Phil Roeland

Learner autonomy

Encouraging learners to be more responsible for their own progress

When students learn a language, they often expect the teacher to spoon-feed them bits and chunks of language and grammar until they are ready to use these and communicate.

More often than not, students never open their books in between lessons in order to review, practice or expand the language they've learned. No wonder that becoming fluent takes a very long time for most learners, if it ever happens at all.

I think it's very important that teachers not only teach their pupils the language prescribed in the curriculum, but also guide them to become autonomous learners so they don't need the teacher's help at every single step.

Taking charge

It's important to be able to ‘do it yourself'. Instead of having sashimi rammed down their throats, they should be taught how to catch tuna themselves, or any other fish as tuna are about to become an endangered species. Anyway, I think you get the idea: students should be taught to take charge - at least partly - of their own learning. In order to achieve this, I think teachers should introduce, teach, promote and, if possible, follow up on learner autonomy.

There are various ways to speed up the learning of a language. First of all, students should try to develop the habit of using the language they've learnt in the classroom outside the classroom.

This might prove more difficult than it seems, as in many countries opportunities to speak and practice English are rather limited. Also, cultural differences may impede striking up a conversation with a foreigner or complete stranger. Luckily, there are plenty of opportunities online to get in touch with English-speaking netizens, even anonymously (it's never a good idea to give out all your personal information online anyway).

Ways to become fluent faster

Other possibilities of becoming more autonomous and starting to use and learn English outside of the classroom include keeping a journal, writing a diary or online blog, reading for pleasure, listening to radio programmes, watching the news, finding and emailing foreign friends, using instant messaging or Skype to chat online, joining a social networking website and so on.

Students can do this from home or possibly from school if the latter has a self-access learning centre (SAC) or library with resources such as Internet access, graded readers, newspapers and magazines etc.

Using websites

It has also become fairly popular to learn a language on the Internet by signing up to a website which integrates language learning and building a social network. Popular sites let you learn a language while suggesting appropriate study partners at the same time. If a Japanese student signs up to study English, the site will suggest possible English-speaking students who are studying Japanese.  

Often sites also rely on the sharing principle: users can rate and correct each others exercises and become part-time teachers themselves. Basic access to sites is usually completely free, but premium content comes at a price. Anyway, it's a good way for students to learn extra in their free time and possibly meet some international friends.

Teacher responsibilty

I think the benefits of learner autonomy are quite clear. It's obvious that it will improve and accelerate students' progress and use of the language in a more realistic environment. However, not every student may see it that way. Some won't know where to start or what is expected of them if it isn't explained.

In order to be successful, this approach should be clearly introduced by the teacher. Teachers should give explanations and examples of what is possible, tickle students' curiosity and not make it mandatory. Instead of telling students to ‘use the Internet', we should be more precise. For example, ‘if you want, read one article of your own choice from a particular website'.  If you want students to watch or listen to the news in English, give them the exact address of the website they can use to do this.

In the classroom as well, students can be given some opportunities to take charge of their own learning. Teachers should regularly ask students for their opinions and suggestions on what to learn, e.g. a conversation topic they'd like to discuss in the next lesson, a project to do in group, a song to listen to etc.

This will not only ensure more participation of the students during the lesson, but also give them more exposure to language they're actually interested in. Finally, it should be clear that in general only motivated students will embrace learner autonomy. If you want to know more about motivating students, check out my previous columns.

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I think you should stick to posting puzzles as what you write is a puzzle to most teachers who work in real schools and not language schools with nice names and furniture but employ teachers who have no qualifications. If you are so skilled, why do you only work at those places?

By Peter Harsol, Thailand (3rd April 2021)

"students should try to develop the habit of using the language they've learnt in the classroom outside the classroom."

I think this is key too. I always recommend that my students find an intercambio of some kind. Or find a group where they can easily practice speaking English. I tell them to try and put into conversation what they learnt in class. This really reinforces what they have learnt.

By Jack, France (29th November 2010)

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