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Learner Autonomy Dr Desmond Thomas, University of Essex.

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1 Learner Autonomy Dr Desmond Thomas, University of Essex

2 Learner autonomy reading Ballard, B. 1996, ‘Through Language to Learning: Preparing Overseas Students for Study in Western Universities’ in Coleman, H. (ed.) Society and the Language Classroom, CUP Chen, Y. 2007, ‘Learning to learn: the impact of strategy training’, ELT Journal 61/1 Cotterall, S. 2008, ‘Autonomy & Good Language Learners’. In Griffiths, C. (ed.) Lessons from Good Language Learners, CUP Lee, I. 1998, ‘Supporting greater learner autonomy in language learning’, ELT Journal 52/4

3 What is autonomy? Holec 1981: “the ability to take charge of one’s own learning” Little 1991: “a capacity for detachment, critical reflection, decision-making, and independent action”. Not culturally-determined. Benson 2001: “the content of learning should be freely determined by learners”. (Reported in Cotterall 2008)

4 What do we mean by autonomy in language learning? (HEA Language, Linguistics and Area Studies page for definitions of autonomy and the autonomous learner) “Learner autonomy is a problematic term because it is widely confused with self-instruction. It is also a slippery concept because it is notoriously difficult to define precisely …. (Benson 2001)

5 Definition of Autonomy 2 “The rapidly expanding literature has debated, for example, whether learner autonomy should be thought of as capacity or behaviour; whether it is characterised by learner responsibility or learner control; whether it is a psychological phenomenon with political implications or a political right with psychological implications” (Benson 2001)

6 Desmond Thomas, SOAS: 6 ‘Reproductive’ learning approach Aim: transfer of knowledge Transmission of information/rules Tests of memory & rote learning Emphasis on replication & right answers Focus on correctness Strong guidance from the teacher Characteristic of secondary education? (Ballard 1996)

7 Desmond Thomas, SOAS: 7 ‘Analytic’ learning approach Analysis of information and ideas within interpretative frameworks Independent and critical thinking Emphasis on originality Questioning and arguing Characteristic of university education? Allowing learners more freedom in a language learning context?

8 Desmond Thomas, SOAS: 8 What do we expect of our autonomous learners? There is nevertheless broad agreement that autonomous learners understand the purpose of their learning programme, explicitly accept responsibility for their learning, share in the setting of learning goals, take initiatives in planning and executing learning activities, and regularly review their learning and evaluate its effectiveness. In other words, there is a consensus that the practice of learner autonomy requires insight, a positive attitude, a capacity for reflection, and a readiness to be proactive in self-management and in interaction with others. “

9 Desmond Thomas, SOAS: 9 The industry of support for our autonomous learners at university level Tutor feedback (oral & written) Personal tutors Counsellors Orientation programmes for LL 1-to-1 learning support tutorials Workshops (eg on exam techniques) Specific learning difficulties eg dyslexia

10 Ways of encouraging learner autonomy 1 Raising awareness of purpose Learners can make better decisions about their learning if they are aware of the purpose of different tasks and exercises in the course book. Taking opportunities outside the classroom As well as understanding the purpose of classroom tasks, learners can also be encouraged to use resources for language practice that exist outside the classroom.

11 Ways of encouraging learner autonomy 2 Raising awareness of individual learning styles and preferences Course books are beginning to include discussion points to raise students awareness of their own learning styles e.g. on different ways review the days lesson, to organise course material, to keep vocabulary note books

12 Ways of encouraging learner autonomy 3 Encouraging reflection Learners can be encouraged to reflect on their own progress (as you have been required to do!). Some learners enjoy keeping learner diaries. Learners can also be encouraged to reflect on individual classes. E.g. In todays class I learned ……………………. I am confused about………………………

13 Ways of encouraging learner autonomy 4 Learner responsibility and empowerment Useful expressions for the classroom can be taught right from beginner level to allow students to have some control of the teaching / learning process I’m sorry, I don’t understand how do you spell ….. ? Can you repeat please? …

14 Ways of encouraging learner autonomy 5 Involving students in the teaching /learning decisions By allowing students to take some of the decisions about how the classes will be run, they will also have a greater sense of responsibility. (What class ‘rules’ might be discussed & what type of ‘rules’ drawn up? E.g. think of: homework; attendance; use of L1…..).

15 Life-long Learner Autonomy The Council of Europe's European Language Portfolio is a tool that may bring 'autonomisation' to much larger numbers of learners. The ELP was first launched as a concept in 1997 and has since been realised in almost 40 different models, all of which conform to Principles and Guidelines laid down by the Council of Europe (

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