Language learning is a life-long process. Developing learner autonomy and responsibility for their own learning seems to be one of the best things we can do to get our students ready for that journey. Learner autonomy, however, needs to be understood as a process rather than a state. It is often confused with encouraging self-instruction, and this could certainly be one of the consequences, but the idea goes far beyond that: by taking control of their learning, we want students to become more actively and deeply involved, try more difficult tasks, have a higher achievement, and know how to learn so that they can learn more efficiently. What’s more, it should help to boost their intrinsic motivation as they gain their own voice.
So how can we encourage learner autonomy in our classrooms?
1. Build upon the students’ prior knowledge
If students understand that new learning is built on prior knowledge, and that their attitudes, beliefs, knowledge or connections do have an impact on new learning, then the content or material will become the most relevant — and learning will become easier and more efficient. In K-W-L, for instance, students complete the first column of the graphic organiser with what they already KNOW about the topic, the second one with what they WANT TO KNOW about it, and the third column with what they LEARNT about it after the lesson or unit. The two first columns, therefore, reflect the first steps in any new learning context both inside and outside the classroom.
2. Choose engaging contexts and topics
Students’ prior knowledge can also help us to choose contexts and topics that they may find meaningful. Designing classroom tasks that are authentic and which appeal to the students’ interests will help to boost meaningful interaction. What if students are not interested in a particular topic or context? Then use their prior knowledge and curiosity to introduce it through what they already know.
3. Create flexible tasks
Ask open-ended questions while accepting all sorts of answers equally. Encourage students to make connections, think critically, explore different possibilities. In writing and speaking tasks, it is very often possible to design tasks that ask students to write or speak at their own performance level using the same context or topic. Other tools such as classroom blogs can be a good way to allow for individualisation.
4. Keep it active!
Flexible tasks in engaging contexts built upon their interests and knowledge are the first steps in making students active members in the learning process. Indeed, learner-centred interactive strategies provide extra motivation as they give students some control over the learning process.
5. Go cooperative
One of the best ways to set up an interactive classroom that is learner-centred while including individualisation is cooperative learning. Implement learning strategies that promote structured simultaneous interaction, equal participation and positive interdependence. Most importantly, in these settings students also learn to be accountable for their contributions and their own learning gains.
6. Encourage students to take risks
Active language learners need to have a good repertoire of communication strategies at their disposal so that they can negotiate meaning. Encourage students to become risk-takers and help them understand that mistakes are an integral part of the learning process.
7. Allow choice
Allowing choice in tasks is another way in which students can take control over their own learning. A homework choice board like this one, tic-tac-toe style task menus, or simply suggesting a variety of writing prompts or reading passages related to the same context or topic, can be good places to start.
8. Get students to reflect on their learning…
Get students to realise what areas they may need more work on so as to help them set up their own goals and try new strategies. This worksheet, for example, can help students to reflect on different aspects of a lesson while allowing choice.
9. …so that they can assess themselves
Reflection is one step towards self-assessment. Peer-assessment is another one: students often need to be exposed to other types of feedback before they can assess themselves in an effective manner. Allow students to write a few test questions, quiz each other, grade themselves with pre-established rubrics.
10. Explain why you do what you do
Reflection and self-assessment need to be modelled, making the thinking process explicit so that the students can identify the importance of doing it. And this actually holds true for the whole learning experience. Explain the reasons behind doing a particular task or practising a specific skill, why you are suggesting a given text, or the benefits of planning your writing so it can suit different communicative purposes. Understanding the rationale of the tasks will ultimately help students understand how learning happens and make their future learning experiences more and more efficient — even help them become autonomous learners in charge of their own learning.