Learning Strategies

Learning strategies involve how a student decides to complete a language task. When used correctly, they can significantly improve the students ability to acquire English. 


The learning strategies below have been divided into 5 main categories: metacognitive, cognitive, memory, compensatory, and affective. This is not an exhaustive list. However, research has consistently demonstrated the utility of the following strategies. (Dunlosky 2013; O’Malley and Chamot 1990; Oxford 1994; Oxford 2003; Polk 2018)    

  • Distributed Practice – the spacing out of study sessions so that the material has a chance to sink in. The opposite would be cramming, or studying the material all in one long session, which is unfortunately what many students continue to do.
  • Interleaving – the mixing up of different topics so they can be studied at the same time, rather than one-by-one. For example, an English test may cover the topics of present-perfect tense, reported speech, and relative pronouns. Instead of studying present-perfect in isolation until it has been mastered, study all three simultaneously by moving back and forth between them.
  • Selective Attention – the act of focusing only on specific information during a learning task and ignoring the rest. For example, in a listening activity, the first time through, a student might listen for how many people are talking, names, and overall gist. The second time through, they might listen for more detailed information.
  • Summarizing – making a short statement about the main ideas of a text or presentation.
  • Note-taking – the practice of writing down important information to be reviewed later.
  • Generating Explanations – prompting learners to explain why a thing is either true or false. For example, with the sentence, “The sick man walked into the building,” it is better for the students to explain why, i.e. to see a doctor, than for the teacher to outright tell them, or for them to simply encode the information instead of actively engaging with it.
  • Making Inferences – using available information to arrive at conclusions not directly stated.
  • Practice Testing – Numerous studies confirm that testing not only measures knowledge but also affects the retention of new material. This is because a student must retrieve, or bring forward, the information from their memory in order to answer a test question. This process of retrieval doesn’t have to occur with a test, however. Studying flashcards has the same effect, as does the Cornell note-taking system, where students divide their paper into 2 columns: one for notes and one for questions about those notes. After the activity, students can cover up the note column and test themselves with the questions.
  • Context Clues – During a reading or listening exercise, when students come to a word they don’t know they can guess the meaning of the unknown word by looking at the words around it, thus compensating for their lack of understanding.
  • Using Synonyms and Talking Around – At times, students have difficulty remembering a specific word or know the word in their L1 but not the L2. When this happens students can try using a synonym as well as talking around the missing word. Incidentally, this is one of the main functions of relative clauses. (A: You know, it’s that word people use to describe clothes… B: Oh, you mean fashion. A: Yes, that’s it! Fashion.”
  • Practicing Mindfulness – Practicing mindfulness brings a student into the present moment so they can become aware of their mood, anxiety, and feelings, as well as their environment and how they are interacting with it. There are essential qualities of kindess and curiosity at work as well. For example, if a student becomes angry at something someone is doing, instead of reacting to it, or engaging in negative self-talk (Oh, you’re such a jerk for always getting angry at people), they might just be aware that they are angry and sit with the emotion for a minute. Then, they might become curious. (Why am I so angry about this?) This puts them in a state of mind where they can respond to the situation.


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