Learner Autonomy is, first and foremost, a mindset. A way of thinking about learning as a journey where you decide where to go, and how to travel. You may occasionally hire a tour guide to explain about the local sights, but then you’re on the road again, to wherever the events and the people you meet take you. Sometimes you go directly to the next town, and sometimes you stop for a drink on the way. Sometimes you go to the museum, and sometimes for a hike in the mountains. Sometimes you read about the history of the sights, and sometimes you just soak up the atmosphere. Sometimes you feel great, and sometimes you are homesick. And sometimes, you just need a break.
Autonomy, then, is an intimately personal affair. It is about your life, about what you want to achieve, and what you enjoy. In this way, it is the only way to learn successfully in the long term. Because no one knows you better than you do, and no one can make your choices for you, autonomy requires you to get to know yourself better. Becoming autonomous is a process of discovery.
Because autonomy is about you and starts from within you, it cannot be forced upon you. You, and you alone, can make the decision to start this journey. But just as good travellers listen to others and learn from their experiences, good learners are not islands. They rely on others to offer insights, and occasionally, show them the way.
Autonomy is thus about freedom, both freedom from being told what to do, and the freedom to do what you think is best. Autonomy does not live happily in places without choice and it does not prosper in places where one part of the population is disadvantaged. Restrictions on what to learn or how to learn do not favour the development of autonomy.
The Research Institute for Learner Autonomy Education (RILAE) promotes research, professional development, and best practice in developing lifelong and lifewide autonomous learning. We have an active community of practitioners and researchers and offer regular, free online sessions for professional development and to share ideas. You can read more about the upcoming schedule on the RILAE website (will go live by November 2017).
I am a teacher. How can I introduce the idea of autonomy to my students?
You are a great teacher! You are ready to give your students the freedom to express themselves as individuals. Many teachers find this unnerving, as it makes their lessons less predictable. You are obviously adventurous enough to consider taking a step towards making your classes more learner-centred. Applause! Many of your colleagues are not ready yet.
You have two basic choices. One is to introduce the idea of autonomy in your classroom. The other is to make use of resources specifically designed to develop learner autonomy, such as self-access centres and language advising.
Let’s start with the first option. There are some practical tips further down, but let’s talk about the preparation phase first. You will need three things: patience, patience, and… patience! Developing autonomy takes time and depends on your persistence. Don’t give up if your learners take some time to get used to their new-found freedom and their changing roles. It would not be realistic to expect your students to take responsibility for their learning from one day, or even month, to the next. The overall classroom atmosphere needs to value and encourage reflection and learner initiative. Students need to recognise that their views and roles are valued before they are willing to risk greater participation.
As part of the preparation you will also need to talk to your students about what you aim to do and why. No one likes to be left in the dark, especially when there are changes in everyday classroom routine. Explain your thinking and what it means for your students.
So, what does encouraging in the classroom look like? Below you can read a short article about implementing a pedagogy for autonomy with some practical tips on where to start. When you complete reading it, a computer-generated test will be emailed to you to check your understanding of the article (just kidding). Article: implementing a pedagogy for autonomy.
So much for the language classroom. How about more specialised approaches? The table below shows you some of the more common approaches to implementing autonomy.
Specific courses or short courses where the focus is on developing skills for independent learning and raising students’ awareness of the importance of learning outside the classroom. Such courses usually include strategy instruction and often also include general study skills, rather than language learning skills only.
Often offered as part of regular classroom teaching, and sometimes offered as specific classes or short courses on language learning strategies.
Often considered the most common way of implementing autonomy, the provision of a self-access centre, or online self-access materials, usually involves making available resources for independent learning and staff support. Sometimes self-access learning is integrated into the classroom with the teacher working with students in the centre, and sometimes self-access is used outside classroom time, for remedial or practice purposes. In North America Writing Centres often perform a similar role. Here is an affordable, practical guide with all you need to know about self-access.
A type of language support whereby a teacher and a learner meet to discuss the learner’s needs and progress, and where the advisor (or language counsellor offers feedback, recommends materials, and helps the learner to plan their learning.
Many institutions have developed or link to (online or print) tools, for the management of the language learning process, which often quite explicitly aim to foster learner autonomy. Examples include (electronic) portfolios such as those developed by the European Union, tandem learning programmes, and personal learning environments, that aim to facilitate and create links between formal and informal learning. Some have developed online learning environments that offer materials for self-study, tips for independent learning, and opportunities for staff and student communication.
You will find many references below about learner training and strategy instruction. On this website you can also read a brief introductory article about learner strategies:
Article: Learner strategies in the language classroom. Which strategies, when, and how?
You can read the article here.
You can also download a sample of a short book that Sara Cotterall and I wrote on the subject here.
A lot has been written about self-access and how it relates to the language classroom. I hope you will forgive me for plugging a very practical small book I co-wrote with Noemi Lazaro, and that is available from this website for the reasonable price of E 9,95.
Book: Teaching and Learning in Self-Access Centres. A Guide for Teachers.
Language advising is a great break from regular teaching and a wonderful way of getting to know your learners better. Advising has made me a better teacher! You can read an introduction to advising below.
Article: The what, why, and how of language advising.
Reinders, H. 2008 ‘The what, why, and how of language advising’ In: MexTESOL, 32(2). You can read the article here or download it here.
Links to the specific tools mentioned above can be found in the references below.
Is learner autonomy suitable in my culture?
Autonomy is about freedom and being free is a fundamental human need. Autonomy therefore suits every culture. What does not suit every culture is being told how it views or develops towards freedom. In my own teaching and academic work in over 30 countries, I have found many manifestations of autonomy, often within the same country. Each context demands its own interpretation and needs to be valued for its unique character. By respecting your learners and their backgrounds, you will together find the best way towards learner autonomy.
I want to do research on learner autonomy. Where do I start?
Below you will find references to some very active organisations and mailinglists where people are very welcoming and eager to help. As a research tool you may want to check out the autonomy bibliography on this website, which currently has over 2000 references in the area of autonomy. You are also always welcome to contact me with questions. Also checkout the research page for more tips and a link to an inventory of instruments to measure autonomy.
PhD students who are looking for (external) supervision are welcome to contact me directly.
I want to learn more about autonomy. Can you give me some useful references?
You are in luck! Below you will find some of the key organisations, books, and online resources about learner autonomy and related areas. Happy browsing!
Allow me to plug our own, very practical, book, written for teachers, by teachers:
Lázaro, N. and Reinders, H. 2009. Teaching and Learning in Self-Access Centres. A Guide for Teachers. This practical book is available from this website as an e-book for 9,95 euros or it can be ordered as a printed book from the ‘books page.
Gardner, D. & Miller, L. (1999). Establishing Self-access. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Lázaro, N. and Reinders, H. (2008). Independent Learning Centres: Tips for Teachers. Sydney: NCELTR.
Hobbs, M., & Dofs, K. (2015). Essential advising to underpin effective language learning and teaching. You can read this guide here.
What makes a good language learner?
Naiman, N., Fröhlich, M., Stern, H.H., & Todesco, A. (1996). The good language learner.
Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.
Mynard, J. & Carson, L. (2012). Advising in Language Learning: Dialogue, Tools and Context. London: Longman.
Kato, S. & Mynard, J. Reflective Dialogue: Advising in Language Learning. London: Routledge.
Reinders, H. (2007). University language advising: Is it useful?. Reflections on English Language Teaching, 5(1), 79-92. You can read it here.
Language exchanges and tandem learning
Some useful links:
Arthur, L. & Hurd, S. (2001) Supporting Lifelong Language Learning. Theoretical and Practical Approaches. London: CILT.
Hurd, S. & Lewis, T. (Eds.) (2008). Language Learning Strategies in Independent Settings. London: Multilingual Matters.
Strategy Inventory for Language Learning, available here.
Cotterall, S. & Reinders, H. (2004) Learner Strategies: a Guide for Teachers Singapore: RELC. You can read a sample chapter here about the how of teaching strategies.
A related article has appeared in Relc Guidelines:
Reinders, H. (2004). ‘Learner strategies in the language classroom: which strategies, when, and how?’ RELC Guidelines 26:1, 31-35. You can read the article here.
Learner training and study skills
Cambridge English — The Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR) link
Self-assessment grid for language skills link
Curtin University of Technology – English language self-assessment and planning for learning link
Self-assessment and language learning planning link
Reinders, H., Phung, L. & Lewis, M. (2017). Studying in English. Strategies for Success in Higher Education. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan. More here.
Reinders, H., Moore, N. and Lewis, M. (2008). The International Student Handbook (In colour!).
Lewis, M. & Reinders, H. (2007). Using Student-Centered Methods with Teacher-Centered
Students. Second, revised edition. Toronto: Pippin Publishing.