“Experimenting with English”: scaffolding autonomy

How can we create “a supportive and encouraging learning environment which can help to lower anxiety filters and challenge students to consider new or alternative methods of learning.” (McCarthy, 2013 kindle loc 4662)? That is the question that I consider in this post, a question that I have been exploring since doing a module on Multimedia and Independent learning, as well as one on Materials Development at Leeds Met as part of my M.A. in ELT. It is also one of the questions that formed the basis of the webinar on Learner Autonomy that I did in collaboration with the British Council Teaching English group.

Learner autonomy is complex and multi-faceted, as this diagram shows:

Screen Shot 2014-02-15 at 20.42.12

This diagram shows the range of levels on which learner autonomy can operate. My post will focus on “independent use of learning resources“, “independent use of learning technologies” and “development of autonomous learning skills” as well as “focus on teacher roles“, as the form of autonomy development that I discuss requires the teacher to play an active role in a non-traditional way.

The “Experimentation with English” project developed partly as a result of my keenness to investigate ways of helping my learners become more autonomous partly in response to an institutional requirement that learners do 10 hours of independent learning (homework excluded) in order to pass their courses. Benson (2011) draws attention to the difference between programmes that foster autonomy and those that require it. Without teacher  intervention, I felt that the afore-mentioned institutional requirement was part of the latter category. This was no criticism, but pushed me to consider ways of working with it so that I could use it as a means of actively fostering autonomy too.

Firstly, I considered potential reasons that learners might not be successful in their independent study. I came up with the following:

  • lack of motivation: some learners may not feel motivated to complete this component of the course. They may not see the value of it. The result? They may do the bare minimum and not gain very much from it, thereby creating a self-fulfilling prophesy in a vicious circle kind of a way.
  • lack of tools/ideas: some learners may be very keen but not know where to start, or where to go next. The result? They may do only a very narrow range of activities, thus limiting the potential benefits.
  • lack of success: some learners may struggle as they study independently with nobody to tell them what to do. The result? They may feel inadequate and anxious, they may give up or resort to doing only the easiest activities, those which they believe themselves able to do.
  • lack of confidence: some learners may believe they are not good enough to do things using the target language or they may believe that they don’t know the “best” way and therefore there’s no point trying. The result: They may not try in the first place, to avoid failing or using the “wrong” way of doing things.
  • lack of time: some learners may find that life gets in the way. “Language learner” may only be a very tiny part of what it is to be them, the commitments, responsibilities, pressures. The result? they may put off independent study, in the hopes that later they will be able to find enough time.

So how can the teacher face these potential issues, perhaps in a way that minimises the possibility of them arising in the first place and/or nips them in the bud if they do emerge? Importantly, how can the teacher help the learners become better able to manage these potential issues themselves?

Experimentation with English

This is a very simple solution, drawing on a sociocultural perspective of learner autonomy. This version of autonomy places importance on the learner as a member of a social group, in which  learning, or in this case autonomous learning, is mediated by more experienced others. (Oxford, 2003).

Requirements:

  • activity sheet: a collection of ideas for using English outside class, with space built in for learners to write comments regarding their use of the activities, on a handout for learners to keep with them.
  • regular class time allocation for discussion: 10-15 minutes at the start of one lesson per week is sufficient – arguably not a big ask.
  • that’s all!

What?

Of course, the activity sheet/ideas will look different depending on your context and learners’ needs:

  • Working in a non-English speaking country, in a private language school, the ideas on my Experimentation with English sheet are geared towards helping learners maximise their exposure to the target language and communicative use of the language outside of class.
  • I have not used this project with young learners or early teenagers, the youngest have been 16 years old – teenagers who are considered old enough for adult classes. A YL version of this would look different – I leave it to the YL experts amongst you to figure out what it should be!
  • ESP classes would require activities that related to their specific needs and learning goals.
  • In an English-speaking environment, such a handout would include ways of harnessing that environment, empowering learners to benefit more fully from it. (Although it is often assumed that learners in an English-speaking environment enjoy more opportunities to use the target language on a regular basis, it is important not to forget that accessing these opportunities may not be as straight-forward as we might assume.)

How?

  • In the lesson where I introduced Experimentation with English, I gave learners the handout and asked them to look at it before the next class, and to identify any activities they were familiar with and any ideas that immediately grabbed their attention/interest.
  • Then, in the next class, I gave them time to discuss, in small groups, whether they had already tried any of the ideas, and if so how useful they had found the ideas, and which of the ideas interested them. Being a group of individuals with widely varying experiences and interests, there was plenty to discuss.
  • I then proposed that they choose one or more activities to experiment with and said that I would give them time at the beginning of a lesson a week to discuss what they had tried, how useful they had found it, any problems they had experienced etc. Thus, learners went away knowing that there was a safety net underneath them as they tried new things: they had support.
  • Subsequent discussions saw learners sharing their experiences/ideas, their problems, solutions to classmates’ problems and setting goals regarding what they would try each to do each week.

Benefits?

I feel it would be most useful to look at this in terms of the problems identified above.

  • lack of motivation: By trying different things, learners gained more from their independent learning, which fed positively into their motivation.  Learners’ motivation also increased as a result of regular goal-setting (and satisfaction of reaching goals) and as a result of discussion.
  • lack of tools/ideas: the activity handouts gave learners a starting point, which they were encouraged to compare with what they already and use as the basis for further experimentation.
  • lack of success: this was addressed in two main ways. Firstly, the regular discussions meant that learners weren’t isolated when they faced problems in learning to learn independently. Secondly, part of the discussions involved goal setting, which helped learners become more motivated when they met their goals.
  • lack of confidence: discussion and experience-sharing helped learners see that there are many different ways of learning rather than “right” and “wrong” ways. Starting with comparison between what learners already do and the ideas on the handout built in an opportunity for learners to validate their current methods, helping them feel less insecure about their learning habits. Having new ideas to try, in a supportive environment, helped learners have the confidence to extend their current learning approaches, increasing their effectiveness.
  • lack of time: learners were not castigated for spending time doing things other than language learning and were encouraged to spend any small amount of time that they could fit in amongst their other commitments. Thus learners were better able to focus on what they could do rather than what they couldn’t do. Every little helps…

Feedback

In a feedback form that I gave to learners at the end of the course, I asked them if they had found the “extra” activities useful, using a Likert scale but also providing space for explanation of answers. In a separate question, I also asked them if they understood more about how to learn. Here are some of the comments:

“The discussion at the beginning of the lesson was stimulating to do more work at home.”
“They are very helpful to do something interesting with English”
“I think that the ‘extra’ activities are useful, because they are moments to improve our English and you can compare your extra homeworks to your extra homework of your classmates”
“It was very helpful because it helped us to improve our method how to learn English”
“Because they helped me to use English out of the class and to improve my speaking”
“The extras are useful. I can practice on the internet even not attending an English course.”
“Yes, because now I understood that I have to read or listen a lot in order to improve my English. Before this course I have only studied the grammar”

The comments show that the discussions had a dual value for learners: as well as the autonomy-related value, in terms of stimulation to learn outside the classroom, learners appreciate the opportunity to use language meaningfully, to discuss their experiences, and the effect this has on their speaking ability.

On the same form, giving them a choice of yes or no, and space for explanation, I also asked learners whether they had found setting goals useful. Here are some of the comments from learners who circled yes:

“otherwise it’s easy to waste time”
“setting goals and communicating them to others is an effective way to gain motivation”
“the goal compels you to accomplish a task in a shorter time”
“I’m glad when I reach my goals, even if they are a bit ambitious”
“They helped me to study more”
“You feel very satisfied when you reach your goals”
“With a goal, I was more motivated to continue the activities”
“Yes because I’m lazy so I need it”

Increased motivation was the most common theme with regards to the comments about goal-setting. While setting goals within this framework, where learners communicate their goals to others on a regular basis is not independent, I would argue that learners show autonomy in choosing goals for themselves and develop that autonomy in a supportive atmosphere, learning about different types of goals as well as how to set challenging yet achievable goals. It is clear that the learners cited above recognise the value of the goal-setting process, so hopefully this has become another tool for them to manage their learning – a tool that they will be able to use independently beyond the end of the course.

Conclusion

Learner autonomy can be scaffolded from within the classroom, in order to enable learners to benefit more fully from all the learning opportunities beyond it. Harnessing and managing motivation is as important as stimulating that motivation in the first place. However, in the classroom, teachers tend to focus on that initial stimulation, forgetting that any motivation that is stimulated also needs to be maintained (Dornyei and Ushioda, 2012). (To illustrate this, consider the difference between the project/framework described above and initiating the same project but then leaving it outside the classroom.)

By stepping into the role of enabler rather than transmitter, encouraging learners to try new activities outside the classroom and bringing that learning back into the classroom regularly (through reflective, collaborative guided discussion) as well as helping learners develop their ability to set effective goals, I believe that teachers can help learners to “systematise the capacities that they already possess” (Benson 2011:91), thus fostering autonomy rather than simply expecting it.

References

Benson, P. (2003)  Learner autonomy in the classroom in in Nunan, D. [ed] Practical English language teaching. PRC: Higher education press/McGraw Hill.

Benson, P. (2011) Teaching and Researching Autonomy (2nd Edition) Pearson Education. Harlow.

Dornyei and Ushioda (2012) Teaching and Researching Motivation (Kindle Edition) Pearson Education. Harlow.

McCarthy, T. (2013)  Redefining the learning space: Advising tools in the classroom in in Menegale, M [ed] Autonomy in Language Learning: Getting learners actively involved. (Kindle Edition) IATEFL, Canterbury.

Oxford, R. (2003) Towards a more Systematic Model of L2 Learner Autonomy in Palfreyman, D and Smith, R. [Ed] Learner Autonomy Across Cultures. Palgrave Macmillan. Basingstoke.

Smith, R. (2003) Pedgagogy for Autonomy as (Becoming) Appropriate Methodology in Palfreyman, D and Smith, R. [Ed] Learner Autonomy Across Cultures. Palgrave Macmillan. Basingstoke.

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18 thoughts on ““Experimenting with English”: scaffolding autonomy

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  7. A simple yet great idea! Have been reading a lot about your projects and am keen to try some of them out in my context with my learners in India! What sort of ideas did you use in your handout of activities? I’d be grateful if you could give me some examples! Thanks!

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  13. Hi Lizzie

    I just watched your webinar and I’ve been looking for your handouts but I can’t find them on here

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