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10 Commandments for motivating language learners: #5 Promote learner autonomy




Asian girl sitting on the floor readingContinuing the 10 Commandments for motivating language learners series, Tim Ward, a freelance teacher trainer in Bulgaria, takes a closer look at number five of the 10 Commandments: Promote learner autonomy.

Thanks for the replies to the last couple of blogs, all in response to comments on two of the Ten Commandments for motivation. This time round, I want to turn my attention to just one, but it’s one of the areas that’s received lots of attention in the last few years: Dornyei and Czizer’s version reads: Promote learner autonomy.

Now, in general terms everyone’s agreed that learner autonomy is a good thing but the specifics of how to encourage it are a bit harder to pin down, not least because there are so many different levels at which autonomy works. So it’s with a degree of trepidation that I start this blog.

Best to begin softly: what is learner autonomy?

Easy enough – a workable definition is that it’s the readiness and ability to take charge of one’s own learning inside and outside the classroom. In ascending order of difficulty, the next questions go why? and how? So, why is it a good thing that learners take care of their own learning? (Bear in mind, by the way, that these are all discussions we can and maybe should be having with our students.)

There is a whole raft of answers from the more to the less obvious. Students only spend part of their time and a fraction of their lives in the classroom with us, the teacher, so learning skills they can use outside and in later life is doubly valuable – a point the Common European Framework is very strong on making. More than that, autonomous students will probably learn with more enjoyment, do better in exams, set their own targets, be more fun to teach, and so on…

What about how? Of course, there are so many materials available, both online and offline, that will meet students’ individual interests. Getting students to do website evaluations can be a way of capitalizing on their curiosity. As to the classroom, a useful proverb comes to mind: you can take a horse to water but you can’t make it drink. So we can set up a classroom culture where students are more likely to be independent, though of course we can’t actually make anybody independent.

A classroom where pair and group work are prominent is more likely to promote autonomy than lockstep teaching, where everyone’s doing the same thing at the same time. A teacher who explains, or better still asks for reasons, why certain tasks and actiivities are done, is also going to help. There are other general ideas: do your students self-evaluate regularly? Do you talk to them about what kind of learners they are? You could always try a classroom survey activity like this as a way into discussion on the topic:

Find someone who…

  • Likes to be corrected when they make a mistake
  • Keeps a vocabulary book
  • Listens to songs in English and learns the lyrics
  • Is good at explaining what they mean when they don’t know a word
  • Keeps a learner diary
  • Thinks it’s more important to be fluent than accurate
  • Spends time on the workbook every week
  • Records his/her own voice at home
  • Chats/emails/surfs often in English
  • Looks up new words in a dictionary while reading

Part of the answer has to be to do with the book you use and how you use it. New English File has, of course, got the grammar, vocabulary and sound banks for students. You maybe can’t use them but you can make sure they know where they are – one idea is a quiz to go with the books, like this one for NEF Elementary:

  1. What is GVP?
  2. Name one of the actors in 1C.
  3. What’s the symbol for the /i:/ sound?
  4. What’s the title of the text in Revise & Check 2?
  5. What do men love in 4B?
  6. What’s on the’ Communication’ pages?
  7. Where can you find transcripts?
  8. In the vocab bank p143, what pictures go with ‘have’?
  9. Who’s the best partner for Aisha? (WB 2B)
  10. What does Study Link tell you?

And when students go wrong with their English, point them in the direction they need to mend their error rather than tell them the right answer.

Last but not least, check out the  New English File Learning Resources. Have your students tried the websites?

Remind yourself of the 10 Commandments for motivating language learners and look out for future posts by Tim exploring the remaining Commandments.

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  1. A lot of times the difference between young students and adult students is self motivation. That brings about a big difference in attitude. “Am I learning because I have to?” or “Am I learning because I want to?” When a student brings a “want to” attitude and the teacher encourages continued learning beyond the classroom it becomes almost effortless and exciting.

  2. Learning a language needs to come from within, just like in sports where determination and drive produce the most successful athletes.
    The way students learn a language is also changing as technology improves. Gone are the days of boring old grammar books.

  3. I always believe that the language learners state of mind is the hardest challenge in teaching them the language therefore students will need support from peers – if they manage to work as a team, they will succeed in their effort of mastering the language, if not, most of the time, they fail.

  4. ‘Motivation’s one of those ideas like justice or world peace: we all know it’s a good thing but it’s not quite so clear how to get there’. I love these aphorisms (I think you call them that.). Is there anywhere in your text books that tells me how to generate my own?

  5. I love this series of posts. I think motivation is one of the most important things for successful language learning – way more important than any particular approach to teaching – and I do think autonomy is a really important part of that (together with competence and relatedness). But, here’s something to watch out for. Collectivistic cultures tend to put more importance on relatedness within groups than individual autonomy. Some researchers have even found that the performance of learners from these societies was better when they *didn’t* work autonomously than when they *did* work autonomously (which does contradict most research into motivation in Western contexts over the last 20 years.) Of course, each group and context is different and way more research needs to be done. But, it’s something to think about, especially when teaching learners from more collectivistic societies.

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