The official website of educator Jack C Richards

Learner autonomy in language teaching


submitted by Aaron Stewart, New Zealand

What is the role of learner autonomy in language teaching?

Dr Richards Responds:

Learner autonomy refers to the principle that learners should take a maximum amount of responsibility for what they learn and how they learn it. They should be involved in decisions concerning setting objectives for learning, determining ways and means of learning, and reflecting on and evaluating what they have learned. Autonomous learning is said to make learning more personal and focused and consequently achieve better learning outcomes since learning is based on learners’ needs and preferences. It contrasts with the traditional teacher-led approach in which most decisions are made by the teacher, The use of self-directed learning in a self-access centre is one application of this approach.

Phillip Benson has written a great deal about learner autonomy and describes five principles for achieving autonomous learning:

  • 1 active involvement in student learning
  • 2 providing options and resources
  • 3 offering choices and decision-making opportunities
  • 4 supporting learners
  • 5 encouraging reflection

Other features of autonomous learning are:

  • the teacher becomes less of an instructor and more of a facilitator
  • students are discouraged from relying on the teacher as the main source of knowledge
  • students’ capacity to learn for themselves is encouraged
  • students are encouraged to make decisions about what they learn
  • students’ awareness of the own learning styles is encouraged
  • students are encouraged to develop their own learning strategies

An example of application of the principles of learner autonomy is the Council of Europe’ European Language Portfolio, which is intended to help support autonomous learning on a wide scale. The ELP has three components: a language passport, which summarises the owners’ linguistic identity; a language biography, which provides for a reflective account of the learners experience’ in learning and using the foreign language, and a dossier, in which the learner collects evidence of his or her developing proficiency in the language. The ELP involves regular goal setting and self-assessment.

Critics of the learner autonomy however point out that not all learners may wish to learn in this way or be capable of doing so, and that it reflects a western conception of learning that may be inappropriate in non-western cultures.