Interview with Dr. Andrew D. Cohen on Language Learner Strategies

For the first post I am delighted to interview Dr. Andrew D. Cohen, Professor Emeritus at the University of Minnesota on the topic of language learner strategies (LLS). Dr. Cohen was Director of the Language Resource Center at the Center for Advanced Research on Language Acquisition (CARLA), University of Minnesota, for ten years, and has lead numerous research projects on applied linguistics. His publications provide great summaries of findings, educational reflections, and suggestions for researching and teaching language learner strategies.

What made you start researching LLS and then carry on researching the same topic for so many years?

I guess I started researching LLS because of my own desire to improve my language learning and use. I found that LLS has lots of different manifestations – such as test-taking strategies and strategies for performing pragmatics. Over the years, I have fine-tuned my research on LLS. In the early years I looked at speaking strategies, then at vocabulary learning strategies (such as through the mnemonic keyword device), then at writing strategies, then at test-taking strategies, and most recently at pragmatic strategies.

Of all the LLS projects you have been involved in, what are the ones you have found most rewarding?

The strategy project I am proudest of is the construction of the Spanish grammar strategies website at CARLA, which I did with Angela Pinilla-Herrera (who is now a professor at Georgia Southern University):


It was a tour de force on a number of levels. First, the area of grammar strategies did not have much robust coverage. Secondly, much strategy work (due largely to instruments like Oxford’s SILL) was reduced to sometimes vague, general statements like, “I use a dictionary,” rather than dealing with operational strategies that are detailed and likely to have an immediate impact of language performance. Thirdly, we collected 36 hours of videotapes from learners who said that they had Spanish grammar strategies that worked. We managed to create a website featuring 72 such strategies, that were carefully validated to make sure that the students who reported them actually benefited from them in their Spanish grammar. We then did a study tracking student use of such strategies from the website over 6-8 weeks and published our results in the CALICO Journal: Cohen, A. D., Pinilla-Herrera, A., Thompson, J. R., & Witzig, L. E. (2011). Communicating grammatically: Evaluating a learner strategies website for Spanish grammar. CALICO Journal, 29(1), 145-172. This article and many others are posted on my website:

I’ve also gotten satisfaction out of my paper on a framework for pragmatics strategies. Although it received resounding criticism when it first appeared, it has stood the test of time and is oft cited: Cohen, A. D. (2005). Strategies for learning and performing L2 speech acts. Intercultural Pragmatics, 2(3), 275-301.

Then there is my work on test-taking strategies, where I seem to have publications on the topics in a few of the “seminal” volumes on language assessment. I have posted these papers on my website.

Can you tell us about some of the findings that could be interesting for curriculum developers and teachers who are considering integrating LLS in their Spanish as Foreign Language programmes?

Certainly I should think that their students would want to refer to the Grammar Strategies Website at CARLA. There is a goldmine of information about possible grammar strategies there. Another important source is the “Dancing with Words” Spanish pragmatics website at CARLA: Julie Sykes (now the Director the Language Resource Center at the U of Oregon, Eugene) designed and constructed the website with me. It is a wonderful repository of strategies for performing speech acts in Spanish.


Do you have preferences regarding frameworks for LLS training? E.g. integrated in language lessons / taught separately?

Over the years I have done both. It may make sense to do some Strategy Instruction (SI) at the beginning of a language class and then to move on to integrating it into the instruction subsequently.

On October 18, 2015, nine of the key promoters of SI internationally met for half a day in Klagenfurt, Austria to seek greater commonality in approaches to SI and to plan for next steps. While no consensus was reached in this brief meeting with regard to the recommended length of SI and the number and types of strategies to be dealt with, there was some effort to arrive at a common template for SI procedures. The template included the following elements:

  • awareness raising, whereby students identify the strategies that they already use and discuss their learning goals, and then teachers provide a series of appropriate tasks and suggested strategies appropriate for dealing with these tasks,
  • teacher (and student) modeling of how selected strategies can be successfully deployed to accomplish the given tasks,
  • collaborative practice with scaffolding by the teacher as needed,
  • teacher and student evaluation of how it went,
  • transfer of instances of strategy use to other tasks where the use of those strategies could be successfully applied.

At every stage of the template, the teacher provides feedback with an eye to how these activities could be applied to other tasks.

At the meeting, different models of SI were discussed, including a more collaborative bottom-up approach in which students work together to identify performance criteria, as well as to choose appropriate strategies for the task at hand and especially those that they need to practice. An effort was also made to respond to Plonsky’s (2011) challenge to SI educators not only to arrive at criteria for what to include in descriptions of SI plans and student materials, but also to make SI materials more accessible to the field (Plonsky, L. (2011). The effectiveness of second language strategy instruction: A meta-analysis. Language Learning, 61(4), 993-1038). Prior to the gathering, these educators had responded to a 30-item survey about their own views and practices with regard to SI, and as a consequence of the meeting an SI discussion group was created on Google that will eventually be open-access.

In addition, a practical volume on SI from a largely bottom-up perspective is being edited by Vee Harris and Anna Uhl Chamot The book will bring together theoretical perspectives with ideas and teaching materials for language learning strategy instruction. Another possible venue suggested for the wide dissemination of SI information and materials was that of creating a crowd-sourced wiki, which would include obtaining funding to hire someone to monitor the wiki.

You have learnt many languages, amongst them Spanish. Can you tell us about your experience of using strategies whilst learning the language?

I essentially learned Spanish in one week by relexifying my then very solid knowledge of French. I bought and voraciously swallowed up a whole big box of Spanish flash cards that I bought at a bookstore. It worked. I went from a beginning Berlitz Spanish group in Peace Corps Training at Camp Radley in the Puerto Rican jungle to conversing on my own with a native speaker of Spanish who was in our group of trainees. And my Spanish skills are still very solid 52 years later. My key strategy at that time was to build on another similar language I knew well. Over the years I have enlisted hundreds of LLSs, depending upon the language and the task. On my website I have posted various papers on my language learning. Here are some of them, including a recent one about my learning of Mandarin, which I have been working on now for three years. It is my 13th language, including my native language, English.

Cohen, A. D. (1997). Developing pragmatic ability: Insights from the accelerated study of Japanese. In H. M. Cook, K. Hijirida, &  M. Tahara (Eds.), New trends and issues in teaching Japanese language and culture (pp. 137-163). (Technical Report #15). Honolulu: University of Hawai’i, Second Language Teaching and Curriculum Center.

Cohen, A. D. (2001). From L1 to L12: The confessions of a sometimes frustrated multiliterate. In D. Belcher & U. Connor (Eds.), Reflections on multiliterate lives (pp. 79-95). Clevedon, UK: Multilingual Matters.

Cohen, A. D. & Li, P. (2013). Learning Mandarin in later life: Can old dogs learn new tricks? Contemporary Foreign Language Studies, 396(12), 5-14. Doi: 10.3969/j. issn. 1674-8921.201312.002

Before we finish the interview, would you like to add anything else?

I have a new paper on LLS coming out in an edited volume by Oxford and Armerstorfer of papers presented at the Klagenfurt, Austria conference on LLS last October, 2015. The title of the paper is “Moving from Theory to Practice: A Closer Look at Language Learning Strategies”.

Muchas gracias por la entrevista, Dr. Cohen.

¡Espero que os haya gustado el post!

Un cordial saludo,

María Blanco Hermida




Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *