Encouraging Learner Autonomy

In this blog, Alex Warren looks at how we can help encourage our learners to take more responsibility for their own learning and be more autonomous.

Mention the concept of learner autonomy and these words might spring to mind – a myth, magic, a miracle, impossible. How can we actually help our learners achieve it?

Before I answer that question, let’s first define what exactly we mean by learner autonomy. As a term related to language learning, it first appeared in 1979 as a result of Henri Holec’s Council of Europe’s Modern Language Project, in which he states that learner autonomy is “the ability to take charge of one’s own learning.” This in itself is a very broad statement, without any detail or indeed idea of how to attain it. An arguably more useful definition comes from Craig Thaine (2010) who defines it as “helping learners understand the process of learning both inside and outside the classroom. It means that they begin to understand that they have a large role to play in their own learning. It also allows learners to understand what their needs are and to set goals for themselves. Part of the process involves finding out about specific strategies that can help them to learn. As a result, they can, to some extent, decide what they should learn and how they should learn it.” So, how can we achieve this? Here are five/six ideas to get you started.

Become the Guide on the Side

The first thing to consider is that for our students to become more autonomous we first need to make sure we, as teachers, are prepared to relinquish control and give students responsibility. It might be easier said than done, but it is key to the process. We need to provide the conditions in which they can be autonomous in the first instance. A simple way of doing this is adjusting the way in which we teach, moving away from a deductive to a more inductive approach when it comes to teaching grammar, vocabulary and writing. So instead of standing at the front of the class and giving a wonderfully detailed and thorough grammar presentation, let the students work out rules and uses for themselves from example sentences. For example, hand out a list of 20 if sentences and ask them to work together, discuss and work out the rules. Or, write some sentences on the board (all using your target grammar), but with the words mixed up and then hand the board pen to the students and leave the room. Alternatively, use a more guided discovery approach by giving them a few example sentences and prompt them with the necessary questions to work out the rules by themselves. As well as empowering students, as Scott Thornbury (A-Z of ELT) points out, “It is thought the mental effort invested by learners in working out rules for themselves… can also help develop learner’s capacity for autonomous learning.”

Flip the Classroom

If you want to take the above a stage further, why not try throwing in some flipped classroom lessons? In many ways, learner autonomy is what the flipped classroom is all about – by flipping the learning of the lesson content (grammar/vocabulary) so that students have to discover and learn about it by themselves at home, in effect gives them ultimate responsibility for their own learning.  The added advantage is, of course, more time in class for the things they want to do as well as those they can’t readily practice at home – namely communication. For more information about how the flipped classroom works, check out my previous blog post.

Give Them Choice

Think about a time when you gave your students choice. Now try to remember the results of that. If your experiences were anything like mine then the results were overwhelmingly positive, with students sometimes actually going over and above what they were asked to do. Not only is giving students choice a motivating factor for many students, it’s also a central feature in supporting their autonomy (Ryan & Deci, 2000). This is further supported by Simon Borg’s 2011 research in which he noted that “96 percent of teachers agreed that learner autonomy is promoted when learners have some choice in the kind of activities they do”. Using choice boards is one way of incorporating choice into the classroom, as is incorporating different workstations and giving students a choice of what homework to do – you might even be lucky, and they’ll do all of it!

Use Projects

Projects by their very nature encourage students to work independently of the teacher, in pairs or small groups, and so are a very natural and obvious way to give students greater responsibility for their learning. As Thomas (2000) says, “A growth in self-reliance is one of the many advantages of project-based learning.” Those other advantages include developing 21st-century skills, utilizing all 4 four language skills, developing media literacy and increasing motivation amongst many others. However, sometimes teachers can shy away from doing projects, at least with older learners, as they can be time-consuming. But that in itself is just another reason way in which projects can help develop learner autonomy – they teach the need for time keeping and sticking to deadlines.

From Our World Second Edition Level 3

Encourage Self-Assessment

As Simon Borg (2011) points out, “To become autonomous, learners need to develop the ability to evaluate their own learning.” In other words, they need to know how to self-assess and to do so honestly. Using Can Do statements at the end of a lesson or unit of work is one simple way of doing this. However, instead of asking students to just tick (or not tick) the box, encourage them to put a number from 1-5 in it, whereby 5 means they are very confident with the target language and 1 means they are not. Encouraging students to proof-read and edit their written work – as part of the process of writing is another way in which self-assessment can be incorporated into class. This can also be done as a peer assessment task. With speaking tasks, get students to record themselves doing the activity and then ask them to listen back and comment on what they did/didn’t do well – using a criteria can help them with this. i.e. task achievement, fluency, accuracy, pronunciation.

Set Personal Goals

It’s been well documented by psychologists and neurologists that setting goals can help track progress, give a sense of direction and increase motivation – all features which help promote autonomy. As Morrison & Navarro (2014) state, “goal-setting is pivotal to self-directed learning, because, without clear goals, it is impossible to make informed decisions about whether resources and activities are relevant.” In fact, recent research suggests that people who wrote down their goals and shared that information with a friend, were on average 33% more successful in accomplishing their stated goal. Therefore, it figures that for students to be more autonomous, we should be encouraging them to create their own measurable goals. But what kind of goals should they be setting themselves?

Here are some suggestions:

“I’m going to improve my grammar by doing 15 minutes of online exercises every day.”

“I’ll improve my listening by listening to 3 podcasts every week.”

“I’ll improve my reading an article on the BBC website every day and then telling someone about it.”

“I’ll post on Facebook/Twitter every day to practice my writing.”

“I’ll record myself on my phone reading articles to practice my reading fluency and pronunciation twice a week.”


What ideas and strategies will you try to help your students become more autonomous?

Further Reading

The Autonomy Approach, Morrison & Navarro, Delta, 2014

Learner Autonomy: English Language Teachers’ Beliefs and Practices, S.Borg, 2011

Autonomy in Language Teaching and Learning, P.Benson, 2006

Autonomy in Foreign Language Learning, H.Holec, 1981

Designing and Adapting Materials to Encourage Learner Autonomy, D.Nunan, 1997

Learner Autonomy, Scharle & Szabo, 2000

Author: Alex Warren

Alex Warren is a DELTA trained teacher trainer with over 14 years’ experience of working in ELT as a teacher, academic director and teacher trainer. Working for National Geographic Learning, Alex is driven by his passion for developing teachers on a global scale and helping them to reach their true potential. A firm believer in a communicative approach to language learning and student centred learning, Alex enjoys working with innovative, thought-provoking materials and presenting on a wide range of ELT-related topics.


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