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Definition of Learner Autonomy

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Education
Wordcount: 3622 words Published: 20th Aug 2021

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In recent time, new ideas on the meaning of an educated person, the changes in the traditional language learning system, and educators’ mounting apprehension about their roles in the learning and teaching process have been predominantly significant (Benson & Toogood, 2001). The increase of ideologies on the information age, globalization, and the knowledge-based economy have resulted to educational authorities becoming more open to autonomy-related thoughts than before (Benson, 2001). Humanistic expectations brought about by political turmoil and culture clashes of Europe in the late 1960s have caused early academic experiments related to autonomy (Gremmo and Riley, cited in Benson, 2006). This resulted to the development of independent, self-directed learning.

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In presenting the concepts of learner autonomy, I will first define learner autonomy, as presented by the different researches from when it was first identified. These will include the definitions from Holec, Benson, Smith, and Little. Along with the definitions, I will present a brief history of how the concept has been formed. I will then show how the theoretical concepts are involved with learner autonomy, especially on the application of these in the Chilean context. I will highlight the idea that in learning a new language, such as English, the students do not need to adapt or absorb the culture of the Native English Speakers; I will also define the roles of the educator and the learner in class. Although the roles may vary for each educational institution. I will also present the typical characteristics of an autonomous learner, as well as the strategies by which a teacher may promote learner autonomy in class. Cognitive and metacognitive strategies can be undertaken to improve learner autonomy in class.


Holec first published “Autonomy in foreign language learning” in 1979, where he defined learner autonomy as the “ability to take charge of one’s own learning,” (1981: 3) Since then it has become a main concern in the recent history of language teaching (Benson, 2001; Dam, 1995; Holec, 1981; Little, 1991; Palfreyman & Smith, 2005). Learner autonomy, as stated by Allwright (1988 in Benson, 2007) has long been associated with a drastic restructuring of language pedagogy, involving the dismissal of the traditional classroom and the beginning of completely new systems of working. The focus therefore of language teaching has shifted from the emphasis on methodology to emphasis on the learners. The flourishing of self-access centres and development of computer-based methods of teaching, learning, and learner-based approach schemes have realized Allwright’s (1988 in Benson, 2007) “radical restructuring of language pedagogy” that many language educators must learn to accept.

Benson (2007) states that the traditional language classroom and courses methods have undergone deconstruction worldwide which has underlined the recent and growing interest in learner autonomy. The innovations that focus more on the learners through learner autonomy have unavoidably become a thrilling concept in foreign language learning over the last three decades.

Here are a few popular definitions of learner autonomy: Autonomy is an acclimatizing skill that allows learners to build up supportive structures within themselves rather than to have these erected around them (Trim, 1976, cited in Esch, 1996); the ability to take charge of one’s own learning (Holec, 1981); a faculty for disconnection, crucial consideration, decision-making and self-regulating action (Little, 1990); the condition where an individual is completely responsible for all the choices concerned with his learning and the process involved in carrying out those decisions (Dickinson, 1993); the willingness to take control of an individual’s own learning based on his own needs and purposes (Dam, 1995); and the acknowledgment of the rights of students inside educational systems (Benson, 2001).

On the other hand, Learner autonomy could not be defined exactly; this difficulty arises from two basic postulations: that there are degrees of autonomy (Nunan, 1997: 172) and that the characteristics of autonomous learners are various, such as the students’ age, progression of learning and their own perception of what their immediate learning needs are (Little, 1991: 4).

To this day, the definition of learner autonomy by Holec (1981) is that which is widely used and cited. However, his definition only presents what the skills of autonomous learners are and not how they are able to learn autonomously. Dickinson (1993) has presented learner autonomy as a situation; whereas all other definitions refer to learner autonomy as an ability or skill. Little (2007) states that learner autonomy is more of a matter of learners doing things not alone but for themselves.

After reviewing all these definitions, I understand the term of learner autonomy not as learning or teaching method, but as a reflection and analysis of the students’ own learning process.


The proposal that learners have the authority and right to learn for themselves is noted as an important element in learner autonomy (Smith, 2008). The basis of learner autonomy, therefore is that if students are concerned in decision-making processes about their own language aptitude, they are apt to be more eager about learning (Littlejohn, 1985) resulting in a more focused and purposeful group of students (Little, 1991). Chan (2001: 506) has presented evidence that “increasing the level of learner control will increase the level of self-determination, thereby increasing overall motivation in the development of learner authority.” It is therefore the responsibility of the teacher in facilitating a classroom environment where autonomy is acknowledged (Barfield, 2001)

Huang (2005: 205) presented crucial issues regarding learner autonomy. These are: autonomy should be analyzed from several standpoints, such as technological, psychological, socio-cultural and political. Learner autonomy is a multidimensional capacity which could “take different forms for different individuals and even for the same individual in different contexts or at different times” (Benson, 2001: 47). Autonomy has different degrees (Nunan, 1996). The improvement of autonomy shows collaboration and interdependence instead of learners working alone (Little, 1996).

Benson (2006) noted the need for learner autonomy for innovations that have become astonishingly significant over the last thirty years, leading to an increasing amount of awareness to learner autonomy. This shows that learner autonomy must be recognized as an important component in EFL ( English as a Foreingn Language) settings. In EFL there has been a transfer of focus from the teacher to the student; from focus on how to improve teaching methods to an inclusive concern on how individual students would go through their learning effectively (Gremmo & Riley, 1995). Language teaching has adapted a more communicative approach, being more learner-centred (Yang, 1998). On the other hand, English language teachers struggle with methods of promoting or encouraging learner autonomy in the classroom (Littlewood, 1997). As a result of this, teachers have to gain autonomous skills from professional trainings in order for them to be able to take a positive attitude towards developing learner autonomy in their students.

Principles of Learner Autonomy in Chilean Context

Education, as mentioned by Dewey (2001), is the manner by which the continuity of an individual, a society, culture, religion and norms is ensured. The procedures of education entail authoritative as well as self-governing systems that require continuous harmonizing and evaluation on the side of the educator. Progressive – or liberal – education encourages the freedom of involvement and knowledge-sharing. It is an educator’s duty, therefore, to progressively organize topics in a way that reflects the student’s background, by affording to them learning experiences that would facilitate, rather than suppress, the student’s opportunity for future growth, increasing that student’s possible involvement in the society in the future. (Dewey, 2001)

Chile is a country located at South America, bordering the South Pacific Ocean and is between Argentina and Peru. Languages spoken in Chile include Spanish (official), Mapudungun and English and German taught as foreign languages . (South America: Chile, 2011)

Smith (1976) posited that in acquiring an international language, students do not need to adapt or internalize the cultural norms of English native language speakers, ownership of an international language becomes ‘denationalized’; and the educational goal of teaching English is to enable the learners to share their own concepts and cultures to others.

McKay (2003) has further presented implications in teaching EFL in the setting of Chile: the cultural content of EFL resources should not be restricted to native English-speaking cultures. Chilean cultural content should be used in teaching English to preserve the Chilean culture in the young. The balance between knowing the proper use of English and having an idea about the socio-cultural background of the students must be considered in teaching English effectively. Finally, the importance of bilingual teachers of English needs to be recognised, since they are the facilitators of effective autonomous learning methods, having the knowledge of the educational system and culture of the learners, making them culturally connected. Because of this strength, continuing education regarding English teaching methods and professional development must be held constantly.

Cultural Issues Preventing Autonomous Learning in Chilean Students

Taking a closer look at the educational systems in Chile, State schools and its students are in social risk. Motivating students to attend school is a problem as there is a low attendance to classes. Each class has 38 to 45 students. The students do not show interest in class, and have a negative attitude to learning English in particular and learning in general. The parents do not show support for the English or other learning programs. As for the teachers, we have to endure 44 hours of working per week, lack of enough language and learning materials such as books, dictionaries, technological and audio-visual resources. In addition to this, because of the remote location of the country, the average Chilean English learners would not have enough resources to travel and visit countries that speak in English.


Learner autonomy in the setting of EFL would improve metacognitive awareness on the following aspects: learner’s self-awareness, learning process awareness, subject matter awareness and a deeper social awareness. The autonomy in class would eventually lead to a more autonomous and improved quality of life within the classroom environment. (Chuck, 2004)

The Characteristics of an Autonomous Learner

Breen and Mann (1997) have listed the expected standards of autonomous language learners: Autonomous learners see understand what they need to learn, how they will learn this, and acknowledge the resources available as something they can take control of. They present an authentic relationship with the language they are learning and present a genuine desire to learn it. They have a positive sense of self that is not undermined by any actual or implicit undesirable assessments of themselves or their output. They are able to pause and reflect upon their current learning activities and make decisions about what learning steps to take next. They are alert and adaptable to change and resourceful. They have the capacity to learn regardless of the environment they are in; they engage and make use of the environment they find themselves in strategically. They can balance the strategic meeting of their own needs and respond to the requirements and wants of other group members.

Omaggio, (as cited in Wenden 1988), has a shorter description of autonomous learners:

  • Autonomous learners have insights into their learning methods and schemes;
  • take a vigorous attitude to the learning task at hand;
  • are eager to take risks, i.e., to connect in the target language at all costs;
  • are good guessers;
  • attend to method as well as to content, that is, place significance on exactitude as well as appropriacy;
  • advance the target language into a distinct reference system and are prepared to review and scrap hypotheses and rules that do not relate; and
  • have a broad-minded and outward approach to the target language.

The autonomous learner takes on a proactive part in the learning process, producing ideas and availing himself of learning prospects, rather than merely responding to different incitements of the educator. This falls within the theory of constructivism. Learning to the autonomous learner is the result of self-initiated interaction with his society, with the world.

It would be sound to conclude that autonomous learners are good language learners as well, however, it would be nice to know that the premise behind capacity in autonomous learners is that they are not autonomous at all times. Motivational and affective factors, such as mood, psychological and environmental factors affect a learner’s aptitude (McKay, 2003).

Promoting Learner Autonomy in Classrooms

Promoting learner activities, especially in the EFL setting is gaining importance. Brajcich (2000) has presented different useful methods in promoting learner autonomy:

  1. Encourage students to be inter-reliant and to work cooperatively; the less students rely on their educator, the more autonomy is being established.
  2. Request students to maintain a journal of their learning experiences. Through practice, they may become extra mindful of their learning inclinations and start to decide on new techniques of becoming more autonomous learners.
  3. Clarify teacher/student roles from the start. Probing students to give their views on the issue of roles could be advantageous.
  4. Advance slowly from interdependence to independence. Offer the students time to change to new learning tactics and do not anticipate too much too soon.
  5. Provide to the students tasks to do outside the classroom. Such tasks may intensify the motivation to learn.
  6. Give the students non-classroom responsibilities to accomplish (taking roll, writing instructions, notices, etc. on the board for the teacher)
  7. Let the students plan lessons or materials to be used in class.
  8. Teach students on how to utilize the school’s resource centres: school library, language lab, and others.
  9. Highlight the significance of peer-editing, improvements, and follow-up questioning in the classroom.
  10. Embolden the students to use only English in class. Tell the students that this is an opportunity for them to use only English, and few opportunities like this exist for them. Part of the role of the language educator is to generate an atmosphere where students sense they should communicate in the objective language and feel at ease in doing so.
  11. Stress fluency instead of exactitude.
  12. Nonetheless, do tolerate the students using reference books, such as dictionaries in class.

There are different ways a teacher can motivate and facilitate autonomous learning through learner training in class. It must be kept in mind, though that improving autonomous learning abilities is not about making students work independently; instead it should assist the students in developing skills that would convert the students into becoming good learners, taking responsibility for learning and be able to apply these skills into any new learning situation (Mynard and Sorflaten 2003). Learner autonomy does not appear unexpectedly from the learner but is developed from the learner’s communication with the society with which he belongs (Cotterall, 1999). Teachers and educators therefore have to be patient and allow the development of autonomous learning in their students. They should enable the time-dependent process for learners to know how to be responsible for their own education through methods and techniques.

Working with Chilean students has made me realize that learner autonomy; especially in EFL is really an important aspect in the educational process. I would like to encourage the students to learn English through leisure, social integration, and work. This would be initiated through variations in their learning strategies that would include activities as grammar translation, direct or natural method of teaching, situational approach, the audio-lingual method, communicative approach, total physical response, topic-driven methods, intercultural language learning and task-based learning activities. Based on Scharle and Szabo’s Learner Autonomy (2000), I would use the following learning strategies which can simply be carried out in the classroom setting:

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Activities to raise awareness: Here I will present new perspectives and understanding to the students and support them in getting the inner process of their learning to the conscious level of their thinking. Most of the activities at this stage are somewhat strongly controlled, assuming that the students are not yet very responsible and need to be told what to do. This would include collecting information about the current level of English knowledge the students have, and laying out plans for them towards a certain goal, such as reading comprehension. Examples of these activities would be giving out translation quizzes (Spanish to English), easy grammar and vocabulary quizzes, or even crossword puzzles.

Begin changing attitudes: This is where the skills learned at the previous stage would be practiced. This slow process requires practice and patience from both parties while undergoing the understanding to practising new roles and habits. Students with less sense of responsibility in general need more consideration and tolerance. Many of the activities at this stage are repeatable and they tend to allow more room for learner initiative. Examples of such activities would be the students sharing personal experiences which would motivate their use of adjectives and descriptions. For example, letting the students write an essay about an event – such as “My Christmas Experience.”

Transferring roles to the learner: This entails a significant transformation in classroom management, making it the most challenging phase for the educator. The activities are loosely structured, giving a considerable amount of freedom to the students in accomplishing tasks, or even in deciding about tasks. An example would be facilitating a series of reports from the students and allow a question and answer portion. This would motivate the students to share their ideas in the language being learned.


Learner autonomy in this day and age is a needed approach in producing productive members of society (Holec, 1981). Learner autonomy in the Chilean context is still not widely practiced. Factors that result to this include shortages of teaching and learning resources, lack of motivation of students to learn which could be the result of poor parental concern, large populations per class, overworked educators and the lack of professional development programs of the educators. There is an increasing need for autonomy learning with the changing scenario of EFL brought about by globalization and advancements in technology such as the internet. These have broadened the scope and the needs of the students in their educational aspects. Finally it would be nice to suggest incorporating new methods of EFL by making use of technology and technology-based tools, such as the internet, or computer-based programs and self-accessed language learning centres. (Alvarez, Pitarch, & Monferref). This would not only encourage the use of the new language but also the knowledge of the young students in using new technology. In addition to this, learners are given more options in determining their progression through the English lesson thus giving them the chance to self-evaluate and then plan for their future studying needs.

Overall, as an educator, I would like the experience of learning English to be an exciting, memorable and at the same time motivating for my student. Despite the current and future challenges I may face in this undertaking, I would still pursue this, simply because raising awareness for autonomous language learning in the Chilean students would in a way motivate them to learn the foreign language, English. It is clear that learners need to get strategies to develop autonomy and it is here where teachers start to play an important role inside and outside the classroom. They have to equip students with the appropriate learning strategies to foster autonomy. Within the Chilean educational system would be quiet difficult to leave the students alone in this hard task , since they are accustomed to more traditional teacher – centred curriculum.


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