Developing Learner Autonomy:
From Theory to Classroom Practice
Plenary talk
Leni Dam, Denmark
Venice 2011
Outline of talk
What is language learner autonomy?
Why learner autonomy?
How learner autonomy?
The role of the teacher.
Final remarks by two learners.
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What is language learner autonomy?
• Autonomous language learners are actively
involved in their own learning, willing to take
responsibility, and capable of doing so. (Leni
Dam, after Henry Holec)
• Learner autonomy does not entail an
abdication of initiative and control on the part
of the teacher: she remains responsible for
ensuring that learning happens. (David Little)
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Why learner autonomy ? (1)
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Why learner autonomy? (2)
“To learn is to develop relationships between
[what is already known to the learner and the
new knowledge presented to him], and this
can only be done by the learner himself ”.
(Barnes 1976:78)
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Why learner autonomy? (3)
“No school, or even university, can provide its pupils or
students with all the knowledge and the skills they will
need in their active adult lives. […]
It is more important for a young person to have an
understanding of himself or herself, an awareness of the
environment and its workings, and to have learned how
to think and how to learn.”
(Trim 1988 :3)
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Why learner autonomy? (4)
“The schools that kids love have the quality
of active learning environments, allowing
students to become shareholders of their
own learning.” (Rogers 1969:9)
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How learner autonomy?
Plan what to do
Carry out the plans
Evaluate the outcome
Next step
Cooperation/ Negotiation
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Extract from “It’s up to yourself if you want to learn” –
2nd day of project work.
A class of 15-year-old, mixed ability students. Beginning of
their 5th year of English, which means that they have had
app. 400 lessons of English of 45 minutes.
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Classroom practice (1): Make the learners willing
to take responsibility for their own learning
• Make the learners feel secure by exploiting the
knowledge that they bring to the classroom: their
knowledge about themselves, about learning, and about
communication; their world knowledge as well as their
knowledge about the target language.
• Make the learners feel respected and accepted as
individuals in the social process of learning: show them
that their views as well as their existing knowledge are
important factors in the learning environment.
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About myself
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“English words I know” – and – “Words I want to learn”
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Why do I learn English? How do I learn English?
After one month in their first year of English (10
lessons), 11-year-old learners were asked to
answer these two questions in their logbooks.
Their answers are translated from Danish.
This activity is also used at intermediate level
when starting a new class.
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Why do I learn English?
Susan, a weak learner
Karsten, a clever learner
“If I am going abroad one day.
It is a cozy language.
Nearly everybody can speak English.
I would also like to learn another
“It is good to be able to speak English
when you travel around the world. (I
love travelling.)
So that you can understand
American and English films without
You can tease the small ones without
them knowing what’s all about. (I
find that funny.)
In short, it is a language which is
good to be able to speak and it is fun
to learn.”
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How do I learn English?
“Speak more English.
And when sitting in groups.”
“I learn English by
concentrating on what I am
Read a book in English.
Make a book in English.
Speak English with my friends.
Watch American and English
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The best thing you can do is to become
extremely good at being yourself!
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Classroom practice (2): Make the learners capable of
taking over responsibility for their own learning
• Make clear (in writing) to the learners what is demanded and
expected of them – and why.
• Give them choice. Let them make decisions. (choice → reflection
and (co-)responsibility)
• Let them set up individual goals within given guidelines.
• Get them accustomed to keeping track of their own learning in
logbooks and portfolios.
• Integrate evaluation of the teaching/learning process in every
• Increase learners’ talking time ↔reduce teacher’s talking time.
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Demands and expectations
Rules for homework
Demands for the logbook
Homework is a must.
You can choose from the list of ideas.
You must be able to do your
homework without the help of
your parents.
Whatever you choose should be so
interesting that you can’t help
doing it.
You must always read in your extra
reader – till you have come across
at least 5 new words.
Make it easy to follow: what you
have done during a lesson, what
you have “learned” (new words,
new expressions, other things),
and who you have worked with.
Remember to write down homework
and perhaps a plan for the next
Remember to number the pages and
make margins.
Remember “Month pages”.
Make it nice to look at.
(Rules made in cooperation between teacher
and learners)
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Personal contracts!
Karsten’s logbook entrance from Spring, 4th year of English:
“My personal contract for April: I will read aloud from my book
when I am sharing homework to practice my articulation. I will
write some stories as homework, to practice my spelling and
written language.”
(Dam, 2006:270)
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The role of the teacher when developing learner
• Focus on learning rather than teaching. Be a co-learner.
• Be a model: Speak the TL, respect the learners – and especially
their time (authentic language use, activity types, etc.)
• Keep learners and parents fully informed as regards: What you
do as a teacher, why you do it, and what you expect from
learners as well as parents.
• Trust the learners: Take what the learners say at face value.
• See problems as challenges to be dealt with – together with
the learners.
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