Three decades working with language learner autonomy

5 September 2017

This month we are publishing Language Learner Autonomy by David Little, Leni Dam and Lienhard Legenhausen. In this post the authors reflect on three decades’ work in the field.

Learner autonomy entails that learners are fully involved in planning, implementing and evaluating their own learning. We were first introduced to the concept in the 1980s. For Leni Dam it offered a way of responding to the challenge of differentiation in teaching and learning at school; for Lienhard Legenhausen and David Little it was a prerequisite for successful self-access language learning at university. Our collaboration of almost three decades, however, has focused on classroom learning. Leni and Lienhard have used empirical techniques to explore the outcomes of autonomous language learning and compare them with the outcomes achieved by learners working with a ‘communicative’ textbook; while David has been concerned to derive pedagogical principles from successful practice to facilitate replication in other contexts.

Although learner autonomy has been a focus for innovation in language education for almost forty years, it’s equally relevant to other areas of the curriculum. In our view its operationalization entails that learner self-management and reflective learning are exercised and further developed via ‘practice’ appropriate to the curriculum subject in question. In a language classroom, practice means use of the target language as the preferred medium of communication and reflection. Under guidance from their teacher, autonomous language learners use the target language from the beginning to plan, implement and evaluate their learning. Writing plays an indispensable role: learning is documented in logbooks and portfolios, and this supports use of the oral language and facilitates reflection on the process and content of learning.

It is sometimes assumed that learner autonomy is concerned exclusively with individual learning, but this is a misunderstanding. All effective classroom learning is based on interactive communication; what makes the autonomy classroom different is the fact that, by definition, the learners have equal right of access to all discourse roles, initiating as well as responding. Our experience leads us to define the autonomy classroom as a self-generating and self-maintaining community of practice whose members develop proficiency by using the target language to manage their own learning individually and collaboratively. This means that they devise their own learning materials and produce a wide variety of creative texts – stories, poems, plays, and reports on projects of many different kinds.

Some years ago, Leni asked a class of 15-year-olds, ‘After four years of learning English, how would you assess your overall progress?’ This is what one girl wrote (transcribed without correction):

“I already make use of the fixed procedures from our diaries when trying to get something done at home. Then I make a list of what to do or remember the following day. That makes things much easier. I have also via English learned to start a conversation with a stranger and ask good questions. And I think that our “together” session has helped me to become better at listening to other people and to be interested in them. I feel that I have learned to believe in myself and to be independent.”

Clearly, in four years this learner has acquired a proficiency in English that extends her communicative and reflective capacity and with it her identity. Her facility in writing implies that English is a fully integrated part of her developing plurilingual literacy.

The autonomy classroom shares fundamental pedagogical principles with inclusive education. It is thus not surprising that autonomous learning succeeds with students whose learning difficulties might cause them to fail in more traditional pedagogical settings. We have also found that learner autonomy empowers adult refugees learning the language of their host community; and that when primary pupils from immigrant families are encouraged to use their home languages in the classroom (even though their teacher may not understand them), this not only helps them come to grips with curriculum content but also gives them an interest in taking autonomous learning initiatives.

Everything we have written about learner autonomy over the past thirty years or so has taken successful practice as its starting point, and we have always believed that learner autonomy is first a pedagogical imperative and only secondly a fertile research topic. Aimed at student teachers, teacher educators and language learning researchers, our book will have served its purpose if it encourages more language teachers to embrace the principles of learner autonomy and find ways of implementing them in their classrooms.

For more information about this book please see our website. If you found this interesting, you might also enjoy Managing Diversity in Education edited by David Little, Constant Leung and Piet Van Avermaet.


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