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The Language Learner Autonomy Education Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Education
Wordcount: 3253 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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The more language learners there are, the more questions on how to learn effectively are raised. A lot of studies and researches have been being carried out to get the answers. There are many arguments but almost of researchers focus on autonomy, especially learner autonomy as a key of this point. In my essay, I will summarize the article of David Little, and then I give some opinions on Little’s article and compare his point of view with others’. Finally, I would like to give my suggestion, which originates from what I have read in this article. They are some issues that I want to know when I study autonomy.

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The concept of autonomy began in the early 1980s, associating with adult education and self-access learning systems, and gradually became the main discussion of language teaching under the impact of learner-centered theories of education. In this article, David Little purposes to restate an understanding of language learner autonomy in which the development of learner autonomy and the growth of target language proficiency are fully integrated with each other. It is the theory of language learner autonomy that implicates what is necessary to do so as to develop autonomous language learners and provides us with criteria by which to evaluate our efforts.

The ability to take charge of one’s own learning

Little uses Holec’s quote to make clear his view and define the essence of learner autonomy as the ability to take charge of one’s own learning’, which is acquired by natural means or formal learning, i.e. in a systematic, deliberate way (Holec, 1981). So, adult language learning should have an instrumental purpose and adult language programmes should be capable of meeting the specific communicative needs of individual learners. For Holec, the concept of learner autonomy has consequences for both the way in which learning is organized and the kind of knowledge that is acquired.

Autonomy, competence, relatedness and intersubjectivity

To review social-psychological and cognitive evidence in favor of promoting learner autonomy, Little mentions passive role at school or not being ready for social responsibility as some examples that make learners reluctant to take charge of their own learning. Besides, he distinguishes some notions such as independence and autonomy, the need for relatedness and autonomy and also defined competence and intersubjectivity in the relationship with learner autonomy.

Constructivist learning theories

According to constructivist epistemologies, knowledge is not a set of universal ‘truths’ but a set of ‘working hypotheses’ (Airasian & Walsh, 1997:445) that are always subject to refinement, change, rejection and replacement. It means that we construct our knowledge by bringing what we already know into interaction with the new information, ideas and experiences we encounter. Besides, adopting pedagogical procedures that are exploratory, interpretative and participatory gives learners a capacity for ‘reflective intervention’ to become an autonomous member of the culture-creating community.

Theories of language learning

There are some theories of language learning such as constructivist and innatist theories, which all emphasize the need for input, interaction and output and assign language as a key role in language learning. The way children learn and use language is compared with the process of language acquisition of learners. In addition, Vygotsky’s notion of a zone of proximal development (ZPD) and his view of the relationship between language and thought, speaking and thinking are used to analyze the characteristic of language learner autonomy.

Pedagogical Implications

Little proposes some interacting principles such as learner involvement, learner reflection and target language use that govern the success in second and foreign language teaching. The learner involvement requires constant attention from the beginning to the end of the course of learning, which means that the learners have to take part in the learning process, share responsibility with the teacher for setting the learning agenda, select learning activities and materials… The learner reflection requires the teacher to embrace ‘reflective intervention’ as a key feature of the teaching-learning process, which depends on leaner ‘s skill and classroom’s communication. The target language use is the medium through which all classroom activities are conducted, organizational and reflective as well as communicative. Little also mentions the important role of group work and the appropriate use of writing making learner easier to acquire a second or foreign language.


As Little mentions in this article, the concept of learner autonomy began in the early 1980s. Since that year, there have been many studies on this issue. Benson and Voller (1997) raise questions, “What is the theoretical basis for prevailing concepts of autonomy and independence? Is autonomy a culturally-specific, Western concept? What is the role of self-access and self-instruction in promoting autonomy? What is the role of the teacher in autonomous language learning?” (p.270) That’s what I will present in part III and IV of this essay.

I am really interested in this article of Little due to his analysis of autonomy and learner autonomy, which is not just a theory, but very practical.

What is learner autonomy?

Like Little’s understanding of autonomy, Benson (2006) defines people’s autonomy as ‘taking more control over their lives – individually and collectively’ and autonomy can also be described as a capacity to take charge of, or take responsibility for, or control. Especially, he compares autonomy and autonomous learning with ‘self-instruction’, ‘self-access’, ‘self-study’, ‘self-education’, ‘out-of-class learning’ or ‘distance learning’, which are basically described different ways and degrees of learning by the learners themselves, meanwhile autonomy refers to abilities and attitudes. This point is also agreed by Nicolaides (2007), as he mentions autonomy is a wider concept which can be developed through different paths according to learners’ needs, styles and context in which they are inserted in and which involves a reflection over one’s own beliefs and responsibility over learning. So, we can understand autonomy in language learning as willingness to take more control over the purposes why we learn languages and the ways in which they learn them.

However, I suppose that learner autonomy implies the freedom of learning. It is the freedom from learners themselves, to study and overcome any limitations to reach their expected target. Being some kind of freedom, learner autonomy can take place everywhere inside or outside the classroom and has both individual and social dimensions. In other words, it is a process that exists along with learners. Therefore, learners are more responsible for their own learning when they have some idea of what, why, and how they are trying to learn. They must take at least some of the initiatives that give shape and direction to the learning process, and must share in monitoring progress and evaluating the extent to which learning targets are achieved. (Little and Dam, 1998)

The role of learner autonomy

Why is learner autonomy important? Because it takes part in solving the problem of learner motivation. When a learner has motivation to study, he will be responsibility for his own learning and he can easily develop the skills of reflective self-management in learning and success in learning will strengthen his intrinsic motivation (Smith 2004). Little (2005) highlights that self-management and the generally proactive approach can make autonomous learners become motivated learners. To Dafei (2007), 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.

I am really interested in Little’s idea in this article, “it is unreasonable to expect teachers to foster the growth of autonomy in their learners if they themselves do not know what it is to be an autonomous learner.” Frankly, a learner has to be autonomous, in other words, he needs to define his aims, understand his role in acquisition new knowledge, detect his difficulties and find out solutions, self-practice and try to apply his theoretical lesson into real life (Nicolaides 2003). In this case, the teacher may play a role as a helper, a supporter or an adviser to help him find his own way to success. But, if the students can appraise their own performance accurately enough, they will not have to depend entirely on the opinions of teachers and at the same time they will be able to make teachers aware of their individual learning needs. (Little, 2005)

Little (2005) added that the development of the capacity for independent language learning is a tool to promote learner autonomy. We can see that when we are self-directed in doing anything, it automatically involves taking responsibility for the objectives of learning, self-monitoring, self-assessing, and taking an active role in learning.

However, sometimes, we make a mistake when misunderstanding learner autonomy with learner isolation. It is believed that the independence that we exercise through our developed capacity for autonomous behavior is always conditioned and constrained by our inescapable interdependence. It means that, we necessarily depend on others even when we exercise our independence. (Little, 2005)

Finch (2002) considers another view on the classroom, which allows us to include emotions, intuitions and attitudes as valid factors in the learning environment. He assumes that every learner is different, and everything that has an influence on the learner can create unpredictable effects. In this situation, the learning environment can be seen as a collection of learning opportunities which will be used in different ways by different students. It is proved that, there are many objective conditions that can distract or affect autonomy learners, not only the teachers or learners themselves. So that, “we cannot teach students to become more autonomous… (but) we can create the atmosphere and conditions in which they will feel encouraged to develop the autonomy they already have” (Benson, 2003, p. 305).

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A question is raised by Dafei (2007) but there has not been pleased answers, it is whether the development of autonomy implies better language learning. “In recent years, however, the contribution of practices associated with autonomy to language proficiency has become a critical issue for two reasons. One reason is that researchers are increasingly beginning to understand that there is an intimate relationship between autonomy and effective learning. However, this relationship has largely been explored at the level of theory, and lacks substantial empirical support. Another reason is that world-wide concern with accountability in education is increasingly obliging teachers to demonstrate the effectiveness of their practices in terms of proficiency gains. If researchers can show that practices aiming at greater autonomy also lead to greater proficiency, in whatever terms this is measured, their arguments will be strengthened.” (Dafei, 2007, p.8)

Although autonomy may ultimately lead to greater proficiency in language use, we cannot really know whether autonomous learners learning more than non-autonomous learner is more successful. In my class, after a year teaching a collegiate class, I am completely surprised because there are at least 10 hard-working students whom I highly appreciate (due to their activeness and attention in class) have marks under 5 in their final test. In my opinion, they are autonomous learners but they have not found an effective way of learning or they do not have a good aptitude for English. It seems to be ridiculous, but for many Vietnamese learners, they can study any subjects but English although they are not lazy.


As we can see, there are many relevant things that involve in learner autonomy, in this essay, I will mention two more things: The social cultural background (or sociopsychology) and the role of teacher autonomy.

The Sociocultural background

Smith (2004) thinks that many students show little interest in either language learning or in foreign cultures. They seem not to be eager to study other cultures as we all know learning a language is learning a new culture, new people and new society. Especially, in this era, with the globalization, people become nearer and cross-culture can be seen everywhere. And, if we learn more about a culture, we will understand its language more clearly and acquire it easily.

Smith (2004) sees school as a preparation for life, not life itself, so that “many teachers tend to emphasize facts about the major English-speaking cultures, in particular the UK and the USA…. a preparation for later, life-long learning in the sociocultural domain.” (p240). That’s why we need a pedagogy for autonomy to develop intercultural skills. If we do this effectively, we can develop the language abilities of learners. But, how can we engage learners in ‘subjective’ cross-cultural experience, when in school contexts, they seem to have no or limited opportunities interact with other cultures, and when some students may appear unwilling to adopt an ‘intercultural identity?

According to Smith (2004), it is difficult to encourage learners to move beyond their existing cultural boundaries while they remain fixed within national or local identities because of being in a monocultural environment rather than immersed in another culture. So that, the role of a teacher is to give his learners an eager attitude to new experiences and ideas and in relation to other societies. It is a success when teachers can give a hand to show learners interest in getting to know other cultures and take steps to learn about them.

Along with topics, materials like books, media, internet sources… related to learners’ interest and in the classroom environment, learners will gradually get acquainted with social-psychological and cultural issues as pointed by Smith (2004). However, we need to notice some cultural points that are not suitable with Asian people, help students realize and use them in right situation, as we usually say, “integrate but not dissolve”.

The role of teacher autonomy

Smith (2000) supposes teacher autonomy is the type of autonomy mainly taking place when they attempt to understand and advise students and, ultimately when they engage in investigative activities, meanwhile Vieira (2007) highlights the important role of teacher autonomy that unless we put teachers centre-stage, we cannot win any effects. Teachers, a key link of a chain of teaching-learning process, need to reflect on how to provide their students with appropriate activities, material and principles to face up to the emotional and sociocultural demands of language learning.

Due to Smith (2003), in order to promote learner autonomy, teachers may need to have some different dimensions of teacher autonomy, which have been emphasized by different authors such as a capacity for self-directed teaching, freedom from control over their teaching and a capacity for self-directed teacher-learning. Little (2005) give some pieces of advice to teachers: they should use the target language as the preferred medium of classroom communication and require the same of their learners; help their learners to set their own learning targets and choose their own learning activities, subject them to discussion, require their learners to identify individual goals but pursue them through collaborative work in small groups and try to keep a written record of their learning – plans of lessons and projects, lists of useful vocabulary, whatever texts they themselves produce.

Nicolaides (2007) states that teacher autonomy is different from the learner’s because being a teacher implies more exploration of choices and alternatives and face more external pressures. Besides, teacher autonomy involves not only linguistic competence, but also a didactic and pedagogical one. However, it has also been stressed by Smith (2000) that learner autonomy and teacher autonomy are interdependent, and that teachers wishing to promote greater learner autonomy need to “start with themselves”, reflecting on their own beliefs, practices, experiences and expectations of the teaching/learning situation. It is proved that teachers should stand at the place of learners to view just one aspect of their lives more clearly in order to discover their inner thoughts and minds, which enables us to adopt useful material and methods (Smith 2004).

In addition, Finch (2002) suggests that the “seeds” of such a process already exist in the language classroom, and that teachers can therefore identify and encourage the autonomous classroom behavior of their students. One of the important things is using text book to transfer new standard knowledge from the curriculum to learners. However, sometimes, teachers are free from it, in other words, they can use many material outside but text book. In the case that teacher is the person who produces the test for his class, he usually uses only the frame, not the content of the syllabus. By this way, the teacher can focus on learners’ needs and reactions, help them approach latest news and take account of their own learning. Learners will reflect and self-evaluate and put an aim by themselves. In my experience, whenever I teach some classes that I can produce tests by myself, I always feel comfortable and supply as many updated material and information as possible for my students. I do not have to worry about timetable or finishing my programmes on time, although I do not ignore text book.

On the other hand, I think the teacher should do some research on leaners to know their demands. It will help us understand the reality of our class, our ability and mistakes, the attitude of our leaners towards us and material… I survey my students three times a year to understand my students’ needs, their remark on my teaching and on the material. This helps me so much to have effective teaching.


In this paper, I have attempted to give my opinions on what I am interested in, raised my questions and tried to answers in my ability. However, I think that, we still have many issues relating to learner autonomy to discuss. Nowadays, we use the term ‘learner-centered’ more often, but sometimes forget the important role of teachers. Whatever method is use, the teacher always play the decisive role in the process of teaching-learning.


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