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Learner Autonomy

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In this session, we look at the importance of learner autonomy and techniques to encourage this.

In a nutshell, learner autonomy is the principle that learners should not be overly dependent on their teacher, but need to take responsibility for their own learning.


Read the descriptions of two students. Which would you prefer to teach? Which do you think will progress faster?

Mikhail is something of a ‘teacher’s pet.’ He always completes his homework and does everything the teacher says without question. He never interrupts the teacher to ask questions, but always puts his hand up to answer questions and is happiest when his teacher praises his answers.

Ivy doesn’t always do her homework, but is often reading English books and watching English movies. She sometimes asks why the teacher wants them to study a particular point, or work in pairs. She doesn’t always volunteer an answer, but is happiest when she expresses a strong opinion she has.

At first glance, Mikhail might seem like the ideal student. He is certainly responsible since he does homework and whatever is asked of him. He is not going to challenge the teacher very much. However, it seems he is more focussed on pleasing his teacher than his own learning needs.

Ivy on the other hand could be a handful for a new teacher. She has some idea about how she learns best and this could come into conflict with the teacher’s ideas. However, she is constantly (probably unconsciously) questioning the learning process, asking questions like:

  • what is the most valuable use of my study time?
  • why/how will this exercise benefit me?

As teachers we shouldn’t see these questions as a challenge to our authority – but as a desire to better understand how they should learn.

Finally, Ivy’s goal is not to please the teacher, but to achieve communication. Her motivation is more likely to drive her to go beyond just the material covered in her lessons.

Encouraging Learner Autonomy

The simplest way to encourage learners to be more autonomous is to encourage them to engage in extra learning outside the classroom. Often students will ask their teacher for suggestions to help them improve.

Consider the following thoughts of students. What would you advise these students?

(1) I like reading in Chinese, but when I try in English there are too many words I don’t know.

(3) I love watching movies but I have to have English subtitles. I’d love to watch without them.

(5) I only get speaking practice when I go to class. At work and socially I always speak in Russian.

(2) I usually learn vocabulary by copying lists of words from the dictionary, but I don’t seem to be able to use them.

(4) I struggle with listening. I can understand the listenings from the book, but not real speakers.

(6) I want more practice of the grammar we do in class.

  1. English novels or non-fiction books are likely to be too difficult for students at less than an advanced level. Books aimed at teenagers (e.g. Twilight, the Hunger Games, Harry Potter, etc.) might be applicable (but still challenging) for some students. Otherwise, students may find it helpful to read graded readers which have been graded to their level.
  2. This is unlikely to be effective because students are trying to learn translations. While translation can help to clarify meaning, they would do better to learn the word in a sentence or phrase. Further, if students wish to learn lists it would be better to take them from a vocabulary builder or list of most frequent words.
  3. This basically becomes a reading activity. The student can try watching something shorter, or smaller segments, then review what they understood. They can then watch it back with subtitles to check. On the plus side, they are using English subtitles – using subtitles in their first language would be far less helpful.
  4. Generally, coursebook recordings are very cleaned up examples of language. Spending a few minutes listening to real speakers and increasing over time will help them. Videos or recordings are great practice because they can be replayed and subtitles or an audioscript will help to clarify what they heard. Listening to songs can be a good way to become more familiar with the sounds of English.
  5. This is a common problem. However, on the internet students can easily find speaking partners. You can also suggest that the class agree to meet up at other times (without the teacher) and agree to talk in English. Students can also attend conversation clubs.
  6. There are many grammar self study books and websites out there. Students really just need to google the grammar point, or go to a shop and buy a grammar book. Of course, you can suggest some websites which you know are correct and provide simple explanation.
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