use a variety of strategies to assist them in gaining command over new language skills (O'Malley, 1987). The selection of appropriate language learning strategies enable students to take responsibility for their own learning by enhancing learner autonomy, independence, and self-direction, necessary attributes for life-long learning (Oxford and Nyikos, 1989). By understanding the strategies that successful FL learners use, less competent learners should be able to improve their skills in a foreign language through training in strategies evidenced among those who are more successful.

However, if one of the characteristics of successful FL learners is that they use strategies more effectively, what language learning strategies are poor language learners using that impedes their progress? Knowing this would also help teachers to use language learning strategy training to help deficient students avoid ineffective strategies as well as incorporate those that aid in gaining proficiency.

Ellis (1994:555) concluded that "the strategies that learners elect to use reflect their general stage of L2 development." Oxford and Nyikos (1989:291) concur, saying, "Better language learners generally use strategies appropriate to their own stage of learning..." That is to say, that effective strategy use changes as the demands of language proficiency dictate. Although language learning strategies are perceived as positive tools, it may be that at a certain point, strategies cease to be an aid and contrarily turn into a crutch. For example, Oxford (1990) defines "switching to the mother tongue" as a compensation strategy that helps students overcome gaps in their language knowledge in order to keep a conversation moving. Although this strategy may be acceptable for a beginning student, it needs to be diminished as proficiency increases as to not hold the learner back in his FL acquisition process.

Thus, the research question that needs an answer is: What are the language learning strategies that less successful FL learners are using, and are these affected by the learner's FL proficiency level? In other words, is it possible that strategies used by beginning FL students are maintained even as their proficiency levels increase and demand the incorporation of others?

The purpose of this pilot study was to gather data that could give some tentative answers to these questions and suggest possible tendencies in terms of how language learning strategies evolve in successful and unsuccessful foreign language learners. These preliminary suggestions can then be used to guide researchers in future studies concerning the relationship between effective FL learning strategy use and levels of FL proficiency.

Strategy Definitions

Learning strategies are "techniques, approaches, or deliberate actions that students take in order to facilitate the learning and recall of both linguistic and content area information" (Wenden, 1987:6). Oxford (1990) considers that "any specific action taken by the learner to make learning easier, faster, more enjoyable, more self-directed, more effective, and more transferable to new situations" is a language learning strategy.

Oxford (1990) divides strategies into two major types, direct and indirect. She defines direct strategies as those requiring mental processing of the language. However, the three groups that compose direct strategies do this processing differently and for different purposes. For example, memory strategies, such as grouping or using imagery, have a highly specific function, which is to help students store and retrieve new information. Cognitive strategies, on the other hand, such as summarizing or reasoning deductively, enable learners to understand and produce new language by many different means. Finally, compensation strategies like guessing or using synonyms, allow learners to use the language despite their often-large gaps in knowledge.

The second group of strategies discussed by Oxford (1990) is indirect strategies. These are called "indirect" because they support and manage language learning without directly involving the target language. They are divided into metacognitive, affective, and social strategies. Metacogntive strategies, like centering your learning and evaluating and monitoring, are "actions which go beyond purely cognitive devices, and which provide a way for learners to coordinate their own learning process" (p. 136). Affective strategies, however, such as lowering your anxiety, encouraging yourself, and taking your emotional temperature, deal with emotion, attitudes, motivations, and values. Finally, the third indirect strategy group defined by Oxford involves social strategies, like asking questions, cooperating peers and proficient users of the target language, and empathizing with others.

What Successful Language Learners Do

Outside of the language learning field, research comparing experts to novices indicates that experts use more systematic and useful problem-solving and native-language reading comprehension strategies. A similar finding occurs with more successful language learners as compared to less successful ones. Better language learners generally use strategies appropriate to their own stage of learning, personality, age, purpose for learning the language and type of language (Oxford and Nyikos, 1989).

Ellis (1994) summarizes the results of various "good language learner studies" into five major aspects of successful language learning. The first aspect of successful language learning is a concern for language form. Researchers found that good language learners treat language as a system by making effective crosslingual comparisons, analyzing the target language, and using reference books. Good language learners also pay attention to meaning, searching for it in the L2 data they are exposed to and trying to engage in real communication by seeking out opportunities for natural language use. Thirdly, good language learners show active involvement in language learning. Rather than developing dependence upon the teacher, they take charge of their own learning by identifying and pursuing goals and by trying to introduce new topics into conversations. The fourth characteristic concerned their metacognitive awareness of the learning process. Successful FL learners are thoughtful and aware of themselves, make conscious decisions and follow their own preferred learning style. These are the learners who have the ability to talk effectively about their language learning because they have a well-developed metalanguage with which to do it. Finally, Ellis concluded that successful learners are flexible and appropriately use learning strategies, demonstrating the ability to choose those that were appropriate for particular tasks.

O'Malley and Chamot (1990) also undertook investigations comparing effective and ineffective students in their use of language learning strategies. More effective students used a greater variety of strategies in all the strategy groups, and used them in ways that helped the students complete the language task successfully. Less effective students not only had fewer strategy types in their repertoires but also frequently used strategies that were inappropriate to the task or that did not lead to successful task completion.

Studying good FL learners provides insight into how strategies affect language learning and what kinds of behavior are associated with successful language acquisition. By comparing the strategies used by successful and unsuccessful FL learners, it may be possible to not only teach those strategies that are effective, but also avoid those that impede progress, particularly those strategies that are effective at the beginning levels of language acquisition but transform into stumbling blocks at higher levels of proficiency.

Strategies as Crutches

Cohen (1998:8) expressed the following:

"Since strategies themselves have sometimes been referred to as 'good', 'effective', or 'successful' and the converse, it needs to be pointed out that with some exceptions, strategies themselves are not inherently good or bad, but have the potential to be used effectivelywhether by the same learner from one instance within one task to another instance within that same task, from one task to another, or by different learners dealing with the same task. Perhaps if enough learners in a given group successfully use a given strategy in a given task, then claims could be made for the effectiveness of that strategy in that instance for that group. Otherwise, it is safest to refer to what often amounts to a panoply of potentially useful strategies for any given task."

Furthermore, various researchers have suggested (Ellis, 1994; Oxford and Nyikos, 1989) that one trait of good language learners is that they are able to cater their foreign language learning strategy use to their proficiency level demands. What happens when strategy use does not evolve with linguistic ability? Can a strategy that was once effective at one level of FL proficiency, become a crutch at another level of proficiency?

For example, one could speculate that compensation strategies, particularly those that help in overcoming limitations in speaking and writing, could have the potential to hold a learner back in the FL acquisition process. While it may be important in the early stages of acquisition to keep a conversation going by switching to the mother tongue, avoiding communication, coining words, or using circumlocution, a learner may become dependent upon these strategies, thus stunting later progress in the target language. This may also be true for a few of the cognitive strategies. For example, Oxford (1990), in her list of cognitive strategies, included "translating" and "transferring" which she defined as "using one language as the basis for understanding or producing another" and "directly applying knowledge of words, concepts, or structures from one language to another," respectively. Again, developing a dependency on the first language in order to comprehend or produce the target language may be a strategy that ultimately slows down FL acquisition.

Although necessary at lower levels of proficiency, these strategies may become crutches at higher levels.

These potential problems are the focus of this study. The purpose is to gather preliminary evidence to discover whether poor language learners have the tendency to use different FL strategies than their good language learner counterparts, and whether the use of these strategies changes over time.



The sample population for this study was taken from students in the first and fourth years of English Education and Licensure from the University of Atacama in Copiapó, Chile. The three most successful and the three least successful from each group were selected to participate in the study, making a total of 12 FL learners. First and fourth year students were chosen in order to discover whether strategy use changed over time.

To determine which students were the "most successful" and "least successful," two professors from each level who had had these students in their classes were asked to determine which three students were the best language learners and which three students were the poorest language learners, by using criteria based upon oral and written exams. Teachers in the first year agreed on whom were the most and least successful students 85% of the time, while fourth year teachers agreed 92% of the time.

Measuring Instrument

Students' language learning strategy use was measured by the Strategy Inventory for Language Learning (SILL) developed by Oxford (1990). With answers ranging from "never or almost never" to "always or almost always," this 50-item Likert-type survey indicates how often the learner tends to use language learning strategies in general, as well as a breakdown by parts that indicates which strategies the learner tends to use most often. It is a structured, self-report questionnaire that takes about 30 minutes to complete. Using simplified English, this instrument was especially created for student learning English as a foreign language.

Tables One and Two show breakdowns of the SILL results by strategy category of the first and fourth year students. Partial and total scores are given for both good and poor language learners.



TABLE 1: SILL RESULTS-Good and Poor First Year Learners
First Year Learners


TABLE 2: SILL RESULTS-Good and Poor Fourth Year Learners

Fourth Year Learners




Because the purpose of this pilot study was to gather initial data that might suggest behavioral patterns concerning strategy use in successful and unsuccessful FL learners, the number of the students who participated in the sample population is small. Therefore, the following interpretations must be perceived as tentative evidence that can guide future studies in the evolution of FL learning strategies.

Part A on Table One reflects the memory strategy use of good and poor learners in their first year of English language studies. The average score of the good language learner in the first year (33) surpassed that of the poor language learner (26). Table Two, however, shows that this tendency was reversed: the average memory strategy score for the good language learner in the fourth year (25) was lower than the average score for the fourth year poor language learner (28). That is to say, while the good language learners in this study decreased their use of memory strategies as proficiency increased (from 33 to 25), the poor language learners increased their use (from 26 to 28).

To explain why this occurred, it is necessary to understand that the role of memory strategies is the storage and retrieval of new information. "These strategies help learners store in memory the important things they hear or read in the new language, thus enlarging their knowledge base. These strategies also enable learners to retrieve information from memory when they need to use it for comprehension or production" (Oxford 1990:58). While good language learners use these strategies at the outset of their language learning endeavors to build up their knowledge bases, particularly as concerns lexical and syntactic skills, these strategies become less useful as FL proficiency increases and other strategies take over. The detrimental effects of over-using memory strategies in later stages of language acquisition, is reflected in the scores of poor fourth year language students. The data in Tables one and Two suggest that the poor learners who were sampled in this study use more memory strategies in the fourth year than they did in the first. Dependence on memory strategies places more emphasis on learning than on acquiring. That is to say, rather than using a subconscious process that is similar to the ways children acquire their first language, foreign language learners who are dependent upon memory strategies use a conscious process that results more in "knowing about" language.

Part B on Tables One and Two reflect the response of the first and fourth year good and poor language learners to the questions concerning cognitive strategies on the SILL. These strategies include practicing, receiving and sending messages, analyzing and reasoning, and creating structure for input and output. Although very different one from another, cognitive strategies are connected by the common function of manipulating or transforming the target language on the part of the learner. Concurring with previous studies (O'Malley et al., 1985), the results shown on Tables One and Two demonstrate that cognitive strategies are the most popular strategies with language learners. Although the good language learners use far more cognitive strategies than poor language learners do in both first and fourth years, the average scores for poor language learners in the cognitive strategy category were higher than any other strategy type.

As to how learners use cognitive strategies as proficiency increases, only a slight difference was noted between the good language learners in first year (47) with the good language learners in fourth year (48). The same tendency was seen among the poor language learners, as first year students scored an average of 40, and fourth year students responded with an average of 41. In other words, while good language learners use more cognitive strategies than their poor learner counterparts, not much change is noted between their use in lower and higher levels of proficiency.

Compensation strategies are targeted in Part C on Tables One and Two. These scores reflect how the good and poor language learners in first and fourth year responded to items on the SILL concerning strategies about guessing intelligently and overcoming limitations in speaking and writing. Oxford (1990) comments that good language learners will make educated guesses when confronted with unknown expressions, whereas less adept learners will most likely turn toward the dictionary or adopt other behavior like tuning out or panicking, actions that impede progress toward FL proficiency. Oxford claims that beginners are not the only ones who employ guessing in that advanced learners use it when they have not heard something well enough. Compensation strategies can also be used in production to make up for a lack of appropriate vocabulary and grammatical knowledge. Less proficient language learners need these compensatory production strategies more than their more advanced counterparts because they run into knowledge gaps more often than people who are skilled in the language do.

The participants' responses in Tables One and Two demonstrate congruence with Oxford's (1990) description of compensation strategy use. Good and poor language learners both scored an average of 17, showing that both types of learners use compensation strategies equally at the outset of the language learning process. As proficiency increases, however, the good language learners, who do not suffer from linguistic roadblocks as much as poor learners, maintain the same level of use (17) while poor language learners reported that they use them more (19). This suggests that compensation strategies, when used in moderation, help language learners to keep on using the language thus obtaining more practice, but that their over-use, particularly as proficiency increases, may hinder the FL acquisition process. Thus, what begins as an important strategy to keep communication flowing, may convert into a crutch at higher levels of proficiency.

Part D on Tables One and Two reflect the responses of good and poor first and fourth year language students concerning their use of metacognitive strategies. Good language learner participants responded that they used metacognitive strategies more than poor language learners did, in both first and fourth year. Although good and poor language learners demonstrated an increase between first and fourth year, the jump was greater for good learners (from an average score of 31 to 34) than poor language learners (from 29 to 31). This suggests that metacognitive strategies, which help learners coordinate their learning process through planning, organizing, and evaluation, are essential to successful FL learning at all stages of the language acquisition process. Good language learners maintain and even increase these strategies as proficiency increases.

Affective strategies, those that help learners manage their emotions, are the focus of Part E in Tables One and Two. According to Ehrman (1996:137), "Every imaginable feeling accompanies learning, especially learning that can be as closely related to who we are as language learning is. There can be positive feelings such as joy, enthusiasm, satisfaction, warmth." She also mentions the less pleasant feelings that are associated with learning difficulties: frustration, anger, anxiety, lack of self-confidence. That is why Oxford (1990:140) claims, "The affective side of the learner is probably one of the strongest influences on language learning success or failure...Negative feelings can stunt progress, even for the rare learner who fully understands all the technical aspects of how to learn a new language. On the other hand, positive emotions and attitudes can make language learning far more effective and enjoyable." These commentaries make the results of Part E very surprising.

If good language learners are those who are suppose to know how to control their emotions and attitudes about learning, how is it that the poor learners in the first year scored higher (19) than the good learners (18) on the affective strategies part of the SILL, and that the average score for the 4th year good and poor learners was the same (17)? One of the reasons as to why this occurred may be found in the way the questions were asked in the survey. Half of questions on the affective part of the survey were written so that the respondent had to recognize affective obstacles in order to use affective strategies. For example, to respond positively to "I try to relax whenever I feel afraid of using English", the respondent first needed to affirm that he is apprehensive using English. Similarly, responding positively to, "I encourage myself to speak English even when I am afraid of making a mistake," obliges the student to first recognize that he fears being incorrect. Finally, if the statement, "I notice if I a tense or nervous when I am studying or using English" is answered positively on the SILL, the FL learner affirmed the presence of a pre-existing negative affective state. Thus, the possibility exists that good language learners did not score high on this section of the survey because they did not need to resort to affective strategies due to the inexistence of affective problems.

Part F on Tables One and Two reflects the SILL responses of the participants concerning their use of social strategies. While the fourth year good language learners surpassed the first year good language learners by one point, the opposite tendency occurred with the poor language learners. Instead of increasing their use of social strategies, fourth year poor students scored three points lower than the first year poor students. This implies that as proficiency increases, good language learners feel the confidence and recognize the importance of interacting with others in order to improve FL performance. Poor learners, however, suffering from the inability to communicate correctly and fluently, may be depending too much upon other types of strategies, and avoiding contexts in which they are expected to socially interact. While good language learners use social strategies to become even better, less effective learners draw back from social participation, evading much needed communicative practice and thus stunting their FL acquisition progress.


This study began with questions concerning how FL learning strategy use differed between good and poor language learners and whether these strategies changed over time. By surveying the most and the least effective language learners at the beginning level and the advanced level of the FL acquisition process, preliminary evidence was gathered that suggests that not only does FL learning strategy use differ between good and poor learners, but that it also changes in different ways over time.

Using Oxford's (1990) paradigm of language learning strategies and the Strategy Inventory for Language Learning that she developed to measure strategy use, results of the collected data suggest that good language learners increase their use of cognitive, metacognitive, and social strategies, and decrease their use of memory and affective strategies. Compensation strategies were maintained evenly. Poor learners, on the other hand, augmented their use of memory, cognitive, compensation, and metacognitive strategies, while diminishing their use of affective and social strategies.

The implications of these findings point to the idea that some strategies that were effective at lower levels of proficiency can become crutches as proficiency increases. This was particularly the case in memory strategies, where good first year students reported using them more often than good fourth year learners, while poor fourth year students confirmed that they used them more than poor first year learners.

Pedagogically, one can interpret this to mean that training in language learning strategies must consider the issue of proficiency levels and how advanced students must be aware that certain strategies may not be as effective as they once were. Strategy training must be carried out with attention focused on when a strategy should be replaced by a more adequate one.

These findings also suggest that one must tread with caution when measuring FL learning strategy use. If researchers are claiming that good language learners use more strategies than poor language learners do, what strategies are they referring to? Evidence gathered in this study implies that strategy use increases in certain categories and decreases in others. If strategy use is perceived as a total of all categories, this will also include the FL learners' use of memory strategies and other strategies such as translation, inventing words, and switching to the mother tongue that may impede FL progress at higher levels of proficiency, thus skewing the results of any relationship between strategy use and habits of good language learners.

Further research is necessary to discover what strategies are effective at certain levels of proficiency. When should memory strategies diminish and social strategies flourish? (i.e., When is it most beneficial for a language learner to set aside vocabulary lists and instead look for oral interaction?) When should language learners put aside the use of compensation strategies to rely more heavily on cognitive strategies? (I.e., Instead of inventing a word or switching to the mother tongue, would it be more advantageous as proficiency increases to implement more analysis and reason?) With the initial indicators revealed in this study, it would also be interesting to see if these results are confirmed in larger populations and in longitudinal fashion.



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