Encouraging Learner Autonomy in Your Classes

Page No.: 
Jack Brajcich, Fukuoka Jogakuin University Junior College


  • Key Words: Learner Training
  • Learner English Level: Beginner to Advanced
  • Learner Maturity Level: Junior High School to Adult
  • Preparation Time: Varies according to activity
  • Activity Time: Varies according to activity

It is important to recognize and even encourage learner autonomy in ESL classrooms. Learners should have opportunities to learn according to their own individual styles and preferences. However, it is not always easy to develop learner autonomy in cultures such as Japan's, where forming social groups and amaeru, or interdependence, are the accepted norm. Developing learner autonomy in the classroom is valuable since it can encompass groups as well as individuals (Benson and Voller, 1997). However, without careful consideration of the classroom conditions, learner autonomy strategies may not realize their potential.

It is with the Japanese classroom in mind that I have listed below some things I have learned in both my research on learner autonomy and in my classroom observations. This list includes practical tips one could consider using when trying to develop learner autonomy in a Japanese classroom in the future.

1. Encourage students to be interdependent and to work collectively. The less students depend on their teacher the more autonomy is being developed. Many Japanese students like working in small groups and usually can be placed in pairs or small groups for various exercises quite easily, that is, not against their wills. Pairs and groups can read dialogues together, do information-gap activities and consult each other on the meaning and clarification of the task at hand.

2. Ask students to keep a diary of their learning experiences. Through practice, students may become more aware of their learning preferences and start to think of new ways of becoming more independent learners. Diary entries could be written after every lesson so that students can record their sentiments about it. Students could also record whether or not they thought they benefited from what they did and give reasons why or why not. After they record their experiences for a month or two, teachers could help their students interpret their experiences and give them additional techniques to suit their learning styles.

3. Explain teacher/student roles from the outset. As well, asking students to give their opinions on the issue of roles could be beneficial. However, their prior experiences may not match the type of environment you wish to foster. Thus, while the eventual goal is independence/interdependence (see point 4, below), the initial outcome of discussion on roles may not result in a fully-developed notion of an independent learner. It would be profitable to set aside time at various points throughout the academic year so that these roles may be reassessed as students' feelings of independence grow. Emphasis could also be given to learning about the target language and its social contexts of use. Learning about autonomy may be something the students are hearing for the first time and some might react negatively to it. Therefore, learning about learner autonomy should be introduced gradually over time (see point 4) as the students experience its benefits. Teachers could mention cultural differences in the beginning of courses to outline what the students will be doing in class, and suggest to them that they may be doing something different from what they may be used to. Also, having a discussion regarding how English conversation differs from other subjects could be beneficial. For example, teachers could ask the students if learning English is similar to History or Math, where it is common to listen to lectures about information and theory, or if learning English is similar to playing the piano or baseball where it is common to practice and be active.

4. Progress gradually from interdependence to independence. Give the students time to adjust to new learning strategies and do not expect too much too soon. Start the development of learner autonomy from larger groups, then work towards smaller groups, pairs, and finally individuals. Also, start courses by giving the students fewer choices concerning their learning and work towards many choices, and finally freer choices, such as open-ended tasks, or allowing students to make their choices entirely on their own.

5. Give the students projects to do outside the classroom. Such projects may increase motivation. For example, set up a pen-pal writing exchange program with a foreign school, or have the students do interviews with foreigners they happen to meet. Outside projects are important for most students learning English because most students in Japan spend so little time in class or language lab. For those serious about learning English, out-of-class time is the only way they are going to study enough to make much of a difference.

6. Give the students non-lesson classroom duties to perform (taking roll, writing instructions, notices, etc. on the board for the teacher). But do this only if it is done in English and there is adequate time. Remember that "time in English" is at a premium.

7. Have the students design lessons or materials to be used in class. Also do an "interests and ability" inventory at the beginning of every school year so you can understand how to tailor your lessons. Time could be set aside at the end of the course for practical criticism of study tasks and textbooks used in the course. More student control over the management of learning resources could be encouraged as well.

8. Instruct students on how to use the school's resource centers: the school library, the language lab, and the language lounge. Teachers could encourage the students to join the school's English Club. Explain everything about the resource centers, taking nothing for granted. Have a lesson centered on using the various resources. Work with the people in charge of the resources to get their full cooperation and support.

9. Emphasize the importance of peer-editing, corrections, and follow-up questioning in the classroom. Inform the students that feedback from their peers can be valuable in that they can become more aware of their language mistakes, including grammar errors and vocabulary misuse. Using follow-up questions not only among classmates but also with their teacher can facilitate learning and higher levels of awareness and understanding of the target language.

10. Encourage the students to use only English in class. Tell the students that this is a great chance for them to use only English, and few opportunities like this exist for them. Part of the role of the language teacher is to create an environment where students feel they should communicate in the target language and feel comfortable doing so. Heavy reliance on the students' native language may side-track efforts to reach optimal levels of the target language in the classroom. Students could be introduced to ways of greeting each other and starting and maintaining conversations.

11. Stress fluency rather than accuracy. Therefore, emphasize communication and the negotiable and interpretive aspects of English conversation. Students need not constantly over-concern themselves with correct grammar and vocabulary usage and accuracy. Students should be encouraged to use dictionaries sparingly and to try as best they can not to use erasers while taking notes, writing in diaries or journals, or doing writing exercises, including compositions. Much more information could be conveyed and absorbed if students spent less time worrying about their language accuracy.

12. However, do allow the students to use reference books, including dictionaries (preferably English-English with Japanese annotations), in class. Not to contradict the previous tip, provided students do not use these aids too often or fall into the "accuracy is more important than fluency" fallacy, they can develop autonomy and independence by looking up information and meanings on their own, in pairs, or in groups.


Benson, P., and Voller, P. (1997). Introduction: Autonomy and independence in language learning. In Autonomy and independence in language learning, P. Benson and P. Voller (eds.), Addison Wesley Longman.