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К содержанию номера журнала: Вестник КАСУ №2 - 2005

Автор: Супрунова И.А.

Over the last decade under the influence of the attempts to change the whole educational paradigm from teacher centred to learner centred, the concepts of learner autonomy and independence have gained momentum, the former becoming a ‘buzz-word’ within the context of language learning. It should be noticed that “autonomous learning” is a term that recurs over and over in recent literature of teaching English as a foreign language.  This reshaping, so to speak, of teacher and learner roles has been conducive to a radical change in the age-old distribution of power and authority that used to plague the traditional classroom. Cast in a new perspective and regarded as having the ‘capacity for detachment, critical reflection, decision-making, and independent action’ [Little D. Learner Autonomy: Definitions, Issues and Problems], learners, autonomous learners, that is, are expected to assume greater responsibility for, and take charge of, their own learning. Mary Jo Rendon in her article “Learner Autonomy and Cooperative Learning” mentions the fact that teachers who view language learning as an individualized process encourage their learners to be autonomous.

But what is autonomy? For a definition of autonomy, we might quote Holec who describes it as ‘the ability to take charge of one’s learning’. On a general note, the term autonomy has come to be used in at least five ways:

a) for situations in which learners study entirely on their own;

b) for a set of skills which can be learned and applied in self-directed learning;

c) for an inborn capacity which is suppressed by institutional education;

d) for the exercise of learners’ responsibility for their own learning;

e) for the right of learners to determine the direction of their own learning.

It is noteworthy that autonomy can be thought of in terms of a departure from education as a social process, as well as in terms of redistribution of power attending the construction of knowledge and the roles of the participants in the learning process. The relevant literature is riddled with innumerable definitions of autonomy and other synonyms for it, such as ‘independence’ in Sheering’s work, ‘language awareness’ used by L.V. Lier, ‘self-direction’ [Candy], ‘andragogy’ [Knowles M. S.] etc., which testifies to the importance attached to it by scholars. Smith says that “self-direction” is essential in the active development of abilities in learning. He adds “learners need to be empowered with a wide range of learning strategies to achieve competence and autonomy in learning the target language” [Smith R.]. T. Hedge gives the term ‘self-determination’. In her opinion, self-determination suggests that individual learner can reflect, make choices, and arrive at personally constructed decisions. Self-determination implies that learners should not be passive recipients of knowledge but should use their abilities for judging and deciding to take on more responsibility for their own learning.

The term autonomy has sparked considerable controversy, in as much as linguists and educationalists have failed to reach a consensus as to what autonomy really is. For example, in D. Little’s terms, learner autonomy is ‘essentially a matter of the learner’s psychological relation to the process and content of learning…a capacity for detachment, critical reflection, decision-making, and independent action’. Proceed from the definition it is possible to determine learner roles according to D. Little: reflections, decision-maker and performer. In the same vein, L. Dam, drawing upon Holec, defines autonomy in terms of the learner’s willingness and capacity to control or oversee her own learning. Here we can distinguish such roles as learner-controller and learner-manager. More specifically, she like Holec, holds that someone qualifies as an autonomous learner when he independently chooses aims and purposes and sets goals; chooses materials, methods and tasks; exercises choice and purpose in organizing and carrying out the chosen tasks; and chooses criteria for evaluation.

To all intents and purposes, the autonomous learner takes an active role in the learning process, generating ideas and availing himself of learning opportunities, rather than simply reacting to various stimuli of the teacher. In this case leaner performs the role of generator of ideas. For Rathbone, the autonomous learner is a self-activated maker of meaning, an active agent in his own learning process. According to Rathbone, autonomous learner should obligatory act as self-initiator.  He states that learner is not one to whom things merely happen; he is the one who, by his own volition, causes things to happen. Learning is seen as the result of his own self-initiated interaction with the world. Within such a conception, learning is not simply a matter of rote memorisation; ‘it is a constructive process that involves actively seeking meaning from (or even imposing meaning on) events’.

Mary Jo Rendon characterizes autonomous learners in the following way: “Autonomous learners want to direct their own language learning. They want to know how to find learning resources, how to identify their learning strategies, and how evaluate the development of their own language skills”. Proceed from her characteristics, we may conclude, that she sees autonomous learner as assessor and facilitator.

Rousseau regards the autonomous learner as someone who ‘is obedient to a law that he prescribes to himself’. Within the context of education, though, there seem to be seven main attributes characterizing autonomous learners:

1) autonomous learners have insights into their learning styles and strategies;

2) take an active approach to the learning task at hand;

3) are willing to take risks, i.e., to communicate in the target language at all costs; (We can call them risk-takers)

4) are good guessers;

5) attend to form as well as to content, that is, place importance on accuracy as well as appropriacy;

6) develop the target language into a separate reference system and are willing to revise and reject hypotheses and rules that do not apply; and

7) have a tolerant and outgoing approach to the target language.

Conditions for learner autonomy

It should be clarified that autonomous learning is achieved when certain conditions obtain: cognitive and metacognitive strategies on the part of the learner, motivation, attitudes, and knowledge about language learning, i.e., a kind of metalanguage. To acknowledge, however, that learners have to follow certain paths to attain autonomy is tantamount to asserting that there has to be a teacher on whom it will be incumbent to show the way. As P. Benson and P. Voller succinctly puts it, ‘teachers…have a crucial role to play in launching learners into self-access and in lending them a regular helping hand to stay afloat’.

D. Thanasoulas remarks that probably, giving students a “helping hand” may put paid to learner autonomy, and this is mainly because teachers are ill-prepared or reluctant to ‘wean [students]…away from teacher dependence’. After all, it is not easy for teachers to change their role from purveyor of information to counselor and manager of learning resources…And it is not easy for teachers to let learners solve problems for themselves. In this section, it is of utmost importance to gain insights into the strategies learners use in grappling with the object of enquiry, i.e., the target language, as well as their motivation and attitude towards language learning in general.

While learning the language an autonomous learner use different cognitive strategies. Cognitive strategies ‘operate directly on incoming information, manipulating it in ways that enhance learning. Cook distinguishes the following cognitive strategies:

a) repetition, when imitating others’ speech;

b) resorting, i.e., having recourse to dictionaries and other materials;

c) translation, that is, using their mother tongue as a basis for understanding and / or producing the target language;

d) note-taking;

e) deduction, i.e., conscious application of L2 rules;

f) contextualisation, when embedding a word or phrase in a meaningful sequence;

g) transfer, that is, using knowledge acquired in the L1 to remember and understand facts and sequences in the L2;

h) intervening, when matching an unfamiliar word against available information (a new word etc);

i) question for clarification, when asking the teacher to explain, etc.

Besides, scientists distinguish metacognitive strategies. Metacognitive knowledge includes all facts learners acquire about their own cognitive processes as they are applied and used to gain knowledge and acquire skills in varied situations. In a sense, metacognitive strategies are skills used for planning, monitoring, and evaluating the learning activity; they are strategies about learning rather than learning strategies some of these strategies include:

a) directed attention, when deciding in advance to concentrate on general aspects of a task;

b) selective attention, paying attention to specific aspects of a task;

c) self-monitoring, i.e., checking one’s performance as one speaks;

d) self-evaluation, i.e., appraising one’s performance in relation to one’s own standards;

e) self-reinforcement, rewarding oneself for success.

At the planning stage, also known as pre-planning, learners identify their objectives and determine how they will achieve them. Planning, however, may also go on while a task is being performed. They call it “planning-in-action”. Here learners may change their objectives and reconsider the ways in which they will go about achieving them. At the monitoring stage, language learners act as participant observers or overseers of their language learning. Finally, when learners evaluate, they do so in terms of the outcome of their attempt to use a certain strategy.

According to A. Wenden, evaluating involves three steps: 1) learners examine the outcome of their attempts to learn; 2) they access the criteria they will use to judge it; and 3) they apply it .

 Motivation and learner attitudes. Language learning is not merely a cognitive task. Learners do not only reflect on their learning in terms of the language input to which they are exposed, or the optimal strategies they need in order to achieve the goals they set. Rather, the success of a learning activity is, to some extent, contingent upon learners’ stance towards the world and the learning activity in particular, their sense of self, and their desire to learn. In a way, attitudes are part of one’s perception of self, of others, and of the culture in which one is living’, and it seems clear that positive attitudes are conducive to increased motivation, while negative attitudes have the opposite effect.

Wenden defines attitudes as ‘learned motivations, valued beliefs, evaluations, what one believes is acceptable, or responses oriented towards approaching or avoiding’. Two kinds of attitudes are crucial: attitudes learners hold about their role in the learning process, and their capability as learners. At any rate, learner beliefs about their role and capability as learners will be shaped and maintained…by other beliefs they hold about themselves as learners. For example, if learners believe that certain personality types cannot learn a foreign language and they believe that they are that type of person, then they will think that they are fighting a “losing battle,” as far as learning the foreign language is concerned. Furthermore, if learners labour under the misconception that learning is successful only within the context of the “traditional classroom,” where the teacher directs, instructs, and manages the learning activity, and students must follow in the teacher’s footsteps, they are likely to be impervious or resistant to learner-centred strategies aiming at autonomy, and success is likely to be undermined.

In a way, attitudes are part of one’s perception of self, of others, and of the culture in which one is living [or the culture of the target language], and it seems clear that positive attitudes are conducive to increased motivation, which necessary condition for learner autonomy, while negative attitudes have the opposite effect.

Although the term ‘motivation’ is frequently used in educational contexts, there is little agreement among experts as to its exact meaning. What most scholars seem to agree on, though, is that motivation is ‘one of the key factors that influence the rate and success of second / foreign language (L2) learning. Motivation provides the primary impetus to initiate learning the L2 and later the driving forces to sustain the long and often tedious learning process. According to Gardner and MacIntyre, motivation is comprised of three components: ‘desire to achieve a goal, effort extended in this direction, and satisfaction with the task’.

It is manifest that in language learning, people are motivated in different ways and to different degrees. Some learners like doing grammar and memorizing; others want to speak and role-play; others prefer reading and writing, while avoiding speaking.  

Learner styles and types. Speaking about learners and their roles in the English language classroom, methodologists often mention such a notion as learner styles. The definition learner styles are internally based characteristics of individuals for the intake or understanding of new information. All learners have individual attributes relating to their learning processes. Some people, he says, may rely heavily on visual presentation; others may prefer spoken language; still others may respond better to hands-on activities. It is evident that people learn differently and at different paces because of their biological and psychological differences.

A knowledge of one’s own learning style is essential in “learning to learn” S. Kang in his article “Learning styles” states that teachers should help students discover their own learning preferences and provide constructive feedback about the advantages and disadvantages of various styles.

The methodologist T. Wright describes four different learner styles within a group. The 'enthusiast' looks to the teacher as a point of reference and is concerned with the goals of the learning group. The 'oracular' also focuses on the teacher but is more orientated towards the satisfaction of personal goals. The 'participator' tends to concentrate on group goals and group solidarity, whereas the 'rebel' while referring to the learning group for his or her point of reference, is mainly concerned with the satisfaction of his or her own goals.

K. Willing produced the following descriptions:

•Converges: these are students who are by nature solitary, prefer to avoid groups, and who are independent and confident in their own abilities. Most important they are analytic and can impose their own structures on learning. They tend to be cool and pragmatic.

•Conformists: these are students who prefer to emphasize learning 'about language' over learning to use it. They tend to be dependent on those in authority and are perfectly happy to work in non-communicative classrooms, doing what they are told. A classroom of conformists is one which prefers to see well-organized teachers.

•Concrete learners: though they are like conformists, they also enjoy the social aspects of learning and like to learn from direct experience. They are interested in language use and language as communication rather than language as a system. They enjoy games and group work in class.

•Communicative learners: these are language use orientated. They are comfortable out of class and show a degree of confidence and a willingness to take risks, which their colleagues may lack. They are much more interested in social interaction with other speakers of the language than they are with analysis of how the language works. They are perfectly happy to operate without the guidance of a teacher.

An understanding that there are different individuals in the class is vitally important if teachers are to plan the kinds of activity that will be appropriate for them. Teachers need to balance the interests of individuals against what is good for the group and to be aware of certain individual traits when putting students into pairs and groups. Teachers need to recognize which students need more personal attention than others, and which need different kinds of explanations and practice of language. Some students respond better than others to discovery activities, for example, so a teacher will use such exercises with them. Others, however, may prefer a more directed approach to language study and so a teacher will, within reason, adapt our practice accordingly. Yet others may respond with enthusiasm to creative writing or speaking activities, where some of their colleagues may need more structured work. So, learners’ activity is directly connected with their learning styles. And this, in its turn, determines the learner roles in the English language classroom. 

So, according to new approach to teaching and learning language we can observe a far wider range of roles for the learner than those performed in a traditional, teacher-dominated classroom. In contributing to course design, learners can research their needs, negotiate content, and help to monitor the progress of the course. In contributing to activity design, learners can explore and experiment. In developing more independent approaches, learners can plan, initiate, and organize their own work. And in a classroom where participation is high and its nature flexible, learners can question, clarify, suggest, and comment.

A list of a good autonomous learner’s characteristics include:

-confident in his/her ability to learn;


-motivated and enthusiastic;

-aware of why he/she wants to learn;

-unafraid of what s/he doesn’t know;

-a good risk-taker;

-a good guesser;

-a good  pattern perceiver;

-willing to assume a certain responsibility for his/her own learning.

D. Nunan in his book “Language Teaching Methodology» made focus on the learner and distinguished four autonomous learner types on the basis of the main activities that students are involved in.

Type 1: ‘concrete’ learners. These learners tend to like games, pictures, films, video, using cassettes, talking in pairs and practicing English outside class.

Type 2: ‘analytical’ learners. These learners like studying grammar, studying English books and reading newspapers, studying alone, finding their own mistakes and working on problems set by the teacher.

Type 3: ‘communicative’ learners. These learners like to learn by watching, listening to native speakers, talking to friends in English and watching television in English, using English out of class in shops, trains, etc., learning new words by hearing them, and learning by conversations.

Type 4: ‘authority-oriented’ learners. These learners prefer the teacher to explain everything, like to have their own textbook, to write everything in a notebook, to study grammar, learn by reading, and learn new words by seeing them.

It should be noticed, that language classes should be constituted on the basis of learner ‘types’. However, it is not so easy to realize it in the English language classroom.. If the class consists of learners with a range of strategy preferences, then teacher need to provide a range of learning options and activities in class.

So, we may conclude that the new approach implies an entirely new role of the learner. Its main idea is that the content of lesson is taught and learned from the learner’s point of view. This new centrality radically changes the roles in the classroom. The new learner-centered approach aims to make the learner autonomous.  Speaking about learner autonomy, methodologists point out the conditions for it, which include learning strategies, motivation and attitudes.

An autonomous learner has the following roles: reflections, decision-taker, performer, controller, manager, generator of ideas, self-initiator, assessor, facilitator, guesser and a risk-taker.   


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