I believe that promoting learner autonomy is essential for both success and enjoyment in classroom language learning.
What is learner autonomy in the EFL classroom? In terms of the classes I teach I broadly define it as learners making decisions about what we do during the course.
This simple definition includes the idea that they are part of a class (“we”) gathered for a specific duration, and that decisions can be made both individually and collectively, in relation to classroom activity and out-of-class homework.
One of most straightforward ways to encourage this is giving students choice over the texts and topics we study in class and for homework.
Here is one activity for promoting autonomous choice of texts and topics that I’ve used with upper-intermediate and advanced EFL classes, adults and high school kids (but could conceivably be used in many other contexts).
Autonomy in text choice: day 1 reading homework
The first day of a new course is not only for introductions and getting to know each other, but also for establishing expectations about the rest of the term. If you plan to promote learner autonomy, there’s no better time to start.
At the end of day one of the course, I give the following homework assignment:
For homework, find something interesting to read on the internet. Print it out, read it and bring it. Be prepared to talk about it with your classmates.
That means everybody will come to class with a different reading text. Sounds like a recipe for classroom chaos, right? What do you do with all those texts?
Actually, this is part of a multi-step procedure which I’m going to explain in-depth below (steps 1 and 2) and in the next post (steps 3 and 4).
- Independent text selection/reading
- Student interaction/peer sharing
- Teacher-led discussion and task-analysis
- Whole class single-text intensive reading (optional)
Just to be clear up-front, this isn’t a warmer, or something you squeeze in between other activities. The in-class portions (Part 2 & 3) could easily run 1½ ― 2 hours. In other words, this is your class.
As you’ll see, this process gives students autonomous choice within the group (perhaps their first in a language class), offers maximum speaking practice (while putting new lexis into use), addresses problems of and offers support for developing learner autonomy and opens new doors to future lessons and the course as a whole.
1. Independent text selection/reading
As stated above, the task asks students to find a text for reading and study, and be prepared to share it with their classmates.
When I assign the homework I emphasize that they’ve got total control over topic, source and text genre (it could be an article, a blog post, a letter to the editor, an advertisement, anything as long as it’s written).
I don’t usually front-load this first homework assignment with extra tasks, but depending on your teaching style or context, you could add the following tweaks to the assignment:
- Write a 100-word summary
- Write down, define and write an example sentence for 10 keywords/phrases essential for understanding the text
2. Student interaction/peer sharing (day 2, part 1)
In the next lesson, students share what they’ve read. You could put students in pairs, but the best thing about this situation is that everybody’s got something interesting and different, and I don’t like to limit them to a 1-1 exchange.
It’s also good to remember that at this point you’ve got no idea what they’ve actually brought in. There is no central text, but many different texts, and you’ll want to see and hear about as many as possible.
So instead of pairwork what I like to do instead is have students do a carousel, an activity that I picked up long ago from Scott Thornbury’s invaluable How to Teach Speaking (called “The Poster Carousel” there, on p. 87). Here’s my applied (and modified) version:
Have everybody tape their texts to the wall. Half the class stands by their articles, the other half circulates. Students can stop and ask about any articles that look interesting (based on the headlines). They can stay and chat or move on. Then the groups switch. This allows everyone to get to hear from multiple people about different topics, while also giving “presenters” repetition practice as they explain their article to different audiences. Encourage students to ask questions ― it’s a discussion, not a real presentation.
Tweaks and interventions
- Rehearsal: Before taping up their articles, have everybody take a few minutes to review their text again. If you haven’t asked them to do it as part of the homework, ask them to now write down 10 key words/phrases from the text which will help them explain it from memory. This gives them essential rehearsal time so they don’t simply read from their text on the wall.
- Constraints: To manage circulation, give students limits, e.g. 15 minutes to hear from 3 presenters (but it doesn’t have to be 5 minutes at each ― encourage them to invest time relative to their interest level).
- Lexis collection: Students have to collect a set number of key phrases from each presenter.
- Monitor for language related to explaining, summarizing, asking and answering questions, etc. You can intervene to help students individually, or stop the group mid-task and model/board essential language.
One of the best things about the carrousel activity is that rather than obtrusively looming over (or crouching next to) students as they discuss their texts, you can mingle with them, monitor and note-take much less obtrusively, and have a peek at their articles. And as with any student good activity, your lack of information about article content actually gives you a genuine need to listen and find out more.
But if you’re not used to not having control over the text, don’t panic. Step 4 will give you the opportunity to (optionally) have a more traditional single-text whole-class focus (and give you time to prepare for it).
When both groups have finished, get into small groups to share which article they found most interesting, and why. Groups can then share their favorites with the class. You can also ask for (and board) 10 useful words or expressions they learned. You (or a delegated secretary) should take note of which topics seemed the most popular, key vocabulary, etc. for future reference.
That’s the end of the activity (but not the end of the class, or the process). In the next post, I’ll describe steps 3 and 4, and how you can use individual text selection and the carousel activity as a springboard to helping students better equip themselves for practicing learner autonomy in the EFL/ESL classroom.