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Encouraging Autonomy in Learners

Autonomous learning is one of the current trends in ELT, although it’s been around for quite a while, at least since Henri Holec’s 1981 book Autonomy and Foreign Language Learning.  He defines learner autonomy as “the ability to take charge of one’s own learning” (see wikipedia).  An autonomous learner will  be active in ensuring they learn the language, and do what it takes to learn the language.

Like most trends in ELT, it is possible to overemphasize autonomy, and I think teachers need to be aware that autonomy is more appropriate for some learners than others.  Younger learners may not be ready or willing to take (complete) responsibility for their learning, and even with older learners, it is really up to the learner to become autonomous or not.  You can lead a horse to water, but not make it drink; likewise, you cannot force learners to become autonomous, but you can do two things: encourage them and equip them.

How can we encourage learners to become more autonomous?

  1. Raise awareness.  Many learners haven’t thought much about the way they learn.  Discuss issues like autonomy, motivation, and learning styles with the students, so that they have a chance to think about them.
  2. Explain the benefits of becoming autonomous to the students, which include focusing on your own needs, using strategies that work for you personally, and focusing on topics that are personally interesting.
  3. Do activities to help students reflect on their learning, such as a learning style survey (e.g., the Learning Style Survey or the Strategy Inventory for Language Learning) and setting learning goals.

How can we equip learners?

  1. Give them resources for learning.  Let them know about sites they can use to learn their target language independently.
  2. Teach them various strategies for learning.  In particular, many students need help learning strategies for speaking and writing, as these are not covered as much in traditional curricula.
  3. Help them to set goals for themselves.  Ask them about their goals from time to time (soft accountability).
  4. Try to give some assignments that are open enough that students can accommodate them to their goals.

If possible, class contents should complement  what students are able to do on their own time.  That is, they should include the things that students can’t do by themselves.  In particular, there is often a need for feedback.  A student may write things on their own, according to their own goals, but feel a bit lost without any feedback.  If it’s possible for the teacher to provide feedback for student-driven activities, it will be very beneficial to autonomous students.

 

 

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