Monday, May 15, 2006

Learner autonomy

Learner autonomy: what it is

Robert L. Fielding

Learner autonomy, sometimes called learner independence is ‘the ability to take charge of your own learning.’ (Holec 1981) It means that you, the student, can discover the best way for you to learn and develop skills you have acquired to improve your ability as a learner. Becoming an independent learner is a good thing to do – it will help your understanding of your subject areas, and it will help you to find out something about how you learn best, and ultimately it will lead to success – better grades – more enjoyable lessons – more interesting lessons, and hopefully, to a better career and a more enjoyable, fulfilling life.

 It also means that your teacher becomes more like a facilitator – a helper, rather than just the person you go to ask if you are right or wrong.
 It means being responsible for your own learning.
 It means adopting a more mature attitude to learning, and it means getting the most out of your time as a student.
 It does not mean being left to do whatever you feel like doing, but nor does it mean being left alone to sink or swim.

Here are a few ways in which your performance as a learner might change if you begin to change your orientation to your own learning.

You will most probably do these things.

 Have new insights into your own learning strategies and learning styles

Learning strategies are ‘special thoughts or behaviour that students use to help them understand, learn and retain (remember) new information. ( O’Malley & Chamot 1990) Learning strategies are ‘mental steps or operations that learners use to learn a new language and regulate their efforts to do so’. (Wenden 1998)

There are two types of learning strategy.

1. Cognitive Strategies

a) Repetition
Repeating words you find difficult to pronounce is one way to improve – try repeating words alone at first, then repeat them to a friend when you feel more confident.
The first sound in the word ‘the’ and the first sound in the word ‘think’ are difficult for most learners of English.
o Stand in front of a mirror, put your fingers in front of your mouth.
o Touch them lightly with the tip of your tongue.
o Say, ‘think’, drawing your tongue back into your mouth as you make the first sound.
Well done. You have just pronounced this sound correctly. Repeat these steps until it becomes easy.
b) Resourcing
Use resources to help you learn. Here are some of the obvious ones.
 Dictionaries
 A good dictionary contains a lot of useful information about the word you are looking up.
 Of course, the first thing you find out is how to spell the word correctly, then you might want to know what kind of word it is – a noun, verb, adjective etc. (These words are usually abbreviated, but are fairly obvious too – n = noun, vb = verb etc.)
 Some dictionaries like Collins Cobuild Dictionary and most dictionaries for learners will contain the word as it is normally used in phrases and sentences.

The meaning of the word is provided. Many English words have more than one meaning, or have different forms, so look out for headwords (the word you are looking for – usually in bold letters, with the numbers 1, 2, 3.. next to each for the different forms and meanings of the word.

 Encyclopedias
Although encyclopedias are usually big books, they are very easy to use, contain a lot of information, and usually have illustrations – pictures and diagrams to explain.

 Internet
The Internet is a great source of information. The main problem for learners is that there is too much information – millions of sites for one search on Google. Get help.

c) Translation

Many learners carry a dictionary that gives the meaning of an English word in another language. This is fine, helpful and comforting, but you will find that a word in one language does not always translate easily into another language.

Take care – get help if you are unsure about the word you have chosen.

d) Note-taking
This is more difficult than it might seem. Note-taking from a lecture is particularly difficult; lecturers speak quickly and use difficult words.

Note-taking from books can also be difficult – knowing what to write down and what to leave out is also difficult.

The key to both is understanding what you are listening to, or what you are reading.
Here are links to sites that will give you some useful tips.

e) Deduction

If you don’t understand what a word means, you can often get close to its meaning by using your knowledge of English.

 What kind of word is it – noun, verb etc
 If it is a verb, what tense is it, what word does it apply to – what is the subject of the verb – if it is an adjective, what noun is it describing
 Word endings and some beginnings of words can often help you.
Endings of words:-
..ment, …ness, …tion, …ity, - nouns ie. enjoyment, happiness, information, necessity
…ous, …al, …ive, …ful – adjectives ie. callous, local, active, joyful
…ify, …ate, …ize – verbs ie. qualify, activate, energize
Beginnings of words:-
Mono = one, duo = two, tri = three or triple ie. monopoly, duodenum, tricycle
un = denotes the opposite ie. happy/unhappy
im = ditto ie. polite/impolite
a = ditto ie. political/apolitical
Go to this site for help with prefixes and suffixes.

f) Contextualisation

Finding the meaning of words and phrases from the context – the sentence in which they appear.

This can involve meaning or some other information about the words or phrases you are interested in.
Ie. I read before I go to bed. (read = simple present tense verb)
I read a good book last week. (read = simple past tense verb)

Ie. I can’t see the distinction between the words autonomy and independence. (difference)
He got a distinction in Geography. (mark of excellence)

g) Transfer

Defined here as the ability to use knowledge gained in your own language to remember and understand facts and sequences in another.

h) Inferencing
Drawing conclusions and obtaining meaning from the available information in the sentence.
Ie. The Police Officer fought off the attackers by punching them.
(Inferred that the Police Officer was most probably male.)

i) Questioning for clarification

This is simply the act of asking the teacher questions to clarify what she has said. This may seem simple – not worth mentioning – but in some cultures, asking the teacher questions may be unusual, or be unpopular with other students.

2. Metacognitive Strategies
Here are some links to sites that will give you more information about metacognitive strategies.

a) Directed attention
Deciding in advance to concentrate on the more general aspects of a task. For example, in a role play exercise, you may focus your attention on solving the problem as a whole rather than working on certain parts of the problem.
b) Selective attention
Deciding in advance to concentrate on particular aspects of a task. You may feel that you need practice in forming questions and asking them, so you decide to take on a particular persona in a role play exercise.

c) Self-monitoring
This is checking your spoken language as you speak. Note that this particular form of self-monitoring might mean that fluency is impeded for the sake of accuracy.

Deciding whether to do that would depend upon the task. If you are in a situation which calls upon the speed with which information is provided, it would not be the best tactic to adopt. However, if you are undergoing an interview to assess your language level, this type of strategy might be more beneficial and more appropriate.
d) Self-evaluation
This is something like being self-critical; it is evaluating your own performance according to your own standards. The difficulty here is that if your own standards are impossibly high, and do not accord with reality, you may be over critical, which could lead to a loss of self-confidence.

e) Self-reinforcement
This is perhaps the nicest strategy; that of rewarding yourself for a job well done. It is important that you keep sight of your achievements as well as your failings. If you concentrate on the latter rather than the former, you might find yourself inhibiting your own performance.

 Take an active approach to learning

If you only do what the teacher tells you to do, you might be acting too passively. Good learners are active learners – this might mean working harder in the classroom and outside it, but it will also mean gaining a greater understanding of the subject and therefore being more likely to pass examinations. It will also be more rewarding in a general sense. Active students enjoy their lessons more than students who do the bare minimum. Scraping through is not really an option these days – the competition for places at university as well as for jobs is too fierce.

 Be willing to take risks

A willingness to take risks is the opposite of a reluctance to be ever seen to be wrong. Being wrong sometimes is what learning is all about. Students often learn more from their mistakes than they do from the things they do correctly. Being incorrect and knowing you have been so is an event that will probably stick in your memory, if only for the memory of how uncomfortable you felt when you were told you were wrong. Any discomfort you might feel at such times soon disappears when it is clear that you acted with courage and enterprise in taking the risks you took, and in any case, risk takers stand more chance of becoming winners.

Be a better guesse
Guessing, if done selectively and purposefully, can be a useful strategy; sometimes the only strategy left to you. If you find that you don’t know one key word in an examination question, and dictionaries aren’t allowed, a careful guess could be your only way forward. Try to limit the number of times you guess, though. If you have more time, look the word up.

 Place importance of form as well as on content

Expressing yourself well is of paramount importance, particularly when you are being judged by the sophistication of the language you are using to communicate. Likewise, in a written essay, points are lost when they are poorly expressed. It is not just what you say or write, but the words you use that are important – sometimes more important.

 Have a tolerant and outgoing approach to the language you are learning

Remember that the English language is notorious for having very few consistent rules that apply in all cases. This is particularly true with spelling. Similarly, when speaking, don’t be put off by different accents – you have one – no accents are superior to others in the language classroom – clarity is the best yardstick, but be patient with others who do not have your command of the English language.

The how and the what of learning

Finally, what matters is not just what you learn, but how you learn it. Our ability to use organized sounds, language, to communicate with others is what separates us from other living creatures. The language we use every day says something about us, and learning a new language can threaten our sense of worth and well-being. We bring much more than our pens and our notebooks to the language classroom, we bring the totality of our feelings and our emotions as well. ‘Meeting and interiorizing the grammar of a foreign language is not merely an intelligent, cognitive act. It is a highly affective on too.’ (Rinvolucri 1984)

Be gentle with yourself and with your fellow students, as well as with that person standing at the front of the class – she is involved in a highly affective act too.


Holec, H. 1981. Autonomy in Foreign Language Learning. Oxford: OUP.
O’Malley, J.M. and Chamot, A.V. 1990. Learning Strategies in Second Language Acquisition. London: Macmillan.
Rinvolucri, M. 1984. Grammar Games. Cambridge: CUP
Wenden, A. 1998. Learner Strategies for Learner Autonomy. Great Britain: Prentice Hall.


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