Language learner strategies and language competence: a case study in the Slovene
higher education area
The present article reports on the findings of a study conducted at the Faculty of
Maritime Studies and Transport, University of Ljubljana, Slovenia. The aim of the
study was to confirm the findings of international studies in the Slovene higher
education area in relation to the correlation between language competence and language
learner strategy use. The first question that this study addresses is whether Slovene
higher education students at different levels of language competence differ in terms
of frequency of use of language learner strategies. The second question is which
learner strategies are more frequently used by Slovene higher education students
that had reached a high level of language competence before entering higher education.
Based on the findings, the paper suggests some language learner strategies for implicit
or explicit strategy based instruction.
Keywords: language learner strategies, strategy based instruction, language competence,
language for specific purposes, higher education.
The most important problems that students have to cope with at the beginning of their
higher education studies include poor learner strategies and habits (Marentič Požarnik
and Mihevc, 1997). Moreover, to be able to adapt to new demands of the rapidly changing
European and world society each individual will need a wide array of key competences
for lifelong learning, including communication in the mother tongue, communication
in foreign languages, and learning to learn (Recommendation of the European Parliament
and of the Council of 18 December, 2006).
Language learning, or the specific aspect of learning which this study is concerned
with, is affected by a number of factors, which can be classified into six broad
categories (Ehrman, 1996): biographic background, learning style, affective factors,
language learner strategies, learning aptitude, and interaction between students
and the environment. In informal conversations, language teachers in the Slovene
higher education area have frequently reported that in elementary and secondary education
many students had failed to reach satisfactory levels of language competence that
would allow them to upgrade their knowledge of discipline-specific foreign language
(see also Jurkovič, 2008). On the other hand, as early as their freshman year, many
of their peers are characterized by high levels of language competence.
Stemming from these premises and based on a case study of a representative sample
of students enrolled in the first year of studies in a Slovene higher education institution
(Faculty of Maritime Studies and Transport, University of Ljubljana), this paper
aims to answer to following research questions:
1) Do students at different levels of language competence use different language
2) Which language learner strategies are more frequently used by students at high
levels of language competence?
3) Which are the language learner strategies that should be incorporated into strategy
based instruction if implemented or in the study process in general?
In other words, this study aimed at exploring the relationship between the frequency
of use of language learner strategies and language competence in a Slovene higher
education setting and comparing the findings against the findings of international
studies in this field.
2. Theoretical framework
In more than three decades of research a mass of competing definitions of language
learner strategies has been developed. In an attempt to propose a viable definition,
Griffiths (2008: 87) generally defines them as: “Activities consciously chosen by
learners for the purpose of regulating their own language learning.” A more precise
definition, however, is needed in research studies whose main focus is language learner
strategies and their effect on language learning. Macaro (2006) suggests that learner
strategies should be described in terms of four essential features: their origins
are in working memory, they are conscious mental activities, learners employ them
to pursue a goal in a given learning situation, and they are transferable. Nevertheless,
in the learner strategy research community a consensus regarding all elements that
are necessary for learning behaviours to be considered strategies still has not been
reached, in particular with reference to the employed level of consciousness, explicitness
regarding action, degree of goal orientation, strategy size, and potential for leading
to learning (Cohen, 2007).
Along with a number of definitions of language learner strategies different taxonomies
of these strategies have been produced (e.g., Rubin, 1981; Oxford, 1990; Chamot and
O’Malley, 1994; see also Macaro, 2006). Among the most influential ones certainly
is that proposed by Oxford (1990), which is supported by a strategy use questionnaire
(Strategy Inventory for Language Learning; SILL) and results of numerous research
studies in which it was used. According to Oxford (1990), there are six groups of
language learner strategies. Memory strategies help students store and retrieve new
information, cognitive strategies enable learners to understand and produce language,
compensation strategies allow learners to use the language despite knowledge gaps,
metacognitive strategies allow learners to coordinate and regulate their own learning
process, affective strategies help them regulate their affect, and social strategies
help students learn through interaction with peers or other speakers of the foreign
The second main variable (the first one being language learner strategies) that this
paper examines is language competence. Mostly as a result of efforts within the Council
of Europe, the European foreign language learning community has defined what language
competence and the broader communicative language competence entail. Communicative
language competence “can be considered as comprising several components: linguistic,
sociolinguistic and pragmatic.” (Council of Europe, 2001: 13) In turn, linguistic
competence as one of the components of communicative competence consists of lexical
competence (knowledge of and ability to use the vocabulary of a language), grammatical
competence (knowledge of and ability to use the grammatical resources of a language),
semantic competence (awareness and control of the organisation of meaning), phonological
competence, orthographic competence, and orthoepic competence (Council of Europe,
Within the field of language learner strategies, several research studies conducted
in the international environment have examined the relationship between the frequency
of language learner strategy use and language competence, expressed through exam
grades, language test scores, and self-assessment scores, among others. The findings
of studies that have yielded statistically significant results are briefly outlined
in the following paragraphs.
In her study among 110 Thai students majoring in English, Mullins (1992) found a
negative correlation between the frequency of use of affective strategies and admission
test scores, possibly indicating that students at lower levels of language competence
tend to be more tense when learning a foreign language and consequentially tend to
resort to affective strategies more often than their more successful peers. In addition,
she reported that students of English at higher levels of language competence use
some groups of strategies frequently (compensation, cognitive, and metacognitive)
while using the others at least with medium frequency (social, affective, and memory).
A comprehensive overview of studies made in the field of language learner strategies
before 1995 in a variety of settings is provided by Oxford and Burry-Stock (1995).
A summary of results shows significantly higher frequency of use of some metacognitive
strategies among students at higher levels of language competence. These are in particular
strategies for the regulation of the learning process (planning and self-evaluation)
and the cognitive strategy of practicing. In most studies a strong correlation between
language learner strategy use and language test scores was found, which possibly
indicates that language progress can be enhanced through strategy based instruction.
When comparing strategy use against the level of language competence, individual
groups of learner strategies rather than the frequency of all language learner strategies
have to be considered (Oxford and Ehrman, 1995). The main finding of the study conducted
by Oxford and Ehrman (1995) among 520 highly educated native speakers of English
working for US administration bodies is that language progress most strongly correlates
with the frequency of use of cognitive strategies. The findings of their research
have also been confirmed by Shmais (2003) in a study that involved 120 students majoring
in English in Palestine. The author concludes that learners at higher levels of language
competence are more aware of their learning needs and more frequently look for opportunities
for learning a foreign language themselves. In this study no correlation was found
between the use of metacognitive strategies and language competence.
Interesting findings were suggested by Takeuchi (2003) in his analysis of 67 books
written by successful Japanese learners of foreign languages, in which their language
learning experience is described. Language learner strategies that are preferred
among students at early stages of learning a foreign language differ from those used
by students at higher levels of language competence. It seems that the use of certain
strategies is tightly connected with a stage of learning a foreign language given
that students also reported a shift in the use of strategies after reaching a higher
level of language competence.
A comprehensive research study was conducted by Griffiths (2003a; 2003b) at a private
English language school for international students in New Zealand. The sample consisted
of 348 learners aged between fourteen and 64 (74 percent were in their twenties).
She explored the use of language learner strategies among basic and proficient users
of English. The main findings of her research concern the use of strategies that
are statistically significantly more often used by proficient users or ‘plus’ strategies.
The main findings of her research are that learners at higher levels of language
competence use strategies more frequently and that these are also more sophisticated
(include manipulation rather than memorization) and oriented toward interaction with
others. It seems that differences in strategy use between less and more proficient
learners are both quantitative and qualitative. However, the question that remains
open concerns the causal relationship between language competence and language learner
strategy use. Griffiths (2003a: 381; 2003b: 216) describes this relationship as a
“spiral” one. Similarly, Green and Oxford (1995) suggest that an active use of language
learner strategies contributes to enhanced language progress which in turn stimulates
students towards a more active use of learning strategies.
Given that this study refers to the relationship between language learner strategy
use and language competence in a Slovene setting, findings of research studies that
have explored the effect of the cultural background on the use of strategies will
briefly be outlined. Bedell and Oxford (1996), for instance, summarize their main
findings with the statement that learners often behave in certain socially acceptable
ways, which means that their cultural and educational background exerts a significant
(but not key) influence on their choices regarding the use of language learner strategies.
In a comparison between European and Asian students, Griffiths (2003b) found that
Europeans use strategies more frequently in general and that mostly these are strategies
that involve an active role of the student in their learning process (e.g., “I read
for pleasure in English” or “I look for people I can talk to in English”). Moreover,
research has shown that Chinese students use memory strategies more often than other
learners of English (Huang and Van Naerssen, 1985) and that learners from Spanish
speaking environments prefer communication and social strategies if compared to Asian
students that prefer memorization (Politzer and McGroarty, 1985).
The Faculty of Maritime Studies and Transport is a member of the University of Ljubljana,
Slovenia. Only one foreign language (English) is taught at the faculty. When this
study was conducted, the language course (which is a required course) covered ninety
hours (thirty three-hour weekly sessions) in the first year of studies and ninety
hours in the second year (after the full implementation of the Bologna reform the
number of hours will be reduced to a total of 120 in two years). The learning objectives
of the language course in the first year, which the present study is related to,
included the development of the reading skill (understanding technical and semi-technical
texts), the acquisition of technical and semi-technical vocabulary in relation to
traffic technology and transport logistics, the revision of essential grammatical
structures, and the improvement of writing, speaking, and listening skills in the
fields of transport logistics and traffic technology. The language competence level
that students were expected to reach by the end of the first year of studies was
set at B1+/B2 as set in the syllabus and corresponding to the level of foreign language
teaching in the first year.
The participants in the study were one hundred and one full-time first year students,
aged between 18 and 24, attending classes of English as a foreign language for students
of traffic technology and transport logistics from October, 2007, through May, 2008,
that were taught by the same teacher (researcher). The average age of the participants
at the beginning of the course was 20.27. Thirty-four participants were female and
sixty-seven participants were male.
Twenty-four participants in the study were enrolled in the four-year programme of
transport logistics, twenty-eight participants in the four-year programme of traffic
technology, and forty-nine participants in the three-year programme of traffic technology.
A background questionnaire was used to determine similarities and differences between
these groups in relation to age of participants, type of secondary school they had
completed, secondary school cumulative grade point average, and secondary school
English language grade. T-tests indicated no significant differences on any of these
characteristics between these three groups of students.
One teacher of English as a foreign language, a native speaker of the Slovene language,
participated in this study. She has fifteen years of teaching experience at secondary
school and higher education levels as well as with general and discipline-specific
foreign language courses for adults. She has a PhD in language teaching methodology
awarded by the Faculty of Arts of the University of Ljubljana, Slovenia.
3.3 Instruments and data collection procedures
Data for the present study were collected by means of three instruments. In order
to ensure reliability and validity, two instruments were used to collect data on
language competence. The Oxford Placement Text (OPT; Allan, 2004) and the Common
European Framework of Reference (CEFR) global self-assessment rating scale (Council
of Europe, 2001) were used to collect data on the language competence of students
at the beginning of the language course in October, 2007. The Strategy Inventory
for Language Learning (SILL; Oxford, 1990) was used to collect data on the frequency
of use of language learner strategies among students at the beginning of the language
The OPT is primarily used as a diagnostic test but can be used as a language test
to determine differences in language knowledge at the beginning and end of a language
course. The test is divided into two main sections. The first one mostly aims at
the testing of reading, listening, and vocabulary size while the second section is
a test of grammar, vocabulary, and reading skills. A significant advantage of the
OPT is that it has been calibrated against a series of international language examinations
and levels, including those of the CEFR, and its time-efficiency when detailed data
in relation to language competence in separate language skills in not essential.
The CEFR self-assessment global rating scale summarizes the set of proposed common
reference levels in six single holistic paragraphs where each paragraph refers to
one reference level (ranging from A1 – breakthrough level to C2 – mastery). Because
the heterogeneous nature of the enrolled population was expected (based on previous
experience), the Slovene version of the global rating scale was used to collect data
on the self-assessed language level of students at the beginning of the language
The instrument for measuring the frequency of language learner strategy use in the
current study was the Strategy Inventory for Language Learning (SILL), version for
speakers of other languages learning English (Oxford, 1990). The SILL consists of
50 items (nine refer to memory strategies, fourteen to cognitive strategies, six
to compensation strategies, nine to metacognitive strategies, six to affective strategies,
and six to social strategies). It is a self-scoring survey in which learners respond
on a five-point Likert scale ranging from 1 (never or almost never) to 5 (always
or almost always).
The results are based on data collected through the use of these three instruments.
Therefore, it was essential to calculate the psychometric properties concerning their
reliability and validity under the conditions described in 3.1 Setting and 3.2 Participants.
Pearson’s coefficient of correlation was used to calculate test-retest reliability
of OPT scores. Its value (at 0.702) indicates a high level of test-retest reliability.
Internal consistency reliability was determined using principal components analysis.
The analysis (no rotation) showed high loadings of both items (0.840 at the beginning
and at 0.834 at the end of the language course) on a single factor. Criterion-related
validity of OPT scores was determined though the calculation of Spearman’s rank correlation
coefficient. Given that the OPT has been calibrated against CEFR levels (Allan, 2004),
Spearman’s coefficient was calculated between CEFR levels onto which students were
placed according to OPT scores, and self-assessed levels of language competence determined
by the students themselves through the use of the CEFR global self-assessment scale
(Council of Europe, 2001). The values of Spearman’s coefficient of correlation, significant
at the level p=0.000, have shown a positive and marginally strong correlation between
CEFR levels derived from both instruments at the beginning (0.505) and end of the
language course (0.546). Finally, the predictive validity of the OPT has been confirmed
by regression analysis. The results have shown that OPT scores at the beginning of
the language course can explain 29% of the variance in achievement test scores (R2=0.294,
Test-retest reliability of CEFR self-assessment scores was calculated using Pearson’s
coefficient of correlation. Its value at 0.689 (p=0.000) indicates a high level of
test-retest reliability. Criterion-related validity of CEFR self-assessment scores
was determined through the calculation of Pearson’s coefficient of correlation with
students’ scores using the OPT (Allan, 2004). The value of the coefficient at 0.535
(p=0.000) indicates a statistically significant and positive marginally strong correlation
between both values. Finally, the predictive validity of the CEFR self-assessment
scores was confirmed using regression analysis. The results have shown that self-assessment
scores at the end of the language course can explain 21% of the variance in achievement
test scores (R2=0.214, p=0.000, b=0.463).
The internal reliability of the SILL was confirmed using Cronbach’s alpha (0.865).
3.4 Design, variables, and statistical procedures
In order to be able to answer the research questions stated in 1. Introduction, the
following variables had to be considered:
1) interval variable “OPT level”, which reflects CEFR levels onto which students
were placed based on their OPT scores.
Figure 1 shows students’ CEFR levels based on OPT scores.
Figure 1 CEFR levels based on OPT scores
Data presented in Figure 1 show that most students’ English language competence as
measured by the OPT was at level B1 (39%). These are followed by similar shares of
students at levels A2 (24%) and B2 (22%), and at A1 (9%) and C1 (7%). The mean value
of all scores was at 2.9 (2 = A2, 3 = B1) and the standard deviation value 1.0. The
data also reveal the high heterogeneity of students in terms of their pre-existing
2) interval variable “CEFR level”, which reflects CEFR levels onto which students
were placed based on their self-assessment scores.
Figure 2 shows students’ CEFR levels based on self-assessment scores.
Figure 2 CEFR levels based on self-assessment scores
Data presented in Figure 2 reveal that most students self-assessed their English
language competence to be at level B1 (41%). As noted with CEFR levels based on OPT
scores, these are followed by almost equal shares of students at A2 (23%) and B2
(22%). However, more students than the OPT scores revealed self-assessed their language
competence to be at A1 (13%) and fewer at C1 (2%). The mean value of all scores was
2.8 (2 = A2, 3 = B1), and the standard deviation value 1.0.
3) variables derived from the SILL, which reflect the frequency of use of different
groups of language learner strategies (“memory”, “cognitive”, “compensation”, “metacognitive”,
affective”, and “social”). In order to create these variables, factor analysis (principal
axis factoring) was used. Indicators with lowest loadings on each factor were eliminated.
Similarly, indicators that made the level of Cronbach’s alpha rise were eliminated
from the factors, too. Table 1 presents the number of included indicators, the number
of eliminated indicators, the degree of explained variance, and the value of Cronbach’s
alpha for each factor.
Table 1 Language learner strategies factors
Data in Table 1 show that the levels of Cronbach’s alpha for all constructs are at
least marginally acceptable, and are higher than 0.70 for cognitive, metacognitive,
and social strategy constructs.
The statistical measure to determine the level of correlation between the frequency
of language learner strategy use and language competence was Pearson’s coefficient
In the first part of the Results section we will try to provide an answer to the
first research question or “Do students at different levels of language competence
use different language learner strategies?”
Person’s coefficient of correlation was calculated to test the correlation between
the two variables indicating the level of language competence (“OPT level” and “CEFR
level”) on one hand and each language learner strategy factor on the other. Figure
3 presents the values of Pearson’s coefficient of correlation and level of significance
(*p<0.05, **p<0.01, ***p<0.001).
Figure 3 Correlation between language competence levels and language learner strategy
Data presented in Figure 3 reveal several statistically significant correlations.
Firstly, the strongest (marginally strong) correlation was found between the frequency
of use of cognitive strategies and language competence as expressed by both instruments.
This is also the only positive correlation found. On the other hand, the frequency
of use of affective and social strategies seems to be negatively correlated with
language competence. Even though the value of Pearson’s coefficient of correlation
is lower and indicates a weak correlation between variables, the correlations still
are statistically significant.
Obviously, students at higher levels of language competence use cognitive strategies
more often and social and affective strategies less often than their less successful
peers. In order to explore these findings further and provide answers to the second
and third research questions (“Which language learner strategies are more frequently
used by students at high levels of language competence?” and “Which are the language
learner strategies that should be incorporated into strategy based instruction if
implemented or in the study process in general?”) Pearson’s coefficient of correlation
was calculated. The aim was to find out how the level of language competence correlates
with each language learning strategy. Statistically significant correlations are
shown in Table 2 (*p<0.05, **p<0.01, ***p<0.001).
Table 2 Correlation between the level of language competence and language learning
Data presented in Table 2 show which language learner strategies correlate with language
competence. In other words, they show which language learner strategies are more
frequently used by more and which by less proficient learners of the English language.
Most learner strategies that emerged as a result of this analysis can be described
as ‘plus’ strategies, which means they are more frequently used by more proficient
users of the English language. On the other hand, some learner strategies have also
emerged that are obviously more frequently used by less proficient learners of English.
These include the affective strategy of listening to one’s body (“I notice if I am
tense or nervous when I am studying or using English.”1) and some social strategies,
in particular practicing English with other students.
This study aimed at exploring the relationship between the frequency of use of language
learner strategies and language competence in a Slovene higher education setting
and comparing the results against the findings of international studies in this field.
Firstly, the results have confirmed that the level of language competence correlates
with the frequency of use of language learner strategies, as international studies
have shown. This means that in the Slovene learning environment students at different
levels of language competence use different language learner strategies and also
that there is a reciprocal dependence between the frequency of use of (factors of)
language learner strategies and language competence.
In addition, it has also been confirmed that when exploring the correlation between
language learner strategies and language competence individual groups of learner
strategies rather than the frequency of strategy use in general have to be considered
(Oxford and Ehrman, 1995). In fact, there is a positive correlation between the frequency
of use of cognitive strategies and language competence expressed through the scores
at both tests used in this study. This indicates that students at higher levels of
language competence use cognitive strategies statistically significantly more often
than their less successful peers (see Oxford and Ehrman, 1995; Oxford and Burry-Stock,
1995; Griffiths, 2003a; Griffiths, 2003b).
On the other hand, the results have shown that the frequency of use of affective
strategies negatively correlates with language competence, possibly indicating that
students at lower levels of language competence tend to be more tense and anxious
when learning or using a foreign language (see Mullins, 1992).
Another group of language learner strategies negatively correlates with language
competence, which is social strategies. It seems that students that had reached lower
levels of language competence before enrolment in a tertiary education institution
feel the need to cooperate with their peers and other users of English while the
same need is absent among students at higher level of language competence. Interestingly,
in his model of learning styles Vermunt (1996) suggests that learning with others
as a mental model of learning typical of the undirected learning style should be
discouraged in higher education because in this way the learning process is externally
regulated. The results of the current study seem to confirm that students at lower
levels of language competence seek for external sources for assistance in their learning
process, which can be related to the higher frequency of use of social strategies
among these students. On the other hand, among higher level students the learning
process seems to be more internally regulated.
No statistically significant correlations were found between language competence
and memory, compensation, and in particular metacognitive strategy factors (see also
Shmais, 2003). This finding is important in particular in the light of the fact that
several studies have shown that language progress can be enhanced through instruction
in metacognitive strategies (Sengupta, 2000; Kusiak, 2001; Rasekh and Ranjbary, 2003;
Graham and Macaro, 2008).
Secondly, the results have revealed which individual language learner strategies
are used more frequently by students at higher or lower levels of language competence.
Students at higher levels of language competence take a more active role in their
learning process (e.g., “I start conversations in English.”, “If I can’t think of
an English word, I use a word or phrase that means the same thing.”) not only in
the formal school setting but also in informal situations outside language classrooms
(e.g., “I watch English language TV shows or go to movies spoken in English.”, “I
read for pleasure in English.”), where they look for opportunities for learning a
foreign language themselves (see Shmais, 2003; Griffiths, 2003a; 2003b). The only
social strategy that positively correlates with language competence is the one that
entails an active role of the student (“I ask questions in English.”) while the other
social strategies, in which students rely on external sources for assistance in their
learning, are more frequently used by students at lower levels of language competence
(“I ask proficient speakers to correct me when I talk.”, “I practice English with
other students.”, and “I ask for help from proficient English speakers.”). These
results do not confirm the findings reported by Griffiths (2003a; 2003b) who found
that students at higher levels of language competence are more oriented toward interaction
Students at higher level of language competence also seem to be more aware of their
learning needs (see Shmais, 2003) and evaluate the progress they are making (see
Oxford and Burry-Stock, 1995) (“I notice my English mistakes and use that information
to help me do better.”).
The role of various aspects of affect in language learning is undisputed, which has
also been revealed by the present study. In fact, students at lower levels of language
competence feel tense or nervous when they are studying or using English (“I notice
if I am tense or nervous when I am studying or using English.”) (see Mullins, 1992),
which may hinder their learning process and thus lead to poorer results in the future.
On the other hand, students that have already reached a higher level of language
competence are more self-confident learners that are less afraid to use English also
when they risk making a mistake (“I encourage myself to speak English even when I
am afraid of making a mistake.”).
The last research question set in 1. Introduction concerns the language learner strategies
that should be incorporated into strategy based instruction if this is implemented
or included into the teaching process in general, and thus concerns the implications
for teaching. To summarize the research results, they have shown that students that
have reached higher levels of language competence take a more active role in their
learning, look for opportunities for learning a foreign language also outside the
formal school setting, evaluate their process of learning which is usually internally
regulated, and display a higher degree of self-confidence as learners. Therefore,
it seems that strategy based instruction and teaching in general should focus on
strategies, tasks, and activities that will stimulate students for independent use
of the foreign language and will allow them to monitor and evaluate the progress
they are making, which should in turn raise their self-confidence and lower levels
of anxiety when learning or using a foreign language. An activity that entails all
of the above is setting short- and long-term learning objectives and evaluating the
degree to which these have been reached. Learners that set their own learning objectives
(with teacher assistance) that are based on their learning needs and self-assessed
level of language competence will probably take a more active control of their learning
process. In turn, their learning process might become less externally and more internally
regulated. And finally, through experiences of success as learners, assuming that
students’ previously set short- and long-term objectives have been met, their learning
self-confidence should be enhanced.
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