In part 1 of this article I explained how you can start of encouraging learner autonomy in the classroom from the first day’s homework assignment.
It’s part of a four-step procedure in which students can independently select, read and prepare texts for homework (step 1) and do a carrousel activity (step 2) to share what they’d read and learned.
Now I’m going to describe steps 3 and 4, including how to lead a follow-up discussion and help students overcome difficulties they may have had sourcing authentic texts.
3. Teacher-led discussion and task-analysis (day 2, part 2)
Once you’ve wrapped up the carousel, it’s now time to focus on discussion of the task itself. This is the kind of meta-analysis that also helps encourage autonomy, as you’re asking students to make judgments about their own learning processes and study techniques, as well as classroom activity.
When monitoring the carousel or the small-group discussion that followed, you may notice that some students confess to having had difficulty with the task, some even coming to class saying, “Here’s my text! But I barely understood anything!” I regularly observe that a few students:
- Can’t discern whether their text is fact or opinion
- Choose texts written in non-proficient English
- Don’t self-select for difficulty (usually choosing impossibly difficult texts)
The result can be frustrating for some students. But as a teacher trying to encourage learner autonomy I want these difficulties and frustrations to come out immediately, and not further on down the course.
It’s a teaching moment, and we can start a discussion about what’s difficult about sourcing authentic texts (including topic unfamiliarity, grammatical and lexical complexity, density, relative lack of other clues, text length) which leads to discussing important criteria in text selection: motivation (choosing texts interest them enough to overcome some of the difficulties inherent in authentic texts) and self-grading (choosing texts that represent a linguistically manageable challenge). You can also board and discuss the sources students used (the specific online newspapers, academic journals, blogs, etc.) and discuss the pros and cons of using each one.
Remember, these are all things they consider (however unconsciously) when surfing the internet in L1. You just need to make it clear that they should apply transfer the same skills to L2 reading.
Tweaks and interventions
- Write a guide: After discussing and boarding ideas about the challenges of authentic texts, have groups write a guide for the class with tips for next time (e.g. Choose a 1-2 page text. Choose a L2 text on a familiar topic.). They can write their guide in the form of a magazine article, letter or simply bullet points. Next time you assign a similar homework task, ask them to pull out their guide, follow their own instructions and see if it works ― or what they would revise.
4. Whole class single-text intensive reading (optional)
For homework (or, if you teach 4-hour blocks like I used to in Istanbul, in class), you can bring the class back to focus collectively on a single text. This will reassure those who struggled with the text they found or with the unrestricted nature of the task.
Have the class vote on the text they found the most interesting (it can be one they heard about from the “source” ― i.e. the original presenter ― or from a small group member in the wrap-up discussion) and assign it for homework.
You can assign the original reader a different task, like creating comprehension questions (to be sent by email to the others) or identifying and creating a quiz on the key grammar and vocabulary for the following week. If you’ve got a grammar syllabus, find some key grammar point contained in the text and jump to that section of the coursebook or grammar reference (if you don’t want to do it on the spot, tell the students you’ll assign a grammar point within 48 hours and email them the homework).
Conclusion: Where to go from there
By starting with an activity like this, you’re not just paying lip service to learner autonomy, you’re actually putting it into practice. And more importantly, you’re laying the foundations for an in-class culture of learner autonomy that will (I believe) help contribute to a richer learning experience for both your students and you.
In future articles, I’ll explore more activities and procedures for encouraging learner autonomy in the ELT classroom.
In the meantime, how do you promote a culture of learner autonomy in your classroom?