Promoting Learner Autonomy by Giving Students Choice

Teaching English to young teenagers can be challenging, but it can also be exciting and rewarding. Remember that young teens are actually very efficient language learners. They still have some characteristics of young learners and retain their childlike playfulness, but they also have the adult-like ability to hypothesize and think critically. Allowing your teenage English language learners to choose how they demonstrate their understanding of content and new language supports their learner autonomy as well as increasing their collaboration skills and creativity. 

The Benefits of Giving Students Choice

Student choice is one of the best ways to engage young teens in the classroom. It inspires natural curiosity and creativity. According to Barbara McCombs, providing choice activities helps develop responsible, autonomous, and motivated learners (“Developing Responsible and Autonomous Learners: A Key to Motivating Students.”)

Our goal as teachers is to provide a productive learning environment for all of our students, and choice activities increase our chances of reaching our young teens, whose needs and preferences are often changing. It is also a great way to differentiate instruction. If you have students at different proficiency levels or students who have diverse learning styles or preferences, providing a variety of choices for assignments and projects can help students show their mastery of the lesson objectives according to their level. Allowing students choice in how to complete an assignment or do a project will give them a sense of independence and freedom as well as a sense of ownership over their learning. 

To keep your English class more interesting, use different kinds of choice in your instruction. The variety of choice activities provided throughout the second edition of National Geographic Learning’s Impact program will help you make your English class more engaging for your young teens while encouraging their growing independence as English language learners. If you have students who prefer working alone, they’ll appreciate opportunities for personal reflection and solitary activities. If you have students who feel more comfortable working with others, they’ll enjoy opportunities to partner with classmates and review content by playing group games. 

Students will get a chance to choose the way they practice language and express themselves. They can also choose whom they work with and how they complete assignments and projects. These choices can keep the classroom from being boring, providing many options for learning and using language. 

Let’s look at some examples of promoting learner autonomy and student choice from Impact, Second Edition. You can give your students choice… 

When Practicing Vocabulary

Here are some activities in Impact, Second Edition that teach new vocabulary words.

Vocabulary activities from Impact, Second Edition that promote learner autonomy.
Activities from Impact, Second Edition Level 1

Notice that after learning and practicing vocabulary, students get a chance to communicate using the new vocabulary, and they are given choices for how to do so. They can work independently by writing sentences about nocturnal animals. They can work in pairs to discuss how life at night has changed for people over time. Or they can work in groups to create an advertisement for a useful item that helps people see in the dark. All three encourage students to engage in real communication, practice the new vocabulary, and express themselves. 

After Watching a Video

After watching a video about the environmental impacts of cotton, which is a part of a unit about fashion, students have choices to work independently, in pairs, and in groups.  

A student choice activity from Impact, Second Edition that promotes learner autonomy.
An activity from Impact, Second Edition Level 3

They can develop a survey about fashion choices. Or they can work with a partner to create a TV interview that discusses current issues in the fashion industry. Alternatively, they can discuss the purpose of fashion in a group and create a poster. As a teacher, you might decide to make the first choice. Perhaps you feel that your students have been working independently a lot, and you want them to work together. You might give them just two choices: To work in pairs and work in groups. This is a part of your planning based on your students and your classroom context. 

When Expressing Themselves Creatively

Here is an ‘Express Yourself’ activity that presents an online travel review. 

A travel review reading passage and activities from Impact, Second Edition.
A reading passage and activity from Impact, Second Edition Level 1

This is an excellent authentic reading that our students will use in real life! When it’s time for our students to express themselves, they have a few choices.  

Student choice activities from Impact, Second Edition that promote learner autonomy.
An ‘Express Yourself’ activity from Impact, Second Edition Level 1

Students learned what a typical travel review looks like in the reading passage. They can then express themselves through an independently written review, a poster review created with a partner, or a video review developed with a group. If you were a teen, you would probably be very excited about all these choices in class! 

When Creating “Impact-ful” Projects

Projects are a great medium for promoting student choice. In this project from Impact, Second Edition, students can raise awareness for an endangered animal with posters or brochures; they can create and present a photo album of animals in their community; or they can make an imaginative comic strip about a wild animal.  

Project choices from Impact, Second Edition.
A project from Impact, Second Edition Level 1

When Developing 21st Century Skills

As you have seen, choices can keep the classroom from being boring and provide many options for learning and using language. When you combine choices with engaging content and exciting projects that promote real-life 21st century skills, such as technology integration, critical thinking, and creativity, you will really get your teens involved in your class and with each other. After watching a video and learning how gadgets have changed over time, the following are some activities that will inspire your teens as they engage in real-world new media skills.  

Student choice activities from Impact, Second Edition that promote learner autonomy and twenty-first century skills.
An activity from Impact, Second Edition Level 1

They can write about a unique new app or gadget. Or they can discuss how apps can make daily tasks easier with a partner. Or they can work in groups to imagine a new mobile device and present it to the class. 

All of these choices promote learner autonomy, develop authentic 21st century skills, and inspire your teenagers to become involved with the world while learning English! From class activities to projects, there are many ways you can give your students choices and personalize their learning in the English language classroom. 

Motivate your teen students to explore who they are who they want to be, all while learning English!

Author: Joan Kang Shin and Jodi Crandall

Dr. Joan Kang Shin and Dr. Jodi Crandall are series editors for Our World, National Geographic Learning’s program for young learners of English; Explore Our World, a light and lively version of Our World; Welcome to Our World, a three-level preprimary series for very young learners of English; and Impact, Second Edition, for teenage learners of English.

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