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Applied Linguistics 28/4: 615620

doi:10.1093/applin/amm034

Oxford University Press 2007

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Has Language Learning Strategy Research


Come to an End? A response to Tseng et al.
(2006)
XUESONG GAO

Tseng et al. (2006) critically examine language learning strategy (LLS) research
and propose to assess language learners strategic learning in terms of their selfregulatory capacity. In this response, I discuss whether the proposed advance of
self-regulation means the marginalization of LLS research. While recognizing
the merits of the proposal, I argue that the proposal needs to consider other
competing constructs with similar connotations in research on learners strategic
language learning. The response also reports on recent developments in LLS
research, contending that such developments could complement the advance of
a broad perspective on learners strategic learning in research.

INTRODUCTION
Tseng et al.s (2006) paper, A new approach to assessing strategic learning:
The case of self-regulation in vocabulary acquisition, problematizes language
learning strategy research. It proposes a research shift from learners use of
strategies to their self-regulation in language learning and develops a useful
instrument to evaluate learners self-regulatory capacity. While illuminating
in itself, the paper puzzles this reader. Does it suggest that language learning
researchers should follow the trend in educational psychology, where the
term learning strategy has virtually been abandoned for research purposes
and has been maintained primarily for pedagogical discourse only (Tseng
et al. 2006: 80)? If this is the case, then the proposed overhaul to LLS
research may need some deliberation. In particular, when introducing a
concept from one discipline to another with an intention to replace an
existing concept, it is desirable for researchers to verify whether there are
competing terms with similar connotations in the field. It is also questionable
whether the introduction of self-regulation into research on learners
strategic learning necessarily means that LLS research is being marginalized.
While this response recognizes the merits of Tseng et al.s (2006) proposal in
relation to the problems in LLS research, it contends that LLS research can
meaningfully complement the advance of the proposed self-regulation in
research on learners strategic learning. For this reason, this paper briefly
documents recent developments in LLS research.

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The University of Hong Kong

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LEARNING STRATEGY RESEARCH PROBLEMATIZED

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Tseng et al. (2006) recognize that research has been beset by many
problems including theoretical and methodological fuzziness in LLS research
(Dornyei 2005; Ellis 1994; Macaro 2006). As a construct, LLS remains
under-theorized (Ellis 1994; Hsiao and Oxford 2002; Zhang 2003) and
researchers have yet to arrive at a consensus on whether learning strategies
should be regarded as either observable behaviours or inner mental
operations, or both (Tseng et al. 2006: 80). Many researchers would concur
with their observation that from a scientific point of view a phenomenon is
highly unlikely to be both behavioural and cognitive in nature (ibid.: 80).
Noting the difficulty in differentiating between learners strategic and nonstrategic behaviour, Tseng et al. (2006: 81) argue that learning strategies can
only be defined in relation to particular learners intentions and creative
efforts. This indicates a need to have a shift in research, from focusing on
the productthe actual techniques employedto the self-regulatory process
itself and the specific learner capacity underlying it. Second, in assessing
language learners strategic learning, commonly used self-report survey
instruments are based on the assumption that strategy use and strategic
learning are related to an underlying trait because items ask respondents to
generalize their actions across situations rather than referencing singular
and specific learning events (Tseng et al. 2006: 82). This is indeed
problematic because strategy use and strategic learning, like other
psychological constructs, could have state and trait differences (Hong and
ONeil 2001). Learners LLS as a trait may refer to their relative stable
knowledge of strategy use across occasions while states of their strategy use
represent their actual deployment of strategies in different learning settings
or contexts (Wenden 1998; Phakiti in press). Unfortunately, LLS research
often measures the trait facet of learners strategy use and hence the picture
remains incomplete. Tseng et al. (2006: 83) also point out that scales in LLS
instruments, for instance, Oxfords (1990) Strategy Inventory for Language
Learning (SILL), are not cumulative and computing mean scale scores is
not justifiable psychometrically. Mean scale scores therefore fail to capture
the quality of learners strategy use. Drawing on educational psychology
research, the paper develops a self-regulating capacity in vocabulary
learning scale, which could be modified to measure learners self-regulating
capacity in other aspects of language learning.
In short, Tseng et al.s (2006) paper, as an insightful scrutiny of LLS
research, makes a commendable effort to introduce and operationalize a new
concept in research on language learners strategic learning: self-regulation.
However, their proposal could have been much stronger, had they also
considered other competing concepts with similar connotations in the field,
including metacognition (Wenden 1998, 2002) and strategic competence (for
details, see Bachman and Palmer 1996: 705).

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SELF-REGULATION VS. METACOGNITION


Wendens (1998, 2002) expositions of metacognition, published in Applied
Linguistics but not cited in Tseng et al. (2006), support a shift of attention
from learners outward strategic behaviour to the underlying process, be it
called self-regulatory capacity or metacognitive knowledge. Wenden (1998)
considers metacognitive knowledge and metacognitive strategies as two
separate and distinct components of the broader notion of metacognition:

Comparing Wenden (1998) with Tseng et al. (2006), it does seem that the
broader notion of metacognition is quite similar to that of self-regulation (for
details, see Tseng et al. 2006: 81), with metacognitive knowledge representing
the trait of learners metacognition and their deployment of metacognitive
strategies in particular settings representing its state.
As a prerequisite to learners self-regulation, metacognitive knowledge
includes person knowledge, task knowledge, and strategy knowledge (Flavell
1979; Wenden 1998). Person knowledge is general knowledge learners have
acquired about human factors that facilitate or inhibit learning, including
the cognitive and affective variables hypothesized as influencing language
acquisition in SLA research (Wenden 1998: 518). Task knowledge refers to
what language learners know about the demands, purposes, goals, nature of
learning tasks. Strategic knowledge is their general knowledge about what
strategies are, why they are useful, and specific knowledge about when and
how to use them (ibid.: 519). Since learners metacognitive knowledge
profoundly influences their strategic learning, it could be a competing concept
for the term self-regulatory capacity proposed by Tseng et al. (2006). There is
no question that the two constructs are closely related, but the exact
relationships between the two need to be elaborated, if the aim is to advance
the case of self-regulation in research on learners strategic learning.

LEARNING STRATEGY VS. SELF-REGULATION


It is also open to question whether LLS research has come to an end with the
introduction of self-regulation as a broadened perspective on learners
strategic learning. Learning strategy is considered an important construct
in language learners self-regulated learning, which involves a series of
purposeful actions and processes directed at acquiring skill or information

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Metacognitive knowledge refers to information learners acquire


about their learning, while metacognitive strategies are general
skills through which learners manage, direct, regulate, guide their
learning, i.e. planning, monitoring, and evaluation. The deployment of these three strategies in learning is referred to as selfregulation in cognitive psychology and as self-direction in adult
education and in the literature on learner autonomy in FL (foreign
language)/SL (second language) learning. (Wenden 1998: 519)

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DEVELOPMENTS IN LEARNING STRATEGY RESEARCH


Since learners strategy use is an integral component of the self-regulated
learning framework (Zimmerman 2001; Nota et al. 2004; Cleary 2006;
Sperling et al. 2004), it is important for researchers to take note of the
solutions that have actually been proposed for the theoretical and
methodological problems in LLS research.
First of all, recent LLS research is in line with Tseng et al.s (2006) proposed
shift from describing learners strategy use to the processes underlying them.
Strategy researchers are also cognizant of the problem that LLS research
tends to present a decontextualized, and static picture of learners strategy
use (Donato and McCormick 1994; Phakiti 2003; Parks and Raymond 2004;
Macaro 2006). For these reasons, Macaro (2006: 325) puts forward a new
theoretical framework to define LLS research. LLS is conceived in terms of a
goal, a situation, and a mental action as the raw material of conscious
cognitive processing. In a similar vein, Hsiao and Oxford (2002) suggest
creating a task-based strategy survey to capture learners dynamic strategy

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(Cleary 2006: 309; also see Sperling et al. 2004 and Zimmerman 2001).
Even Tseng et al. (2006: 81) acknowledge that the proposed self-regulation is
made up of a whole series of integrated and interrelated microprocesses, of
which learning strategy use is only one, while admitting that their paper
does not solve the problem of what learning strategies (or self-regulatory
mechanisms . . .) actually are.
According to Zimmerman (2001: 5), the self-regulated learning approach,
viewing learning as an activity that students do for themselves in a proactive
way, is an alternative perspective seeing learning as a covert event that
happens to them reactively as a result of teaching experiences. This may be a
new way to theorize learners strategic learning within a self-regulated
learning framework, but it does not necessarily have direct answers to
questions associated with various constructs, including LLS or self-regulatory
mechanism. In some sense, the concept self-regulation and the proposed
measurement scale in Tseng et al. (2006) appear to be solutions much larger
than the problems in LLS research that the paper sets out to solve. This might
have been one of the aims of the paper but it also prompts readers to
question whether the scale, as a new approach to assessing strategic
learning, can actually measure the quality of learners strategy use in a given
learning context. As the current scale apparently measures learners
self-regulatory capacity as a trait, there is also a need to develop means to
evaluate learners self-regulation in specific task settings. Understandably,
it is unlikely that researchers will have perfect measurement instruments
at their disposal and they often have to deal with a situation where
a construct in reality is what the test of it measures and is perhaps different
from the actual variable (Riding 2005: 662), a problem not particular to
LLS research.

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CONCLUSION
As an attempt to advance research on learners strategic learning, Tseng et al.
(2006) have made a significant contribution to the field by enlarging the
research perspective. However, it is still open to discussion whether this
proposal means the end of LLS research. Seeing learners strategy use as a
crucial component in this wider perspective on learners strategic learning,
researchers need to continue the search for answers or solutions to the
theoretical and methodological problems in LLS research. Such efforts are
believed to complement well the potential advance of self-regulation in
language learning research and make LLS a promising field for rigorous
research.
Final version accepted October 2007

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS
I wish to express my gratitude to the journals anonymous reviewer, Stef Slembrouck, Phil
Benson, Chris Davison, and Lawrence Jun Zhang for their insightful comments on early versions
of this response.

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use in specific task settings, while Macaro (2006) uses a task-based self-report
protocol method to empirically test his framework. Given the role that
strategy has in the self-regulated learning framework (Zimmerman 2001;
Sperling et al. 2004), these developments in LLS research can meaningfully
complement the advance of self-regulation in research on learners strategic
learning. At least, such research shows what constitutes a learners selfregulatory mechanism and how it operates within the self-regulated learning
framework.
A second development, limited in size but significant and important, is the
socio-cultural turn in LLS research (e.g. Donato and McCormick 1994;
Wenden 1998; Norton and Toohey 2001; Parks and Raymond 2004;
Gao 2006, in press). In a sociocultural perspective, language learners strategy
use is not only the result of their individual cognitive choices but also of the
mediation of particular learning communities (Donato and McCormick
1994). This may present an alternative for examining the connection
between learners actual strategy use and its underlying processes, including
their metacognitive knowledge, in particular contexts. Moreover, if learners
strategic behaviour is theorized as learners effort to open up access within
power structures and cultural alternatives for learning (Oxford 2003: 79),
such research, using qualitative and multi-method approaches, can reveal the
dynamic interaction between language learners agency and social structure
and this will deepen our understanding of learners strategic learning as
shaped by interaction (Gao in press).

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