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Modeling the Strategies We Advocate

(This article first appeared in the Summer 1997 issue of theTESOL Journal, pp. 5-6)

Several years ago, I decided to include the use of language learning diaries as a means of having students explore their own learning strategies and styles, and, based on their responses, examine and reevaluate my own teaching. Many educators have advocated their use (e.g., Bailey, 1983; Matsumoto, 1996). Oxford also highlighted the benefits of using language learning histories in the Autumn 1996 issue of the TESOL Journal. In fact, the whole area of language learning strategies has been widely explored in a plethora of books since Joan Rubin's stirring article in 1975 paved the way into this relatively uncharted field (for other books in this area, see Bailey & Nunan, 1995; O'Malley & Chamot, 1990; Oxford, 1990; Rubin & Thompson, 1994; Wenden & Rubin, 1987). Yet, I feel that for all of the research that has appeared, we as educators are falling short in emulating the kinds of learning strategies--the ones we expect our students to acquire--in our own lives.

For the past several years, I have been interested in expanding my depth and breadth of knowledge in this field to meet the specific needs of my students. The thing that made me reexamine my own teaching more concretely was a statement made by one of my Japanese students in her learning diary three years ago. She wrote:

We talked a lot about different ways of mastering English in and out class during this year. But why you don't learn more Japanese, living in the country for three years now. Is there hope of Japanese students learning English in Japan and not going to another country when you can't learn our language here? If you did the same things you teach, shouldn't you know more?

[Translation: Practice what you preach!]

Wow! It was true that after living in Japan for almost three years at that time, I still had much to learn to be able to communicate. Other students echoed her same dilemma. Consequently, I began to reflect on my need as an educator to model the behaviors I expect my students to acquire, for example, by trying to learn another language. As Ely and Pease-Alvarez (1996) pointed out their Editor's Note in the Special Issue on Learning Styles and Strategies

it is, after all, the teacher who is perhaps the catalyst in bringing about the learner's self-awareness, and it is the teacher who may be in the best position to empower students by showing them how to empower themselves. (p. 5)

Their statement is right on the mark, but we must realize that such learning and the ability to endow must come from having employed, to one degree or another, the strategies we are advocating. Furthermore, to judge ourselves capable of such empowerment based only on short exposures to foreign languages or by a cursory reading of the literature on the subject would be premature. Just like the teaching of any other skill--from piano to Japanese calligraphy--one must have applied these skills first in his or her own learning to fully impart both an intellectual and practical knowledge to the student. Practical experience, not just the theoretical, is paramount. In conducting interviews, I have discovered one common theme about Japanese students' feelings towards teachers who have become proficient in another language: Students hold these teachers in higher esteem as role models, gaining hope of someday becoming proficient in a foreign language.

Optimally, teachers who have learned a foreign language and who have coupled this with an understanding of learning styles and strategies, will be better prepared to impart this knowledge. For example, teaching my students about the communicative process took on new meaning for me after only being in Japan for two weeks. I had to go to a local pharmacy to buy medicine for my daughter who was constipated. Because I didn't know any Japanese, I had to resort to a variety of strategies to convey my intended meaning. First, I endured an arduous thirty minutes of terse verbal exchanges in English and Japanese. No luck. Drawings? Used to little avail. Finally, I did made myself understood, but not until I resorted to a colorful array of facial expressions, gestures, and vocalizations to achieve my objective. Can you imagine? From this unforgettable episode, however, I discovered that by assuming (in this case, being forced to assume) a different role for the day--a student of languages rather than an imparter of one--I felt more qualified to say that the ideas I had advocated before in the classroom about successful learning strategies did work.

Students are very cognizant of our own interest in language learning, and often will follow suit. They actually take great strength in teachers who have succeeded in learning, and tend to look to those who have good study habits and are making progress in their own quest of language mastery as role models. In other words, our own pursuit of language study only validates what we are teaching in the classroom. Our actions speak louder than our words. Our implementation of these skills, be it in ESL or ELF settings, will help us more fully train our students to excel in their own learning.

References

Bailey, K., & Nunan, D. (1995). Voices from the language classroom. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Bailey, K. M. (1983). Competitiveness and anxiety in adult second language learning: Looking at and through the diary studies. H. W. Seliger & M. H. Long (Eds.), Classroom oriented research in second language acquisition. Rowley, MA: Newbury House.

Ely, C. M., & Pease-Alvarez, L. (1996). Learning styles and strategies in ESOL: Introduction to the special issue. TESOL Journal, 6(1), 5.

Matsumoto, K. (1996). Helping L2 learners reflect on classroom learning. ELT Journal, 50(2), 143-149.

O'Malley, J. M., & Chamot, A. U. (1990). Learning strategies in second language acquisition. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Oxford, R. L. (1990). Language learning strategies. What every teacher should know. Boston: Heinle & Heinle.

Oxford, R. L. (1996). Language learning histories: Learners and teachers helping each other understand learning styles and strategies. TESOL Journal, 6(1), 20-23.

Rubin. J. (1975). What the good language learner can teach us. TESOL Quarterly, 9(1), 41-51.

Rubin, J., & Thompson, I. (1994). How to be a more successful language learner (2nd ed.). Boston: Heinle & Heinle.

Wenden, A., & Rubin, J. (1987). Learner strategies in language teaching. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.


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