Iranian EFL Learners' Favored Strategic Fillers for Noticed Gaps amid Conversations Across Proficiency

Document Type : Original Article


Department of English, Science and Research Branch, Islamic Azad University, Tehran, Iran


This study's main purpose was to elicit speaking strategies employed by Iranian Learners of English across proficiency whilst they noticed a gap/hole in their inter language repertoire amid a conversation compensating for their lack of fluent speaking ability. Therefore, initially 30 EFL learners, at different levels of proficiency, participated in the first phase of the study. Based on the EFL learners' elicited viewpoints, both via group and one-on-one interviews, a 25-item speaking strategy questionnaire was developed and subsequently, distributed amongst 156 EFL learners to fill out. In order to decide on a subset of frequent responses and eliminate the redundant ones, factor analysis was applied and 6 components were extracted. The components fell on a continuum of noticing the gap, noticing the hole and noticing the gap/hole strategies. This representation unfolded speaking gap fillers strategies. In addition One-way Kruskal-Wallis was run in order to determine the effect of proficiency levels on speaking strategy use. The outcome revealed a significant difference on language strategy use across proficiency.


1. Introduction

It cannot be denied that second language learning is in fact influenced by language learning strategies. Rubin (1975) sowed the seed of a new concept in language learning, (i.e., Language Learning Strategies) by suggesting:

'If we knew more about what the 'successful learners' did, we might be able to teach these strategies to poorer learners to enhance their success record' (p. 42).

Ever since, different definitions have been proposed (Dornyei, 2005; O’Malley, 1985; Oxford, 1990; Rubin, 1987; Stern, 1992). In addition, Language Learning strategies, as one of the important criteria in language learning amongst many, have received an ever-increasing amount of interest and countless researches have been conducted (Ghasemi, 2011; Nakatani, 2006; Razmjoo &; Wu, 2008; Yang, 2007; Yaman & Kavasoglu, 2013, to name but a few).

1.1 Statement of the problem and purpose of the study

Although many researchers have investigated strategies, few have done research on language learning strategies focusing on speaking (Nakatani2006; Razmjoo & Ghasemi, 2011; Yaman & Kavasoglu, 2013); to fill this gap, this study intended to explore and develop a speaking strategy representation for EFL learners when noticing a gap/hole in their Inter language.

1.2 Research Questions

The present study aims to find answers to the following questions: (1) what kinds of speaking strategies, if any, are used by EFL learners when they notice gap/hole in their Inter language? (2)  What model can be proposed for EFL learners' speaking strategy use? (3) Does EFL learners’ level of proficiency affect their speaking strategy use?

2. Literature Review

The idea of 'strategy' was recognized as part of the conceptual vocabulary of applied linguistics during the 1970s (Grenfell and Macaro, 2007).  According to Chamot (2004) learning strategies are 'the conscious thoughts and actions that learners take in order to achieve a learning goal'(p. 14), Continuing :'Strategic learners have a good understanding of what a task entails,  and the ability to orchestrate the strategies that best meet both the task demands and their own  learning strengths' (p. 14).

Various researchers (Dornyei, 2005; O’Malley, Oxford, 1990; 1985; Rubin, 1987; Stern, 1992) have classified Language learning strategies based on their unique outlook on this concept. O’Malley (1985, as cited in Dornyei, 2005) proposed three different kinds of strategies; i.e., Meta cognitive strategies, Cognitive strategies and Socio-affective strategies. Along the same line, Rubin (1987) also categorized LLS into three main groups: Learning strategies, Communication strategies, and Social strategies. However, Oxford (1990) divided LLS into two main categories, each containing sub-categories:

1. Direct strategies:

1.1. Memory

1.2. Cognitive

1.3. Compensation strategies

1.4. Communication strategies

2. Indirect strategies:

2.1. Meta cognitive strategies

2.2. Affective strategies

2.3. Social strategies                                    

Stern (1992) proposed five main language learning strategies: (Management and planning strategies, Cognitive strategies, Communicative-Experiential strategies, Interpersonal strategies and Affective strategies. Whereas Dornyei & Skehan (2003, as cited in Dornyei, 2005), preferred to use  the term self-regulation  abandoning  the term strategy, which refers to the degree to which individuals are active participants in their own learning including  factors such as cognition, meta cognition, motivation and behavioral and environmental variables used by learners to promote their own learning.

Truth be told, few have done research on language learning strategies focusing on speaking (Nakatani, 2006; Razmjoo & Ghasemi, 2011; Yaman & Kavasoglu, 2013). Nakatani (2006) developed a questionnaire, named the Oral Communication Strategy Inventory (OCSI). The resulting OCSI consists of 8 categories of strategies for coping with speaking problems and 7 categories for coping with listening problems during communication. This study revealed that students with high oral proficiency tended to use specific strategies, such as social affective strategies, fluency-oriented strategies, and negotiation of meaning. Along the lines of Nakatani's study Yaman & Kavasoglu (2013) carried out a study in which they adapted OCSI into Turkish. Their concern in the adaptation study of OCSI was to investigate whether oral communication strategies classified in OCSI developed by Nakatani (2006) would also measure Turkish EFL students’ speaking strategy use. It was concluded that Nonverbal strategies which existed in Nakatani’soriginal inventory did not appear in the adaptation form. Instead, the items that consist of nonverbal strategies gave loadings to negotiation for meaning strategies, which implies that the purpose of the interlocutors while using one strategy may be culture specific. Razmjoo and Ghasemi (2011) developed a model describing speaking strategies for EFL learners by taking into account the effects of learners’ gender and proficiency on the application of strategies. Offline/online notions were used to describe their model of speaking strategies.

3. Method

3.1 Participants

Phase 1: In the first phase, a sample of 40 Iranian EFL students studying Teaching English and English Translation at Islamic Azad University Southern Branch was selected in order to develop a noticing the gap/ hole questionnaire. The Speaking ability of the learners was examined and scored using the IELTS Speaking Mock tests. The results revealed different users of English, according to The IELTS Band Score Scale. After examining the learners and taking the results into account, the number of participants was reduced to 30, eliminating extremely limited, Intermittent, and non-users of English. The students' Speaking proficiency level ranged roughly from a Limited user/ Elementary (Band 5), Competent user/ Intermediate (Band 6) to a good user/Advance (Band 7). The assumption was based on the idea that speakers across proficiency might employ different efficient and deficient noticing the gap/hole strategies.

Phase 2: In the second phase of the study, a sample of 156 Iranian EFL from Islamic Azad University Southern Branch and a language Institute was selected in three different levels of Elementary, Intermediate and advanced.  The students' proficiency level corresponded roughly to the modest user to good user in order to fill out the developed questionnaire and probe strategies used across proficiency.

3.2. Instruments

To answer the research questions, the following instruments were made use of in the first and second phase of the study:

3.2.1 Interview

For data collection, qualitative interviews may be used as the main strategy or in conjunction with other methods such as observation (Bogdan & Bikle, 1982, as cited in Mackey & Gass, 2005). To ensure triangulation of data, semi-structured oral group and one-on –one interviews were conducted, after the students were exposed to speaking prompts borrowed from BARRON'S Essential words for the IELTS, (Lougheed, 2011).This was done in the first phase of the study. The prompts were carefully picked to guarantee participants' involvement across language proficiency. The topics ranged from personal information about family, likes/ dislikes to health and tourism, which proved more challenging, enabling the participants to recognize their holes and gaps in their Inter language in different situations. Subsequent to each prompt, the participants were asked to respond and pay attention to what strategies they used to form the required language. The participants were also allowed to ponder deeper on the questions and were permitted to add to their responses in the following sessions.

3.2.2. Questionnaire

A researcher-made questionnaire (appendix A) consisting of 25 items, was extracted from the interview data. The items of the questionnaire included speaking strategies that adult EFL learners apply and use when they notice a gap/hole in their Inter language while speaking. This instrument was made use of in the second phase of the study. Reliability and validity of the instruments

The reliability of the questionnaire was computed through Cranach’s Alpha. The results show good reliability index of 0.833 for the questionnaire. As for validation, exploratory factor analysis was run. The participants of the study, comprising 47(Modest User / Elementary), 50(Competent Users/ Intermediate) and 59(Good User/ Advance) students from Azad University and an English Institute filled out the questionnaire. Kaiser-Meyer-Oklin’s Measure of sampling adequacy revealed very good KMO index of 0.80. , higher than the criterion of 0 .60.Barlette’s test of sphericity’s result was significant, yielding an acceptable value (p<0.05).Accordingly, seven factors were extracted for the 25 items.

3.3 Data collection procedure

Three distinct stages were involved for the data collection of this study. 

First through group and one-on one interviews, the speaking strategies used by 30 participants (10 from each proficiency level, i.e. (Modest User / Elementary; Competent Users/ Intermediate; Good User/ Advance) were studied. In order to reduce misconceptions between the researchers and interviewees, the interviews were done in Persian as well as English, but technical words and expressions were used in English. Then researchers transcribed and then codified the strategies, benefiting from three types of codification, i.e. open coding, axial coding and selective coding. Finally, a questionnaire on speaking strategy was developed based on the results obtained in the second phase. Subsequent to piloting the questionnaire and assuring its reliability, validity, this researchers-made questionnaire was given to 156 participants to determine to which extent they endorse each strategy.

3.4 Data analysis procedure

The following procedures were followed in order to achieve the purpose of the present study:

3.4.1 Qualitative analysis

Three types of coding procedures, i.e. open, axial, and selective are the key steps to data analysis in grounded theory (Strauss and Corbin, 1990; Strauss and Corbin 2008).Hence, participants’ comments were first transcribed and  analysis begun withopen coding; which is the detection of the themes emerging from the gathered data. During open coding, the researchers detected and tentatively named the conceptual categories into which the observed phenomena were later grouped. The next stage of analysis involved the re-examination of the categories, which is technically referred to as axial coding. Finally, in selective coding central categories were selected and systematically related to other categories.

3.4.2 Quantitative analysis

Inferential statistical analysis, i.e. One-way Kruskal-Wallis test was run to reveal the effect of participants’ levels of proficiency (Modest User / Elementary; Competent Users/ Intermediate; Good User/ Advance) on their speaking strategy use.

4. Results and Discussion

4.1. Qualitative Analysis

4.1.1. Data Codification

In this section of the study the researcher benefited much from the stages of analysis in Grounded Theory, i.e. Codes, Concepts, Categories and Theory. According to Strauss and Corbin (1990, 2008) the prominent key factor of data analysis in Grounded Theory is derived from three kind of coding procedures, namely open, axial and selective. Hence, the aim of this step was to break data into conceptual components. Therefore, the participants’ remarks and responses were first transcribed and small chunks of the texts were read line by line. Useful concepts were identified and named. In the axial coding step, some categories emerged by bringing together pieces of data connected to the same topic. One of the attention-grabbing groupings which came to surface because of its originality was in fact Part of Speech Manipulation. Some points were repeatedly mentioned by the participants regarding this strategy. A number of them explained how they change an affirmative sentence to a negative one when they notice gap in their Inter language. For instance one gave an example of how she wanted to talk about courage, but did not know the words brave or courageous, so instead of finishing the sentence by saying I am courageous, she opted for a negative sentence; i.e.  I am not timid (using a known word in her lexicon). In the same line some others expressed how they swap antonym / synonyms to produce sentences while others expressed how they make use of memorized part of speech; i.e., verb , noun, adjective to use substitutions and change the structure of their sentences when required.

Another pronounced category  was Memorization and retrieval in which many students stated that they memorize  information  in different ways, varying from topic-based, image-based ,  to lyrics from songs, phrases from films or books ,and use them as cues to retrieve them accordingly. Word Invention was yet another group of strategies which was used by a number of participants. Whereas some students were very comfortable with inventing new words; e.g. organist instead of healthy eater, others tried very hard to remember an exact correct word which they believed was used by the natives. It seems when participants did not know what to say and noticed a hole in their Inter language; they used a couple of strategies; namely, Time management and Body Language. By Time Management participants tried to make use of the time at hand, for instance by repeating the interlocutor's question, or in some cases by using formulaic sentences; e.g. this is a controversial issue or this is a difficult question, in order to buy time and think about what they wanted to say next. Last but not least the inevitable; Interference of L1. In cases where participants noticed gaps/holes in their Inter language, they intentionally used their L1, that is to say they thought of the sentence in Farsi and then translated it to English. On the contrary others tried to avoid using their mother tongue and purposefully thought and made the sentences in English from the very beginning and tried to' think in English', as they put it.

Altogether 6 distinct categories of learner strategies emerged:

1. Part of Speech Manipulation

2. Memorization and Retrieval

3. Word Invention

4. Body Language

5. Time Management

6. L1 Use/ Avoidance

In the selective coding, three broader categories were labeled encompassing the six axial coding categories in the previous section. Namely, "Strategic fillers for noticed gaps", "Strategic fillers for noticed holes" and" Strategic fillers for noticed gaps/ hole". The concepts of noticing the gap/hole were chosen in regard to what the participants noticed at the time of speaking. By noticing the gap the researchers aimed to reveal the strategies employed by participants when they noticed a gap in their Inter language. By noticing the hole the aim was to expose the strategies employed by participants when they noticed a hole in their Inter language, meaning that they did not know what to say at the time of speaking. Table 1 presents the results of these codifications:

Table 1

Summary of the Codification Results

Strategic   fillers for noticed gaps /holes


Part   of Speech Manipulation

If  I can not make a   sentence with a positive verb I change mysentence into a negative one.


when I can't think of a word , I rearrange the sentence and   make it into another form.                                   


I pay attention to the part of speech I am learning: verb,   noun In making a sentence I pay attention to the verb, noun, adj.

Memorization   and Retrieval

I learn new words topic- based , and I make use of them in   conversations.                     


I remember and memorize news caption.


I listen to a lot of music and try to make use of the   language I learn.        


I remember the lyrics to songs.                                                                                         


I remember things I've heard from films esp with a special   accent.

Word   Invention

Through observation , e.g. organist (instead of a healthy   eater)                                           


I try to make up a word when I forget a word.                                                                                    


I take risks and make words.

Body   Language                                               

I make use of body language in speaking.                                                                                                                   If  I forget a word I try to use gestures.                                                                                                                         By using body language

Time   management                                         

I repeat the   interlocutor's question.

In order to buy   time I repeat the question.

I always repeat   the question or sentence to have some time to think about what I'm going to   say.

L1 use/   avoidance

I try to make   my sentences in English.

Whenever I   translate from Farsi to English I have problems.

The sentences   that I produce do not sound native like when I translate  from Farsi to English 

As presented in Table.1. There are three themes selected for the strategies applied by the learners: strategic fillers for noticing the gap, which consist of three categories; i.e., Part of Speech Manipulation, Memorization/ Retrieval and Word Invention. Strategic fillers for noticing the hole which consist of body language and time management. Also strategic fillers for noticing gap/hole, encompassing L1 use/avoidance. Hence, a model can be proposed for EFL learners' speaking strategy use depicted in Figure 1.










Figure 1. Noticing the gap/hole Speaking strategy model used by the EFL learners

4.2 Quantitative analysis

4.2.1. Descriptive statistics of factors

The instrument utilized at this stage was a 25-item questionnaire developed by the researchers based on the participants’ interviews. The learners responded to the statements by selecting from five options, namely, ‘strongly agree,’ ‘agree,’ ‘have no idea,’ ‘disagree,’ or ‘strongly disagree.’ The items of the questionnaire were examined in terms of their frequency of selection so as to determine the extent to which the participants endorse the statements. To provide a more comprehensible pattern of the participants' answers to the questionnaire, the first two alternatives (‘strongly agree’ and ‘agree’) and the last two (‘disagree’ and ‘strongly disagree’) were combined. Moreover, the items of each factor were merged, too.

Table 2

Descriptive Statistics of Factors


Always   + often


Rarely   + never

Part   of speech manipulation




Memorization   & retrieval




Word   Invention




Body   language




Time   management




L1   use/ avoidance




As Table 2 illustrates, the most strategy used by EFL learners, is L1 use/ avoidance, with (52.60%). This comes as no surprise, as in the speaking process the translation from one’s mother tongue into English, especially for modest users, plays an important role. This may be due to the fact that English is considered a foreign language having no contact with native speakers. This issue has made speaking English a demanding task which requires learners to shift to their mother tongue as a means of facilitating production of the language. Also the avoidance of L1 seems natural for stronger learners, as they have internalized a lot and speaking has become habitual in many contexts without the requirement of thinking.   The second most frequent strategy used is Part of speech manipulation 50.90 %. This illustrates that half of the participants in this study have learned English formally paying attention to part of speech, e.g. Noun, Verb, etc; and can manipulate their use, should the need arise.  Memorization & retrieval takes the third place with 41.60 %. Time management and Body Language are followed with 28.20% and 25 % respectively. The least percentage of strategy used by EFL learners is in fact word invention with 16.1 % possibly due to the fact that not all learners are risk takers to use this strategy.

4.2.2 Learners’ level of proficiency and their speaking strategy use

       Subsequent to the collection of the data through the instruments outlined previously, the collected data were analyzed inferentially. Table 3 presents the descriptive statistics of the participants’ level of proficiency on their speaking strategy use.

Table 3

Descriptive Statistics of the Effect of Participants' Level of Proficiency on their Speaking Strategy Use



Variable/proficiency level





Std. Deviation

Out of

Modest user





Competent user





Good User










As depicted in Table 3, the means obtained for different proficiency levels are as follows: Modest user/ Elementary learner = 73.80; Competent user/ Intermediate learner = 84.32; and Good user/ Advance learner =70.00. Moreover, the obtained means indicate that competent users make use of speaking strategies more than Modest and Good users. This might be due to the fact that elementary Learners (Modest Users) need to deal with the rudimentary knowledge of the language first, rather than pay attention to strategies. Along the same line Good Users of English have been exposed to the language long enough to have internalized a lot, leaving no room for the need of using strategies. However, Competent Users (Intermediate Learner) strive hard to progress.

In order to determine the effect of the learners’ level of proficiency on their speaking strategy use, the one-way Kruskal-Wallis test was run.

Table 4

 One-way Kruskal-Wallis results on the Effect of Proficiency Levels on Speaking Strategy Use




















Part of speech                                                                                                                                 Manipulation










Memorization and retrieval










Word Invention










Body Language 










Time                                                                                                                                   management  












*Denotes significant difference

 As depicted in Table 4. There is a significant difference of speaking strategy use across proficiency. The intermediate subjects had significantly higher mean ranks than the elementary group on all six strategies. Yet the intermediate participants had significantly higher mean ranks than the advanced group only in word invention, time management and L1/ Use/Avoidance.

The above table also reveals that the advanced group showed higher mean ranks than the elementary group on all six strategies except for L1 use/avoidance. However, the elementary group had a higher mean rank than advanced group on word invention. This is probably due to the lack of knowledge of Elementary learners who also have the confidence to make up new words while advance learners pay more attention to the accuracy and avoid word invention. This claim is in line with studies done by Su (2005), Wu (2008) and Yang (2007), which accentuate the role of proficiency in using language learning strategies and indicate that more proficient students use some or all strategies more than less proficient students and that language proficiency affects students' selection of language learning strategies.

5. Conclusion

The present study attempted to investigate speaking strategies employed by EFL learners whilst they noticed a gap / hole in their IL repertoire amid a conversation. In addition speaking language learning strategies across proficiency was sought after.

A representation of language learning strategies was presented. Three themes were selected for the strategies applied by the learners: strategic fillers for noticing the gap; i.e., Part of Speech Manipulation, Memorization / Retrieval and Word Invention. b) Strategic fillers for noticing the hole; i.e. Body Language and Time Management and c) Strategic fillers for noticing gap/hole: L1 use /avoidance, was labeled as the third theme.

Having in mind that only few researches have been conducted focusing specifically on speaking strategies (Nakatani, 2006; Razmjoo&Ghasemi,2011;Yaman & Kavasoglu, 2013), thus this current research was an attempt to take the understanding of speaking strategy  to another level. The findings of the present study could have implications for teachers as well as learners and syllabus designers alike. All could benefit from these findings to some extent.

In addition, this study revealed that there is a significant difference in language strategy use across proficiency. These findings were in line with other researches (Su, 2005; Wu, 2008; Yang, 2007).Nevertheless, the number of studies on Learning Strategies specifically focusing on the Speaking Skill is somewhat restricted, and the need for further research into this area is apparent, especially in the EFL context of Iran where exposure to native environment of English speakers has made the learning process of this skill a demanding one.

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