Over the last two decades, the concepts of learner
autonomy and independence have gained momentum, the former
becoming a 'buzz-word' within the context of language
learning (Little, 1991: 2). It is a truism that one of the
most important spin-offs of more communicatively oriented
language learning and teaching has been the premium placed
on the role of the learner in the language learning process
(see Wenden, 1998: xi). It goes without saying, of course,
that this shift of locus of responsibility from teachers to
learners does not exist in a vacuum, but is the result of a
concatenation of changes to the curriculum itself towards a
more learner-centred kind of learning. What is more, this
reshaping, so to speak, of teacher and learner roles has
been conducive to a radical change in the age-old
distribution of power and authority that used to plague the
traditional classroom. Cast in a new perspective and
regarded as having the 'capacity for detachment, critical
reflection, decision-making, and independent action'
(Little, 1991: 4), learners, autonomous learners, that is,
are expected to assume greater responsibility for, and take
charge of, their own learning. However, learner autonomy
does not mean that the teacher becomes redundant, abdicating
his / her control over what is transpiring in the language
learning process. In the present study, it will be shown
that learner autonomy is a perennial dynamic process
amenable to 'educational interventions' (Candy, 1991),
rather than a static product, a state, which is reached once
and for all. Besides, what permeates this study is the
belief that 'in order to help learners to assume greater
control over their own learning it is important to help them
to become aware of and identify the strategies that they
already use or could potentially use' (Holmes & Ramos,
1991, cited in James & Garrett, 1991: 198). At any rate,
individual learners differ in their learning habits,
interests, needs, and motivation, and develop varying
degrees of independence throughout their lives (Tumposky,
2. What is autonomy?
For a definition of autonomy, we might look to Holec
(1981: 3, cited in Benson & Voller, 1997: 1) who
describes it as 'the ability to take charge of one's
learning'. On a general note, the term autonomy has come to
be used in at least five ways (see Benson & Voller,
1997: 2): a) for situations in which learners study entirely
on their own; b) for a set of skills which can be learned
and applied in self-directed learning; c) for an inborn
capacity which is suppressed by institutional education; d)
for the exercise of learners' responsibility for their own
learning; e) for the right of learners to determine the
direction of their own learning.
It is noteworthy that autonomy can be thought of in terms
of a departure from education as a social process, as well
as in terms of redistribution of power attending the
construction of knowledge and the roles of the participants
in the learning process. The relevant literature is riddled
with innumerable definitions of autonomy and other synonyms
for it, such as 'independence' (Sheerin, 1991), 'language
awareness' (Lier, 1996; James & Garrett, 1991),
'self-direction' (Candy, 1991), `andragogy' (Knowles, 1980;
1983a) etc., which testifies to the importance attached to
it by scholars. Let us review some of these definitions and
try to gain insights into what learner autonomy means and
As has been intimated so far, the term autonomy has
sparked considerable controversy, inasmuch as linguists and
educationalists have failed to reach a consensus as to what
autonomy really is. For example, in David Little's terms,
learner autonomy is 'essentially a matter of the learner's
psychological relation to the process and content of
learning.a capacity for detachment, critical reflection,
decision-making, and independent action' (Little, 1991: 4).
It is not something done to learners; therefore, it is far
from being another teaching method (ibid.). In the same
vein, Leni Dam (1990, cited in Gathercole, 1990: 16),
drawing upon Holec (1983), defines autonomy in terms of the
learner's willingness and capacity to control or oversee her
own learning. More specifically, she, like Holec, holds that
someone qualifies as an autonomous learner when he
independently chooses aims and purposes and sets goals;
chooses materials, methods and tasks; exercises choice and
purpose in organising and carrying out the chosen tasks; and
chooses criteria for evaluation.
To all intents and purposes, the autonomous learner takes
a (pro-) active role in the learning process, generating
ideas and availing himself of learning opportunities, rather
than simply reacting to various stimuli of the teacher
(Boud, 1988; Kohonen, 1992; Knowles, 1975). As we shall see,
this line of reasoning operates within, and is congruent
with, the theory of constructivism. For Rathbone (1971: 100,
104, cited in Candy, 1991: 271), the autonomous learner
a self-activated maker of meaning, an active agent in his
own learning process. He is not one to whom things merely
happen; he is the one who, by his own volition, causes
things to happen. Learning is seen as the result of his
own self-initiated interaction with the world.
Within such a conception, learning is not simply a matter
of rote memorisation; 'it is a constructive process that
involves actively seeking meaning from (or even imposing
meaning on) events' (Candy, 1991: 271).
Such "inventories" of characteristics evinced by the
putative autonomous learner abound, and some would say that
they amount to nothing more than a romantic ideal. This
stands to reason, for most of the characteristics imputed to
the "autonomous learner" encapsulate a wide range of
attributes not commonly associated with learners. For
instance, Benn (1976, cited in Candy, 1991: 102) likens the
autonomous learner to one '[w]hose life has a
consistency that derives from a coherent set of beliefs,
values, and principles.[and who engages in a]
still-continuing process of criticism and re-evaluation',
while Rousseau ( 1911, cited in Candy, 1991:
102) regards the autonomous learner as someone who 'is
obedient to a law that he prescribes to himself'. Within the
context of education, though, there seem to be seven main
attributes characterising autonomous learners (see Omaggio,
1978, cited in Wenden, 1998: 41-42):
1) Autonomous learners have insights into their learning
styles and strategies; 2) take an active approach to the
learning task at hand; 3) are willing to take risks, i.e.,
to communicate in the target language at all costs; 4) are
good guessers; 5) attend to form as well as to content, that
is, place importance on accuracy as well as appropriacy; 6)
develop the target language into a separate reference system
and are willing to revise and reject hypotheses and rules
that do not apply; and 7) have a tolerant and outgoing
approach to the target language.
Here, some comments with respect to the preceding list
are called for. The points briefly touched upon above are
necessary but not sufficient conditions for the development
of learner autonomy, and many more factors such as learner
needs, motivation, learning strategies, and language
awareness have to be taken into consideration. For example,
the first point hinges upon a metalanguage that learners
have to master in order to be regarded as autonomous, while
points 4) and 7) pertain to learner motivation. In view of
this, an attempt will be made, in subsequent sections, to
shed some light on some of the parameters affecting, and
interfering with, learners' self-image as well as their
capacity and will to learn. It is of consequence to note
that autonomy is a process, not a product. One does not
become autonomous; one only works towards autonomy. One
corollary of viewing autonomy in this way is the belief that
there are some things to be achieved by the learner, as well
as some ways of achieving these things, and that autonomy
'is learned at least partly through educational experiences
[and interventions]' (Candy, 1991: 115). But prior
to sifting through the literature and discussing learning
strategies, motivation, and attitudes entertained by
learners, it would be pertinent to cast learner autonomy in
relation to dominant philosophical approaches to learning.
The assumption is that what is dubbed as learner autonomy
and the extent to which it is a permissible and viable
educational goal are all too often 'based on [and thus
constrained by] particular conceptions of the
constitution of knowledge itself' (Benson, 1997, cited in
Benson & Voller, 1997: 20).
[ASSA No. 10, p. 550]
3. Learner autonomy and dominant philosophies of
In this section, three dominant approaches to knowledge
and learning will be briefly discussed, with a view to
examining how each of them connects up with learner
autonomy. Positivism, which reigned supreme in the twentieth
century, is premised upon the assumption that knowledge
reflects objective reality. Therefore, if teachers can be
said to hold this "objective reality," learning can only
'consist.in the transmission of knowledge from one
individual to another' (Benson & Voller, 1997: 20).
Congruent with this view, of course, is the maintenance and
enhancement of the "traditional classroom," where teachers
are the purveyors of knowledge and wielders of power, and
learners are seen as 'container[s] to be filled with
the knowledge held by teachers' (ibid.). On the other hand,
positivism also lends support to the widespread notion that
knowledge is attained by dint of the 'hypothesis-testing'
model, and that it is more effectively acquired when 'it is
discovered rather than taught' (ibid.) (my italics). It
takes little perspicacity to realise that positivism is
incongruent with, and even runs counter to, the development
of learner autonomy, as the latter refers to a gradual but
radical divorce from conventions and restrictions and is
inextricably related to self-direction and
Constructivism is an elusive concept and, within applied
linguistics, is strongly associated with Halliday (1979,
cited in Benson & Voller, 1997: 21). As Candy (1991:
254) observes, '[o]ne of the central tenets of
constructivism is that individuals try to give meaning to,
or construe, the perplexing maelstrom of events and ideas in
which they find themselves caught up'. In contrast to
positivism, constructivism posits the view that, rather than
internalising or discovering objective knowledge (whatever
that might mean), individuals reorganise and restructure
their experience. In Candy's terms (Candy, 1991: 270),
constructivism 'leads directly to the proposition that
knowledge cannot be taught but only learned (that is,
constructed)', because knowledge is something 'built up by
the learner' (von Glasersfeld & Smock, 1974: xvi, cited
in Candy, 1991: 270). By the same token, language learning
does not involve internalising sets of rules, structures and
forms; each learner brings her own experience and world
knowledge to bear on the target language or task at hand.
Apparently, constructivism supports, and extends to cover,
psychological versions of autonomy that appertain to
learners' behaviour, attitudes, motivation, and self-concept
(see Benson & Voller, 1997: 23). As a result,
constructivist approaches encourage and promote
self-directed learning as a necessary condition for learner
Finally, critical theory, an approach within the
humanities and language studies, shares with constructivism
the view that knowledge is constructed rather than
discovered or learned. Moreover, it argues that knowledge
does not reflect reality, but rather comprises 'competing
ideological versions of that reality expressing the
interests of different social groups' (Benson & Voller,
1997: 22). Within this approach, learning concerns issues of
power and ideology and is seen as a process of interaction
with social context, which can bring about social change.
What is more, linguistic forms are bound up with the social
meanings they convey, in so far as language is power, and
vice versa. Certainly, learner autonomy assumes a more
social and political character within critical theory. As
learners become aware of the social context in which their
learning is embedded and the constraints the latter implies,
they gradually become independent, dispel myths, disabuse
themselves of preconceived ideas, and can be thought of as
'authors of their own worlds' (ibid.: 53).
4. Conditions for learner autonomy
The concern of the present study has so far been with
outlining the general characteristics of autonomy. At this
juncture, it should be reiterated that autonomy is not an
article of faith, a product ready made for use or merely a
personal quality or trait. Rather, it should be clarified
that autonomous learning is achieved when certain conditions
obtain: cognitive and metacognitive strategies on the part
of the learner, motivation, attitudes, and knowledge about
language learning, i.e., a kind of metalanguage. To
acknowledge, however, that learners have to follow certain
paths to attain autonomy is tantamount to asserting that
there has to be a teacher on whom it will be incumbent to
show the way. In other words, autonomous learning is by no
means "teacherless learning." As Sheerin (1997, cited in
Benson & Voller, 1997: 63) succinctly puts it,
'[t]eachers.have a crucial role to play in launching
learners into self-access and in lending them a regular
helping hand to stay afloat' (my italics).
Probably, giving students a "helping hand" may put paid
to learner autonomy, and this is mainly because teachers are
ill-prepared or reluctant to 'wean [students] away
from teacher dependence' (Sheerin, 1997, cited in Benson
& Voller, 1997: 63). After all, 'it is not easy for
teachers to change their role from purveyor of information
to counsellor and manager of learning resources.And it is
not easy for teachers to let learners solve problems for
themselves' (Little, 1990, cited in Gathercole, 1990: 11).
Such a transition from teacher-control to learner-control is
fraught with difficulties but it is mainly in relation to
the former (no matter how unpalatable this may sound) that
the latter finds its expression. At any rate,
learner-control-which is ancillary to autonomy-`is not a
single, unitary concept, but rather a continuum along which
various instructional situations may be placed' (Candy,
1991: 205). It is to these 'instructional situations' that
we will turn in the next section. In this section, it is of
utmost importance to gain insights into the strategies
learners use in grappling with the object of enquiry, i.e.,
the target language, as well as their motivation and
attitude towards language learning in general. A question
germane to the discussion is, what does it mean to be an
autonomous learner in a language learning environment?
4.1. Learning strategies
A central research project on learning strategies is the
one surveyed in O'Malley and Chamot (1990). According to
them, learning strategies are 'the special thoughts or
behaviors that individuals use to help them comprehend,
learn, or retain new information' (O'Malley and Chamot,
1990: 1, cited in Cook, 1993: 113)-a definition in keeping
with the one provided in Wenden (1998: 18): `Learning
strategies are mental steps or operations that learners use
to learn a new language and to regulate their efforts to do
so'. To a greater or lesser degree, the strategies and
learning styles that someone adopts 'may partly reflect
personal preference rather than innate endowment' (Skehan,
1998: 237). We will only briefly discuss some of the main
learning strategies, refraining from mentioning
communication or compensatory strategies (see Cook, 1993 for
[ASSA No. 10, p. 551]
4.1.1. Cognitive strategies
According to O'Malley and Chamot (1990: 44), cognitive
strategies 'operate directly on incoming information,
manipulating it in ways that enhance learning'. Learners may
use any or all of the following cognitive strategies (see
Cook, 1993: 114-115):
a) repetition, when imitating others' speech; b) resourcing,
i.e., having recourse to dictionaries and other materials;
c) translation, that is, using their mother tongue as a
basis for understanding and / or producing the target
language; d) note-taking; e) deduction, i.e., conscious
application of L2 rules; f) contextualisation, when
embedding a word or phrase in a meaningful sequence; g)
transfer, that is, using knowledge acquired in the L1 to
remember and understand facts and sequences in the L2; h)
inferencing, when matching an unfamiliar word against
available information (a new word etc); i) question for
clarification, when asking the teacher to explain, etc.
There are many more cognitive strategies in the relevant
literature. O'Malley and Chamot (1990) recognise
4.1.2. Metacognitive strategies
According to Wenden (1998: 34), 'metacognitive knowledge
includes all facts learners acquire about their own
cognitive processes as they are applied and used to gain
knowledge and acquire skills in varied situations'. In a
sense, metacognitive strategies are skills used for
planning, monitoring, and evaluating the learning activity;
'they are strategies about learning rather than learning
strategies themselves' (Cook, 1993: 114). Let us see some of
a) directed attention, when deciding in advance to
concentrate on general aspects of a task; b) selective
attention, paying attention to specific aspects of a task;
c) self-monitoring, i.e., checking one's performance as one
speaks; d) self-evaluation, i.e., appraising one's
performance in relation to one's own standards; e)
self-reinforcement, rewarding oneself for success.
At the planning stage, also known as pre-planning (see
Wenden, 1998: 27), learners identify their objectives and
determine how they will achieve them. Planning, however, may
also go on while a task is being performed. This is called
planning-in-action. Here, learners may change their
objectives and reconsider the ways in which they will go
about achieving them. At the monitoring stage, language
learners act as 'participant observers or overseers of their
language learning' (ibid.), asking themselves, "How am I
doing? Am I having difficulties with this task?", and so on.
Finally, when learners evaluate, they do so in terms of the
outcome of their attempt to use a certain strategy.
According to Wenden (1998: 28), evaluating involves three
steps: 1) learners examine the outcome of their attempts to
learn; 2) they access the criteria they will use to judge
it; and 3) they apply it.
4.2. Learner attitudes and motivation
Language learning is not merely a cognitive task.
Learners do not only reflect on their learning in terms of
the language input to which they are exposed, or the optimal
strategies they need in order to achieve the goals they set.
Rather, the success of a learning activity is, to some
extent, contingent upon learners' stance towards the world
and the learning activity in particular, their sense of
self, and their desire to learn (see Benson & Voller,
1997: 134-136). As Candy (1991: 295-296) says, 'the how and
the what of learning are intimately interwoven.[T]he
overall approach a learner adopts will significantly
influence the shape of his or her learning outcomes' (my
italics). In other words, language learning-as well as
learning, in general-has also an affective component.
'Meeting and interiorising the grammar of a foreign language
is not simply an intelligent, cognitive act. It is a highly
affective one too.' (Rinvolucri, 1984: 5, cited in James
& Garrett, 1991: 13). Gardner and MacIntyre (1993: 1,
cited in Graham, 1997: 92) define 'affective variables' as
the 'emotionally relevant characteristics of the individual
that influence how she / he will respond to any situation'.
Other scholars, such as Shumann (1978) and Larsen-Freeman
and Long (1991) attach less importance to learners'
emotions, claiming that 'social and psychological factors'
give a more suitable description for students' reactions to
the learning process. Amongst the social and affective
variables at work, self-esteem and desire to learn are
deemed to be the most crucial factors 'in the learner's
ability to overcome occasional setbacks or minor mistakes in
the process of learning a second [or foreign]
language' (Tarone & Yule, 1989: 139). In this light, it
is necessary to shed some light on learner attitudes and
Wenden (1998: 52) defines attitudes as 'learned
motivations, valued beliefs, evaluations, what one believes
is acceptable, or responses oriented towards approaching or
avoiding'. For her, two kinds of attitudes are crucial:
attitudes learners hold about their role in the learning
process, and their capability as learners (ibid.: 53). In a
sense, attitudes are a form of metacognitive knowledge. At
any rate, 'learner beliefs about their role and capability
as learners will be shaped and maintained.by other beliefs
they hold about themselves as learners' (ibid.: 54). For
example, if learners believe that certain personality types
cannot learn a foreign language and they believe that they
are that type of person, then they will think that they are
fighting a "losing battle," as far as learning the foreign
language is concerned. Furthermore, if learners labour under
the misconception that learning is successful only within
the context of the "traditional classroom," where the
teacher directs, instructs, and manages the learning
activity, and students must follow in the teacher's
footsteps, they are likely to be impervious or resistant to
learner-centred strategies aiming at autonomy, and success
is likely to be undermined.
[ASSA No. 10, p. 552]
In a way, attitudes are 'part of one's perception of
self, of others, and of the culture in which one is living
[or the culture of the target language]' (Brown,
1987: 126), and it seems clear that positive attitudes are
conducive to increased motivation, while negative attitudes
have the opposite effect. But let us examine the role of
Although the term 'motivation' is frequently used in
educational contexts, there is little agreement among
experts as to its exact meaning. What most scholars seem to
agree on, though, is that motivation is 'one of the key
factors that influence the rate and success of second /
foreign language (L2) learning. Motivation provides the
primary impetus to initiate learning the L2 and later the
driving force to sustain the long and often tedious learning
process' (Dornyei, 1998: 117). According to Gardner and
MacIntyre (1993: 3), motivation is comprised of three
components: 'desire to achieve a goal, effort extended in
this direction, and satisfaction with the task'.
It is manifest that in language learning, people are
motivated in different ways and to different degrees. Some
learners like doing grammar and memorising; others want to
speak and role-play; others prefer reading and writing,
while avoiding speaking. Furthermore, since '[the
learning of a foreign language] involves an alteration
in self-image, the adoption of new social and cultural
behaviours and ways of being, and therefore has a
significant impact on the social nature of the learner'
(Williams, 1994: 77, cited in Dornyei, 1998: 122), an
important distinction should be made between instrumental
and integrative motivation. Learners with an instrumental
orientation view the foreign language as a means of finding
a good job or pursuing a lucrative career; in other words,
the target language acts as a 'monetary incentive' (Gardner
& MacIntyre, 1993: 3). On the other hand, learners with
an integrative orientation are interested in the culture of
the target language; they want to acquaint themselves with
the target community and become integral parts of it. Of
course, this approach to motivation has certain limitations
(see Cookes and Schmidt, 1991, cited in Lier, 1996:
104-105), but an in-depth analysis is not within the purview
of this study. The bottom line is that motivation is 'a
central mediator in the prediction of language achievement'
(Gardner & MacIntyre, 1993: 3), as various studies have
shown (see Kraemer, 1990; Machnick and Wolfe, 1982; et
Closely related to attitudes and motivation is the
concept of self-esteem, that is, the evaluation the learner
makes of herself with regard to the target language or
learning in general. '[S]elf-esteem is a personal
judgement of worthiness that is expressed in the attitudes
that the individual holds towards himself' (Coopersmith,
1967: 4-5, cited in Brown, 1987: 101-102). If the learner
has a `robust sense of self', to quote Breen and Mann (1997,
cited in Benson & Voller, 1997: 134), his relationship
to himself as a learner is unlikely to be marred by any
negative assessments by the teacher. Conversely, a lack of
self-esteem is likely to lead to negative attitudes towards
his capability as a learner, and to 'a deterioration in
cognitive performance', thus confirming his view of himself
as incapable of learning (Diener and Dweck, 1978, 1980,
cited in Wenden, 1998: 57).
Now that we have examined some of the factors that may
enhance, or even militate against, the learner's willingness
to take charge of her own learning and her confidence in her
ability as a learner, it is of consequence to consider
possible ways of promoting learner autonomy. To say, though,
that learner autonomy can be fostered is not to reduce it to
a set of skills that need to be acquired. Rather, it is
taken to mean that the teacher and the learner can work
towards autonomy by creating a friendly atmosphere
characterised by 'low threat, unconditional positive regard,
honest and open feedback, respect for the ideas and opinions
of others, approval of self-improvement as a goal,
collaboration rather than competition' (Candy, 1991: 337).
In the next section, some general guidelines for promoting
learner autonomy will be given, on the assumption that the
latter does not mean leaving learners to their own devices
or learning in isolation.
5. How can learner autonomy be promoted?
To posit ways of fostering learner autonomy is certainly
to posit ways of fostering teacher autonomy, as
'[t]eachers' autonomy permeates into
[learners'] autonomy' (Johnson, Pardesi and Paine,
1990, cited in Gathercole, 1990: 51). Nevertheless, our main
focus will be on what the learner can do in order to attain
a considerable degree of autonomy, even though the success
of the learner is, to a great extent, determined-alas!
vitiated-by the educational system and the requisite role of
According to Wenden (1998: 79-95), a good way of
collecting information on how students go about a learning
task and helping them become aware of their own strategies
is to assign a task and have them report what they are
thinking while they are performing it. This self-report is
called introspective, as learners are asked to introspect on
their learning. In this case, 'the [introspective]
self-report is a verbalization of one's stream of
consciousness' (Wenden, 1998: 81). Introspective reports are
assumed to provide information on the strategies learners
are using at the time of the report. However, this method
suffers from one limitation: '[t]he concentration
put on thinking aloud might detract from [learners']
ability to do the task efficiently' (ibid.: 83), thus
rendering the outcome of the report spurious and
Another type of self-report is what has been dubbed as
retrospective self-report, since learners are asked to think
back or retrospect on their learning. Retrospective
self-reports are quite open ended, in that there is no limit
put on what students say in response to a question or
statement that points to a topic in a general way. There are
two kinds of retrospective self-reports: semi-structured
interviews and structured questionnaires. A semi-structured
interview may focus on a specific skill with a view to
extracting information about learners' feelings towards
particular skills (reading, listening, etc.), problems
encountered, techniques resorted to in order to tackle these
problems, and learners' views on optimal strategies or ways
of acquiring specific skills or dealing with learning tasks.
A structured questionnaire seeks the same information but in
a different way: by dint of explicit questions and
statements, and then asking learners to agree or disagree,
write true or false, and so forth.
It could be argued that self-reports can be a means of
raising awareness of learners' strategies and the need for
constant evaluation of techniques, goals, and outcomes. As
Wenden (1998: 90) observes, 'without awareness
[learners] will remain trapped in their old patterns
of beliefs and behaviors and never be fully autonomous'.
[ASSA No. 10, p. 553]
5.2. Diaries and evaluation sheets
Perhaps one of the principal goals of education is to
alter learners' beliefs about themselves by showing them
that their putative failures or shortcomings can be ascribed
to a lack of effective strategies rather than to a lack of
potential. After all, according to Vygotsky (1978), learning
is an internalised form of a formerly social activity, and
'a learner can realize [his] potential
interactively-through the guidance of supportive other
persons such as parents, teachers, and peers' (Wenden, 1998:
107). Herein lies the role of diaries and evaluation sheets,
which offer students the possibility to plan, monitor, and
evaluate their learning, identifying any problems they run
into and suggesting solutions. Let us have a look at the
following diaries based on authentic student accounts of
their language learning:
A. Dear Diary, These first few days have been
terrible. I studied English for eight years.just think,
eight years, but I only learned a lot of grammar. I can't
speak a word. I don't dare. I can't express myself in the
right way, so I am afraid to speak. The other day I
started watching TV, so I could get accustomed to the
sound. I don't understand TV news very well.only a few
words. I can't get the main point. In school it's easy to
understand, but I can't understand the people in the
stores. What can I do? Yours Truly, Impatient (from
Wenden, 1998: 102)
B. Dear Diary, I read the New York Times every day.
Every day I learn many new expressions-a lot of
vocabulary. But I can't use this vocabulary in
conversation. The same thing happens with what I learn at
school. I can't use it when I want to talk to Americans
or even with my own Spanish friends. I need some help.
Yours Truly, Confused (from Wenden, 1998: 102)
Alongside diaries, students can also benefit from putting
pen to paper and writing on their expectations of a course
at the beginning of term, and then filling in evaluation
sheets, or reporting on the outcomes of a course, at the end
of term. These activities are bound to help learners put
things into perspective and manage their learning more
effectively. Let us consider two such reports:
1. What do I want to do this year? "I want to
speak more English and I'd like to spell better that I do
now. I would like to work with another boy or girl who is
willing to speak English with me and make some activities
in English. Materials: Challenge to think and crosswords.
I would like to get a more varied language and I would
like to be better at spelling, especially the words used
in everyday situations. How: I will prepare 'two minutes'
talk' for every lesson, I will write down new words five
times and practise pronouncing them. I will get someone
or myself to correct it. I will read at least two
books-difficult ones-and make book-reviews." (Beginning
of term-4th year of English [from Dam, 1990, cited in
Gathercole, 1990: 30])
2. What do you feel you know now that you didn't know
before? "I think that we have grown better at planning
our own time. We know more about what we need to do and
how to go about it. We try all the time to extend our
vocabulary and to get an active language. Evaluation also
helped us. It is like going through things again." (End
of term-4th year of English [from Dam, 1990, cited in
Gathercole, 1990: 32])
[ASSA No. 10, p. 554]
So far, one of the assumptions underlying this discussion
on learner autonomy has been that the teacher has not
relinquished his "authority"; rather, that he has committed
himself to providing the learners with the opportunity to
experiment, make hypotheses, and improvise, in their attempt
to master the target language and, along with it, to learn
how to learn in their own, individual, holistic way (see
Papaconstantinou, 1997). It may be the case that learner
autonomy is best achieved when, among other things, the
teacher acts as a facilitator of learning, a counsellor, and
as a resource (see Voller, 1997, cited in Benson and Voller,
1997: 99-106). In other words, when she lies somewhere along
a continuum between what Barnes (1976, cited in Benson and
Voller, 1997: 99) calls transmission and interpretation
teachers. As Wright (1987: 62, cited in Benson and Voller,
1997: 100) notes,
transmission teachers believe in subject
disciplines and boundaries between them, in content, in
standards of performance laid down by these disciplines
that can be objectively evaluated.that learners will find
it hard to meet the standards; interpretation teachers
believe that knowledge is the ability to organize
thought, interpret and act on facts; that learners are
intrinsically interested and naturally inclined to
explore their worlds.that learners already know a great
deal and have the ability to refashion that knowledge.
The interpretation teacher respects learners' needs and
is 'more likely to follow a fraternal-permissive model'
(emphasis added) (Stevick, 1976: 91-93, cited in Benson and
Voller, 1997: 100). It is with this type of teacher that the
role of persuasive communication is most congruent.
5.3. Persuasive communication as a means of altering
learner beliefs and attitudes
Inasmuch as the success of learning and the extent to
which learners tap into their potential resources in order
to overcome difficulties and achieve autonomy are determined
by such factors as learners' motivation, their desire to
learn, and the beliefs they hold about themselves as
learners and learning per se, it is manifest that changing
some negative beliefs and attitudes is bound to facilitate
learning. 'Attitude change [is assumed to] be
brought about through exposure to a persuasive communication
[between the teacher and the learners]' (Wenden,
1998: 126). According to the Elaboration Likelihood Model
(ELM) of attitude change developed by Petty and Cacciopo
(1986, cited in Wenden, 1998: 126), there are several ways
of bringing about this change, however, our concern will
only be with persuasive communication.
A persuasive communication is a discussion presenting
information and arguments to change a learner's evaluation
of a topic, situation, task, and so on. These arguments
could be either explicit or implicit, especially when the
topic is deemed of importance. If, for instance, a deeply
ingrained fear or belief precludes the learner from engaging
in the learning process, persuasive communication purports
to help bring these facts to light and identify the causes
that underlie them. It should be noted, though, that no
arguments to influence students' views are given. Rather,
the communication comprises facts that show what learners
can do to attain autonomy and that learners who do so are
successful (see Wenden, 1998: 126). This approach is based
on the assumption that when learners are faced with
convincing information about a situation, 'they can be led
to re-examine existing evaluations they hold about it and
revise or change them completely' (ibid.: 127).
This study is far from comprehensive, as we have only
skimmed the surface of the subject and the puzzle called
learner autonomy. Many more pieces are missing. For
instance, no mention has been made of the role of the
curriculum in promoting learner autonomy, despite the debate
on the relationship between classroom practice and
ideological encoding (Littlejohn, 1997, cited in Benson and
Voller, 1997: 181-182). At any rate, the main point of
departure for this study has been the notion that there are
degrees of learner autonomy and that it is not an absolute
concept. It would be nothing short of ludicrous to assert
that learners come into the learning situation with the
knowledge and skills to plan, monitor, and evaluate their
learning, or to make decisions on content or objectives.
Nevertheless, learner autonomy is an ideal, so to speak,
that can, and should, be realised, if we want
self-sufficient learners and citizens capable of evaluating
every single situation they find themselves in and drawing
the line at any inconsistencies or shortcomings in
institutions and society at large. Certainly, though,
autonomous learning is not akin to "unbridled learning."
There has to be a teacher who will adapt resources,
materials, and methods to the learners' needs and even
abandon all this if need be. Learner autonomy consists in
becoming aware of, and identifying, one's strategies, needs,
and goals as a learner, and having the opportunity to
reconsider and refashion approaches and procedures for
optimal learning. But even if learner autonomy is amenable
to educational interventions, it should be recognised that
it 'takes a long time to develop, and.simply removing the
barriers to a person's ability to think and behave in
certain ways may not allow him or her to break away from old
habits or old ways of thinking' (Candy, 1991: 124). As
Holyoake (1892, vol. 1, p. 4) succinctly put it,
'[k]nowledge lies everywhere to hand for those who
observe and think'.
[ASSA No. 10, p. 555]
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