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Author Insights

The Autonomy Approach

Brain Morrison and Diego Navarro, authors of the newly published The
Autonomy Approach, explain what the approach is, and why and how to
bring it into your teaching.
What is The Autonomy Approach?
This is a term we coined to indicate that the book has drawn from ideas that influence the
field of learner autonomy in language learning, such as adult education, self-directed
learning, differentiation and individualization. The Autonomy Approach recognises that
while language teaching and learning happens in the classroom, for language learning to be
effective, students need to continue to learn outside the classroom. This approach is about
spending some of the time in class preparing students for learning outside the classroom
and away from the teacher. It is about making the connection between what is done (or not
done) outside of class and each students language learning progress much more explicit.
This approach to teaching and learning can comfortably coexist with a variety of teaching
methodologies, and is an approach that can be integrated as and when it is appropriate to
do so. So, even if the curriculum is set up for grammar translation, a methodology
considered rather teacher-centered, the Autonomy Approach can still be used to help
students to choose what to do away from class in a way that is learner-led. This would be
done by asking students to decide on language learning goals, to create and implement a
learning plan, and to reflect on and adapt their language learning activities through teacherguided feedback.
What students choose for their goals may focus on course work or on extracurricular goals,
depending on the boundaries you set. What would be common to the Autonomy Approach
is the students consideration of the effectiveness of the activities and resources they
choose to reach their goals. For the Autonomy Approach to be successful, students often
initially need a lot of guidance to help them select goals, assess their abilities, locate
resources, balance their learning activities, manage their time and deal with emotional
aspects of learning such as confidence and motivation.

Can learner autonomy be taught?

Its not clear if this is possible and its not the aim of the Autonomy Approach to teach
learner autonomy. There are several reasons to avoid making this an aim. The most
important is that we never have students ask us how they can become more autonomous.


They want to improve aspects of their language use: to become better speakers, to reach a
specific test score, or to be able to write in a way that is appropriate for business
communication. The other reasons are that research has not yet been able to show a causal
link between learner autonomy and effective language learning, and attributing the
development of learner autonomy to lessons rather than other factors is likely to prove
even more elusive.

Can self-directed language learning be taught?

Yes, because self-directed language learning, as we define it, offers students choices but
remains fully supported and guided by the teacher. For students who need more help
coming up with ideas, these can come from classmates or the wider community, you can
share ideas from previous students or present a variety of your own for students to choose
from. What is important at this stage is that students think through their choices so that
they seem to be appropriate to each individuals language learning goal, interests and
lifestyles. Trying out the idea and reflecting on how effective and appropriate it was can be
shared with others in the class and provides you the chance to offer feedback on the activity
and reflection in a way that encourages students to think more deeply about what they are
doing, modify if required and consider what to do next. Some research with our students
(Morrison, 2013) indicates that with teacher guidance, the language learning outside the
class becomes more focused on learners goals and therefore more effective at achieving
progress towards these.

Why should I encourage self-directed language learning?

Knowles (1985) puts forward three main reasons for self-directed learning. Firstly, people
who take the initiative in learning (pro-active learners) learn more, and learn better, than
passive learners. Secondly, self-directed learning is in tune with peoples natural
psychological development as learners, meaning that a key aspect of the maturation process
is the development of the ability to take more responsibility over our lives. His third reason
deals with contemporary developments in education that put more and more responsibility
on learners to take more initiative.
Knowles rationale supports why we advocate self-directed language learning. We would
also add from a practical aspect that the teacher input and intervention can encourage and
provide positive feedback to the students who are progressing effectively towards their
goals and help redirect those who are making an effort but are unlikely to have the
outcomes they are aiming for. For those who are not making an effort, the student
reflection and teacher feedback is an opportunity to find out more about what it is that is
preventing the language learning and what the student thinks needs to change in order to
move forward.

What is the theoretical background to the Autonomy Approach?

The Autonomy Approach draws from a variety of different approaches to learning such as
differentiated learning, which originated in the field of Cognitive Linguistics and recognises
the difference in learners ability in different skills areas, and collaborative learning, which


maintains that all kinds of social interaction, whether in or out of the classroom, play a
central role in learners mental development and growth - a view reflected in the findings of
studies conducted in sociocultural theory.
Another important component of the Autonomy Approach is metacognitive knowledge
the beliefs or knowledge that learners and teachers hold about language learning. Studies
on beliefs about language learning, spanning over three decades, have been instrumental in
centralising the role of this construct in the field of second language acquisition.
Metacognitive knowledge is a central component of self-directed language learning,
affording learners not only the knowledge base (theory) for effective individualised learning
but also the day-to-day skills needed (practice). (See Flavell 1979 and Wenden 1998 for a
thorough description.)

How can I bring self-directed language learning into my classroom?

What you choose to do with your students depends on your context and the students
previous experience of language learning. An activity we have found that generates a lot of
discussion and sharing of ideas (as well as informing you of any common themes in
students perceptions) asks students to discuss how confident they are to cope with aspects
of language learning. Weve compiled the list below but you could use your own list if there
are other aspects you would like your students to focus on.
Once they have considered their confidence in these areas, they check with others in the
class to see how their classmates feel. Next, they select 3 of the language learning aspects
from the list they want to work on, seek out others in the class who are more confident in
each aspect and ask for activity ideas. They then choose one of the ideas to try over the
following week and report back to their group about their experience.
Circle the number that shows your confidence (1= not confident, 4 = very confident)
Finding time to learn English

Finding time to use English

Finding other people to learn English with

Finding other people to use English with

Finding interesting materials

Finding materials that suit my goal

Finding motivation

Finding effective learning activities

Reflecting on my learning activities

Changing my learning activities if theyre not working

Evaluating my own language skill

Finding help when I need it


With this activity, like many of the activities in the book, there is a basic structure of finding
out new ideas, selecting from these, trying at least one, and reflecting on its
appropriateness. There is also the deliberate shift to students looking for solutions from
each other first. You can encourage then to ask other language learners who are not
classmates and to look online. Of course, you may also offer your own ideas and anecdotes
whenever you think it is appropriate perhaps after other discussions have taken place or if
students are struggling to come up with new ideas.

How can I find out more about self-directed language learning?

The Autonomy Approach sets out in detail where self-directed language learning has
evolved from and why it is important before providing an extensive range of activities that
can be selected to complement your syllabus. The following articles, many of which are
available online and free, can also provide more information into aspects of teaching and
learning that inform The Autonomy Approach.

Further reading
Davis, M. (2013). Beyond the classroom: The role of self-guided learning in second language
listening and speaking practice. Studies in Self-Access Learning Journal, 4(2), 85-95.
Flavell, J. H. (1979). Metacognition and cognitive monitoring: A new area of cognitive
developmental inquiryAmerican Psychologist 34 (10).
Kato, S. & H. Sugawara (2009). Action-oriented Language Learning Advising: A New
Approach to Promote Independent Language Learning The Journal of Kanda University of
International Studies 21 455 476. Access:
Knowles, M. S. (1985). Self-Directed Learning: A guide for learners and teachers New York:
Association Press.
Morrison, B. R. (2013). Learning behaviors: Subtle barriers in L2 learning. In J. Schwieter
(Ed.). Studies and global perspectives of second language teaching and learning, pp. 69-89.
Charlotte: Information Age Publishing.
Morrison, B. R. & D. Navarro (2012). Shifting roles: from language teachers to learning
advisors. System 40/3, pp. 349-359.


Morrison, B.R. (2011). Self-directed learning modules for independent learning: IELTS exam
preparation. Studies in Self-Access Learning Journal 2/2, pp. 51-67.
Mynard, J. (2010). Promoting cognitive and metacognitive awareness through self-study
modules: An investigation into advisor comments. Proceedings of the International
Conference CLaSIC 2010 "Individual Characteristics and Subjective Variables in Language
Learning", Singapore, 2-4 December 2010, pp. 610 - 627.
Thornton, K. (2010). Supporting Self-Directed Learning: A Framework for Teachers Language
Education in Asia, Volume 1.
Tomlinson, B. (2013). Looking Out for English. Studies in Self-Access Learning Journal, 4(4),
Wenden, A. L. (1998). Metacognitive Knowledge and Language Learning 1 Applied
Linguistics 19 (4).
Yamaguchi, A., Y. Hasegawa, S. Kato, E. Lammons, T. McCarthy, B. R. Morrison, J. Mynard, D.
Navarro, K. Takahashi & K. Thornton (2012). Creative tools that facilitate the advising
process. In C. Ludwig & J. Mynard (Eds.). Autonomy in language learning: Advising in action,
pp. 115-136. Canterbury: IATEFL.