Student Autonomy in the Language Classroom

Juliana Tavares

There has been much talk about the importance of learner autonomy in education and this is by no means a new discussion. However, the power of student autonomy and the key elements to enhance it in the classroom is undeniably an important issue and subject to research up to these days.

In the language learning field, Grima (1995, 2007) and Palfreyman (2003) state that learner autonomy improves the quality of language learning, promotes democratic societies and prepares individuals for life-long learning (Borg and Al-Busardi, 2012). It is particularly important in ELT; after all, we never really stop learning a foreign language, so the more self-directed a language learner is, the more able to improve their skills continuously they will become.

Ushioda (2011, p.8) reinforces that promoting autonomy means essentially to “encourage students to develop and express their own identities through the language they’re learning”. In order to achieve that, we must adopt an approach in which the student is the protagonist and everything we plan aims at developing their identity as foreign language speakers. So how can we help our students become more autonomous? Here are a few things you can bear in mind if you want to develop students’ awareness of the importance of autonomy:

  • No one is born an autonomous learner – it demands effort from the learner and teacher to develop autonomy; students must be aware that the language classroom itself is not enough to enable them to speak a foreign language.
  • Autonomy and proficiency do not grow together – autonomy does not always increase at the same pace as the learner’s proficiency; students can be quite autonomous even at the elementary level and more advanced students who are not autonomous tend to “get stuck” more often.
  • Promoting autonomy is not just about teaching strategies – teaching strategies can help students become more independent, but autonomy means that they alone must create their own strategies to learn.
  • Every choice has consequences - when you are free to exercise your choices, you are bound to face their consequences. This principle is particularly important for good classroom management, as it helps you share with your students the responsibility for learning.

The development of learner autonomy is a complex task. It takes time and effort from both the teacher and the student. You probably will not see the results within a school year, but you will see significant changes that will only get better with time. Let’s look at a few things we can do in our everyday practice to enhance student autonomy:

  • Have students do the work – why do we have to read instructions to our students? Why do we explain things before allowing them time to figure out on their own? When planning our classes, it is very important to imagine how much work you leave entirely up to them, how much they will need some help with, and how much they still depend heavily on you to accomplish.
  • Respect their time – students work at different paces and sometimes that can be frustrating for us. However, we must respect their timing, even if it means that some students are not going to do as much as the others.
  • Share decision-making and responsibilities – asking students to choose from a range of activities, or giving them the responsibility to present or explain something gives them the sense of belonging and the motivation they need to become autonomous.
  • Self-esteem is key – make sure you celebrate with your students every victory and every obstacle overcome. Students feel more confident when they have your approval and feedback.

Do you want to know more about autonomy in the foreign language classroom? Check out our online course First Things First at: