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How can I help my students to become more confident and autonomous language learners and users?

By: Andy Van Drom

April 12, 2018

Students and teachers alike agree on the fact that language learning is not an undertaking that begins and ends in a classroom, but a lifelong endeavour. If, as teachers, we want to meet the ministerial objectives of preparing our students to communicate in English in study and work-related contexts and thus support them in becoming fully fledged citizens, we have to empower them to develop their language learning skills instead of merely studying a predetermined set of vocabulary and grammar rules. 

“I believe learner autonomy is not something we can explicitly teach, but rather a capacity we can help our students acquire by teaching them strategies and attitudes”

Increasing student autonomy has three distinct benefits:

  • If students are actively and reflectively engaged with their learning, it is more efficient and effective because of a heightened sense of relevance. 
  • If students are proactively committed to their learning, they are by definition also more motivated and engaged.
  • If students develop sound language learning strategies, they are able to maximize the benefits they get from practice opportunities inside as well as outside of the classroom. 

But what exactly makes language learners more autonomous, and how can a teacher contribute to it?

I believe learner autonomy is not something we can explicitly teach, but rather a capacity we can help our students acquire by teaching them strategies and attitudes that relate to three dimensions of language learning:

  • The cognitive processes needed to master the different aspects of a second or foreign language
  • The metacognitive awareness needed to allow students to learn that language in an effective and viable manner
  • The social dimension that brings purpose to the learning process and its opportunities for practice

In both levels of Become as well as my everyday teaching, I try to achieve this by implementing a specific set of approaches and activities:

  • Contextually targeted vocabulary, grammar and pronunciation. Offering these bite-size elements in the context of activities where students can readily use and apply them leads them to become more confident when expressing themselves. This allows the teacher to give students more responsibility over other aspects of their learning, such as identifying relevant field-related vocabulary.

  • Language related and communicative strategies. As students explore different listening and reading strategies, they get more insight into which ones work for them, beyond the immediate context of the comprehension activity at hand. Workshops on topics such as using a dictionary, recognizing levels of language and summarizing information give students the necessary tools to consolidate their cognitive learning processes.

  • Personalised scaffolding. Instead of using a top-down approach, I give students the responsibility to identify field-related vocabulary and to brainstorm, research and produce manageable chunks of content, which they reinvest further down the road into more complex, authentic speaking and writing tasks. This also allows for a considerable amount of formative feedback to validate students’ thinking process, so they can finetune their metacognitive strategies.

  • Collaboration. Discussion activities harness the diversity of fields, backgrounds and interests to spark meaningful low-risk exchanges that lead students to develop their critical thinking and give them the opportunity to refine their own vision and objectives for the future. This, in turn, reinforces the social importance of language use.

In this way, the language elements (vocabulary, grammar, pronunciation, …) focused on in class are not reduced to mere objectives in their own right. Rather, I encourage my students to see them as building blocks they can reorganize and recontextualize in an infinite number of ways to achieve their ultimate objective: to successfully communicate in English in academic, work-related, or indeed all contexts.

Andy Van Drom has been teaching Linguistics and ESL at the college and university level, specializing in English for Specific Purposes, since 2005. He is an editor and regularly writes on the ProfWeb blog. He is also the author of Become, a series designed for Block B students in levels 100-102. Learn more >>

Tags: Autonomy, Become, blog, Cegep, Confidence, ELT, ESL

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