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Annual Review of Education, Communication and Language Sciences, Volume 1, 2004









Using Oxford’s SILL (1990 Version 7.0), the researcher investigated EFL learning strategy use among a group of 428 technological institute English majors in China and 6 factors affecting their strategy choice. The paper here focused on the frequency of EFL learning strategy use and its two affecting factors: gender and language proficiency.  Descriptive statistics indicate that the Chinese technological institute English majors were medium strategy users (Overall strategy use M = 3.25, SD=.53); the most frequently used strategies were Metacognitive strategies (M =3.74, SD=.64) and the least frequently used were Memory strategies (M=2.91, SD= .61). Independent Sample T-test shows that learners with better EFL proficiency reported using the overall strategy and each of the six categories of strategy significantly more frequently than learners with lower EFL proficiency did. The study also revealed significant gender differences among Overall strategy use, Memory strategies and Affective strategies with females surpassing males in each case. In light of the previous research, the findings were discussed and recommendations provided.




    Entering the 1970s, influenced by the Cognitive view of learning, which regards language learning as a dynamic, creative process and the learner as an active strategy user and knowledge constructor, many ESL researchers have shifted their focus of attention from teaching methods to learners. In explaining the individual learner differences vis-à-vis the rate and degree of second/foreign language acquisition, a variety of factors have been identified, such as factors relating to the characteristics of the learners and those relating to characteristics of the learning situation (Bialystok 1981, p.24). Among the factors relating to learner characteristics, the study of language learning strategy use has become one of the most prominent issues in the field of second language acquisition (McDonough 1995, p.v).

    The research on second language learning strategies use was initiated by Rubin (1975). Following leads from Carton in 1971, Rubin studied the language learning strategies used by good language learners with the assumption that, once identified, such strategies could be imparted to less successful learners. Since then, the research interests on learners’ language learning behaviors and the language they produce have been increasing substantially (Naiman et al. 1995, p.vii), and a rich body of empirical studies have been acknowledging that language learning strategies influence second language acquisition (MacLaughlin et al. cited Wenden 1987; Oxford 1989; Rubin 1987; Naiman et al. 1995; O’Malley & Chamot 1990). Meanwhile, a wide repertoire of factors affecting learners’ strategy use have been compiled (see Oxford 1989, p.236) and a few of them have been investigated ever since Rubin called for further research taking into account of factors affecting language learning strategy use in 1975.



Literature review

L2 Proficiency and language learning strategy use

    A rich body of empirical studies has investigated the relationships between learners’ L2 proficiency and strategy use with the majority indicating that conscious, “tailored” use of strategies is related to language achievement and proficiency, and successful learners employ a wider variety of strategies to improve their language skills and performance (Oxford 1996, p. xi). In Bialystok’s (1981) study on a group of grade 10 and 12 students learning French in Toronto, she found that monitoring strategies and strategies for functional practice affected learning outcome in a positive way as measured by achievement tests in writing, listening, reading and grammar. The large-scale investigation of 1200 university foreign language students in the US by Oxford and Nyikos (1989) found that greater strategy use was associated with learners’ higher perceptions of proficiency in reading, listening, and speaking. Ehrman and Oxford’s (1989) experimental study of 78/79 ‘optimal’ adult learners at the US Foreign Service Institute indicated greater strategies use among professional language educators than the students. Dreyer and Oxford’s (1996) study of Afrikaans university ESL majors reported significant positive correlations between strategy use and proficiency. The study of Jordan high school EFL learners by Kaylani (1996, p.75) revealed that the use of Memory, Cognitive and Metacognitive strategies was significantly higher for successful students than less successful ones. Wharton’s (1997) study of 678 bilingual university students studying Japanese and French course in Singapore showed significant correlation between strategy use and French/Japanese proficiency, with more successful learners employing more frequently the learning strategies than do poor proficiency learners. Study by Bremner (1999) on Hong Kong English majors also found that out of the 50 specific strategies, 11 were significantly correlated to proficiency. Hoang (1999) found more proficient learners use more strategies and more effectively than the ones with lower levels. By analyzing diaries from 12 learners, Halbach (2000) reported that subjects who got higher marks during their final term exam reported using strategies more frequently than did the less successful students. A study on university medical majors in China by Yu (2003) found that learners’ strategy use was strongly correlated with listening proficiency. The study by Shmais (2003) among a group of 99 university English majors in Palestine revealed that there is significant Memory strategies use difference between very good and good learners in favor of very good learners.

    However, some research findings reveal a different story regarding the relationship between strategy use and proficiency. Green (1991 cited Bedell & Oxford 1996, p.49) studied 213 students of English and found that high proficiency students used more strategies than low proficiency ones, but moderately proficient students used more strategies than either high or low proficiency students, thus a curvilinear pattern. The study by Mullines (1992 cited Bedell & Oxford 1996, p.50) on 110 English majors in Thailand failed to reveal significant correlation between any of the three proficiency measures and overall strategy use although they did correlate with certain strategy categories.


Gender and language learning strategy use

    Gender differences have been found in a rich area of human social and cognitive development (Kaylani 1996, p.79). In language learning strategy research, efforts have been made to investigate the strategies used by males and females and ‘the sex difference findings to date show that in typical language learning situations females use significantly more learning strategies than males and use them more often’ (Oxford 1989, p.239).

    In the aforementioned studies, Oxford and Nyikos (1989) found that females showed greater use of three out of five strategy categories than males did. Similarly Ehrman and Oxford (1989) found females reported significantly greater use of language learning strategies in four strategy categories, yet males have not been shown to exceed females in the use of any general category of language learning strategies. Dreyer and Oxford (1996, p.72) also found males and females reported different patterns of strategy use with females using strategies more often than males did. In the diary study by Oxford et al. (1996) among a group of 26 female and 16 male learning Spanish as a foreign language, they found that significantly more females than males reported using Memory, Cognitive and Social strategies. In a study on Korean learners by Ok (2003), it was found that Korean high school girls scored significantly higher in five of the six strategy categories than boys did. However the study by Kaylani (1996, p.84) revealed that gender is related in complex ways to the frequency of strategy use. Although she found significant Memory, Cognitive, Compensation and Affective strategies use differences between males and females in favor of females, it was found successful female students’ language learning strategy profile resembled more the strategy profile of successful males than that of the unsuccessful female.



Research questions

    “Nationality or ethnicity influences strategy use” (Oxford 1990, p.13). As early as 1993, Oxford (1993, p.183) stressed the importance of further research in different learning environments regarding learners’ language learning strategy use: “investigations should be replicated so that more consistent information becomes available within and across groups of learners”. Although China started research on language learning strategy use in the mid 1980s, a decade later than the rest of the world (Liu & Zhu 2001, p.3), there has no account of language learning strategy use by technological institute English majors. Additionally, the inconsistent findings in the existing language learning strategy research make it difficult to apply them to understand the language learning strategy use by Chinese technological institute English majors. Therefore, in this paper, three research questions will be investigated:


1.  What is the frequency of EFL learning strategy used by the Chinese technological institute English majors according to Oxford’s (1990) taxonomy?

2.  Is there a significant difference in the frequency of EFL learning strategy use by gender?

3.  Is there a significant difference in the frequency of EFL learning strategy use by EFL proficiency?


Research instrument

    Oxford’s (1990) 50-item Strategy Inventory for Language Learning (SILL, version 7.0) was adapted and translated into Chinese for the study. Firstly, Oxford’s classification is ‘more systematic in linking individual strategies, as well as strategy groups’ (Oxford 1990, p.14), ‘the most comprehensive one to date’ (Ellis 1994, p.539); secondly, SILL is the “most often used strategy scale around the world”, and the only language learning strategy instrument that has been extensively field-tested for reliability and validated in multiple ways (Oxford & Burry-Stock 1995).

    The 50 items in the SILL were divided into 6 categories: Memory, Cognitive, Compensation, Metacognitive, Affective and Social strategies. Learners are guided to respond to each of the strategy description based on the 5-point Likert scale, and the criteria used for evaluating the degree of strategy use frequency are: low frequency use (1.0-2.49), moderate frequency use (2.5-3.49), and high frequency use (3.5-5.0).

    Data on learners’ EFL proficiency were obtained by asking learners to self-report their previous term’s English listening and speaking examination scores, and to self-evaluate these two skills in order to achieve consistency in the course offered across the different years of EFL learning.


    All the English majors at Nanyang Institute of Technology (China) were invited to participate in the study and a total of 379 valid questionnaires (87 by Male and 292 by Female) were analyzed using SPSS.



Data analysis


Answer to research question 1

    Table 1 and Figure 1 summarized the frequency of strategy use among the participants.  The descriptive statistics for Overall strategy use (M=3.25, SD=.53) indicate that the participants are medium strategy users. They reported having medium to high frequency use of each of the six categories of strategy with mean statistics ranging between M=3.74 and M=2.91; with Metacognitive strategies being the most frequently used, and Memory strategies the least frequently used. Between them by order of descending frequency are compensation strategies, affective strategies, cognitive strategies and social strategies.


Table 1: Descriptive Statistics for Learners’ Strategy Use (N=379)


Figure 1: Mean Scores for Strategies uses


Answer to research question 2

    To find out whether there is a strategy use difference by EFL proficiency, learners’ EFL proficiency was re-coded as high proficiency and low proficiency based on the similar average EFL proficiency score which is 76 across the 3 grades. Those with an average EFL proficiency score lower then 76 (inclusive) were regarded as low proficiency learners, and the rest were high proficiency learners. Independent Sample T-test showed that high proficient learners reported statistically more frequent strategy use than low proficient learners did (p<.05).  (See Table 2 and Figure 2).


Table 2: Independent Sample T-Test on Learners’ strategy use by Proficiency

Figure 2: Strategy Uses and Proficiency


    To understand the direction and strength of the relationship between EFL proficiency and strategy use, correlation coefficients between strategy use and EFL proficiency were obtained (See Table 3).


Table 3: Correlations between EFL Proficiency and Strategy use


    The statistically significant positive correlations indicate that the better the proficiency, the more frequently they use the strategies. The strongest correlation exists between Metacognitive strategies and EFL proficiency, and the weakest correlation is between Affective strategies use and EFL proficiency. The slim coefficients are in accordance with Gall et al.’s (1996, p.459) speculation that correlations in the range of .20s and .40s might be all that one should expect to find for many of the relationships studied by educational researchers since there are often many variables involved in the educational research and the effect of any individual variable is often not large.


Answer to research question 3

    Independent Sample T-test shows females reported more frequent EFL learning strategy uses than males did. However, statistically significant differences were only found on Memory, Affective and Overall strategy use (P<.05) (see Table 4 and Figure 3).


Table 4: Independent Sample T-Test on Learners’ strategy use by Gender

Figure 3: Strategy Uses by Gender


    The bivariate correlation analysis (see Table 5) shows that there is statistically positive slim correlation between gender and Overall strategy, Memory and Affective strategies use. No significant correlation was found between the rest of the categories of strategy use and gender.


Table 5: Bivariate Correlation Between Learners’ gender and strategy use





Profile of strategy use

    The subjects of the study revealed that they were medium strategy users in EFL learning, which is consistent with the other strategy studies in China employing Oxford’s SILL (version 7.0), such as Yu’s (2003) study (M=2.94) on Chinese medical university EFL learners; the study of 86 English Major sophomores by Han and Lin (2000) (M=3.15), and the study of 168 third-year students university English majors by Nisbet (2002) (M=3.45); in all three cases, the Overall strategy use was reported in the medium range.

    The findings of high frequency use of Metacognitive strategies and least frequent use of Memory strategies are consistent with the aforementioned studies on English majors by Nisbet (2002), Han and Lin (2000). However they are inconsistent with the few existing SILL studies focusing on non-English majors, such as the study by Yu (2003), where the non-English majors reported using Compensation strategies most frequently and Memory strategies least frequently, nor was it consistent with the research by Griffiths and Parr (1999) in an ESL learning context in Auckland who found Social strategies being the most frequently used and Memory strategies being the least frequently used.

    The consistent findings regarding Memory strategies use across the studies in China using different subjects seem to indicate that although Memory strategies can be powerful contributors to language learning, the low frequency use of Memory strategy by university students may indicate that beyond elementary levels of language learning, students simply do not use this strategy very much, or that students are not aware of how often they actually do employ Memory strategies (Oxford 1990, p.41; Oxford & Nyikos 1989). The high frequency use of Metacognitive strategies seems to prove that ‘Metacognitive strategies are essential for successful language learning’ since these strategies provide a way for learners to coordinate their own learning process through planning, monitoring and evaluating (Oxford 1990, p.136), and helping to seek practice opportunities, thus keeping them on the right track of learning which is crucial in a target language input poor environment such as China.

Yet, the current research findings of most frequently use of Metacognitive strategies and least frequent use of Memory strategies seem to contradict the stereotypical descriptions of learners from Asian backgrounds who prefer rote learning and language rules as reported by O’Malley and Chamot (1990). It is also inconsistent with the research findings focusing on non-English majors in China and some other SILL researches such as Kaylani (1996); Bedell and Oxford (1996); Dryer and Oxford (1996); Bremner (1999); Shmais (2003); Griffiths and Parr (1999), etc. However, the consistent findings with Chinese English majors may indicate that these learners may use somewhat different strategies from other learners, which warrants further investigation.


Proficiency and strategy use

    The current research statistically revealed that the higher a learner’s EFL proficiency, the more frequent use of EFL learning strategies, and the lower a person’s EFL proficiency, the less frequent use of EFL learning strategies. This may indicate that the low proficiency EFL learners reported insufficient strategy use. This finding is consistent with some of the previous SILL research findings such as the study by Yu (2003) and Dreyer and Oxford (1996), which further indicates that learners with higher proficiency across cultures may use a wider variety of strategies more frequently than do less proficient learners do. The strongest correlation between proficiency and Metacognitive strategies use in the current study was also revealed in the study by Nisbet (2002) and Dreyer and Oxford (1996). This may indicate that the more proficient learners under investigation employ more executive control on their EFL learning to achieve a better proficiency. The lowest correlation between EFL proficiency and Affective strategies use shows that the learners surveyed realized the importance of Affective strategies in their EFL learning, yet they are not used to employing this strategy to a higher extent. This designates that the more proficient EFL learner use Affective strategies least often compared with the rest categories of strategies.


Gender and strategy use

    The current study found statistically significant Memory, Affective and Overall strategy use differences by gender in favor of females. This finding may indicate that the females in this study may know how to control their emotions during learning better than their male counterpart, which may also reflect females’ emotional side in real life; females also use more often Memory strategies to accumulate a more solid foundation for their EFL learning than males do. 

    These findings are both consistent and inconsistent with the previous studies in this area. It is consistent in that all the studies have revealed that males and females use different strategies toward their foreign language learning with females employing more frequently some of the strategies, e.g. the findings by Ok (2003), Dreyer and Oxford (1996), Oxford et al. (1996) and Kaylani (1996). However, the different pattern and frequency of strategies use by gender in the current study from those revealed in the previous studies may be affected by other variables such as ethnic background, cultural background, language learning environment, etc, yet to be seen.




    Taking the frequency of learners’ strategy use, 5 out of the 6 categories of strategies fall into medium frequency use with Metacognitive strategies being the only group falling into high frequency of use, the researcher sensed the need to promote learners’ awareness of employing more frequently these 5 strategies during their English study. Preferably, the teachers could integrate the instruction and/or teaching of these less frequently used strategies into daily teaching so that they could provide learners a systematic opportunity to be exposed to strategy instruction unconsciously since strategy use has been frequently documented contributing to the success of a second language learning.

    Regarding the strategy use differences between learners with high EFL proficiency and those with low EFL proficiency, EFL teachers at NIT may introduce those strategies used more frequently by good language learners to the academically poor learners. Hopefully, they could benefit from the effective strategies employed by the good learners to improve their EFL proficiency.



Conclusion and recommendation

    “The way to improve teaching is to study the learning experience of the learner” (Ramsden 1992). The current survey study provided EFL teachers at least at NIT with a better understanding of the ways EFL learners approach their learning. It also revealed some differences between male and female learners, proficient learners and less proficient learners’ strategy use. Hopefully these findings would shed some light on EFL teachers’ understanding of the strategies their students use to learn English, and thus can integrate strategy instruction into formal teaching and help their students learn more effectively by weaving learning strategy training into the regular classroom learning and teaching (Ok 2003). On the other hand, the findings on strategy use by the successful learners may serve as a valuable resource in helping the less successful ones to improve their EFL proficiency; similarly males could also expand their strategy use, especially those used by the successful females.

    To summarize, the results of the study will, therefore, provide valuable base-line data about the current EFL strategy use among technological college English majors. It also will present a wealth of information on the role of gender and proficiency on learners’ strategy use. However, “a study, no matter how carefully conducted, can not be taken as conclusive. It is only with repeated investigation that the complexities of an area can be truly appreciated and comprehended” (Gardner 1985, p.5) Owing to the limitations of the present study (e.g., the subjects recruited from only one institute; no standard EFL proficiency examination administered regarding data on EFL proficiency; the data on strategy use purely based on learners’ self-report), it is highly recommended that further studies conducted across regions in China with different subjects over time using the same battery permitting research-finding comparisons, or using different data collection methods to examine learners’ EFL strategy use are needed.



About the author

Dongyue Liu is a 4th Year full-time Integrated PhD student at the School of Education, Communication and Language Science, University of Newcastle upon Tyne. Her research interest is focused on L2 acquisition, especially second and foreign language learning strategy use. Comments on this paper could reach her by emailing at:




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