The challenge of developing learner autonomy

Robin MacClure starts her article “Unnecessary Parents” by saying that “the ultimate job of parents is to raise kids in a way so that they are not needed. In other words, parents should work themselves out of a job.” Well, I think that also applies to teachers, and especially to language teachers. Our goal should be to do our jobs so that, at some point, we are not needed. The point where, even before reaching full proficiency, students are able to learn on their own. In other words, the point where they become autonomous learners.
Building autonomy is a two-way street. The teacher’s role is to show the students ways in which they can expand the classroom boundaries and take advantage of the countless tools for language development, but this will only be effective if the students explicitly accept responsibility for their learning. At times, it is hard to get students to do their homework, let alone watch videos, read books or visit websites in English in their free time. The saying goes “the teacher can open the door, but only the student can choose to go in.” I have found, however, that students often need a little push.
Over the last 30 years, I’ve tried to develop strategies to encourage my students to accept my invitation to go through the door of learning autonomy (and although it is possible and worthwhile to develop in-class autonomy, what I mean here is the autonomy to learn on their own while away from the classroom environment). I start by telling them that there are 168 hours in a week, 56 of which, in average, they will spend sleeping. That will leave them with 112 hours. The time they spend in class represents a mere 1 to 2% of that amount of time, which is not much if taken into consideration that an estimated 1,200 hours are needed to complete the six levels (A1 to C2) of the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages. In other words, becoming proficient in English will be an unattainable goal if all the learning has to take place in class.
Having made that very clear, I go on to suggest websites, applications, books, films, TV series. I have, in the classroom, a mini-library of books and DVDs students can borrow (but rarely do). I encourage them to download video clips with the lyrics to their favorite songs and, as often as possible, sing along. I tell them about the importance of watching TV programs in English and lectures from the amazing TED.com. I show them how fun it can be to practice new vocabulary with Learningchocolate.com or Quizlet.com. I suggest apps such as Duolingo or Memrize. I recommend YouTube channels such as “Tales of Mere Existence” or VSauce. For those who like videogames, I mention the merits of games such as Minecraft in developing and consolidating vocabulary.
I wish I could say that most of my students follow my advice, but unfortunately that is not true. Adults blame their lack of commitment on their very busy schedule, while younger students say school and other extra-curricular activities take up all their time. But a few students do take the less travelled road and become autonomous, self-guided learners. And I have to agree with Robert Frost: that makes all the difference.

Vivian Magalhães

Vivian Magalhães has an English teaching degree from UFRGS and a Master’s degree in Education from PUC-RS . She is the co-author of all the books in the series “Cem Aulas Sem Tédio”, as well as the author of “Teacher Tools” and the webmaster of www.linguaestrangeira.com.br. In over thirty years of English teaching, she has taught children, teenagers and adults in many different settings. Nowadays, Vivian runs her own English school and also works as a freelance teacher trainer.

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