Learner autonomy in language learning? Is that posible?

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1 Learner autonomy in language learning? Is that posible? Gabriela Ladrón de Guevara de León Universidad Autónoma de la Ciudad de México Abstract Learner autonomy has been considered an essential part of learning in the last ten years. It is supported on the idea of having as different approaches as needed in order to fit different learning styles and characteristics. And it is based on the learner themselves, their needs, interests and reasons to learn a subject. Some teachers are afraid of it because they think it can create a new educational system in which teachers where not longer the one and only authority. Others think it could make teachers redundant. This is a partial point of view based on the lack of knowledge about learner autonomy and its implications, specially in the field of language learning. Other approach to learner autonomy thinks that languages cannot be learned in an independent environment, because the teacher is a learning tool that is essential for this process. These misconceptions lead to a poor understanding of learning autonomy that affects learners and teachers. In addition, several terms have confusing similarities with learner autonomy, so it becomes more difficult to select and organize teaching material. Some terms that are defined and analyzed are learning training, student centered learning, learning to learn, self-access Centre, learner self-management. They are tools to develop autonomous learning but they are not, themselves, a definition of autonomous learning. 1. Introduction Constructivism has considered that a learner can have a more memorable and effective learning process if they take control of it and if they can adapt it according to their own needs and expectations. This concept has been applied to almost every academic subject and it can also be applied in languages, where learners want to communicate their ideas, opinions and feelings and they want an immediate and real interchange in the target language. Autonomy can be seen as part of an individual process where the teacher is a mere observer or only a classroom guide, but it affects much more: It also involves raising students awareness of their responsibility as language learners as 289

2 well as knowing themselves and understand their goals and their work inside and outside the classroom. Ellis and Sinclair (1989:2) state three reasons for helping learners take on more responsibility for their own learning. They are: - Learning can be more effective when learners take control of their own learning because they learn what they want to learn; - Learners who are responsible for their own learning can carry on learning outside the classroom; - Learners who know about learning can transfer learning strategies to other subjects. Scrivener considers that Raise students awareness about how they are learning and, as a result, help them to find more effective ways of working, so that they can continue working efficiently and usefully even when away from their teacher and the classroom. Simpler, it means work on teaching learning as well as teaching English. (Scrivener, 1994:189) Considering these ideas, autonomy becomes a need for language learners and a must for language teachers, who have different tools to help learners to develop autonomy. The point is to exploit those tools. 2. Learners approaches to the language Each learner has their own approach to the language, based on their previous experiences, educational background, age, level, learning context, learning styles, etc. As a result, the classroom environment does not always respond to their learning needs. This situation can create frustration, confusion and students lack of motivation. It is impossible to create a tailor made course for each and every student in our classes (imagine, a group of 40 7-year-old children in a public school!) but it is possible to train and allow them to decide the kind of activity that suits best their own goals, according to their development inside and outside their classroom, 290

3 according to their language development and more important, according to their interests, likes and needs. Dickinson (1987) states that autonomous learning must be promoted. He finds five arguments to support it: 1. Practical issues (some students cannot attend to face-to-face sessions) 2. Individual student s characteristics (their attitude, learning styles and learning strategies) 3. The learning objectives (each learner can develop specific strategies and skills) 4. Motivation (autonomy makes free learners) 5. Learning to learn goals (self-reflection, know yourself As it can be perceived, fostering autonomy is not an automatic process to start and to develop. It has several points to consider and teachers should be aware of their own autonomy as learners. In addition, recognizing success, establishing goals, having communication as main objective of the target language and creating conditions for learning (Cfr. Davies and Pearse 2000: 15) are important factors teachers must take into account while working towards independence. Scrivener suggests some techniques to use during a course: Integrate study skills work, point students attention towards the use of these strategies and discuss with them the content, the process and the procedures followed during the classes. As it can be seen, it is part of a process that cannot be reached in few sessions. However, this process can be part of a course or a term. 3. Other concepts related: means, not end. Learner autonomy has been related to different concepts: learning training, student centered learning, learning to learn, self-access centre, learner selfmanagement, but each of these concepts is just a tool to arrive to learner autonomy, not a synonym or a similar term. Each of them works on a different level and conception: 291

4 3.1 Learner training There is some controversy about this term. However it is used widely. According to Benson (1995) it is an area of methodology where students are encouraged to focus on their learning. It started to be studied during the 70s and know it has 6 major forms: 1. Direct advice on how to learn languages independently, often in the form of selfstudy textbooks or manuals designed for individuals working abroad. Advice is generally prescriptive and not based on research. 2. Methods and materials based on 'good language learner' research, which aim to convey insights from observation of strategies used by "successful" language learners. These materials also tend to be prescriptive, but they claim their authority from research, increasingly from the field of cognitive psychology. 3. More open-ended methods and materials, where learners are expected to experiment with strategies and decide for themselves which ones suit them best. This approach is based on the view that there is no single set of strategies that will work best for all individuals. 4. 'Synthetic' approaches drawing on a wide range of sources. For example, connecting learner training to wider trends in language teaching, strategy research, autonomy and self-direction, language awareness, and insights for learners from foreign language learning research. 5. 'Integrated' approaches that treat learner training as a part of general language learning. incorporating training activities into units with language content goals. 6. 'Self-directed' approaches. Advocates of self-directed learning have tended to be skeptical of the idea that students can be taught how to learn, and they propose methodologies where learners in effect train themselves by practicing self-directed learning with the help of self-access resources and counseling. These six forms of learner training are not independent of each other. Advocates of learner training have tended to modify their views and converge over the years. Learner training methodology has also tended to become more eclectic, 292

5 and 'learning how to learn' is increasingly seen to be inseparable from language learning itself. These developments need to be borne in mind when particular approaches are evaluated. Learning training can help students to works towards autonomy, but these techniques are not autonomous per se, they need other elements to build autonomous learning. 3.2 Student-centred learning It is an approach to education focused on the needs of the students. It implies a reactive syllabus, based on learners needs and interests and involves working at students pace. According to this approach, the central part of the teaching and learning process is the learner himself and the teacher is a facilitator, not a lecturer. Implies learners active role as well as empowered them to make decision and guide the sessions. It is directed to the learners but teacher has an important role in it. It could be a step towards autonomy, but it needs other variables to be autonomous learning. 3.3 Learning to learn This is a process that includes the internalization of cognitive and metacognitive skills. It is more related to self-knowledge and trying new techniques and skills rather than a pure approach. It relies completely on students and on how willing they are to adopt it. It is one of the factors that foster autonomy. 3.4 Self-access Centre It is an academical centre of independent learning, where the learner practice and use the language, improving and developing their abilities. It has IT resources as well as audiovisual material and material devoted to learning to 293

6 learn process. Learners are free to learn according to their own needs, interests and areas to develop. There are tutors that support this process and the learners are guided. Mainly, this is a place, where learners can be autonomous and apply different approaches to knowledge. These centres are very common in Mexican universities, based on the model of the CAPREL center in University of Nancy, France. 3.5 Learner self-management This is a concept introduced by online learning and implies that learners not only they have to find out by trial and error which strategies seem to work for them; they also have to learn the skills of assessing their individual learning needs, including their strengths and weaknesses as learners. Thus they have to be selfaware and knowledgeable about their own perceptions, attitudes and abilities Recent studies of learning strategies emphasize the importance of enabling learners to understand and then manage not only their repertoire of strategies but also their learning patterns, attitudes and feelings Hauck (2005) takes this notion a step further to include online learners. She contends that the degree to which language learners are aware of both themselves - their attitudes, aptitudes and beliefs and of the affordances of the learning environment, and the degree to which they demonstrate control and flexibility in the use of metacognitive strategies such as self-management are interdependent. This is also a tool to develop autonomy, not autonomy itself. 4. Reality: learner autonomy leads to effective learning As it can be seen, several concepts are related to autonomous learning, but they are not purely independent learning. They are tools to develop learner autonomy but they are easily confused and some learners (and teachers) have not clear concepts about them. 294

7 In order to help students to become independent, teachers have to work with them. It is more valuable if we help them to develop their learning potential and they can make their own decisions. This is a reality that must be covered. This is clear for us, but how can we help them? Here we have some ideas. 4.1 Learner self-knowledge Learning strategies They are a key point in developing learner independence, because they help learners to work inside and outside the classroom and according to that, develop their own vision of their learning and the causes and consequences of it. Some of them are (Spratt, Pulverness and Williams, 2005:53): Repeating new words in your head until you remember them Experimenting by using just learnt language in conversations Guessing the meaning of unknown words Deciding to use the foreign language as much as possible Recording yourself speaking and judging your pronunciation Paraphrasing Deciding what area of vocabulary to exploit Asking for repetition, etc. Some others can be included, as getting organized, working in teams, evaluating performance and tasks, etc. Each learner builds their own learning strategies depending on their own personality, background and learning style. It is important that teachers train them to be aware of the strategies they use and their effectiveness. It is valid to change strategies and it is part of learners development, according to their profile Study skills The term 'study skills' refers to the various methods which students can use to make the task of studying easier as well as to retain the information they study 295

8 for longer lengths of time. Developing study skills is crucial for students these days as curriculums become more intense and exams more competitive. Using effective study skills helps students develop good study habits, a positive attitude about studies and helps them realize that studying does not have to be a painful process. The methods that are taught as part of the study skills curriculum are not only handy for students but these can be used almost all through adult life in different contexts and manipulating different concepts. In addition, study skills helps learners build self-esteem and learn to view their studies as a positive experience, sometimes exploiting and adapting them to work habits. They are important tools to foster learner s autonomy. 5. Conclusion It is important to know and understand the principles of learner autonomy before attacking or defending it. It is part of a wider panorama: new teacher s and learner s roles are emerging and teaching has to be adapted to them. In addition, it is not only a matter of training, selecting objectives or having a special place ; it must imply a deeper change in educational practices and teachers and learners need to produce new developmental plans, based on continuous learning and reflection on our learning needs, objectives and goals. Applying it in particular teaching contexts relies on teacher preparation, as well as on students evolution of their own learning process and their perceptions around it. It is a demanding option, however, the benefits obtained are long lasting and they can be apply not only to language learning, but to all kind of learning. Autonomy prepares students to deal with everyday situations and to find solutions avoiding frustration. 296

9 Referencias Benson, P. (1995) A Critical View of Learner Training. Summary a paper presented at the Shizuoka Symposium on Strategies for Learner Autonomy, May, Available on line Consulted Davies, P. Pearse, E. (2000) Success in English teaching. Oxford University Press: China Dickinson, L. (1987). Self-Instruction in Language Learning. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Ellis, G. and Sinclair, B. (1989) Learning to Learn English. Cambrige University Press: United Kingdom. Hauck, M. and Hurd Exploring the link between language anxiety and learner self-management in open language learning contexts. European journal of open, distance and E-learning. Available on line Consulted Scrivener, J. (1994) Learning Teaching. Macmillan: Thailand Spratt, M. Pulverness, A and Williams, M. (2005) The TKT course. Cambridge University Press: United Kingdom. Biodata Gabriela Ladrón de Guevara de León. Profesora de inglés y francés. Formadora de profesores de lenguas y tutora de profesores en servicio. Profesorainvestigadora de la Universidad Autónoma de la Ciudad de México. COTE de la Universidad de Cambridge. Licenciada en la Enseñanza del Francés. Maestra en Ciencias de la Educación. Contacto: 297

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