Styles- and Strategies-Based Instruction (SSBI)

by Andrew D. Cohen

Traditionally, the emphasis has primarily been on the teaching side of second language (L2) instruction, rather than on the learner side. It has been assumed that if teachers do their job of teaching well, students would certainly learn and retain the language as well. Yet, it became clear that if students are not learning or are not motivated to learn, it may not matter how well the teachers are teaching. With this realization an effort has emerged to improve language teaching methodology by adding a component that focuses on the learner.

As the "domain" of language teaching has become more learner-focused and interactive, there has also been a heightened emphasis on helping students take more responsibility for meeting their own language learning needs. Students are being asked to self-direct the language-learning process and become less dependent on the classroom teacher. However, what may well stand in the way of learners’ genuine success at language learning is an insufficient awareness of how various strategies may help them learn and use a foreign language more effectively. Given that language learning and the use of what is learned inevitably involve considerable memory work, as well as ongoing and meaningful practice, a systematic and purposeful approach to learning can help to ease the burden. And the classroom teacher can perform a key role in this effort as learner trainer.

What is Styles- and Strategies-Based Instruction?

Styles- and strategies-based instruction (SSBI) is a name that has been given to a form of learner-focused language teaching that explicitly combines styles and strategy training activities with everyday classroom language instruction (see Oxford, 2001; Cohen & Dörnyei, 2002). The underlying premise of the styles- and strategies-based approach is that students should be given the opportunity to understand not only what they can learn in the language classroom, but also how they can learn the language they are studying more effectively and efficiently. Research seems to suggest that there are a wide variety of strategies that learners can use to meet their language learning and using needs.

Styles- and strategies-based approach to teaching emphasizes both explicit and implicit integration of language learning and use strategies in the language classroom. This approach aims to assist learners in becoming more effective in their efforts to learn and use the target language. SSBI helps learners become more aware of what kinds of strategies are available to them, understand how to organize and use strategies systematically and effectively given their learning-style preferences, and learn when and how to transfer the strategies to new language learning and using contexts. SSBI is based on the following series of components:

  1. Strategy Preparation
    In this phase, the goal is to determine just how much knowledge of and ability to use strategies the given learners already have. There is no sense in assuming that students are a blank slate when it comes to strategy use. They most likely have developed some strategies. The thing is that they may not use them systematically, and they may not use them well.
  2. Strategy Awareness-Raising
    In this phase, the goal is to alert learners to presence of strategies they might never have thought about or may have thought about but had never used. The SSBI tasks are explicitly used to raise the students’ general awareness about: 1) what the learning process may consist of, 2) their learning style preferences or general approaches to learning, 3) the kinds of strategies that they already employ, as well as those suggested by the teacher or classmates, 4) the amount of responsibility that they take for their learning, or 5) approaches that can be used to evaluate the students’ strategy use. Awareness-raising activities are by definition always explicit in their treatment of strategies.
  3. Strategy Training
    In this phase, students are explicitly taught how, when, and why certain strategies (whether alone, in sequence, or in clusters) can be used to facilitate language learning and use activities. In a typical classroom strategy-training situation, the teachers describe, model, and give examples of potentially useful strategies. They elicit additional examples from students based on the students’ own learning experiences; they lead small-group or whole-class discussions about strategies (e.g., the rationale behind strategy use, planning an approach to a specific activity, evaluating the effectiveness of chosen strategies); and they can encourage their students to experiment with a broad range of strategies.
  4. Strategy Practice
    In this phase, students are encouraged to experiment with a broad range of strategies. It is not assumed that knowing about a given strategy is enough. It is crucial that learners have ample opportunity to try them out on numerous tasks. These "strategy-friendly" activities are designed to reinforce strategies that have already been dealt with and allow students time to practice the strategies at the same time they are learning the course content. These activities should include explicit references to the strategies being used in completion of the task. In other words, either students:
    1. plan the strategies that they will use for a particular activity,
    2. have their attention called to the use of particular strategies while they are being used, or
    3. "debrief" their use of strategies (and their relative effectiveness) after the activity has ended.
  5. Personalization of Strategies
    In this stage, learners personalize what they have learned about these strategies, evaluate to see how they are using the strategies, and then look to ways that they can transfer the use of these strategies to other contexts.

    In SSBI, it is the curriculum writers’ and the teachers’ role to see that strategies are integrated into everyday class materials and are both explicitly and implicitly embedded into the language tasks to provide for contextualized strategy practice. Teachers may:
    1. start with the established course materials and then determine which strategies might be inserted,
    2. start with a set of strategies that they wish to focus on and design activities around them, or
    3. insert strategies spontaneously into the lessons whenever it seems appropriate.

    These strategies-based activities are designed to raise awareness about strategies, to train students in strategy use, to give them opportunities to practice strategy use, and to encourage them to personalize these strategies for themselves. Teachers also allow students to choose their own strategies and do so spontaneously, without continued prompting from the language teacher.


Cohen, A. D., & Dörnyei, Z. (2002). Focus on the language learner: Motivation, styles, and strategies. In N. Schmitt (Ed.), An introduction to applied linguistics (pp. 170-190). London: Arnold.

Oxford, R. L. (2001). Language learning styles and strategies. In M. Celce-Murcia (Ed.), Teaching English as a second or foreign language (3rd ed., pp. 359-366). Boston: Heinle & Heinle/Thompson International.

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