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English Language Teaching Global Blog


Learner Autonomy

Group of college friendsJanet Hardy-Gould, a teacher, teacher trainer and materials writer, discusses how to encourage learner autonomy in the higher education classroom.

Learner autonomy is when students take control and responsibility for their own learning, both in terms of what they learn and how they learn it. It takes as its starting point the idea that students are capable of self-direction and are able to develop an independent, proactive approach to their studies.

In the field of higher education, learner autonomy is particularly important. Students may have limited classroom contact time for learning English but they may need to rapidly increase their knowledge and skills. It is therefore important for them to become self-reliant language learners who can continue learning efficiently outside the classroom.

At the heart of autonomous learning is the student’s perception of their own role as a learner. Classroom discussion and one-to-one conversations with the teacher can help students to understand the essential part that they play in their own success in English. Establish that autonomous, dynamic students have the potential to learn far more than passive, reactive learners. Self-reliant students can address their own individual needs and make ongoing progress.

Autonomy involves students having a range of learning strategies which they are able to apply flexibly in different contexts. Teachers can help students to develop learning strategies through learner training in the classroom and this can take many forms. One important practical step is awareness-raising on how to use self-reference tools such as English-English dictionaries and grammar books.

In the early stages of a course it is useful to demonstrate as a class how to use such resources effectively. For example, when reading a text in lessons, encourage students to choose a small number of new words which they are unable to deduce from context.  Ask them to look up the words in an English-English dictionary. If there is more than one entry for the word, discuss which one is the correct meaning for that context. Use the opportunity to highlight the rich range of information found in a dictionary such as pronunciation and word class.

Encourage students to capitalize on their dictionary work by selecting and noting down any useful words in a personalised vocabulary book or list. Set students homework tasks such as reading a text of their choice and researching a limited number of words in an English-English dictionary. Encourage them to reflect on the process in class. This can help students to transfer skills beyond the classroom and become more resourceful and autonomous learners.

Janet Hardy-Gould is a materials writer, teacher and teacher-trainer who has been in the field of English language teaching for over twenty years. She has worked for a range of ELT organizations and now teaches periodically at the University of Sussex in England. Her interests include the development of engaging reading materials for teenage and adult learners and she has written over twenty-five ELT books for OUP, including graded readers, resource books, and workbooks.

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