IATEFL 2015 | Elizabeth Pinard: Fostering autonomy: harnessing the outside world from within the classroom | Talk summary

Posted: April 13, 2015 in Conferences
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Abstract. It is widely acknowledged that language learning requires use of the target language outside the classroom as well as inside it. However, learner autonomy is often expected rather than fostered. This talk looks at what can be done in the classroom, to help learners harness the rich resources of language accessible outside, with greater confidence and effectiveness.

Slides and Lizzie’s own write-up will appear on her blog.

What is learner autonomy?

Problems with learners’ autonomy

  • How can we talk about giving students control over decisions of curriculum when even most teachers don’t have control over what they teach?
  • Learners lack understanding how to learn
  • Time – there’s never enough time – how to use that time? and how to help use the time outside the classroom better?

Solutions and ideas (Lizzie’s 7 top tips)

  • Find out as much as you can, as soon as you can. Then keep finding out. 
    What do they do to learn English? What do they do outside classroom already? What resources (films? books) do they use? What sites/technology – and how technologically literate are they?
    The starting point is not ‘an ideal learner in your opinion’ – it’s their current state.
  • Plant ideas. Lizzie’s context: students have to compete 10 hours of autonomous study. How do students approach that? Watch six 90-minute films! This time could be spent much better, and that could be their chance to find out what works for them. To scaffold this, Lizzie gives students ‘a menu of ideas’, with space for comments.
    There’s a range of different ideas – there’s balance of challenge (ease to complete) and skills; each idea has focus and clear goals; promoting intrinsic interest; sense of control over task process.
  • This takes time – not only for students to try things out, but also for the teacher to persuade the students to even start trying. Even if some people are not into that at the beginning that doesn’t mean that’s not worth doing. Give the students a chance to discuss (regularly, 5-10 minutes at the beginning of the class) – reluctant ones will get to see how others are benefiting. Get students to share both successes and difficulties. If that doesn’t work in the beginning, that doesn’t mean that that’s a failure and you should give up on it. 
  • Engage metacognition. In real life, they make choices. In classroom they tend to switch off. Get them to think why are we doing this activity? Often the students go ‘To improve our English, teacher!’ If there’s no reason to do an activity other than ‘because the teacher tell you to’, they won’t apply that outside classroom or make connections between what they do in class and their life. Great references: The Autonomy Approach
  • Encourage goal setting. If the students don’t know where they’re going, why would they be doing anything to get there? ‘Learn English’ is too massive. Short terms: identify what you’re going to achieve this week. The principle: (a) identify their goals (b) voice that to somebody. In a subsequent class, they can discuss that. They’ll need to figure out the right challenge – ask them to discuss how challenging that was.
  • Don’t forget about it! If you don’t bring it back to the classroom on a regular basis, that won’t last. The teacher has forgotten about it, so that’s not important, so I can forget about it. If you bring it back, it becomes a part of the course. Example: Lizzie’s students recorded their listening logs. First time half the class didn’t touch them. A month in they all were losing the log.
  • Promote sharing. (E.g. through technology – blogs etc).

I was slightly dazed after giving my own workshop earlier in the day, but Lizzie jerked me back to reality with her concise, insightful talk. I had been looking forward to her talk because recently I’ve become increasingly aware that I need to do *something* to motivate my students to do more (any?) self-study. However, I haven’t got down to researching and devising a coherent scheme – and if my previous initiatives are anything to go by, I’ll make half a dozen mistakes when it comes to putting the scheme to practice. Actually, I’ve already made some glaring mistakes – for instance, I ran a workshop on some (highly effective) vocabulary learning techniques but didn’t follow up on that, and as a result the students in my school didn’t really start using them (and this very fact probably also discredited the technique). The same thing happened when we started out a course by discussing language learning advice from polyglots. Again, there was no follow-up (largely because I saw that the students didn’t do anything, so I was discouraged to do a follow-up which would only have highlighted that the idea had failed), hence there was no chance for the students who did try some ideas out to share their experience, and hence there was very little uptake. So it was great to get this chance to hear about Lizzie Pinard’s approach, to learn what pitfalls to avoid and to get pointers to good books.

P.S. About a year ago I wrote a post with some thoughts how to help learners acquire language through extensive reading and listening – I’d love to discuss that topic with someone, so I’m adding the link to the post here in the hope that someone interested in the topic will want to swap ideas. 


Click here for an overview of all my write-ups from IATEFL 2015.

  1. […] Lizzie’s presentation would have helped me with. Thankfully, she’s blogged about it as has Olga Sergeeva, but it’s not quite the same as hearing it first-hand. I’m hoping the gods of IATEFL shine on […]

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