Taking control of our own learning - in other words, autonomous learning - is something that most of our students are already practising without even realising it, both in their first and second language studies. However, they are often unaware of the learning strategies that can support their own language development. We teachers have an important role in promoting learner autonomy in our students of all ages.
What is learner autonomy?
Learner autonomy, as defined by applied linguist Phil Benson, is ‘the capacity to take control of one’s own learning’. More specifically, as we read in the book Identity, Autonomy and Motivation in Language Learning (2011, edited by Murray, Gao and Lamb), autonomy in language learning represents three interdependent levels of control:
- control over learning management,
- control over cognitive processes,
- and control over learning content.
From a sociocultural perspective, learner autonomy is related to self-regulation as defined by educational psychologist Lev Vygotsky. In this sense, as applied linguist James Lantolf and his colleagues explain, a move in the teacher’s mediation from explicitness towards greater implicitness indicates enhanced awareness of a given problem and emergent autonomy and self-regulation.
Both views on autonomy agree that situated, classroom-specific practices influence learner autonomy. For example, a teacher’s support, feedback and instructional style can help students take control of their own language learning.
What kind of pedagogical practice promotes learner autonomy?
Focus on the students’ different abilities
Within sociocultural approaches to language learning, the concept of scaffolding gives directions in how we can prepare students for autonomous learning. First, we need to determine what students are capable of doing on their own and with the help of the teacher or another peer. When we have identified this zone (the Zone of Proximal Development in Vygotsky's description), we can set goals, select learning materials and give model questions or reading strategies to complete the different steps of an exercise.
For example, you can select a short text and decide how a student will deal with it on their own and with your help. We all know that while a multiple-choice gap-fill exercise is generally manageable, an open gap-fill exercise might require more assistance from a teacher. Modelling our way of thinking in solving such exercises or dealing with grammar difficulties is a way of preparing students for autonomous learning.
Similar rules apply to reading practice. For instance, students most often understand the gist (in graded reading materials there are often visual prompts to support comprehension), and they also point out words and phrases that are difficult for them. At this stage, we can share strategies to deal with new vocabulary such as the use of a dictionary or using clues from the text. Students will usually need some help at the beginning, but with practice, they will soon be able to use these resources on their own.
Different exercises will be difficult for different students so sharing a wide range of learning strategies in always beneficial. Different skills and types of language tasks will pose different challenges. The most important thing is to make the strategies we use explicit and visible so that our students will see that even teachers rely on them when dealing with language challenges.
This zone of our students’ development will constantly change and they will be able to do more and more on their own.
Different aspects of autonomy
Apart from being explicit and making learning strategies visible, we can help students with other aspects of autonomous learning.
In Identity, Autonomy and Motivation in Language Learning, Garold Murray has listed seven pedagogical practices that can promote the social dimensions of autonomy (page 237):
- embrace collaboration;
- engage learners’ various identities;
- incorporate ample opportunities for group as well as individual reflection;
- explore affordances available within as well as beyond the classroom;
- place importance on the affective aspects of the learning process;
- promote respect for the autonomy of others;
- and facilitate the human sociality which encompasses empathy, fairness, cooperation, conflict resolution and helpfulness.
In the following sections, we offer our own ideas in connection with some of Murray’s suggestions.
In our view, when students collaborate, they learn to recognize their strengths and appreciate their peers. Collaborative science, art and reading projects can be a good start for this practice.
- Collaborative projects online
- Going Digital inside (and outside) the English Classroom Part 2: Collaboration
Engage learners’ various identities
Ask your students how they identify themselves. For example, they can think of themselves as students, children, siblings, partners, friends, but also as musicians, sport or science enthusiasts, travellers, explorers, and so on. Get them to reflect on their cultural heritage or religion, our identities have different layers.
The moment they think in terms of different contexts, they will see new goals to reach as language learners, and they will be more responsive to the question: What would you like to learn about the language? For example, if a student would like to study chemistry, they need to identify the expectations of the field in terms of lexical content and they also need to become familiar with report writing. If a student would like to become a musician, they will need to concentrate on music terminology.
They can also imagine different scenarios in which they might need to use English. For example, what possible sentences or questions do you need to know if you want to travel, buy something or subscribe to a magazine online?
Incorporate ample opportunities for group as well as individual reflection
Reflective practice needs to be gradually built up through group discussions and slow individual thinking about our experiences and difficulties. When students start noticing how they respond to certain tasks, what elements of language learning they find difficult, what kind of tasks they enjoy or not, they will be better equipped for making decisions about their own learning.
One way to initiate this process is by engaging students in dialogue.
Watch out for our forthcoming post on reflective practice in the language class.
Explore affordances available within as well as beyond the classroom
There is no subject area which stops beyond the classroom, and this is definitely true in the context of language studies. Language teachers have a crucial role in encouraging their students to engage with the language in a variety of occasions. For example, we need to motivate our students to read, listen to the radio, watch films/TV series or play video games in English. They often engage with a variety of text types and dialogues without even noticing how much language they already rely on and use.
And there is more. For example, when visiting an exhibition (even online), students can switch to the English language version of websites. They can join forums, groups of their interest on social media and start using language in virtual contexts.
Promote respect for the autonomy of others
Becoming aware of others and their own autonomous goals and needs in the classroom, our students can refine their own learning and collaborative skills. A good way of showing the importance of respect for others is talking about tolerance.
What can you do NOW to promote learner autonomy?
First of all, encourage your students to engage with the English language during the holidays and out of the classroom.
Ask your students to keep a language notebook or diary (even on their mobiles) in which they can collect new words and phrases when they play video games or watch films. When they hear a phrase they do not understand, they can go back quickly to check it or put the subtitles on to clarify what they heard. They can also note down phrases they like or use a voice recorder to create voice memos of words they like. They should take these notes in full sentences to provide context.
Explain how they should read on their own (without teacher/classroom support). They do not necessarily need to understand every single word in a text, but when they feel the need the check the meaning of an unknown word, they should use a dictionary. Indicate reliable online dictionaries, possibly learner dictionaries where they can check the meaning of unknown words. Explain that they can also check the glosses if they are reading graded readers.
When students read, let them choose their reading material. Give them a list of 20 titles approved by you, and tell them to choose at least 3 or more books over a given period. Tell them that other reading materials such as blogs, online newspapers, forums, articles also count but of course they belong to a different category of texts. Check out our selections for lower and higher level readers:
Give tasks that students can complete in groups or pairs during the holidays. Let them take control over the project. Of course, knowing your students, you can provide different levels of guidance.
Finally, give them a mini questionnaire to complete from time to time, listing information about:
- Things I know well in English
- Things I like doing in English
- Things I would like to be able to do in English
- Language areas I need to improve in English
- Language areas my teacher suggests I improve in English: (the teacher completes this).
- Books I would like to read in English
- Films I would like to watch in English
Then, ask your students to think and talk about what they need to do to achieve these goals. It is an important task that promotes reflective practice, also for experienced language learners.
These strategies will work well for teens, young adults and adults. The main pedagogical considerations of learner autonomy are valid also for young learners, but since their self-awareness in learning contexts is not highly developed yet, they will need further guidance both from you and also from the family.
In our next post we will talk about tips on choosing reading and learning materials for young learners.
- Lantolf, J.P., Kurtz, L. and Kisselev, O. (2016). Understanding the revolutionary character of L2 development in the ZPD: Why levels of mediation matter. Language and Sociocultural Theory, 3(2), 153–171.
- Murray, G., In Gao, X., & In Lamb, T. (2011). Identity, motivation and autonomy in language learning. Bristol: Multilingual Matters.