Learner Autonomy

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  • Language Teaching Research17(1) 9 30

    The Author(s) 2013Reprints and permission: sagepub.

    co.uk/journalsPermissions.navDOI: 10.1177/1362168812457528



    Strategy-based instruction: A learner-focused approach to developing learner autonomy

    Le Thi Cam Nguyen and Yongqi GuVictoria University of Wellington, New Zealand

    AbstractThis study investigates the effects of strategy-based instruction (SBI) on the promotion of learner autonomy (LA). LA was conceptualized and operationally defined as learner self-initiation and learner self-regulation. An intervention study was conducted with the participation of 37 students in an experimental group, and 54 students in two control groups at a Vietnamese university. An eight-week metacognition training package was incorporated into the academic writing programme of the experimental group. Students in the experimental group improved their ability to plan, monitor and evaluate a writing task more than students in the two control groups. Planning became the most often exercised skill, followed by evaluating and monitoring. Improvements in writing were maintained on a delayed test. Overall, the study suggests that strategy-based instruction in the form of training learners in task-specific metacognitive self-regulation improved learners autonomy in both learning and their writing ability.

    KeywordsLearner autonomy, self-regulation, strategy-based instruction, strategy training

    I Introduction

    The last three decades have witnessed a growing interest in learner autonomy (LA) in language learning. Many claims have been made about the value of LA for language teaching and learning. Some of the most often-reported strengths of LA include learners active participation in classroom activities (Dam, 1995; Natri, 2007), increased motiva-tion (Lee, 1996; Tagaki, 2003), and enhanced responsibility for learning (Cunningham & Carlton, 2003; Mizuki, 2003; Stephenson & Kohyama, 2003). The tendency towards LA advocacy has led to an overriding concern to produce evidence for the effectiveness of

    Corresponding author:Le Thi Cam Nguyen, School of Linguistics and Applied Language Studies, Victoria University of Wellington, Wellington 6140, New Zealand. Email: le.nguyen@vuw.ac.nz

    457528 LTR17110.1177/1362168812457528Language Teaching ResearchNguyen and Gu2013


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    initiatives designed to help learners become more autonomous (Benson, 2007, pp. 3435). A large number of studies have explored diverse ways to foster LA.

    1 Approaches to fostering LA

    Benson (2001) classifies six approaches to developing LA. These approaches are resource-based, technology-based, curriculum-based, teacher-based, classroom-based, and learner-based. They focus on different aspects of control in the learning process.

    Resource-based approaches place emphasis on the provision of opportunities for learners to direct their own learning in self-study, self-access, and distance learning. Materials and counselling have become the main instruments for the operation of resource-based approaches. Researchers have explored the engagement of learners in more active and creative roles rather than responsive and reproductive ones (Littlejohn, 1997; Sheerin, 1997; Sturtridge, 1997), and in using authentic materials (Lee, 1996; McGarry, 1995). Considerable efforts have been invested in discovering counselling frameworks (Dingle & McKenzie, 2001; Kelly, 1996; Pemberton, Toogood, Ho, & Lam, 2001) and specific counselling methods (Carter, 2001; Cotterall & Crabbe, 2008; Voller, Martyn, & Pickard, 1999).

    Technology-based approaches emphasize learning opportunities made available by diverse forms of technology. Some forms of technology can provide opportunities for col-laboration which resource-based approaches often fail to achieve. The most popular form of technology-based approaches is computer-assisted language learning (CALL), which makes use of CD-ROMs and the internet for language learning by incorporating an inter-active video programme in self-access centres (Gardner & Garcia, 1996), or using ana-lytic techniques of linguistic texts to plan, generate ideas, write, and revise written work (Milton, 1997). E-tandem learning a language through a partnership between a native speaker and a non-native speaker is another way of making use of technology for enhancing LA (Brammerts, 2003; Brammerts & Calvert, 2003).

    Curriculum-based approaches focus on the negotiation between teachers and learners. The negotiation is intended to enhance learners participation in making decisions on learning content, activities, and tasks as well as to evaluate learning. Curriculum-based approaches take two forms: a weak and a strong version of the process syllabus (Benson, 2001). The weak version involves learners project work in which determinations on content and methods are made by themselves (Cunningham & Carlton, 2003; Nix, 2003; Stephenson & Kohyama, 2003). In the strong version, the syllabus is not predefined. Rather, it is selected, organized, negotiated and renegotiated by teachers and learners as the learning goes on (Cotterall, 2008; Dam, 1995).

    The focus of teacher-based approaches is on teacher professional development and teacher education. These approaches have been developed on the assumption that changing teachers beliefs about autonomy, building their commitment to autonomy, and encouraging practices that support LA will result in classroom changes in favour of LA. Research has mainly focused on understanding the concept of teacher auton-omy and on working out principles for fostering it (Benson, 2000; Little, 1995; McGrath, 2000; Thavenius, 1999; Vieira, 1999) and for developing the teachers role (Aoki, 2002; Yang, 1998).

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    Classroom-based approaches highlight changing relationships and practices inside the classroom. The changes enable teachers to transfer responsibility and control over learning goals, the learning process, and the assessment of learning outcomes to learners (Crabbe, 1993; Shao & Wu, 2007; Smith, 2001, 2003). The most popular forms of these approaches include cooperative learning (Mizuki, 2003; Tagaki, 2003), portfolios (Kohonen; 2000, 2001; Nunes, 2004; Rao; 2005; Shimo, 2003), self-assessment (Nachi, 2003; Thomson, 1996), peer-assessment (Miller & Ng, 1996; Natri, 2007), and out-of-class learning (Hyland, 2004; Pearson, 2004; Pickard, 1995, 1996; Yap, 1998).

    Despite a large body of research advocating different approaches to fostering LA, the effect of a particular approach has yet to be identified. A few remarks about LA research could be drawn on the above approaches. First, most LA studies so far are descriptive and exploratory. While these studies have an important function of generating insights into learners autonomous behaviours, they have not provided sufficient empirical evi-dence for the effectiveness of any approach. Second, researchers have so far focused on changes in learning behaviours that learners have made as a result of engaging in classes where particular approaches to developing LA were applied. There seems to be an assumption that before learners participated in autonomy-based classes they all had a low level of LA even though no initial assessment was made. Third, most studies take LA for granted, and explore various approaches to fostering it. Very few studies have examined the effect of LA on language learning results.

    A few studies do show a link between LA and language learning outcomes (e.g. Champagne et al., 2001; Dam & Legenhausen, 1996; Vickers & Ene, 2006). Champagne et al. (2001) documented an exploratory action research project involving a group of pre-Masters students at a language centre in Thailand. As such, their aim was to describe their approach to language education and how learner autonomy was incorporated into their teaching. Their evidence of language improvement at the end of the programme was mainly alternative in nature, comprising portfolios of work and participants self-perceptions of progress together with teacher observations (p. 49).

    Dam and Legenhausen (1996) showed how a class of twenty-one 12-year-old students at a Danish school who negotiated an English language syllabus of what they needed to learn compared with another Danish class who followed a traditional textbook-based syl-labus and a text-book based English language class in a German grammar school. At the beginning of the programme, the autonomous class learners were asked to (1) bring to class the English they see around them, (2) tell the teacher what they wanted to learn, (3) find five words they wanted to learn in a picture dictionary, (4) listen to nursery rhymes, songs and fairy tales, and (5) create word cards with their first language (L1) or pictures on one side and the English equivalent on the other side. After four weeks, 400 words appeared in the learner-created list shared among the whole class. This list was shown to contain more than the textbooks covered within the same time frame. A vocabulary recall task at the end of 7.5 weeks suggested that the autonomous group was either as good as or better than their textbook counterparts in the other two comparison groups. A receptive vocabu-lary test at the end of 15 weeks suggested that the autonomous group performed better than their German counterparts in auditory recognition, but not in written recognition and spell-ing. Despite the incompatibility of the groups, these results sound encouraging to us in that deep learner involvement in the learning process is not only possible, but also useful.

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    Vickers and Ene (2006) focused on a self-correction task among a group of