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In the ESL teaching and learning process, students are usually regarded as passive information receivers. One principle aim of university education, however, is to promote autonomy among students, and university students are expected to learn independently without constant support from teachers. In reality, university students' abilities of autonomous learning are far from satisfactory. Moreover, they even do not have the awareness of being autonomous learners in the process of learning. The paper analyzes the influence of language learning theories on language teaching approaches, points out the importance for students to be autonomous learners rather than passive participants in learning ESL, makes distinctions between autonomous leaning and self-study and gives some suggestions to both students and teachers so that university students can be autonomous learners in the process of learning ESL.
Key Words: teaching approach, language behavior, self-study, autonomous learner,
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The Importance and Ways for Students to be Autonomous Learners in Learning ESL
Language teaching approaches are intimately related to studies on language behavior which aim to find out how language learners actually learn, and new approaches of foreign language teaching keep on emerging. However, no matter which methodology and what techniques are adopted by foreign language teachers, there is a tendency to treat learners as passive receivers of new information, and as individuals who are unable to develop necessary skills to access and control their own improvement.
For example, according to a well-known behaviorist named Skinner(1957) who described the factors influencing language behavior in terms of stimulus and response, each utterance is the result of some sort of verbal or non-verbal stimulus,. Therefore, language behavior can only be studied through observations of the world around the language user, that is, through observations of external factors in the process of language learning. One important external factor is the frequency with which a certain utterance is used in a child's environment. It influences the language development of a child in that children imitate the language of their environment to a considerable degree. Another significant external factor of developing a child's language proficiency is reinforcement which is further divided into positive reinforcement and negative reinforcement. A typical type of the former is parental approval: when a child produces a grammatically correct utterance understood by his/her environment, approval from parents will increase the child's motivation to produce more grammatical utterances; an example of the latter is a teacher's disapproval: when the utterances produced by a student is grammatically incorrect, disapproval from the student's teacher will reduce his/her possibilities of repeating the same ungrammatical utterances. In this way, the environment encourages a child to produce grammatical utterances while discouraging ungrammatical utterances.
Based on the behaviorist theory of learning, a teaching approach called audiolingualism was put forward in America during 1940s World War II, when there was a pressing need to train key personnel quickly and effectively in foreign language skills. Teachers with the guidance of audiolingualism used dialogues as the main form of language presentation and drills as the main training techniques. In the learning process, learners were divided into small groups and were highly motivated, which undoubtedly contributed to the success of the approach.
In 1959, however, the external factors explained by Skinner such as imitation, frequency of
stimulus, and reinforcement in learning process were strongly questioned by Chomsky who delivered the first serious attack on behaviorist ideas about learning. According to Chomsky, a description of language behavior cannot be merely a description of external stimuli and concomitant responses. Instead, it has primarily to be a description of the innate ability of human beings to learn a language.
Chomsky's attack heralded a revolution in ideas about language learning which took place in the 1960s. Until 1960s, in the study of language behavior, most attention had been paid to the external factors such as stimuli and responses; after 1960, however, children themselves, the main factor in language learning, began to attract more and more attention. This revolution was significantly influenced by Chomsky's transformational-generative grammar (TG) which was a source of inspiration for various experiments in language learning research from then on.
In TG it is assumed that the ability to learn language is innate. The so-called Language Acquisition Devise (LAD) enables a child to make hypotheses about the structure of language in general, and about the structure of the language he/she is learning in particular. This is not a conscious process. The hypotheses the child subconsciously sets up are tested in his/her use of language, and continuously matched with the new linguistic input which the child obtains by listening to what is said in his/her immediate environment. This causes the child's hypothesis on the structure of language to be changed and adapted regularly: the child develops his/her rule system through a process of systematic changes towards the adult rule system. This view of the language learning process, therefore, stresses the mental activities of the language learners themselves.( R.R. van Oirsouw, 1984, p.28)
Instead of treating learners as passive information receives in learning ESL, there is a trend among educationists to explore learners own autonomy in foreign language learning. And autonomous learning has been attracting more and more attention.
Autonomous learning is defined as "a habit of mind, expressed through a range of activities and skills, acquired and developed through practice" (Crome, Farrar, and O'Connor, 2010). Autonomous education helps students develop their self-consciousness, vision, practicality and freedom of discussion. These attributes serve to aid the student in his/her independent learning.
The autonomous language learners take responsibilities for the totality of their learning situation by determining their own objectives, defining the contents to be learned and the progression of the course, selecting methods and techniques to be used, monitoring the
procedure, and evaluating what they have acquired.( Holec & Henri, 1979)
Dickinson (1993) identified five characteristics of autonomous learners: (a) They understand what is being taught; (b) They are able to formulate their learning objectives; (c) They are able to select and make use of appropriate learning strategies; (d) They are able to monitor their use of these strategies; (e) They are able to self-access, or monitor their own learning.
According to the National Committee of Inquiry into Higher Education (the Dearing Report) chaired by Sir Ron Dearing and published in 1997, one principle aim of university education was to promote autonomy among students. And the report stated that higher education must "sustain a culture which demands disciplined thinking, encourages curiosity, challenges existing ideas and generates new ones." Therefore, university students are expected to learn independently without constant support from teachers.
Evrim ÜstünlüoÄŸlu (2009) did a survey among university students and teachers, however, he found that "students do not take responsibility for their learning although they have the ability, and teachers, themselves, take on most of the responsibilities, by perceiving their students incapable of fulfilling their responsibilities."
Therefore, it is of significant importance for students to be autonomous learners who are capable of self-discipline, self-management, self-monitoring, and who are capable of developing their own learning style and strategies in learning ESL (English as a Second Language) instead of being passive receivers of new information when learning ESL as before. The key question is that how can students become autonomous learners when learning ESL?
Before answering this questions, we had better to make a distinction between autonomous learning and self-study which is easy to be misunderstood as autonomous learning. Their differences are as follows:
First of all, they are different in time and places of learning. Autonomous learning happens mainly in the class, while self-study often occurs after class.
Secondly, they are different in terms of learners' motivation. Autonomous learning is usually chosen by learners out of their own innate motivation that is evoked by themselves, while self-study is often chosen as a result of pressure. Even though it is likely for learner to choose
self-study spontaneously, in most cases, they are driven by some utilitarian purposes.
Thirdly, they are different in terms of learners' proficiency. In other words, the autonomous learners understand clearly their learning strategies and know which one is more efficient in special circumstances. On the contrary, even though those who do self-study have their own ways of learning, they are not proficient enough to adapt their ways of learning in certain circumstances. More over, some of their ways of leaning can not enable them to acquire new information efficiently.
Fourthly, they are different in terms of time limitation in a certain period. Because autonomous learning happens in class, and autonomous learners are very conscious with their efficiency. Therefore, there is always a limitation of autonomous leaning in a certain period. Self-study, however, occurs after class. Those who do self-study will make use of their spare time which is not fixed.
Fifthly, they are different in terms of learner' consciousness towards their learning results. it is very likely for autonomous learners to have appropriate judgment and evolution of their learning, while those who do self-study have to know their results through some testing ways, such as examinations and term papers, thus, it is usually difficult for them to have exact judgment of their learning results.
Sixthly, autonomous learners can turn to their teachers can classmates for help at any time. When their autonomous learning arrive at a rather high level, autonomous learners will have deeper understanding of the importance of cooperation within their groups which can play an significant part in their further development. By contrast, those who do self-study in their spare time may not have chance to ask help from their teachers and classmates; moreover, it is not sure whether they realize the role of team cooperation in their process of making progress.
Then what students and teachers are advised to do so that students can be autonomous learners in the process of learning ESL?
There are three suggestions given to the students:
First of all, they are hoped to tell the difference between autonomous learning and self-study and to be positive participants in class who have high interest and motivation while learning ESL.
Secondly, they are required to realize the importance of autonomous learning. As a matte of
fact, under the influence of traditional teaching theories in which students were regarded as passive information receivers, students do not perceive themselves as sufficiently autonomous, that they are unwilling to take responsibility and that they continue to see the teacher as a dominant figure who is the decision maker in the classroom. Thus, it is of curial importance for students to change their attitude towards their role in learning ESL.
Thirdly, they are advised to consciously develop several learning strategies. For example, there are mainly five basic skills that should be developed, namely: listening, speaking, reading and writing and translating. It is not surprising to know that some students can write and read or even translate very well in English, their listening and speaking abilities are far from satisfactory. As a matter of fact, their strategy of improving wring ability may not work when they try to improve their listening abilities. Therefore, it is wise to develop various learning strategies so than they can all-round progress.
At the same time, teachers also play an important part in developing students' autonomy. From the teachers' perspective, they can be helpful in several ways:
First of all, it is of great importance for them to help students distinguish the differences between autonomous learning and self-study.
Secondly, it is of great significance for them to help students' anxiety and help students be actively involved in English learning. There is a proverb that goes "Tell me, I will forget; show me, I may remember; involve me, I will understand" (Camp, 2010). With the teachers' help, if students can involve in the English learning process in a relaxing environment, especially in the reading and speaking part, just like a proverb that goes, practice makes perfect, the efficiency of students' English learning can be greatly improved.
Thirdly, it plays a curial part if the teacher can evoke the students' motivation to a large extent. Motivation plays an important part in learning. It is not only helpful but also essential for efficient learning. This idea of motivation as described here is broadly conceived to include an understanding of ways in which the knowledge can be used. Unless the students know "the reasons why", they may not be very involved in using the knowledge that may be instilled in them, even by the most severe and direct teaching. That is also why practice can promote learning to a large extent. During the process of putting what they learn into practice, students better understand the significance of what they learn and realize their weakness due to unstable
foundation of major learning.
Fourthly, it also plays a significant part if the teachers can help students to have awareness of some learning strategies and integrate students' independence into the curriculum of English, with a well-structured focus, delivery, and content. By focus, we mean the topic, the task, and the functional as well as grammar-based syllabus; by delivery we mean the amount of independent learning time that students are allowed to practice in English learning class; by content we mean the activities and tasks that are implemented in class. More impotently, teachers are advised in mind that when they try to introduce to students the strategies of and information about autonomous learning, they should permit students to make decisions based on their own needs. In this way, students can have the opportunities to choose their learning materials in class.
Taking all the above into consideration, we conclude that students do not perceive themselves as autonomous enough in language learning and teachers have a long way to go to turn their students into autonomous learners. In order that students can be autonomous learners in learning ESL, what teachers can do to increase student motivation, and in turn foster success is respecting student ideas, sharing decisions in teaching, learning goal setting and leading students towards taking responsibility for their learning rather than prescribing the learning process.