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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.
... The understanding of the process of 'autonomisation' in learning has been influenced by neo-Vygotskian psychology which considers learning as a matter of supported performance, focusing on the interdependence of the cognitive and social-interactive dimension of learning. In this sense, it can be argued that while LA is beneficial, the process of autonomisation of the learner, the teaching of the learner how to become autonomous, if approached insensitively or incorrectly, is where the teacher's effort to develop LA in their students may fail (Little, 2003). ...
... They can also remember more of their learning because it was relevant to them individually and they focused more. Additionally, LA solves motivational problems in learning since autonomous learners form reflective and attitudinal tools to combat temporary motivational setbacks (Little, 2003). The reason why learner autonomy is considered important in today's education is because it can help achieve a high degree of creativity, independence, as well as enthusiasm for continual learning (Yan, 2012). ...
... It is worth noting that despite interest in exploring and the application of learners' autonomy has been growing in the past decades and the literature agrees on its benefits for students' progress, in language learning, few of the most important and influential publications for aspiring language teachers mention the concept at all (Harmer, 2001;Scrivener, 2011;Harmer, 2015;Meddings & Thornbury, 2015;Foord, 2017). Little (2003) argued that this could be due to the process of autonomisation being a threat to the power structures of the current educational culture, further followed by a lack of awareness and understanding of the concept of LA on the side of the teachers, as well as predetermined and fixed curriculum which undervalues the importance of LA to the students' language development. Therefore, despite the growing interest noted in the literature, the concept continues to fail to be developed in real-life teaching practice. ...
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The recent Covid-19 pandemic presented a need for a sudden, ongoing change in the shape of education, moving away from traditional in-person teaching approaches to online-based instruction. This has led to the increase in implementation of learning autonomy, a trend that had started decades ago, with teachers speedily responding by providing a myriad of suitable online learning resources to encourage their students to assume increased responsibility for their learning by acquiring and developing strategies leading to greater learning independence. The present study aimed to provide an overview of the current understanding of learner autonomy and learner and teacher roles within it by both groups, along with an examination of the types of learning resources students have found the most effective on their language learning journey. To collect the data, a total of 45 participants (30 language learners and 15 language teachers from 21 different countries of various ages, cultural and educational backgrounds, and language learning/ teaching experiences) completed questionnaires, and selected participants took part in follow-up interviews. It was found that although the teachers could voice their understanding of the concept of learner autonomy a lot easier than the learners, there was a general consensus in the definition and understanding. Moreover, the most popular learning resources were agreed upon by the learners and teachers to be YouTube and podcasts, watching movies and listening to music in the target language, and the use of online dictionaries. These findings may guide language educators to better support their students, orienting themselves in the abundance of available learning materials, in awareness of what resources are currently the most positively reviewed by the learners themselves.
... ‫آنالین،‬ ‫منابع‬ ‫سایر‬ ‫با‬ ‫ارتباط‬ ‫امکان‬ ‫با‬ ‫و‬ ‫متن‬ ‫بر‬ ‫مبتنی‬ ‫و‬ ‫آنالین‬ ‫محیطی‬ ‫عنوان‬ ‫به‬ ‫وبالگ،‬ ‫شده‬ ‫نگارش‬ ‫متون‬ ‫برای‬ ‫واقعی‬ ‫مخاطبان‬ ‫میتواند‬ ( Chen, 2006 ‫برای‬ ‫متنوع‬ ‫نگارشی‬ ‫تمرینات‬ ‫و‬ ) ‫سازد‬ ‫فراهم‬ ‫را‬ ‫دانشجویان‬ ( Campbell, 2003;Pham & Usaha, 2016 ) ‫می‬ ‫وبالگ‬ ‫همچنین،‬ . ‫تواند‬ ‫اجتماعی‬ ‫تعلق‬ ‫احساس‬ 8 ‫آموزان‬ ‫زبان‬ ‫بین‬ ‫در‬ ( Campbell, 2003;Fellner & Apple, 2006;Lee, 2017 ،) ‫یادگیری‬ ‫مالکیت‬ ‫حس‬ ( Campbell, 2003;Ducate & Lomicka, 2008 ،) ‫بازخورد‬ ‫تسهیل‬ ‫در‬ ‫نگارش‬ ‫فرایند‬ ( Dippold, 2009 ،) ( Bloch, 2007;Campbell, 2003;Lee, 2017 ) Benson, 2001Benson, , 2003Benson, , 2006Holec, 1981;Lamb & Reinders, 2008;Little, 2003Little, , 2007Littlewood, 1996Littlewood, , 1999 Benson, 2004;Blin, 1999;Dias, 2000;Healey, 1999;Hoven, 1999;Murray, 1999;Schwienhorst, 2002;Wachman, 1999 ...
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Using a mixed methods design, this study investigated the effect of an EFL blog-mediated writing course on the students' level of learner autonomy, which was operationally defined as learner self-initiation and learner self-regulation. For the purpose of the present study, the control group students (n = 21) were taught based on regular in-class writing instruction and the students in the experimental group (n = 25) made use of blogs in addition to the traditional in-class writing instruction. The results of both quantitative and qualitative data revealed that the blog-mediated writing course contributed to enhancing learner autonomy in general and self-regulation component in particular. More specifically, the students in the experimental group who experienced blog-mediated writing activities showed improvement in planning, monitoring and evaluation of their writing tasks. Overall, the findings support the efficacy of blog-mediated writing courses in learning a foreign language.
... Learner autonomy, mainly conceptualized as the learner's capability of taking control of one's learning, has been widely recognized as an aspired destination for the second language (L2) learning (Benson, 2003(Benson, , 2006(Benson, , 2013. Therefore, learner autonomy (LA) has been addressed by numerous L2 researchers and has been defined from different perspectives with various underlying elements (e.g., Alibakhshi, 2015;Alibakhshi, Keikha, & Nezakatgoo, 2015;Barfield & Brown, 2007;Benson, 2013;Everhard & Murphy, 2015;Holec, 1981;Lee, 2011;Little, 2003Little, , 2007Littlewood, 1996;Oxford, 2015;Palfreyman & Smith, 2003). ...
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Employing an explanatory sequential design, the present study investigated the effect of English as a Foreign Language (EFL) blog-mediated writing instruction on the students' learner autonomy. A number of 46 learners who were the students of two intact classes were randomly assigned to control and experimental groups. Over a 16-week semester, the control group students (n=21) were taught based on regular in-class writing instruction and the students in the experimental group (n=25) made use of blogs in addition to the traditional in-class writing instruction. The data were collected through administering a learner autonomy instrument, consisting of metacognitive, cognitive, social, and affective components, and conducting semi-structured interviews. The results of both quantitative and qualitative data revealed that the blog-mediated writing instruction contributed to enhancing learner autonomy of the participants. More specifically, the students who experienced blog-mediated writing activities showed improvement in metacognitive and cognitive components of learner autonomy. The findings offer significant implications for EFL teachers.
... Le concept d''autonomisation', corollaire de la notion d'autonomie a pris un rôle de plus en plus important dans plusieurs des recherches que j'ai menées au cours des dix dernières années. L'autonomisation des apprenants en langues, définie par Holec comme le fait de leur « faire acquérir la capacité de réaliser les diverses opérations constitutives d'un acte d'apprentissage » (1979 : 51) ou comme le développement de la capacité d'apprendre à apprendre (Holec, 1990), ou encore comme un processus (Little, 2003, Portine, 1998, est étroitement liée à d'autres notions telles que l'accompagnement. Une recherche menée autour des carnets de bord qui favorisent chez les apprenants « une réflexion métacognitive pour leur permettre de progresser vers l'autonomisation » (Chateau & Zumbihl, 2010) a en effet confirmé que, comme Little le soulignait en 2003, le rôle de l'enseignant est de créer un environnement dans lequel les étudiants prennent en charge leur apprentissage. ...
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Grabe, Benson and Stoller (2001) state that the importance of helping students become more autonomous in their second language learning has become one of the prominent themes both in the theory and practice of language teaching and learning in the new century. The remit of this paper is to provide insight to the concept of learner autonomy (LA) particularly in the context of English for Academic Purposes (EAP). In so doing, this paper will discuss the importance of LA in the context of EAP from the perspectives that are provided by various definitions of this concept in the specialist literature.
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Learner autonomy in English for Academic Purposes (EAP) settings. This paper examines various approached to define 'learner autonomy' while creating links to the motivational theories.
Dans cette thèse, nous examinons l’input et l’interaction en langue japonaise dans différents contextes d’apprentissage du japonais, que cela soit en restant dans son propre pays ou en séjour à l’étranger, en France ou au Japon dans le cas des apprenants du japonais. Nous étudions aussi les impacts de la culture populaire japonaise pour l’apprentissage du japonais en France, de la pénétration des réseaux sociaux en japonais en France, et les interactions en japonais dans leurs relations sociales avec des Japonais au Japon ou en France. Nous avons effectué trois études : une étude quantitative préliminaire comprenant une quarantaine d’apprenants du japonais, une étude qualitative en France avec 8 participants, et une au Japon avec également huit participants. Nous observons que la culture populaire japonaise peut constituer un premier contact avec la langue japonaise, mais les apprenants s’intéressent aussi au mode de vie japonais, et à la rencontre avec les Japonais, par les réseaux sociaux ou en personne. Le medium japonais le plus efficace pour l’apprentissage du japonais pourrait être les émissions de variétés sous-titrées en japonais. En revanche, selon leur environnement et leur personnalité, les apprenants du japonais en séjour au Japon n’ont pas toujours l’occasion de faire connaissance avec des Japonais.
This study contributes to the growing body of research on telecollaboration in Asia-Pacific contexts. Grounded in experiential learning, the goal of this Hong Kong – U.S. project is to promote autonomy in undergraduate education in the Hong Kong context. Participants include 55 undergraduate English majors at a public research university in Hong Kong who engage via social media with 19 undergraduate professional writing students at a private research institution in the U.S. The author explores Hong Kong learners’ autonomy as reflected in their prior experiences and expectations, task engagement in online interactions, and their reflections on motivation regarding team collaboration and satisfaction with final project outcomes. Data triangulation entails a pre-questionnaire, Facebook posts, task reflections, and a post-questionnaire. Findings indicate that most students had prior experience with Facebook which resulted in positive feedback; yet, some students also saw the technical limitations when communicating within a larger group. Moreover, experience regarding teamwork was mixed – as were results from the Hong Kong and Hong Kong-U.S. collaborations. The author discusses motivational reasons and if and how the telecollaboration aided Hong Kong learners’ ability to reflect and structure their own learning in light of curricular assignment and assessment requirements.
To find ways to promote out-of-class autonomous Chinese language learning with technology, the Chinese programme at a regional Australian university provided its undergraduate Chinese as a foreign language (CFL) student with an additional learning opportunity in order to practice and thereby reinforce communicative language skills in an extant immersive 3D multiuser virtual world (3D MUVW) created in Second Life (SL), Chinese Island (CI) ( developed by a major Australian urban university. This chapter presents a semester-long pilot study that aimed to investigate students’ perceptions of this learning resource, particularly to explore whether this integrated approach can assist Chinese language educators in fostering autonomous learning out of the classroom. Through analysis of individual and group interviews, the study found that the resources afforded by CI were beneficial for students’ learning of Chinese language and culture beyond the classroom. In addition, the findings could inform Chinese language educators about how to better prepare students for intensive and immersive study abroad. The chapter concludes with pedagogical implications and directions for further research.
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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)