Learner autonomy and learning strategies Strategies promote learning

Strategies are not just helpful for chess. | Photo (detail): © bizoo_n - Fotolia.com

Learning strategies are important tools for controlling and optimising the acquisition and use of a foreign language. Regular strategy training helps learners to become more independent. You can try this out for yourself too, with the help of the specific tips and teaching resources.

Promoting independent learning is a central goal of (classroom-based) foreign language teaching. Teaching learning strategies is one way of encouraging student independence. Learning strategies are tools that learners can use to acquire knowledge as well as to control and develop their receptive and productive language-processing skills. They can also help to solve problems with learning and using the foreign language. Research shows that the use of learning strategies can have a significant influence on the students’ learning efficiency and output. However it is essential that learners not only have access to a wide repertoire of learning strategies, but also that they apply them proficiently and in the appropriate situation.

Examples of reading strategies

When students read an unfamiliar text they face individual challenges, for example handling unknown words. In this case learners use inference – they work out the unknown word from its context –, they look it up in a (bilingual) dictionary and/or cooperate with other students. These are learning strategies frequently used in combination or in their own right to solve a vocabulary problem when reading. But using these learning strategies successfully is associated with certain conditions.

For instance successful inference is conditional upon the context including enough information from which to deduce the unfamiliar term. Also, learners must have sufficient knowledge of the language to understand the context of the word. Furthermore they should be able to check their possible solutions using the text. To use a dictionary, learners are required not only to know their way around it, they must also be able to find the word they are looking for in it and select the appropriate meaning for the context. Cooperation between students is a good idea and worthwhile if they want to support each other and if they possess the necessary skills to do this – for instance language competence. 
)) Looking up unfamiliar words in the dictionary is a learning strategy too. Tow women with dictionary | Photo (detail): © Bernhard Ludewig - Goethe-Institut

Classification of learning strategies

From the example outlined here we can identify three categories of learning strategy: Metacognitive learning strategies are for planning – such as the selection of suitable learning strategies –, control – for example checking whether a word found in the dictionary fits with the text – and evaluation of the learning/working process – for instance the final review and adjustment of the work results. If students apply strategies when working directly with learning materials, they are called cognitive learning strategies. Examples of these are inference, underlining key aspects of a text, referencing back to global and existing knowledge, using a dictionary or even writing a summary. Socio-affective learning strategies are used by learners either to solve a task or understanding problem cooperatively (social strategies) or to control their own feelings, such as fear, frustration and lack of motivation (affective strategies).

4 Step by step strategy training

The idea of teaching strategies for learning is to give students the broadest possible repertoire of learning strategies and ensure that they are capable of applying them appropriately to a given learning objective. As a teacher you particularly need to encourage metacognitive as well as cognitive and socio-affective learning strategies. This allows students to plan and reflect upon their learning process and strategy application, and make flexible adjustments. Teachers should integrate strategy training into lessons regularly and systematically, and focus on specific skill areas such as reading strategies or vocabulary learning strategies when they teach them.
These four progressive steps are the generally accepted method of teaching learning strategies.
  • Awareness: a tangible learning objective, such as handling unknown words while reading, makes students aware of learning strategies they already know. Discussions, targeted questions or partner interviews after working on a task are ideal for achieving this.
  • Presentation and modelling: once teachers have decided on one or two strategies to promote learning, they present and model these strategies by verbalising the individual planning, implementation and control steps.
  • Practice: learners try out their knowledge of strategies and consider their effectiveness within the context of cognitively challenging tasks.
  • Transfer and evaluation: learners apply the strategies in some more tasks and consider their effectiveness with the help of portfolios, evaluation forms or a regular self-observation with exchange of experience.
If you’d like to deliver learning strategy training in your lessons, you can use this lesson plan as a basis: It’s worthwhile, because regular strategy training gradually helps students to become more independent and enjoy learning more.


Bimmel, Peter/Rampillon, Ute (2000): Lernerautonomie und Lernstrategien (= Das Fernstudienangebot Deutsch als Fremdsprache; 23). Berlin: Langenscheidt.
Chamot, Anna Uhl/ Barnhardt, Sarah/ Beard El-Dinary, Pamela/ Robbins, Jill (1999): The learning strategies handbook. White Plains: Longman.
Finkbeiner, Claudia/ Knierim, Markus/ Smasal, Marc/ Ludwig, Peter (2012): Self-regulated cooperative EFL reading tasks: students’ strategy use and teachers’ support. In: Language Awareness Vol. 21, issue 1-2, p. 57-83.
Griffiths, Carol (2013): The strategy factor in successful language learning. Bristol: Multilingual Matters.
Smasal, Marc (2010): Lernstrategien im Fremdsprachenunterricht. Ein Workshop für die fächerübergreifende Aus- und Weiterbildung von Fremdsprachenlehrkräften. In: Profil Vol. 2, p. 171-188.