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Learner autonomy and second/foreign language learning

Title Learner autonomy and second/foreign language learning
Why learner autonomy?
Helping language learners to become autonomous
Current developments and future trends
Learner autonomy is a problematic term because it is widely confused with self-
instruction. It is also a slippery concept because it is notoriously difficult to define precisely.
The rapidly expanding literature has debated, for example, whether learner autonomy
should be thought of as capacity or behaviour; whether it is characterised by learner
responsibility or learner control; whether it is a psychological phenomenon with political
implications or a political right with psychological implications; and whether the
development of learner autonomy depends on a complementary teacher autonomy (for a
comprehensive survey, see Benson 2001).
There is nevertheless broad agreement that autonomous learners understand the
purpose of their learning programme, explicitly accept responsibility for their learning,
share in the setting of learning goals, take initiatives in planning and executing learning
activities, and regularly review their learning and evaluate its effectiveness (cf. Holec 1981,
Little 1991). In other words, there is a consensus that the practice of learner autonomy
requires insight, a positive attitude, a capacity for reflection, and a readiness to be
proactive in self-management and in interaction with others. This working definition
captures the challenge of learner autonomy: a holistic view of the learner that requires us
to engage with the cognitive, metacognitive, affective and social dimensions of language
learning and to worry about how they interact with one another.
Why learner autonomy?
There are two general arguments in favour of trying to make learners autonomous. First, if
they are reflectively engaged with their learning, it is likely to be more efficient and
effective, because more personal and focused, than otherwise; in particular, what is
learned in educational contexts is more likely to serve learners’ wider agendas. Second, if
learners are proactively committed to their learning, the problem of motivation is by
definition solved; although they may not always feel entirely positive about all aspects of
their learning, autonomous learners have developed the reflective and attitudinal
resources to overcome temporary motivational setbacks.
In the particular case of second and foreign languages there is a third argument. Effective
communication depends on a complex of procedural skills that develop only through use;
and if language learning depends crucially on language use, learners who enjoy a high
degree of social autonomy in their learning environment should find it easier than
otherwise to master the full range of discourse roles on which effective spontaneous
communication depends.
Helping language learners to become autonomous
Attempts to theorise the process of ‘autonomisation’ (e.g., Little 1999, 2000a, 2000b) have
been strongly influenced by neo-Vygotskian psychology, which sees learning as a matter
of supported performance and emphasises the interdependence of the cognitive and
social-interactive dimensions of the learning process. According to this model, the
teacher’s role is to create and maintain a learning environment in which learners can be
autonomous in order to become more autonomous. The development of their learning
skills is never entirely separable from the content of their learning, since learning how to
learn a second or foreign language is in some important respects different from learning
how to learn maths or history or biology.
Dam’s (1995) account of the gradual ‘autonomisation’ of teenage learners of English in a
Danish middle school provides a classic illustration. Her key techniques are: use of the
target language as the preferred medium of teaching and learning from the very beginning;
the gradual development by the learners of a repertoire of useful learning activities; and
ongoing evaluation of the learning process, achieved by a combination of teacher, peer
and self-assessment. Posters and learner logbooks play a central role in three ways: they
help learners to capture much of the content of learning, support the development of
speaking, and provide a focus for assessment.
How to support the development of learner autonomy is also a key issue for self-access
language learning schemes. Where self-access learning is not embedded in a taught
course, it is usually necessary to provide learners with some kind of advisory service:
learner counselling is central to the self-access literature. The most successful self-access
projects tend to be those that find effective and flexible ways of supporting learners;
particularly worthy of note is the approach developed at the University of Helsinki
(Karlsson et al. 1997).
It is sometimes assumed that the central research question to be answered is: ‘Does
learner autonomy work?’ But this is to confuse ‘autonomy’, which works by definition, with
attempts at ‘autonomisation’, which can take many different forms and may or may not
succeed. Similarly misguided are attempts to measure the development of autonomy in
learners as if it could be detached from the goals and content of learning.
For more than a decade Leni Dam and Lienhard Legenhausen have studied the linguistic
development of Dam’s learners using empirical techniques derived from second language
acquisition research. They have provided a wealth of evidence to show how and why
Dam’s approach is more successful than mainstream teacher-led approaches (see, e.g.,
Dam and Legenhausen 1996, Legenhausen 1999a, 1999b, 1999c). Approaches that
equate the process of ‘autonomisation’ with ‘strategy training’ have been less successful:
the benefits of teaching learners strategies have still to be demonstrated.
Another important research question has been whether learner autonomy is an exclusively
Western cultural construct and thus alien to learners in other cultures. There is convincing
evidence to support the view that learner autonomy is a psychological phenomenon that
can transcend cultural difference, though learning behaviour is always and inevitably
culturally conditioned (see, e.g., Aoki and Smith 1999, Littlewood 2001).
Current developments and future trends
Despite the ever-expanding literature, learner autonomy remains a minority pursuit,
perhaps because all forms of ‘autonomisation’ threaten the power structures of educational
culture. The Council of Europe’s European Language Portfolio (ELP; Little 2002), however,
is a tool that may bring ‘autonomisation’ to much larger numbers of learners. The ELP was
first launched as a concept in 1997 and has since been realised in almost 40 different
models, all of which conform to Principles and Guidelines laid down by the Council of
Europe ( The ELP has three obligatory components: a
language passport, which summarises the owner’s linguistic identity; a language
biography, which is designed to provide a reflective accompaniment to the process of
learning and using second and foreign languages; and a dossier, in which the owner
collects evidence of his or her developing proficiency in second and foreign languages.
Perhaps because regular goal setting and self-assessment are central to its effective use,
the ELP has been shown to engage teachers as well as learners in processes likely to
lead to more autonomous learning (see Schärer 2000, Little and Perclová 2001, Ushioda
and Ridley 2002). It seems probable that in the next few years much of the research
relevant to learner autonomy will be prompted by the desire to explore the impact of the
ELP on learners, teachers and educational systems.
Aoki, N. and Smith, R. (1999). Learner autonomy in cultural context: the case of Japan. In
D. Crabbe and S. Cotterall (eds), Learner Autonomy in Language Learning:
Defining the Field and Effecting Change, 1927. Frankfurt: Lang.
Benson, P. (2001). Teaching and Researching Autonomy in Language Learning. Harlow:
Longman/Pearson Education.
Dam, L. (1995). Learner Autonomy 3: From Theory to Classroom Practice. Dublin:
Dam, L. and Legenhausen, L. (1996). The acquisition of vocabulary in an autonomous
learning environment the first months of beginning English. In R. Pemberton et al.
(eds), Taking Control: Autonomy in Language Learning, 26580. Hong Kong: Hong
Kong University Press.
Holec, H. (1981). Autonomy and Foreign Language Learning. Oxford: Pergamon. (First
published 1979, Strasbourg: Council of Europe.)
Karlsson, L., Kjisik, F. and Nordlund, J. (1997). From Here to Autonomy. A Helsinki
University Language Centre Autonomous Learning Project. Helsinki: Helsinki
University Press.
Legenhausen, L. (1999a). Language acquisition without grammar instruction? The
evidence from an autonomous classroom, Revista Canaria de Estudios Ingleses 38:
Legenhausen, L. (1999b). The emergence and use of grammatical structures in
conversational interactions; comparing traditional and autonomous learners. In B.
Mißler and U. Multhaup (eds), The Construction of Knowledge, Learner Autonomy
and Related Issues in Foreign Language Learning, 2740. Tübingen: Stauffenburg.
Legenhausen, L. (1999c). Traditional and autonomous learners compared: the impact of
classroom culture on communicative attitudes and behaviour. In C. Edelhoff and R.
Weskamp (eds), Autonomes Fremdsprachenlernen, 16682. Munich: Hueber.
Little, D. (1991). Learner Autonomy 1: Definitions, Issues and Problems. Dublin: Authentik.
Little, D. (1999). Developing learner autonomy in the foreign language classroom: a social-
interactive view of learning and three fundamental pedagogical principles, Revista
Canaria de Estudios Ingleses 38: 7788.
Little, D. (2000a). Learner autonomy and human interdependence: some theoretical and
practical consequences of a social-interactive view of cognition, learning and
language. In B. Sinclair, I. McGrath and T. Lamb (eds), Learner Autonomy, Teacher
Autonomy: Future Directions, 1523. Harlow: Longman/Pearson Education.
Little, D. (2000b). Learner autonomy: why foreign languages should occupy a central role
in the curriculum. In S. Green (ed.), New Perspectives on Teaching and Learning
Modern Languages, 2445. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.
Little, D. (2002). The European Language Portfolio: structure, origins, implementation and
challenges, Language Teaching 35.3: 1829.
Little, D. and Perclová, R. (2001). European Language Portfolio: guide for teachers and
teacher trainers. Strasbourg: Council of Europe. Also available at:
Littlewood, W. (2001). Students’ attitudes to classroom English learning: a cross-cultural
study. Language Teaching Research 5.1: 328.
Schärer, R. (2000). European Language Portfolio: final report on the pilot project.
Strasbourg: Council of Europe. Also available at:
Ushioda, E. and Ridley, J. (2002). Working with the European Language Portfolio in Irish
post-primary schools: report on an evaluation project. CLCS Occasional Paper
No.61. Dublin: Trinity College, Centre for Language and Communication Studies.
... It has significant associations for both specific learners and educators equally. Little (2003) argues that learner autonomy is critical for at least three reasons concerning individual learners: ...
... (ii) According to Little (2003), when students are actively engaged in their education, they develop a desire to study and are able to get past issues caused by a lack of motivation. ...
... The ability of the learner "to take charge of their own learning" is the fundamental concept of learner autonomy (Holec, 1981). We may claim that these learners have a solid understanding of the why, what, and how of their education, which is consistent with Little's (2003) definition of autonomy as "the capacity of detachment, critical thinking, decision-making, and independent action" (p. 15). ...
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Even though there are incredible number of schemes to create EFL curricula, textbooks, and a range of professional development courses, Saudi Arabian EFL students’ level of English language proficiency still has to be raised (Khadawardi, 2022). It has been determined that learner autonomy (AL) is an effective method for promoting learning. This study explores how EFL instructors and students view the value and efficiency of independent learning strategies for improving writing. What do EFL teachers and students think about the writing hub’s learning strategies for enhancing autonomous learning as a teaching tool to assist EFL writing? And to what extent is the significance of autonomous learning noticeable in EFL writing classrooms? These questions were addressed by this study, which evaluated the optimal data of 77 female students and their eight instructors at Applied College for Girls at King Khalid University to get actionable implications and desirable outcomes. The results indicated that learners’ autonomy could be achieved practically. The writing exercises practiced at writing classes; ‘Writing hub’ proved successful in enhancing autonomy among the learners. The t-test scores reject the null hypotheses, and the data was strongly normal and optimal to support the study. However, the findings also showed that the concept and notion of autonomy and students’ role in it must be introduced before executing it to the students. In addition, most teachers indicated that learners’ autonomy is helpful and achievable in EFL settings. They identified four main factors vocabulary, mind- map, the process approach, and peer feedback; and technology-based strategies worked best for composing writing and inculcating autonomy among the learners. In the future, more approaches can be applied to enhance and boost autonomy among learners.
... These researchers share the similarity that teachers' belief plays a pivotal role in the process and methodologies which they utilize to foster LA, select, and prioritize goals and actions. According to Little (2003), instructors could be to blame for Asian students' reluctance to accept responsibility for their own education due to their teacher's 4 Vietnamese Teachers' Beliefs About Fostering Learner Autonomy in English Teaching and Learning expectations of how they should learn. Little (2003) also stresses the need to address teachers' attitudes and views before introducing educational innovations. ...
... According to Little (2003), instructors could be to blame for Asian students' reluctance to accept responsibility for their own education due to their teacher's 4 Vietnamese Teachers' Beliefs About Fostering Learner Autonomy in English Teaching and Learning expectations of how they should learn. Little (2003) also stresses the need to address teachers' attitudes and views before introducing educational innovations. ...
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Driven by rapid technological developments together with social and economic changes, the demand for flexible education has grown in a way that the cultivation of learner autonomy (LA) has become a worldwide phenomenon, especially in language learning and teaching. In this sense, the study reported here makes further contributions to the understanding of teachers’ beliefs in fostering LA in English learning and teaching at the tertiary level in Vietnam. The study adopted a complete qualitative approach to exploring how 10 Vietnamese teachers perceive LA based on their previous teaching experiences. Data analysis from an in-depth interview reveals that participants gave multiple interpretations of LA and admitted that Vietnam’s deep-rooted traditional teaching culture causes the main constraints on developing autonomous learning. Besides, these teachers seem fully aware of the significance of LA but not the “how” in assisting learners with exercising LA both within and beyond educational settings. The findings also propose some pedagogic implications for teacher development as well as curriculum development in English learning and teaching at tertiary levels.
... The previous literature highlights the impact of metacognition on language learning (Lai, 2017;Little, 2003;Teng, 2019); however, the process of how computers interact with autonomous language learners is a mystery despite recent scientific developments. Thus, the purpose of this research study is to explore how computerassisted learning takes place in an accomplished language learner's mind regarding the phases and outcomes. ...
The invention of the microchip and access to digital devices has altered the way people perceive education and how it is supposed to be practiced. New generations of students, who are the digital natives of today, are more than ready to be educated through the advancements offered by digital learning environments. Language learning is not an exception to these fast-paced technological improvements, and the use of technological devices is slowly altering the way students practice and learn languages. With the advancement of available digital devices, computer-assisted learning has become a reality for today’s learners. Within the context of this research study, an accomplished learner’s think-aloud process and autoethnography function as data to internalize how a learner can transform from a language learner to a language expert through autonomous computer-assisted language learning strategies. This ethnographic study attempts to reveal the keen language learning attitude and self-invented digital learning techniques of an autonomous learner of multiple foreign languages. Thus, it explores and exemplifies the possibility of independent and autonomous language learning without the need for formal education.
... There have been various ways to define and interpret learner autonomy, but hardly any definition can describe it precisely due to its complex and multifaceted nature (Little, 2003;Benson, 2009;Teng, 2019). In 1981, Henri Holec first defined autonomy in language education as "the ability to take charge of one's own learning" (p.3), and this has become the most cited definition in the literature of field (Benson, 2007(Benson, , 2009). ...
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Learner autonomy (LA) is acquiring prominence in higher education, particularly in English language instruction, due to its favorable effects on the development of language proficiency, particularly in blended learning (BL) environments. This paper presents the findings of an investigation into the strategies adopted by instructors to nurture LA in a BL environment. Class observation and interviews were the study's primary data collection methods. During 15 lessons, three instructors were observed in an effort to determine how they promote learner autonomy. Teachers were interviewed to determine the motivations behind their utilization of such a method to cultivate learner autonomy. The findings of this study indicate that instructors employed a variety of strategies to cultivate learner autonomy, including organizational autonomy support, procedural autonomy support, and cognitive autonomy support. Cognitive autonomy-supporting strategies are the most frequently employed. Improving the quality of BL programs in educational institutions in order to nurture LA is an essential implication of the study for educators, curriculum developers, and educational administrators.
... Bound (1988) points out that the main characteristic of self-directed learning is that students not only respond to what they are taught but also take responsibility for their learning. Based on Holec's definition, Little (2003) places psychological factors at the core of autonomous learning and believes that the autonomy of language learning depends on transcendent and critical thinking, decision-making, as well as the training and cultivation of independent action ability. Based on the feedback of efficiency and technique, Zimmerman (1990) puts forward autonomous learning referred to the autonomous learner actively choosing and apply autonomous learning strategies to achieve the ideal outcome. ...
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The rapid development of digital technologies and the internet has redefined access to language resources and approaches to language learning. High school students are experiencing more digitalized learning activities, which influences their independent learning mode. In Autonomous Learning and Digital Literacy, rare research has been done to examine the relationship between the two. Drawn from responses of 224 high school students to the questionnaires, this study investigated their digital literacy level from five dimensions, such as knowledge acquisition, and their autonomous learning situation from two perspectives. The results showed that the participants have a certain degree of digital literacy, have a high desire to learn, and their self-management capacity is at a medium level. Yet there is no correlation between students’ levels of digital literacy and their levels of autonomy as learners. The findings may prompt educators to prioritize encouraging digital literacy and student agency in the classroom.
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p>This study aimed to investigate freshmen students' practices and perceptions of autonomous English language learning. The study investigates the actual language learning activities students carry out inside and outside the classroom with a view to determining their perceptions towards autonomous language learning, their readiness to take responsibility for their learning, and their motivation level of learning English autonomously. 313 students participated in the survey questionnaire where classroom observations and FGDs were used for triangulation. The obtained quantitative data from the questionnaire were analyzed using SPSS. The data collected through observations and FGDs were analyzed qualitatively using thematic analysis. Evidence from the results indicated that students were motivated to learn English and their behavior demonstrated that they were autonomous learners to some extent. Even though they were motivated and participated in autonomous language learning activities, there were only a few aspects that the students considered as their own responsibilities. Teachers should aware of students how to learn autonomously and share responsibility.</p
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Corrective feedback is a crucial aspect of language teaching, which aims to help students improve language accuracy and fluency. While research on corrective feedback has been conducted worldwide, there is a dearth of empirical studies in the Indian context. Despite this gap, several studies suggest that corrective feedback practices in India are based mainly on traditional grammar-translation methods prioritizing accuracy over fluency rather than considering students' needs and learning styles. Issues related to corrective feedback in India include cultural factors, optimal timing, teacher beliefs, technology-mediated feedback, and student motivation. Cultural factors such as societal expectations and values can influence teachers' and learners’ attitudes toward corrective feedback. The optimal timing of providing corrective feedback in ESL writing is also an issue, as the effectiveness of immediate versus delayed feedback on language accuracy and fluency is still unclear. Moreover, teachers' views on corrective feedback may influence their practices and need further exploration in the Indian context. The potential of technology-mediated corrective feedback and its effects on student motivation and self-efficacy also require further research (Doley, 2023). Overall, this review highlights the need for more empirical research on corrective feedback practices in India to inform effective teaching practices and enhance the effectiveness of ELT in the country. Future studies should focus on examining cultural factors that influence corrective feedback practices, identifying optimal timing for feedback, examining teachers' views and practices, examining technology-mediated feedback, and examining the effects of corrective feedback on student motivation and self-efficacy.
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This integrative, critical review of the previous literature explores the washback effect of integrated assessment on the teaching and learning processes of EFL teachers and learners. Many researchers focused on the concept of washback or backwash during the last decade and mostly in recent years, proposing several definitions in the published literature on language testing and assessment. According to Messick (1996), washback supports the interpretation of detailed measures. First, the present paper evaluates the definitions of washback by this concept’s well-known founders Messick, Shohamy, Wall, Alderson, Bachman, Palmer, and Bailey. Second, the integrated assessment definition and the negative and positive washback effects are explained. Next, the washback definitions given by recent international and Iranian researchers are critically explored. Finally, the paper’s research question – What are the washback effects of integrated assessments on EFL teachers’ teaching and learners’ learning methods? – is answered. The critical analysis of both experimental and non-experimental studies yielded mixed results, with some researchers finding positive or negative washback effects, and others finding no effect. Some studies suggest that negative washback can lead to teachers focusing only on exam content, while positive washback can lead to a broader curriculum that includes real-life tasks. Finally, the educational implications of the findings from the earlier research papers are covered. Different recommendations as to how EFL teachers and learners may make put an understanding of the washback effect of integrated assessments to good use are then offered.
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Computer and internet technology encourage learners' autonomy by allowing them to choose the time, place, and circumstances conducive to learning. The application of digital technology has meaningful connections with developing students' learning autonomy and promoting their skills independently. This research aimed to present meaningful information for the readers about the effectiveness of digital technology in promoting students' autonomous learning by answering the two research questions; what kinds of digital technology's characteristics, and which digital technology condition effectively promotes students' autonomous learning. The Simple Literature Review includes seven articles selected from 19 articles in Google scholar, 1.215 articles in Science direct, and four articles in Sinta (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6). The reviewed articles indicated seven apps; Schoology, Multimedia-assisted Instruction (MAI), Information Communication Technologies (ICTs), Memrises, Quizlet, Socrative, Sli-do, and Three-Dimensional (3D). The virtual environments allow students to promote their autonomous learning in such conditions as long-distance learning, classroom learning activities, and self-training activities.
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The first part of this article explores the concept of learner autonomy from the perspective of a social-interactive view of learning. The second part elaborates three fundamental pedagogical principles derived from this view and calculated to develop learner autonomy: the principle of learner empowerment; the principle of appropriate target language use; and the principle of using language as a cognitive tool.
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This article describes the structure, functions and origins of the Council of Europe's European Language Portfolio (ELP); summarizes the scope and findings of the pilot projects (1998–2000) and the measures that have been taken to encourage large-scale implementation in 2001 and beyond; outlines the pedagogical challenge posed by the ELP; and suggests various possibilities for future work.
In recent years researchers have developed a range of perspectives for conceptualizing the influences of culture on thinking and behaving. Three perspectives which are of special potential relevance to language teaching are the following: the distinction between collectivism and individualism; different perceptions of power and authority; and different types of achievement motivation. These dimensions were taken as the basis for a survey of students’ attitudes towards classroom English learning in eight East Asian countries and three European countries. It was found that most students in all countries question the traditional authority-based, transmission mode of learning. They wish to participate actively in exploring knowledge and have positive attitudes towards working purposefully, in groups, towards common goals. Whilst there were statistically significant differences between the mean responses of Asian and European students on several items, the numerical differences were not great and the overall patterns of responses were strikingly similar. Furthermore, within Asia and within Europe, there were significant differences between individual countries, and in every country there was a wide range of individual differences. Whilst these ‘deep-structure’ cross-cultural similarities may hide important ‘surface-structure’ differences in how students like to learn, they also serve to make us question some commonly held assumptions about the attitudes of Asian and Western students.
This report describes a qualitative research project designed to evaluate the use of the European Language Portfolio (ELP) in Irish post-primary schools. The project was coordinated by the Centre for Language and Communication Studies, Trinity College Dublin, and involved the participation of language teachers and learners from a number of schools in Ireland. The report is divided into four sections. Section 1 briefly sketches the origins and functions of the ELP, explains how the Irish ELP for post-primary learners was developed, and describes its key design features. Section 2 gives an account of the project that was set up to evaluate the use of the ELP in 2001-02. It outlines the aims and scope of the project, describes its working methods and data-gathering procedures, and gives an overview of the classrooms and participants involved. Section 3 presents a detailed evaluation of teachers' and learners' experiences of working with the ELP. The evaluation draws on teachers' own narrative accounts of classroom events and processes as well as learner reflections and learner-produced ELP materials. Section 4 concludes by considering particular issues and implications arising from the evaluation. (Contains 21 references.) (Author/SM)