Developing Learner Agency in Your Classroom

Developing learner agency is not a controversial idea. However, because there are many possible definitions of and approaches to learner agency, understanding exactly how to do that may not be obvious. This blog post will offer a simple but effective framework for promoting learner agency in the language teaching classroom.

One way to understand learner agency is to think of it as comprising three core elements.

The first element is voice. This means allowing students to express themselves as individuals.

The second element is choice. This means letting students make decisions about what they learn and how they learn it.

The final element is opportunity. This means giving students many chances to express themselves in English. As this basic definition should make obvious, learner agency is similar in some ways to both learner autonomy and personalization.

What are the benefits of promoting learner agency in the classroom? The most obvious benefit is that it encourages students to become more engaged. And research shows that positive learning outcomes are linked to greater engagement.

In my experience, there are also two less obvious benefits. The first is that when students have more agency, it can help them develop a “growth mindset.” This is an idea developed by psychologist Carol Dweck. In simple terms, a person with a growth mindset believes that they can improve their ability to do something if they focus and work hard. It should be obvious how this mindset can benefit language learners. The second less obvious benefit of learner agency is that it can help students become more reflective learners. And I have found that students who reflect on their learning experience tend to learn more than those who are less reflective.

Because learner agency is a flexible concept, there are many possible ways to implement it. Here is a five-part framework for developing and implementing learner agency that I have found to be effective when teaching students, training instructors, and writing textbooks.

The first element of this framework is to include plenty of opportunities for personalization. For example, you might ask students to share experiences similar to those described in the textbook, or perhaps you ask students to express their feelings about something they have read or heard. One key thing to remember is that personalization should be as meaningful and genuine as possible. Personalization activities work best when the underlying task or topic is one that students are actually interested in. This is true for most of the five elements, in fact.

The second element of the framework is to provide students with opportunities to set aims, or goals. The overall goal of the language classroom is, of course, to improve students’ English. This is an important goal, of course, but it is difficult to measure improvement and for many students, this is a long-term goal. Encouraging students to set shorter-term goals that are more easily measured and achieved is an excellent waypoint on the journey towards language mastery.

The third element of the framework is to provide students with choices. These could be choices about what to study, how to study it, when to study it, and so on. The benefit of giving students choices is that they have to take ownership of their own learning. The choices do not have to be difficult or complex ones: even something as simple as letting students choose whether to write an essay or deliver a presentation promotes learner agency.

The fourth element of the framework is to offer strategies that will help students both inside and outside the language classroom. For example, a simple error correction strategy is to suggest that students correct themselves three times as soon as they notice that they have made a grammar or vocabulary error. The rationale is that fixing the mistake three times will quickly train the brain which form of the grammar structure or word is correct and so prevent the fossilization of errors. Strategies are a powerful way to promote agency because they show students that what they have learned in the classroom can provide real-world benefits.

The final element of the framework is to provide resources that help students learn more about a topic or study something further. Resources, in other words, are something that students can use when they are doing self-study. Resources can be simple and finding them does not have to take a lot of time. Simply suggesting useful search terms can be a valuable resource for students, for example. Alternatively, introducing students to a piece of software that lets them slow down audio or video content would also be a useful resource.

Any of these five elements can be used on its own to promote learner agency, but when used in combination, they can SPARC learner agency powerfully and effectively (standing for Strategies, Personalization, Aims, Resources, and Choices).  

For a more in-depth discussion of this topic, please watch a recording of this webinar.

Author: Christien Lee

Christien Lee, who has dual Canadian and British citizenship, has worked in English Language Teaching since 1994. His roles have included teacher, teacher trainer, curriculum developer, materials writer, director of studies, consultant, and author. He has broad experience in different aspect of ELT, but specializes in academic English and, particularly, exam preparation. Currently, his focus is on writing books and materials and developing innovative e-learning resources. He is the author of several ELT books, including other titles for National Geographic Learning.

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