Historically the current preoccupation with strategies has two sources: (i) attempts to define communicative competence (e.g. Canale and Swain, 1980; Canale, 1983) and to explore its operation in second language performance (e.g. Tarone, 1980; Færch and Kasper, 1983); (ii) attempts to define the “good language learner” (e.g. Naiman et al., 1978) and to draw from such definitions precepts for language learning (e.g. Rubin and Thompson, 1994).

The greatest single danger inherent in the current interest in strategies is that it may generate pedagogical techniques as crude in their assumptions as those that are sometimes still employed to teach grammar.

Strategic competence

In Canale and Swain’s definition (1980: 30), strategic competence is called into play “to compensate for breakdowns in communication due to performance variables or to insufficient competence” (cf. Canale, 1983). Two problems arise from this definition: (i) there are many communicative situations in which strategic processes play an “offensive” rather than a “defensive” role; (ii) a definition of strategic competence that concentrates exclusively on language use may encourage the assumption that there is a psychological disjunction at the strategic level between language use and language learning.

This problem is solved by Bachman’s definition of strategic competence as “an important part of all communicative language use, not just that in which language abilities are deficient and must be compensated for by other means” (Bachman, 1990: 100; see also Bachman and Palmer, 1996). In Bachman’s definition strategic competence has three components: assessment, planning and execution (1990: 100ff.), which together comprise “a set of metacognitive processes, or strategies, which can be thought of as higher order executive processes that provide a cognitive management function in language use, as well as in other cognitive activities” (Bachman and Palmer, 1996: 70). Those other cognitive activities include language learning in all its ramifications.

Strategic competence underlies all human behaviour and operates below as well as above the threshold of conscious awareness: at least some strategies can become part of automatic processing. When we research some aspect of second language learners’ strategic competence, we must never forget that we are looking at one small part of an extremely complex and in many respects still mysterious phenomenon.

Strategies in language learning

All learning in formal contexts is an intentional process shaped by explicit plans and strategies; on the other hand, proficiency in a second language is a complex skill that we deploy most successfully when we do so automatically. In other words, the development of proficiency in a second language depends on the automatization of processes that are first mastered by conscious effort – cf. Baars and McGovern’s (1996: 71) example of the proficient pianist.

Schmidt (1994) proposes four senses of “consciousness” in second language learning – intentionality, attention, awareness, control. Consciousness in all these senses is required for the explicit (as opposed to automatic) deployment of strategies in second language learning and second language use. (Note that implicit and incidental processes also play a significant role in second language learning, but they lie by definition outside the intentionality and control of the learner.)

Strategies and learner-centred pedagogies

McDonough (1995: 83) identifies three problems in applying the findings of strategies research to pedagogy:


First, it is not clear that what differentiates good and poor learners is the choice of strategy; it may simply be the range and amount of use of strategies. Second, there are constraints on when a strategy works which are to do with individuals, possibly cultural background, type of problem, and proficiency level. Third, a pedagogic decision of some risk has to be taken to devote teaching time to strategy training rather than language learning, and the pay-off is not secure.

There is a further, altogether larger problem: we cannot account for classroom learning exclusively in terms of the individual psychological processes that have usually been the focus of strategies research; classrooms are communities with cultural characteristics, and teaching is a sociocultural process. Accordingly, Gillette (1994: 211) “questions the belief that positive learning strategies, in and of themselves, constitute the explanation of L2 achievement” (cf. the sociocultural theory that derives from Vygotsky, 1978, 1986).

As noted above, second language learning in formal contexts is an intentional process whose success depends on the gradual automatization of tasks that are first performed with a high degree of conscious intention and control. This has two fundamental implications for second language pedagogy: (i) we must accord a central role to use of the target language, otherwise learners cannot be expected to develop even a limited capacity for automatic processing; (ii) we must adopt an explicitly reflective approach to the conduct of classroom activities, whether their principal focus is language learning or language use.

We hope but cannot guarantee that the strategic awareness learners develop by engaging reflectively in task assessment, planning and execution will somehow link up with and extend the established strategic capacities they bring with them to the classroom. To this end, we should make reflective processes as diverse as possible. Note that in collaborative and project-based learning, learners may extend their own explicit strategic capacity by “borrowing” the consciousness of their peers (cf. the techniques described in Dam, 1995).

Pedagogies concerned to develop autonomy in second language learners necessarily emphasize intentionality and control, the explicit strategic element in language learning and language use (Dam, 1995; Little, 1991, 1996). But if the pursuit of learner autonomy requires that we focus explicitly on the strategic component of language learning and language use, the reverse should also be the case: focus on strategies should lead us to learner autonomy.


It is important not to let strategies research fossilize around discarded models of cognitive operations: we must keep in view the large amount of primary research that is currently going on into the workings of the human brain. Also, future strategies research needs to find ways of taking account equally of the individual cognitive and the collective sociocultural dimensions of classroom language learning.



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